CommonSense Blog

A Pitch Is More Than Just A Pitch

By Gary Karr | Aug 12, 2015

It would be nice if every PR professional could confidently state that nothing goes wrong when we pitch a journalist. But that’s about as realistic as the likelihood of a lengthy book about Donald Trump’s humility. A more fruitful exercise is to examine what most frequently gets in the way of a successful interaction with reporters, editors, writers and producers.

It’s volume. No, not the kind on an amp that goes up to 11, a la “Spinal Tap.”

One thing I know for sure – beyond 1980s pop culture references – is that journalists are flooded with emails and phone calls from PR people. Many of those emails and phone calls are horribly targeted, as you can find out from one of my guilty pleasures, PR Newser’s “Pitch Please” blog.

Survey Said

The blog’s cheeky writing prompted me to start asking reporters about the pitches they received.

  • A reporter covering science and medicine for a southern daily newspaper told me she’d received five pitches that day before 9 a.m. She too received misdirected product pitches. “I had one chewing gum pitch that drove me nuts,” she said.
  • A Wall Street Journal reporter covering the pharmaceutical business said he gets 40-50 email pitches a day. “I probably consider three to five per day that are worth pursuing or at least learning more about,” he said.
  • A Washington-based reporter who covers health care policy says she kept getting pitches for “healthy flavored water” among the 30-40 pitches a day she would receive.

The most stunning answer came from Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News. She receives up to 150 emails a day, about five of which she considers worth a reply and another 10 are worth considering as potential parts of larger stories. Lest erstwhile flacks think Rovner’s answer means we should start calling her instead, she said, “I hate phone calls even more…Phones should be reserved for actual breaking news.”

Email, calls and what really works

Email, at least according to one survey, is still the way most journalists prefer to get pitched. But beyond knowing that, the actual lessons from my informal and not scientific survey are:

  • Some of you are ruining it for the rest of us. It’s so much harder to convey a client’s news if PR people are clogging inboxes with eye-rolling off-target pitches that wouldn’t be sent if just a little time was spent on research.
  • Relationships matter. Please work at understanding what makes news to a particular journalist. That doesn’t mean every pitch leads to a story – I wish! – but it certainly increases the chances of success if you aren’t seen as a total waste of someone’s time.
  • Realism is best conveyed to clients early. The ranks of journalists are dwindling and the ones still in the business are busier than ever. Even the most properly directed pitches are increasingly likely to not yield immediate success.

A key solution to the volume/clutter problem is for more organizations to take advantage of additional ways to engage with customers, influencers and allies. So many of them have great stories to tell, so they should be using the PESO (Paid, Earned, Shared, Owned) strategy. This is true even for those on small budgets, as they can develop owned and shared content without waiting on the results from that perfect email pitch. W2O Group president Bob Pearson built out the potential for owned content in June in PR News here.

Of course, we’re always going to pitch reporters. A PR agency’s clients expect it, and more importantly, a story by a credible journalist matters. That’s why it’s worth the time invested to develop better relationships and equally valuable to give counsel to clients about the right – and wrong – targets for stories.

We all know it will never work perfectly. Some reporters are going to complain about PR pitches no matter what happens. And, if we’re lucky, we will run across an approach like the one employed by a UK-based reporter, who replied, “I love you” to pitches he received. After all, doesn’t the world need more love?