To be successful in our industry, one of the main skills you need is the ability to craft a thoughtful, compelling and targeted pitch. You may have an incredible story to tell, but if you can’t articulate to reporters why they should write about it, there’s a good chance your story will go untold.
While pitching can certainly be challenging, it can also be rewarding. But in order to reap those rewards, you truly have to treat pitching like an art.
Seth Arenstein, editor of PR News, agreed to share his valuable insights on the art of pitching with us. Seth is an award-winning journalist who has spent 30 years in media. He has received thousands of pitches throughout his career and is well-versed on what works and what does not.
Read on as Seth sheds light on the evolution of the pitch, timeless best practices and tips for success.
rbb: How has the art of pitching changed from when you started your career to now?
Seth: I’m glad you called pitching an art. One of the big issues is that pitching is practiced as a science. For example, some PR pros think, ‘If I have a list of 1,000 reporter names and send them this generic release the analytics say I will get X number of stories out of it.’ That’s a poor way to pitch in most cases, yet it encapsulates the way pitching has changed during my career.
Gone, for the most part, are phone calls from PR pros who know you, know what you write about, because they read your articles, know who your readers are and what types of stories your publication is interested in.
Yet it’s not just the phone calls that are missing. Too often you find PR pros who’ve failed to do their homework before they contact you. Recently I interviewed Marco Gonzalez, who runs communications at Estrella TV/LBI Media. One of the things he said is if a PR person is pitching you on the phone, he/she should have read at least a few of your articles. If not, they should not be on the phone with you. I agree.
In sum, good pitching hasn’t changed much. The tools available are different, probably more efficient. Still, pitchers need to do their homework, offer a story pitch crafted to the particular reporter and publication they’re pitching and do all this clearly and relatively quickly. No pressure at all, right?
rbb: Are there any pitching methods you feel are now outdated or inefficient?
Seth: I bet you were hoping I’d say the press release is outdated. To be provocative, I’m not going to say that. A well-crafted release, especially with links to photos and videos, can be an effective pitching method for certain types of news, financial announcements, personnel moves, that sort of thing.
To answer your question more directly, I’ll admit building relationships with reporters via phone calls, lunches/social events/office visits and following them and engaging with them on social media seems inefficient, for sure. Still, I hate to call those things outdated, because I think they work.
rbb: How do you feel about the role of social media when it comes to pitching? Are you personally receptive to pitches on social media?
Seth: Social media is fine as a pitching tool as long as you have a relationship with the reporter. Mixing it with a personal touch is important, though. We all know that you lose something when communicating via social media. That’s why sometimes what works better than anything is a personal briefing with reporters.
Just look at the incident with HBO and its proposed show Confederate. Instead of sitting down with reporters and TV critics to explain the controversial concept for the show, it sent a three-paragraph release. A furor followed and HBO was forced to admit it did a poor job of communicating about a show that deals with a delicate topic.
And, yes, I accept social pitches.
rbb: What are some timeless best practices for pitching?
Seth: As I noted above, doing your homework, knowing the writer and the kind of stories he/she is seeking. These are absolutes.
Making sure the pitch is interesting and useful to the readers of the reporter’s publication also is a must.
It never hurts to build a relationship with a reporter as a source of information. For example, if you see an interesting article, send it to a reporter. This way you go beyond a situation where you contact the reporter only when you need a story written. Your pitches will be better received.
Another timeless best practice, although it’s not pitching, but is part of the follow-through: engage in controlled aggressiveness, i.e., don’t contact a journalist every day of the week asking when your story is going to run, especially if the journalist told you earlier that it’s likely to run sometime that week. Contacting the journalist once every few days should be enough.
Spelling counts. You’d be surprised at how often people send me pitches that include misspelled words and poor grammar.
Timing. Be mindful of the journalist’s time (avoid long-winded pitches), but also give the reporter enough time to write the story, unless it’s breaking news, of course. Another point about timing, if you tell a reporter executive X will do an interview this week, deliver on your promise.
rbb: How has the relationship between journalists and PR professionals changed due to technological advancements?
Seth: Some relationships are less personal. People can hide behind social media, avoiding the phone. On the other hand, I can’t argue against the efficiency of email as a communications source. Still, the well-prepared PR person who also uses the phone on occasion will be very effective.
rbb: Do you think there are any common misconceptions amongst PR professionals about how journalists prefer to be pitched?
Seth: No, not really. I think PR pros understand that reporters want compelling, honest pitches that will result in the kinds of stories the journalist is seeking. One of the problems, though, is that spray and pray still holds sway and it seems far more efficient than taking time to build relationships with a dozen or so reporters and tailoring pitches to them.
Yet, as pitching guru Michael Smart says often in PR News, you can be more successful by pitching fewer reporters well than by flooding thousands of reporters on a media list with a generic pitch.
rbb: In the future, how do you think the art of pitching will change?
Seth: The tools likely will change, of course. I can’t think that video and other communications technologies won’t become part of pitching. Yet, as I said earlier, tools alone won’t make one a better pitcher. I can use Tiger Woods’ golf clubs, but I won’t play golf like Tiger Woods.
rbb: What are some elements that every modern-day pitch should include?
Seth: A compelling reason, clearly and concisely stated, why this story is important to the journalist’s readers; a link to pictures and maybe charts/graphs; a contact name (you’d be surprised how many pitches lack this); correctly spelled words; a call to action; dates (the who, what, when and how); and statistics to bolster the argument.
rbb: Finish this sentence: to be successful in pitching, PR professionals must…
Seth: Be prepared by having done their legwork, i.e., be familiar with the journalist’s work and know what kinds of stories he/she is seeking.
A big thank you to Seth for giving us these insights on how to effectively communicate with reporters and deliver meaningful hits for our clients (while minimizing any crickets or radio silence in the process)!