Pitching the News Media in the Electronic Age
Or ... How You Can Get On Cavuto ... or Imus ... (we did)
I spend a great deal of time educating my political clients and allies on what PR (aka Public Relations or Earned Media Relations) - really is, and how they can go about getting favorable campaign and candidate press coverage. I'd like to distill those ideas – honed over my professional PR career of 40 years – and present them to you in a fashion you can quickly and easily use. I'm going to start by answering a few of the more commonly asked questions (along with those really important questions candidates are afraid to ask – but really should). Then I'm going to offer you a crash course in the very essential basics in pitching and submitting a campaign or candidate news story, or in some other way generating favorable press coverage.
But before you do anything, go look at – and really read – the political coverage in a newspaper or magazine - any publication in which you’d like to have your candidate or campaign written about. Read – really read – the political news items, articles and features. Then take a step back, away from self-interest, from ego and from your normally unshakable faith in your campaign or candidate – and ask yourself this:
“If my news item, article or feature idea was about any other candidate or campaign (a political opponent or some campaign completely out of your market space) instead of about me or my campaign, would it still be newsworthy enough, or compelling enough to be published in my target newspaper or magazine?”
If the answer is honesty “yes” – great – you’re on your way to success. If the answer is honestly “no” – that’s great, too. Because you’ve not only passed the honesty test (essential for those candidates or campaign who do their own PR), but because you’ve begun to see what “real” political news is – and with that understanding, you’re ready to seek it out in your own campaign, or for your own candidate.
Preparing the “Perfect” Pitch
OK – you’ve found the story. You’ve lined up a positive quote from one of your own supporters – and maybe (if you’re playing in the big leagues) a favorable comment from a professional political pundit or campaign/candidate analyst. You have the facts, the figures and the human interest that transforms facts into stories and news. Now what?
Now you go down this five-item checklist and prepare yourself for success.
a. "Perfect pitch" - the note you need to strike in your news media pitch
When you pitch a story, you’re selling an idea – an idea about you and your candidate or campaign. You’re selling this political news - so seemingly fresh and exciting to you - to a jaded individual who’s been there and seen that. However, you’re also selling that news story to an individual who NEEDS story ideas and leads. Not yours – he or she is flooded with potentially interesting leads and ideas – but still, the self-interested reporter or editor is always looking for the next good story.
Your job is to tell that story briefly and compellingly – just as if you were trying to hook a donor or voter during a 30-second elevator ride. To do that, you need a “perfect pitch” – a brief, compelling and well-told story that will link your candidate's or campaign's publicity needs with the reporter’s rational self-interest. If you sell - or have ever sold - for a living, or if you know how to quickly grab the interest of a prospective donor or voter, you already have the basic skills of successful news media pitching. Now, put your real news into a context the reporter will quickly grasp and you’re ready to go.
Hint: If you want to pitch your candidate or campaign's position on some breaking news story, it helps to first write a quick and compelling (and well thought-out) blog-post on that position. Then, if you get a glimmer of interest from a reporter, you've got something to show her, beyond your 30-second elevator pitch. This applies to news stories you're trying to gin up as well, but it's especially effective for breaking news.
That's exactly how I landed on Cavuto and Imus five times during the 2008 campaign - by writing an article or blog that was published in American Thinker, then pitching myself to their show producers - so when I say it works, trust me.
b. Shotgun vs. Deer rifle - focusing in on the right media
You may not be a hunter (I’m not). You may not have ever even held a firearm, except to pose for an NRA-approved photo op. But you know – thanks to the media – the difference between a shotgun and a deer rifle. One, the deer rifle, sends a carefully-aimed shot for a long distance – if your aim is true, you hit your target. The other, useful at short range, sends a large number of shot – like a handful of gravel – out at a target as long as it's not very far away. Because of the number of shot, if the range is close and the aim is reasonably accurate (not precise – why bother) you’re bound to hit something.
Both approaches have impact – but which is right for your story?
Shotgun releases – those sent out over Businesswire or PRNewswire (http://www.businesswire.com and http://www.prnewswire.com) – reach thousands of reporters and wind up on hundres of online databases - from Yahoo Business to the Albuquerque daily newspaper's website - where they can be found. To work with a shotgun approach, the news should be either really compelling (you’ve just gotten Reagan's beyond-the-grave endorsement) or so un-compelling that it makes more sense to cast your bread on the waters in hopes that somebody, somewhere will take a bite.
Deer rifle releases are sent out (or rather, the pitches are made) to very select news media – and generally to specific reporters at those newspapers and magazines, or political reporters in your target geographic or ethnographic market. You choose the targets after reading the publications – and the stories your target has written (a quick web-search on Yahoo should help you find online copies of those stories). Deer rifle stories are generally important stories, but they are also stories that require a special familiarity with your reporter's or editor's political slant and area of interest - defense, immigration, family issues, etc.
One is right for you – but it will be a different one at different times. For a really big stories, both approaches may be right – five to ten targeted media followed by a shotgun-blast release over BusinesWire or PRNewswire (but not both, as they provide very similar services).
NOTE: There are many lower-cost news release distribution services. Some, like MacReport Media, excel in a specific area (in their case, business and stock news). Others are lower-cost general issue services, but let the buyer beware. You really do get what you pay for, and if you get it for free, it's worth every penny you'll ever pay for it, but not much more.
c. Phone vs. e-mail (or even antediluvian fax?)
Recent studies show that as many as 80% of reporters prefer to receive a news media pitch via e-mail. This is a major change from past procedures, and even from preferences of just a few years ago (when many reporters were gun-shy of e-mail). Of the remainder, the antediluvian fax (yes, they still exist) is preferred to a phone pitch, according to the study by two-to-one. Since you’re not likely to know the reporter and know his/her preference, go with the default setting and send the pitch by e-mail (NOT as an attachment – those still tend get deleted un-read unless a reporter has asked for and is expecting an attachment).
If you want to further insure success, send a FAX, too. But do not call unless you know the call will be welcome – that’s the fast track to failure.
NOTE: Oddly, in this day of instant communications, sometimes the old-school works best, only because it stands out. For a pitch (not for a news release - they will NOT retype it), sending it FedEx has a cachet - it tells the reporter, "this is important enough to be worth the cost." So if you do this, make sure the pitch is important enough to be worth the cost.
d. Initial contact and follow-up
As noted, make your initial contact via e-mail or fax. Depending on the timeliness, send a brief follow-up e-mail (or fax) in 24-48 hours, or even a week later if the story is timeless. DO NOT CALL – not unless the reporter has told you that phone pitches are OK.
And if you do phone, do not wear out your welcome, or try to be Ms. Personality. As Sergeant Joe Friday on Dragnet used to say, “Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.”
Keep the call brief – unless the reporter chooses to extend it. Ask: “is this a good time?” or “Do you have a minute to hear a quick pitch?” or “Would you prefer an e-mail, or do you have a minute to hear a quick pitch?” or something like that. Then listen to the answer. And heed it – even (or perhaps especially) if it’s not what you want to hear.
e. Writing the pitch – even if it's a phone pitch
Regardless of the medium (e-mail, phone or fax), you only have one chance to make a good first impression. That means writing and polishing and learning your phone pitch – so that it comes out natural, unforced and honest. Actors rehearse. Successful career politicians and professional speechwriters rehearse. Most effective sales people rehearse. So should you.
Success through Press Releases
Pitching is not always necessary – in many cases, the story isn’t worth the pitch. And not all “shotgun” stories are worth the price of a news wire service. Sometimes it just makes sense to send out a press release (with or without a photo) to a targeted list of media. Using a press release to generate favorable publicity might seem intimidating or presumptuous, but it is simple if you follow these steps.
First, decide on who will speak for your campaign - the candidate, usually, but sometimes the Campaign Manager or the Earned News Media (PR) guy. Then, make sure you have a high-rez digital color photograph of your candidate – you can use what’s called a “head-and-shoulders” shot, but for audience appeal, perhaps use something more casual and natural-looking – to go with each release you distribute. This photograph enhances your ability to generate coverage, since it puts a human face on the news.
Always provide a link to where they can find photos and information online, available to cut-and-paste or download - they will no longer retype press releases, or send a photo to be digitalized, not if they can help it.
Next, identify the publications or other media (broadcast, online, etc.) you want to target. Some suggestions include:
• Daily newspapers in your area - and if the story is big, national political newspapers
• Talk radio and TV stations with local political news coverage - and if the story is big enough, national talk radio and cable news stations
• Weekly newspapers (that include political coverage) in your area
• Monthly local (and national) magazines that cover politics - plan on pitching these well in advance
• Specialty publications or media serving a specific political topic – local, state, national
• Alumni publications from your candidate’s alma mater
Finding out who at a given publication or other news media to send the press release to is easy. Go online and check what’s still called the “masthead” and look for the name of the political editor.
The publication’s or media's address is usually found in the masthead or their website – you may want to verify this information by calling the media switchboard and asking, “Is Mr. Pompous your Political Editor?” – get an answer, then hang up … good switchboard operators may try to put you through – resist the urge (you’re not ready yet).
If you do not have copies of target publications, or have not listened to or watched the media outlet check online. This is the easiest and most reliable way of getting the information you need.
Once you have identified your targets (name, contact information), prepare the press release on your campaign letterhead – and produce an original copy for each news media if you’re mailing it or delivering it by courier - or just cut-and-paste into the body of an email. Using a gummed label (don’t write directly on the photograph), put the illustrated individual’s name, title and firm name on the back of each photo to be included with each release. And always include the link where they can get this information digitally. In most cases, though, you won't be delivering a physical release. Cut-and-paste the text into an e-mail, with a brief (one or two lines) cover note to set the stage. Brief and to the point is what works.
Before you send the release, it is often useful to call the reporter or editor, introduce yourself (making it clear you are a candidate or campaign official, not a hired flak) and briefly explain that you’re sending a news release. Ask if there are any special requirements. Do not delegate this task to a secretary. Do not offer to pitch it – you’re just asking a technical delivery question.
Do not ask to have the release used, merely inform the editor that you’ll be sending it over. This simple courtesy may help to elevate your release out of what is called the “slush pile” at many publications – it will help you cut through the competing clutter of other press releases and get initial attention. But be careful – this is not a pitch opportunity. It is just paving the way. If the reporter or editor asks about the release, it’s fine to be truthful … but let the release speak.
There are no guarantees in gaining media coverage – this is a news item, not a paid advertisement, and in news decisions, the editor is king – and there is no appeal from the king’s verdict. However, if you follow these easy steps, your opportunities for success increase significantly. Good luck!