In media relations, throw ’em an occasional curve; “fastball” pitches go nowhere fast

If you are looking to promote your company or cause, product or service, then here’s one thing you most certainly won’t want to do: throw one fastball after another at the same list of media outlets.

The baseball metaphor is timeless because one of the indispensable ingredients in the success of any hard-throwing hurler is his ability to mix up hitters with “off-speed” stuff. A curve ball here, a slider there and then — bam! — the fastball suddenly seems to have that extra zip on it. The 90 mph pitch seems like 100 mph and becomes virtually untouchable.

Fail to develop those reliable alternatives, though, and soon batters will be able to time the fastball and start knocking the ball all over the park.

In newsroom terms, that’s the equivalent of decision makers (reporters, editors, producers of one sort or another) knocking your news releases out of consideration.

More specifically, your predictable self-serving pitch gets relegated, often in the blink of an eye, to the trash bin. And believe me, based on my 20 years as a reporter, it doesn’t take long to cement a reputation as a strictly “fastball pitcher.” That’s when the media develops an especially itchy “DELETE” finger.

So mix things up — become less predictable and thereby more effective for your organization:

If you promote, say, dog food manufactured in one city, that doesn’t prevent you from submitting a colorful photo of a father-and-son flying a kite in a community in the next county to publications in and around that spot.

If you want a television station to pursue a profile on your environmental non-profit group’s 25th anniversary, you can still offer up a suggestion on the inspirational military veteran who lives two doors down from you.

Starting a unique high-tech business in January? That doesn’t preclude you from thinking about a great romantic story about the couple who are celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary right before Valentine’s Day.

For unimaginative, and unrealistic, PR types, each of these scenarios represents a “curveball.” In the past, when I have championed this approach in workshops and one-on-one interactions, a certain uncomprehending glaze washes over their faces. Even though some might murmur half-hearted agreement with this tack, they remain blind to the connection between selfless suggestions and lasting public relations and media relations success.

What this approach requires, of course, is the investment of time in activities that don’t hold the guarantee of immediate return on investment. It’s about doing the little things that, when added up, amount to much: figuring out the contact information for an editor you have never contacted before, navigating a website so you can upload a photo or two without any PR strings attached.

One piece of good news here is that we’re not talking about neglecting your usual PR and marketing efforts. But then there’s this bit of really great news: this approach is just time-consuming and seemingly unrewarding enough to be practiced by precious few.

As a result, you will face little competition. And over time, as you build deeper and stronger relationships with decision-makers whom you want to influence, you will reap even better results for your clients.

This column first appeared in a December 2013 edition of Bulldog Reporter.

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When Pitching the Media, Keep it Brief

Unless you’ve been on the receiving end of a story pitch, you likely don’t appreciate the urgency of being succinct in those interactions.

Having been on the receiving end of such pitches for about 20 years, I can assure you that the goal ought NEVER be selling the reporter, editor or producer on a story–that’s asking too much, too soon.

When I reach their voicemails (the usual scenario, as most don’t pick up the phone), I leave a brief message with the gist of my call and a heads-up that I’m about to e-mail more detailed information.

Those e-mails all lead with the phrase “Following up from the voice mail I just left for you…”

When reaching an individual directly, my first goal is to pledge brevity. How I typically start: “Are you on deadline, or is this a good time to talk for 30 seconds?”

Such a courtesy signals that I know their world—and I am not about to waste their time. Saying “30 seconds” is intentional—when people trot out “Do you have a minute?” they usually don’t mean 60 seconds, but upwards of 10 minutes.

Now, if someone starts to engage you and you stay on the phone longer, that’s great. But it has to be their call.

Your objective in calling is not to “close a sale” as they cheerily promise to crank out a story. Rather than closing anything, you want them to open up.

Warm ‘em up to the idea that the e-mail you’re about to send is worth serious consideration, instead of the reflexive tap of the DELETE key.

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Ease the Media’s Load: Tip, Don’t Tease

Old TypewriterIf you were an underpaid and overworked reporter (yeah, that’s redundant), which of these pitches do you suppose would move you to action?

Pitch A:

Joe,

Wondering if you would you be interested in looking into a story suggestion involving the village of Anywheresville and its (mis)handling of a garage construction approval process for a new family in town?

Pitch B:

Joe,

I’m passing along a story suggestion involving the village of Anywheresville and its (mis)handling of a garage construction approval process for a new family in town, the Whoms.

As a child therapist, John Whom knows very well how to communicate with children in a potentially stressful situation. But he and his wife, Amy, are at their wit’s end with Anywheresville officials.

They have spent $50,000 to build a garage, based on plans approved multiple times by the village, only to have officials later say that, oops, they shouldn’t have approved those plans, after all.

Now they want the Whoms to tear it down and start over—a scenario that would cost another $100,000.

Meanwhile, the debacle is costing all of the community’s residents: the village has already spent thousands of dollars in legal, architectural and plan review consultants to fight the Whoms.

A website with much more detail, including video clips of the Whoms, is herePlease let me know if you are interested in learning more; I can put you in touch with them, their attorney and neighbors as well.

*********
If you picked Pitch “A,” then it may be because it took a lot less time to read, and you figure a reporter would appreciate that kind of brevity. However, that brevity comes at the expense of clarity: you’re going to leave the journalist wondering just how much work he or she has to do before even figuring out if this is something worthy of pursuit.

Really, Pitch “A” is a tease, masquerading poorly as a tip. Reporters don’t like being teased. If you have more information that can help them gauge whether to pursue a story idea, then provide it.

Pitch “B” is a bonafide tip that provides a clear blueprint of the story, at least from your client’s perspective. It requires some more up-front work, and some more creative thought, but the payoff is you are much more likely to get the media coverage you seek.

Do some heavy lifting to ease reporters’ load. They’ll appreciate it, and so will your clients who benefit from the consistent coverage you spark by being willing to get into the nitty-gritty of a story and lay out a blueprint they can follow.

P.S. The link above is actually a clip of a talk I gave nearly five years ago on holiday PR tips.

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When a News Outlet Has Been ‘Scooped’: Three Common Responses—And PR Lessons

Do you remember which media outlet was the first to break the news of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001?

More importantly, do you realize the relative insignificance of the answer? Story-telling is a marathon, not a sprint. Between being first and being best, there’s no question that the latter is preferable—although achieving both is attainable on occasion.

For a journalist, one of the most satisfying moments is breaking a story before the competition. But other than journalists, and perhaps their moms, hardly anyone else really cares who nurtured a tip into working the angles that ferreted out the details that became a “scoop.”

It’s not a question, then, of whether a news organization will be scooped, but what avenue you choose when you are inevitably scooped.

After 20 years in journalism, and having been on the public relations side of the story-telling divide for the past decade, it is clear that each of those responses represents a kind of “PR Moment” for the news outlet. At the same time, each response carries a lesson for PR practitioners:

1. The Rapid Response.

Some stories demand immediate action—a public official is announcing a bid for higher office or there was a murder in your community. In these instances, the competition will respond as quickly as possible, straining to minimize the gap by which they have been beaten.

Media’s PR Moment: Like a 100-meter dash, a news outlet may have been slow out of the blocks, but they can still overtake the leader.

Our PR Lesson: It ain’t over till you say it’s over. If your client is getting pummeled in the press, that doesn’t mean you have to stay in a downtrodden state. Figure out a creative way to either avoid punches or, better yet, to mount a counter-attack.

2. The Raising-the-Bar Response

This is where a media outlet changes the terms of the story by emphasizing an element that the initial news-breaker minimized or missed entirely. Sure, the Congressman won’t be running for re-election, but the better media outlet follows up with a piece that tells the world why.

In true raising-the-bar spirit, journalists take care not to regard the original story as gospel but to fact-check their reporting on their own. They know not to abdicate their own journalistic duties by sprinkling in “according to” phrases like their magical pixie dust that turns their glorified re-hash into a story.

Media’s PR Moment: The news outlet can better serve its audience, and even manage to have them look past the fact that the outlet was “scooped,” by hustling to tell the story in a more compelling way or by communicating an entirely new aspect of the story.

Our PR Lesson: It ain’t over for the simple reason that you have moved the discussion from here to there. Every individual and organization has numerous facets and features—identify positive traits that align with your client’s marketing plan and shift the focus there.

All stories evolve, sooner or later. Identify the earliest potential point for a sufficiently newsworthy twist or turn in the story, and deploy your resources to being first—and best—for that stage of the story’s life.

3. The Bury-Your-Head-in-the-Sand Response

In other words, there’s no response at all—at least for a good while. Media outlets pretend as if the scoop never happened and completely ignore the story for days, weeks or even longer.

Usually, these are not life-or-death, “must-have” stories, but bread-and-butter pieces of news that can be told sooner or later. The burying-head-in-sand practitioners opt for much, much later.

“You want to see our account of that story you saw or heard elsewhere?” they are telling their audience. “We’ll get around to it after the dust has settled; we’re going to hold out until the memory of our getting beaten has faded from people’s memories.”

Media’s PR Moment: The news outlet is doing a disservice to its audience by sacrificing timely, relevant news on the altar of its own bruised ego. It does so at its own peril: employing this tactic enough times will prompt people to question the media’s legitimacy and value.

Our PR Lesson: Fail to wage the media outreach you promised, by farming it out to inexperienced hands or otherwise, and you will be rightly seen as putting your own interests ahead of theirs. Resort to tactics like this too often, and when it comes to credibility, respect and reputation in the marketplace, it will be over for you.

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The Reward of National Publicity Comes With Heightened Risk of Rejection

Before becoming a Guinness World Record holder in the abdominal plank, George Hood shattered the spin cycling endurance mark–and gained global coverage along the way.

Because most of my media relations work is focused on Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, I often know the reporters, editors and producers that I contact with news releases, story suggestions, and on-air guest pitches.

Short of making that personal connection, at the least I make it my mission to know that based on the work I have seen them perform, that the recipient of a pitch or release is very likely to be interested in whatever information I am conveying.

Anything short of that is PR malpractice. It not only undermines the publicist’s credibility, but that of the organization he or she is representing–often well beyond the timeframe when the sloppy publicist was retained by the organization.

Having this high level of targeted media outreach translates in a much higher percentage of media placements than a scattershot, throwing mud-against-the-wall approach.

Sometimes, though, there is cause for adding a wrinkle to this standard by contacting some in the media on a hunch and without a prior connection. This is particularly true when the story has potential national appeal, where the stakes (and potential media play) are higher. In those instances, there is a place for a focused quality outreach on the local level and a broader, quantity-based outreach nationally or even internationally.

Doing so comes with risks. Perhaps foremost among them is the prospect of being rejected, sometimes acerbically, by a journalist who takes umbrage at having been included in such broad-brush fashion.

At the same time, there is a heightened potential for reward, such as when a journalist from a high-profile, large-circulation publication like USA Today or Sports Illustrated or some other major outlet picks up on the story.

Seven years ago, both scenarios played out with the outreach that I waged on behalf of Five Seasons Family Sports Club in Burr Ridge. The story of the hour–well, of the more than 90 hours that became a central element in the story–was George Hood and his pursuit of the Guinness World Record in endurance spin cycling. Before he began, I assembled a list of more than 50 media outlets, a mix of local and national reporters, columnists and producers, to contact as he made his bid for endurance glory.

As Hood kept up his pursuit of the Guinness World Record, I kept them my media list apprised two or three times a day, including statistics such as virtual distance traveled, calories burned and his average heart rate. Some local reporters had already begun writing about the attempt beforehand, and the longer Hood stayed on the bike, the more the story began to gain traction with other media. Eventually, it went global, thanks in large part to the Associated Press picking up the story.

That welcome development came after some persistence, as I kept peppering the AP, along with other media contacts, with updates on Hood’s effort. Interestingly, the breakthrough came only a few hours after that same persistence was perceived to be peskiness by a prominent Sports Illustrated columnist.

After a Day 4 update, he shot me an email asking to be taken off my contact list–though his brief, all-caps note, punctuated by a few exclamation points, wasn’t quite so delicately phrased as “please remove me from your contact list.”

I swiftly honored the request, though not without expressing my admiration for his writing (if not his testy email) and explaining my rationale for including him on the list. At the time, was my professional skin, though thickened by about 20 years of contending with the criticism that comes with the territory of being a journalist, a bit bruised?

Absolutely. Nobody enjoys being rejected. But it was only a bump in a road paved with the extensive media coverage that had already flowed from my outreach.

Then, further vindication came a few days later, in the next issue of Sports Illustrated. It was in the front of the magazine, embedded in a column by another top writer, Steve Rushin. He had not acknowledged any of the emails that I had sent him, so I had harbored serious doubt whether he had opened any of them.

The 'Air and Space' excerpt on George Hood's record ride.

The ‘Air and Space’ excerpt on George Hood’s record ride.

But right there, in his Air & Space column, was a piece headlined “No Envelope Left to Push” in which he wrote about Hood’s Guinness World Record attempt–as well as my frequent updates.

It was the perfect, full-circle lesson in persistent media relations: if you want to be rewarded with the big media splash, then you need to be willing to endure a little criticism along the way.

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