The Art Of Persuasive Pitching
Media placement is an art. Practicing it often requires as much attention to approach and style as it does to the focus of your story. While it's important to know how to use creative formatting techniques that can enhance editorial reception to a story (see article, "Using Publicity As A Creative Marketing Tool") publicists can benefit from mastering some useful tips prior to approaching, by e-mail, snail mail or phone, the keepers of the media gate. Some Basic Assumptions:
* Always tell the truth. Make sure your product or service does what it says it does and your information is accurate. If a question is put to you that you do not have an answer for, indicate to the reporter you'll get back with the information. If you don't, the info will come from someone else--and not necessarily from a source that will help your organization. Never "imagine" or "fudge" an answer. Remember, candor equals credibility. If your organization has taken an action that has reaped negative consequences, counsel your client to admit the mistake (unless the client is constrained from doing so by legal counsel). Negativity can also be mitigated if you can anticipate a reporter's tough question, and frame an answer that puts the action into historical perspective; or by developing a positioning statement that lessens the harshness implied in the question. (For example, when a poisonous substance infiltrated Tylenol bottles, the company issued the statement that "we are victims too").
* Know your outlet before you call. Have you read the magazine or newspaper in advance? Have you watched the tv program? Have you listened to the radio show? With print media, do you know the specific beat of the editor or reporter you intend to make contact with? Have you read his/her stories? It's fine to cold call but don't cold call blindly (unless there really is vagueness about that person's turf).
* Attitude. There are some p.r. people whose emotional lives seem to count on an editor's acceptance; and who feel like failures when the editor says "no." "Unattachment" is the best attitude. "Unattachment" doesn't mean "detachment" or "apathy." It means coming from a centered place, with self-confidence in yourself and your ability to communicate a story effectively - but without being attached to the outcome. You'll find this a liberating approach, one that disallows you from becoming intimidated by an editor or producer, and one that enables you to return to the same person in the future with no regrets. When an editor perceives that you are not overly emotionally invested in a story, you may actually get a better hearing. Be warm & polite, professional...and clear. See that individual as a peer and colleague. If they're brusque in the moment, they may be having a bad day. Simply ask if there's a better time to get back to them.
* That said, believe in your story and believe in yourself. The best p.r. people see themselves as resources of news and information who work with journalists to fill valuable time & print space.
* Be more empathetic than sympathetic. Being empathetic enables you to build on what was said and resond with alternate approaches. Being sympathetic means you've probably foreclosed the possibility of an alternate approach.
* Get out of the reporter's way. When you're providing a reporter, editor or producer information where the story is time-sensitive, relay the information and get out of the way. There's a time for pitching an idea, and there's a time for simply relaying information. In the case of the latter, act like an editorial assistant. Do your job and get out. You'll earn the journalist's respect when you do so.
* Don't waste their time. When you call, communicate in sharp and crystallized fashion, the essence of the story. Keep it brief, respect deadlines and ask in advance if the moment is ok for that editor/ producer. NEVER call when you know an editor is under deadline pressure. Keep your message on-point and as brief as possible, but craft it in a compelling and creative way that will earn attention.
* Personalize. I've seen too many impersonal, photocopied pitch letters, whether via e-mail or snail mail. If you send something in advance to a call, or as a follow-up to a call, personalize. Don't be overly chummy (unless you've been on good terms with that journalist for a long time). But keep sensitive to the fact that you're a human being, and you're communicating with a human being. For e-mails, craft a provocative phrase in the "subject" area. Too many e-mail messages get unread without a compelling lead.
* Listen to the editor. It's as important to listen as it is to talk. Be sensitive to any verbal feedback, cues or clues that can assist you in fine-tuning your pitch. Keep your antennae fully extended.
* Respect the 'no' and be prepared for it. Ask quick, important questions: What is it about this story that doesn't seem right for you? Is there anyone else for whom this story might work better? Suggest how the story can be adapted to the outlet's needs. Best of all, suggest three to five different angles in advance. This reduces chances for rejection.
* But when you get your final no, let it go and release it. YOU haven't been rejected, just your story. And if you've handled the approach professionally and cordially, you'll always be able to come back with another story at another time. Regard your list of cultivated contacts as resources and investments for the long-haul, not for quick fix purposes.
* Occasionally, pass along an item of interest that lies outside your own sphere of self-interest. Be someone who's not always out to get something. Also, supply your most important contacts with your home phone number.
* Get out from behind your desk. The better you get to know the journalist on a one-to-one basis, the better your chance of a receptive ear.
* Getting beyond voice mail. Leave a succinct, provocative, targeted message. If you don't hear from them in two days, try calling early, or leave a message with an editorial assistant or colleague. Call back that other person to learn if your message was received and if there's a return message. Sometimes, you can ask the switchboard for the department that person works in, rather than a specific voice mail.
Remember that an editor or producer is buying you as well as your story. The bottom line is trust. It's up to you to earn it.
Mike Schwager is President of Worldlink Media Consultants, Inc., based in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. He is an accomplished veteran of media interview training, and has conducted successful trainings for scores of CEO's and other senior executives, politicians, celebrities and authors. Website: www.mediamavens.com. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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