Thirty-five years ago, I walked into Burson-Marsteller’s New York office eager to start a new career in public relations. I recall it was a cold, windy January morning and I was wearing my brand new suit (yes, we wore suits in those days!) as I entered 866 Third Avenue.
I met some legends that very first day including agency founder Harold Burson, Buck Buchwald, and my new boss, the late Tom Mosser, who was to become a wonderful mentor (tragically, Tom was one of the Unibomber’s victims).
I was hired on the strength of my brief newspaper reporting career and soon found myself pitching national and local market media our clients’ stories, which is where most all new PR folks begin. This was a time well before the Internet, when newspapers, magazines, television and radio news ruled.
Perhaps because I had spent time in busy newsrooms and was familiar with how decisions were made in them, I found pitching ideas to media types challenging, rewarding and sometimes even exhilarating when, for example, the Today Show, the New York Times or Time featured a story I pitched.
Early on I came to understand if I did things the right way I could be a reporter, editor or producer’s best friend offering a valuable service at no cost that could help them do their jobs better provided I gave careful thought to what I was pitching and didn’t waste their time such inane questions as, “Did you get the press release I faxed over?”
Some of my fellow “newbie” colleagues at B-M found pitching media intimidating and they didn’t last long at the agency. My own media experience served me well. After a year and a half of excelling at pitching and placement, I was promoted and transferred to B-M’s Los Angeles office where my career really took off.
Yes, things have changed in the media world, but much of what I learned three decades ago still applies
1.) Think like a news decision maker, which means understanding and empathizing with how their work is judged: will the story you’re pitching help them hold the audiences’ attention, produce clicks, generate social media traffic, go viral, and so on? Explain how your story can do that for them.
2.) Prepare before making contact. Study the decision maker’s media outlet and/or work. You can quickly determine interest areas and regular assignments.
3.) As we used to say, “Dear Editor” is even worse than “Dear Occupant” so personalize everything and cultivate a new business relationship and perhaps even a new friend.
4.) It’s hackneyed advice that bears repeating: timing is everything. Know when to contact media decision makers. For example, never call a television news room at 3:30 P.M. Call at 7:30 A.M., just before the morning news meeting and try to get your client’s story on that agenda. Remember, many in the media work nights, weekends, and even holidays, so think outside the Monday through Friday, 9-to-5 window.
5.) We rely so heavily on e-mail today, we often forget the kind of interpersonal relationships the telephone can engender. Try to talk directly to media decision makers and when you do, speak to them like a peer not a peddler. “Linda, I saw the story you did last month on gluten-free soft drinks. Good stuff! We’re rolling out something innovative that I think your readers (viewers, listeners) would be interested in knowing about, gluten-free pet snacks."
6.) The press release language that makes brand managers giddy is almost always Kryptonite to media types. Stress leadership not brand messaging when you pitch; how is your client’s new product, service, or initiative changing things in the market, profession or industry? “Alex, we’re innovating the traditional healthcare model with this new cancer treatment. Here’s how it will save hospitals money.”
7.) As the New York Times’ late, great columnist William Safire once advised, “Avoid clichés like the plague.” I want to strangle the guy who came up with, “it’s in our DNA.” Tell the client’s story clearly and succinctly.
8.) Say thank you when your collaboration with a reporter or producer turns into client gold. Take him or her to lunch or just send a gift card for coffee. Little things like that go a long way toward building trust and respect.Use these tips and you will quickly become more comfortable and more successful pitching your clients’ stories.