Demand Success 2014: Pitching journalists in the digital age
Last week, the Vocus Demand Success 2014 users’ conference hosted a variety of PR professionals, journalists and media experts who shared their knowledge and experience. At the panel “Pitching Journalists in the Digital Age,” New York Times columnist Gene Marks, CNN executive producer Michelle Jaconi, and Direct Marketing News reporter Elyse Dupré shared their experiences and preferences when receiving story pitches.
All three panelists stressed the importance of social media, especially for PR pros to research and make first contact with journalists. They agreed that social media, especially Twitter, was most useful for PR pros to get a sense of what a journalist covers as well as a sense of the journalist as a person. This can include retweeting journalists’ articles or tweeting praise about their stories. “Most of us are very insecure,” Marks said. “It’s good to be complimented.”
Jaconi noted the importance of knowing a journalist’s boundaries — for her, Facebook is personal, and Twitter is professional — but to still learn as much about a reporter as possible to tailor your communication. “Take an extra 30 minutes to research,” she said. “It’s just standing out, no matter the method.” Dupré added that personal Tweets often give insights into what a reporter cares about.
Marks said that he views his Twitter stream as information, and he’s looking for a PR pro to give him even better information on social media. In terms of standing out, he said, “If you can come up with a headline for me, then you’re getting my attention.”
While connecting initially through social media is recommended, all three panelists agreed: pitch via email.
“I’ve never really been pitched via social media,” Dupré said. She prefers email because it serves as a reference (no writing down information while on the phone) and comes with contact information.
Jaconi — who mentioned that her queue is backed up by roughly 20,000 emails — said she likes the “asynchronous” aspect of email, meaning that she doesn’t have to answer it “right that second” and can search her inbox for pitches when needed.
Marks also said that he receives hundreds of emails a day, but said not to be discouraged. “Timing is everything,” he said. Sometimes a pitch that falls flat for a journalist one day would work for that same journalist on another. He said not to take it personally, and also not to be shy about emailing a journalist again even if they didn’t use your last pitch.
How, then, do journalists choose from the clutter of hundreds of emails flooding in each day?
Form emails are automatically annoying, Jaconi said. She suggested that when pitching a television station, find out the name of the assignment desk editor. Make sure the editor isn’t on deadline first, then call and ask where to send the pitch. That way, you have a better chance of sending the pitch to the right person. Think your pitching strategy out, she advised, “Don’t rush to press send.”
Dupré noted the importance of having good information in the email subject line and returned to the importance of research. Jaconi agreed. Showing that you know a journalist’s beat or follow the journalist’s work shows interest and respect, Jaconi said, and she makes an effort to help people who ask respectfully, even when she doesn’t have much time.
“Know your customers,” Dupré advised. “We’re like customers.”
If personal relationships with journalists are so important, then how can PR pros foster these relationships?
Marks suggested that PR pros get clients to throw occasional hourlong “salon” breakfasts and invite six or seven journalists to talk to the client’s CEO about a newsworthy topic or two. That way, journalists get news without feeling intimidated. Jaconi suggested going to journalism conventions and trade conferences. If you have an “in” with someone at a news outlet, you could even arrange a brief walkthrough of an office. After connecting with a journalist, Dupré emphasized dependability: “If I know you’re going to deliver, I’ll be more likely to listen.”
Acting respectfully may get you everywhere, but the panelists agreed that being inconsiderate can only hurt a PR pro’s chance. Besides not following through, Dupré said that she hates it when PR people try to control how she writes a story. “Pitch me the idea, but it’s my decision how to use that information,” she said. For Jaconi, it came down to two words: “blast emails,” meaning the untargeted, impersonal email pitches sent out en masse. Marks agreed, adding, “If you’re gonna send a bulk email, try to personalize it.” At least add “Dear Gene” at the top, he said.
Finally, the panelists again emphasized the human impact when providing sources. Marks said he prefers stories pertaining to small-business people and doesn’t like product-launch press releases or general pitches about health care reform or elections. Instead, he wants to know how these issues affect a business. Dupré said she is always looking for inside information when covering business news, and she loves to visit business offices when possible to get a sense of the culture. Jaconi put it this way: “We’re all suckers for characters. We all are like little kids who want to see things for ourselves.”
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