More “Pitch Smart”: Your Media Pitching Questions Answered

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This is a guest post by Michael Smart, the host of our “Pitch Smart: Media Outreach Training” webinar.

It was an honor participating in last week’s #CisionWebinar and I’m overwhelmed by the response (both emotionally and technologically, as you’ll see below).

When the questions started coming in faster than we could keep up, I promised to write a blog post to get to the ones I missed. That, of course, was before I knew there were 381 questions!

I categorized them and found about 70 percent lined up with the first 12 questions below (in order of frequency). I also tackled an additional five that are one-offs but intriguing to me and, I believe, useful to you.

How do I get the slides? Yeah, but his web site is down. No, not just for me, for everyone.

First, you can opt-in for the slides at Second, so sorry! I now know way more about web hosting than I ever wanted to. I obviously hadn’t anticipated that much pressure on the site at the same time. Rest assured that since the 30-minute outage hundreds of people have accessed the slides with no problems.

Is this being recorded/How can I get the recording?

Our friends at Cision have helpfully posted the recording.

Traditional PR pounding the phones vs. targeted email pitching – which is best and/or what combo works best?

Journalists overwhelming prefer getting pitches by email. So that’s definitely your default setting. There is so much negativity online about phone pitching, and so many journalists sincerely decrying it, that I understand why you’ll likely be resistant to what I’m about to say:

Phone pitching still works. It usually requires me being in the same room with people for 2-4 hours before they trust me enough to buy in to the approach I share for making it work. We obviously don’t have that time here, so think about this: If 95 percent of PR people are abandoning the phone, what opportunity does that present to you? And if 95 percent of the phone pitches that journalists get are BAD (which they are), how will you come across when you’re one of the few who does it well?

I’ve heard that you should only email reporters and shouldn’t follow up with phone calls because if they’re interested, they will email back. Do you think this is true?

Journalists hate follow up phone calls, and I don’t blame them. Ninety-five percent of them come from poor PR people handed a list of phone numbers and told to call and make sure the reporters got the email. I still shiver when I remember having to do that at the start of my career.

HOWEVER. When you follow the targeting and customization steps we discussed on the webinar for your top tier . . . and you KNOW that what you are offering is an asset to a specific journalist that will help her do her job better. . .  and you went to the extra effort to create a thoughtful angle that will appeal to her target audience . . . then you owe it to yourself and your client to make sure that pitch is at least considered. So send a follow up email no sooner than 24 hours after the first. If that goes unanswered, then pick up the phone. Don’t ask, “Did you get my email?” Instead, quickly pitch your idea.

Is there a “formula” for intriguing subject lines?

No catch-all formula, other than be as intriguing and honest and specific as you can in five or six words. One mistake I see often is wasting two of those words on something like “Story idea: . . .” Another tip – the subject line doesn’t need to be a comprehensive “headline” that summarizes what’s coming in the email. It should zero in on the most interesting and compelling aspect only. Once they open it they can get the rest.

These examples are great but I don’t have the budget/freedom/relationships to do that.

Most of the assumptions people made to excuse themselves from the opportunity to replicate the success stories I shared were false. Like, none of the examples I showed relied on previous relationships. But even if they did, you’re going to be more successful simply reframing your perspective. Ask instead, “What can we learn from this that will help us GET more relationships? Or succeed despite lacking them?”

Is there a faster way to get the contact names of the media decision makers you need without rummaging around on their website?

Yes, there are several links on this page to a pretty good resource. (Seriously, lots of people asked this).

I know reporters want brevity. Do you have a word count you try to stick to?

All things being equal, 150 words is a good average for your email pitches. You’re justified in going longer when you know you have one of those compelling angles that can’t be summed up in a pithy catch-phrase. I like a three-sentence formula that starts with customization, then the story angle, then a call to action or offer to help. You can save lots of words by embedding links and images, which brings us to the next question . . .

I didn’t see any news releases in the pitches you showed. Are releases dead?

Releases are alive and kicking. A USA Today reporter told me three weeks ago she relies on releases for factual and background information while writing stories all the time. The key is that they are typically useful after a reporter has made the decision to cover a story. The personalized, conversational language of a brief email pitch is much more likely to attract their attention than the too-often stuffy corporate-speak that dominates our releases after legal is done with them. So save releases for your second email, or include only a link in your first.

What about exclusives? Also: do you ever share other coverage you have gotten for your client with journalists to establish credibility – demonstrate someone else was interested in it?

The warp-speed news cycle has had the confusing effect of making exclusives both more important and less important. More important if you are looking for significant placement among top-tier media. But less important if you’re not. Think about how often you see today’s media outlet’s rewriting and linking back to another site’s coverage. We need look no further than #TheDress.

So the answer to the second question is yes – that’s often a good idea, as long as you are sending to someone who is not a direct competitor to the outlet who already covered it. One of the examples in the webinar I showed used previous coverage in The Washington Post to earn attention and subsequent coverage in HuffPo and

I have [this unique circumstance], how do I pitch [my specific issue/event/idea]?

Now that you’ve heard the whole webinar, go back and watch it again (or at least review the slides) and pull out principles that apply to any pitch. Look beyond the specifics of each example and ask what generalizable practices could apply to other situations. When you’re done you’ll have a checklist for successful pitches you can use again and again.

How did Keith find out about those customer success stories?

Several people asked about the final case study I presented, when a savvy healthcare PR pro milked four significant placements out of the same topic by finding new people to pitch to the media. Here’s how he did it: The client’s sales reps did their jobs in asking the surgeons they sell to for success stories. The sales reps reported back to their office, who shared the stories with the marketing team. The marketing team passed them down to PR, who shared them with their agency. Keith then did the legwork. It sounds like a dream because it’s rare. But if you want rare results, you gotta set up processes that other people don’t.

Want to watch Michael’s webinar in full? Check out the free on-demand replay now!

Intriguing one-off questions:

Media Pitching Questions

What is your stance on unconventional pitching styles, such as a poem or limerick?

Love it! Journalists and bloggers are so sick of reading the same thing every day. Anything that stands out will be welcome. I bet you’ll get some “thank yous” even if they don’t cover it.

If you are repeatedly not hearing from one of your top outlets, is it better to move on for a while and focus on other outlets, pitch someone else at the outlet, etc. or keep trying?

Move on. Some journalists just flat out don’t respond to emails from people they don’t know. Or their spam filter might be catching yours and there’s no way for you to know. Always refresh that top 20 percent of your media list.

Is the phrase “innovative” overused and now dead?

Yes. I mean, you’ll still see it everywhere, but journalists don’t believe you anymore. You have to prove that something is actually novel and effective.

It seems none of the pitches you have discussed end with “I’ll follow up with you.” Any reason not to use that kind of sign off?

I’ve actually thought a lot about this and I can’t uncover a reason TO use it. What if they’re balancing between responding or not and they see that and say, “Oh, I’ll just wait for her to follow up.” You just cost yourself a response. And you’re going to follow up anyway, so what do you gain by telling them? Let me know in the comments what I’m missing.

How much personalization can you get away with before you get into creeper territory? 🙂

Quite a lot, actually. Journalists and bloggers are so sick of generic pitches that most things you share will be welcome. Anything they’ve posted, even on publicly available social media, such as Twitter, is usually fair game to reference. As in everything, judgment is still required. There’s a big difference between, “I saw your tweet about TWD and I couldn’t believe they killed her off either!” and “That blue blouse you’re wearing in your Twitter photo really makes your eyes pop.”

Bio: Michael Smart is the media pitching coach PR pros turn to when they want to boost their positive media placements. He’s trained more than 6,000 communicators from agencies large and small, from Fortune 50 companies to regional non-profits.

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