During a Media Matters editorial meeting, we discussed angles for this lead article and how to pitch a story to media was one idea. We thought it may have been too basic because surely professional PR/media practitioners know this stuff? We decided to do some frontline research and were surprised to find that the majority of people pitching stories are doing it the wrong way. We know this because we decided to ask the only people qualified to answer that question – we asked the gatekeepers of Australia’s news – the radio and television producers, influential freelance journalists and news desk editors – how to pitch a story. Their full and frank comments have given Media Manoeuvres the latest guide to pitching a story. Ignore it at your peril.
Ditch the matey, over-friendly chat. “The smarmy stuff doesn’t go down well,” says a news editor of a major daily newspaper. “I am not your best friend.” Another senior journalist told MM that the fake friendliness from “PRs with whom you have no personal relationship” is an immediate trigger to switch off from the pitch.
It’s about the content. A story with merit will get a bite, a story that has no relevance, that is stale, boring or self-serving will never run. Remember, your story idea is swimming around in a sea of emails, non-stop phone calls and press releases. Pestering busy journalists and producers with lame ideas devalues your currency and will make it harder to get bites on the future. The more weak stories you pitch, the less likely you are to build credibility with the media outlet. (Re-read Aesop’s The Boy Who Cried Wolf for further instructions.) Also, be prepared to re-send emails that interest the news editors, most are automatically deleted or completely ignored.
A good story needs as many of the following ingredients as possible:
Exceptional • New, topical • Conflict • Human interest • Impact
Understand the time and turnaround pressures for all news producers whether online, print or broadcast. A smart pitcher knows that newsdesks can be chaotic. “There is no time to prattle on,” says a news editor. Be precise and to the point. Expect to get put on hold numerous times, no matter how good the story is. Major metropolitan newspapers tend to lead the news. If a story gets a run, expect to be receiving calls from radio and television producers from 5.30am, so be prepared, and have the phone switched on. “It’s so annoying when PR won’t return calls for hours when you are trying to get a story up for that night,” says a TV researcher.
Have the ‘talent’ to back up your pitch. Have photo ideas ready to roll, have case studies and interview subjects to back up your story and all the contact details for producers in a hurry. Always think of ways to make it easy for the story to be produced.
Know your media. Demonstrate up-to-date familiarity with the media outlet. It is essential to take the time to identify the right writer/presenter/reporter/blogger for your story. “I will take more notice of short, well-written emails (no typos or spelling mistakes!) targeted at what I do, showing some knowledge of the publications I write for, and suggesting some angles that fit with what I write,” says a widely published senior freelance writer. “I also take more notice where I know the PR person and have dealt with them before.”
Editors are continually facing PR firms that do not even know the section of the paper that might be interested in the story, let alone the right reporter. A classic mistake is pitching a profile of a person the journalist has already written about. “They have no idea who they need to pitch to,” says a newspaper editor. If you are pitching to a particular reporter/presenter it is essential to be up to date with their work.”
Finally, please repeat the following mantra. “I will not send out mass mail-outs…….”