Pitching a story, as all of us in PR know, involves calling a long list of journalists to tell them about a product launch, new service, or any matter of interest on behalf of our clients. It is often not a favourite task, but the truth is – as much as we may hate it – pitching a story or ‘selling-in a story,’ as some call it, can work wonders. We have to remember that the interaction between PR professionals and journalists is still the bread and butter of what we do. My advice is to grab yourself a coffee, keep it short and keep them keen.
Making 20 or so calls and sending text-messages and email follow-ups is certainly time-consuming, but if from all these efforts you land a leading trade title or front page coverage in a national paper, then it’s indisputably worthwhile. The aim with a sell-in shouldn’t be to get blanket coverage, it should be a strategic approach which limits outreach to the organisations where the story will have maximum impact.
The changing media landscape following the rise of social media and digital platforms is characterized by there now being a dearth of journalists. The situation of fewer reporters means that those who are available are under increasing pressure not to leave their offices, so the legendary PR consultant/journalist lunches are a happy but distant memory. The new reality necessitates opening up a spreadsheet and utilising a combination of emails and phone calls as the only efficient way to reach journalists. The use of digital platforms to make contact, while growing, is yet to be the most effective.
So who exactly should be pitching to the media – junior execs or senior management? I would say that this extremely important task is one that should be done throughout a PR professional’s career. Quick wins are obviously great, but as media consultants, it’s the occasional in-depth conversations with journalists that make the pitching task most fruitful as these inform future campaigns and story planning.
While there might be sound business reasons for seniors not to spend time on sell-ins, from the perspective of juniors, a degree of leadership goes a long way. The best pitches result from a team effort and the benefits of building relationships and gaining insightful gems from conversations need to be spread more widely. At the moment, juniors tend to have better relationships with journalists than seniors, simply because they are the ones doing the majority of calling. But bonds change with career progression. The old days of strong and longstanding PR/journalist relationships are gone. Instead of a young PR and reporter both growing in their careers together towards a trusted and mutual level of understanding, the engagement starts to fade away once the PR executive reaches account manager level and spends less time on the frontline.
As this disconnect widens, it’s no wonder that journalists have gripes about PR consultants and vice versa. As PR professionals, we can do our bit to improve things by pushing back on clients and their enthusiasm for releasing non-newsworthy stories, which although may please internal stakeholders, undermine our reputation with journalists. Over time, the repeated calling of journalists with irrelevant news items makes future accessibility to them harder, as the PR professional in question becomes viewed as a time-waster and not a conduit of newsworthy stories. Ultimately, it results in a reduction in that all important coverage.
The fact of the matter is that PR professionals and journalists still need each other. Independent, editorial-earned coverage is the most effective result a PR executive can achieve. For their turn, journalists can help by making themselves more approachable. Too often those who fail to pick up on a story when initially approached – whether because they missed it or they weren’t accessible at the time – come back asking for details once they see a rival reporter has covered it. So let’s keep the channels of communication open on both sides. Let’s keep pitching stories and let’s do it the right way.