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How to pitch reporters | grassroots communications tips pt.1

Part one in a series.

To “pitch” a reporter or assignment editor on a news-worthy story is to call them up-typically after sending them a news release-and attempt to persuade them that they should come out (or send a reporter) and cover whatever you want them to cover (probably an upcoming event that you’re planning).  A good pitch call is at least as important as sending a good news release.  With a call, unlike a news release, you are creating a memory of a human-to-human interaction.  It’s your opportunity to make a strong impression so that when the reporter or editor goes into their morning or afternoon meeting-where they’re deciding which stories to cover-they are more likely to suggest covering your event.

Reporters and editors are busy people.  They typically sound as if they are unhappy that you reached them by phone, and you’re lucky to get a full minute of their time.  An effective pitch call makes a strong impression within the first five seconds, and makes at least the start of a compelling case within ten seconds.

For comparison, here’s an example of an ineffective pitch call:

Hi.  My name is [name].  I’m calling about an event that we’re organizing.  The event will be here in Manhattan.  We’ll be doing performance in the streets, protesting the Iraq War.  Iraq Veterans Against the War is organizing the event, along with their allies…

I would have been lucky to get that far without being interrupted.  Now, here’s an example of an effective pitch call:

Hi, I’m [name], calling on behalf of Iraq Veterans Against the War.  Tomorrow combat veterans who recently returned from Iraq will be patrolling the streets of Manhattan, dressed in full uniform.  They’re staging mock combat operations similar to what they experienced in Iraq – to show New Yorkers the realities of military occupation.  Did you receive our press release?

While the second pitch is actually slightly longer than the first, it is packed with words that command attention and stimulate the imagination.  Everything in the pitch floods the mind with powerfully vivid images.  The first example, on the other hand, is bland.  There’s no indication of what I’m even talking about until a few sentences in.

The effective example ends with a question: “Did you receive our press release?”  The reporter or editor has to respond, and will typically do so in one of three ways: 1) Yes, 2) No, 3) Maybe/I don’t know.  You can respond to their answers in the following ways:

  • Yes: Great.  Will you be sending someone to cover it?
  • No or Maybe: I’ll resend it right away.  What email or fax number shall I send it to?

No matter how they have answered, you should close the call by making another brief, compelling pitch, this time one that speaks more explicitly to production considerations:

You should see these veterans in their uniforms doing these operations.  It’s a very powerful visual – definitely send a photographer [if print].  They served their country, and now they want to show their fellow Americans what war is like.  Will you be sending someone?

If the reporter or editor is non-committal, ask them if there is any additional information you can provide that would help them decide.

Writing an effective news release has some things in common with making an effective pitch call.  It’s important to stack the most exciting stuff at the top: the most exciting language possible to describe the most compelling people and to spotlight the most captivating visuals.  In a press release though, it is also important to weave the issue more substantially into the story.  The modern media tends to be disturbingly lazy, and sometimes they simply quote from-or even print whole sections of-news releases rather than send a reporter.  A good news release starts with the strongest news hooks (the stuff that catches them – an idea I’ll be exploring more in part 2 of this series) but weaves in the campaign message (what you want to communicate about your issue), so that, ideally, any one sentence could stand strongly on its own if that were the only sentence a news outlet chose to print.

A few more related tips:

  • When to hold your event: late morning on a Tuesday or Wednesday is often the best time for an event to attract media attention.  Monday can be bad because reporters are figuring out their schedule for the week.  Tuesday or Wednesday gives you a day or two beforehand to make your final round of pitch calls.  Fridays are typically a terrible day to try to attract media attention, as reporters are wrapping up their weeks, and the weekend skeleton crew is arriving.  (This is why, when a company or government agency has negative news that they must make public, but they want to minimize news coverage, they typically release it on a Friday at 5pm.)  If your event must be at another time (e.g. on the weekend or in the evening), then be sure to pitch all the harder, as they may have to go to greater lengths to send a reporter.
  • When to call: early and often. If you’re calling about an event, and you know about it a month ahead of time, send your first advisory then to get it on editors’ radar screens (and calendars) early.  Make your first round of calls to accompany the advisory.  Send it again at two weeks out, perhaps with a little more info.  Send it a week before; then two days before; then again the morning of.  Always send the release and make follow-up calls first thing in the morning (7-8am) when possible – to hit morning meetings where assignments are often determined.  Additionally, if you are organizing an event where you want a lot of people, then find out if your local papers, weeklies, etc. have a public community calendar where you can list your event.
  • Who to call: If you don’t already have a press list, see if you can “borrow” one from another grassroots organization that does.  If you can’t borrow a list, don’t worry, just look up all your local media outlets online or in the phone book, and start calling.  The default is to call and ask for the assignment editor.  However, pitching specific reporters can be more effective.  So, it pays to familiarize yourself with the reporters for your local news outlets; notice who covers what “beats”; and start calling the reporters who you think will be interested in your story.  Once a reporter has covered you once, be sure to call them next time around.  Think of your press list as a dynamic document.  Keep good notes, including links to past coverage.
  • Who should call: Ideally the folks who are doing the pitching are folks who can speak compellingly about the issue; who are prepared to do an interview on the spot, should the opportunity arise.  When possible, it’s good for the pitch caller to have a level of authority on the issue.  In the example I provided above, of Iraq Veterans Against the War, it would be ideal for the person doing the calling to be a veteran. However, anyone making pitch calls is better than no one making pitch calls.  And it’s important to train new people too.  One thing you can do is assign “lower priority / lower stake” news outlets to new folks, so that they have the opportunity to make their first pitch calls without as much pressure.  Role playing pitch calls is also helpful for building confidence and refining your pitch.

2 Comments

  1. Kara says

    Lots of accurate advice here — especially the points about when to hold an event.
    FWIW, though, I am a reporter, and I would much rather someone call before sending the press release. I get a lot of irrelevant (to my beat) and poorly written press releases, so you have a much better chance of getting my attention with a call.
    When calling, avoid saying you’re “hoping to get publicity” for something or asking us to give you publicity. Our job is not publicity. Our job is news.
    As for press releases, yes, the first couple lines need to be compelling but it also needs to tell me very quickly what it’s about. Releases that start with a question or an “interesting” fact (which is usually not as surprising or unknown as the PR person claims it is) is irritating.
    I’ll also say that I don’t know about other outlets but I would not describe any of my colleagues as “disturbingly lazy.” Like any other field, most reporters want to do their jobs well.
    One of the best pieces of advice I see in this post is about knowing who at the outlet covers what. That tells me you’re invested in what we’re doing in the community as much as you want me to be invested in what you’re doing in the community.

  2. Pingback: grassroots communications tips (series) | Jonathan Matthew Smucker

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