How to stop me killing your pitch

Another day, another brutal murder of a public relations person’s pitch. Actually I killed two yesterday: one on the phone and one by email.

I’m not talking about the poorly-targeted piece of nonsense that told me about sales of “sex robots” in the UK – wrong sort of technology for my market I’m afraid. Nor any of the other irrelevancies: if you want to tell me which beer goes better with a barbecue that’s fine, just don’t expect me to write anything as I’m focused on technology and business.

No, these could have been relevant but I scared them off. And I did it with one question.

Ask yourself this first

The question was simple. Without disclosing any details of the pitches – it wouldn’t be fair – I asked the first person by email, “which of my outlets did you think this would fit into”?

That was 10.00am. By 5pm there was no response and I realised there wasn’t going to be one.

Later the same day I was in a supermarket and the phone rang. Hello Guy, is it a good time to talk, they asked: well, I’m in Sainsbury’s, I said…they laughed and carried on regardless.

(Mental note: PR people always think I’m joking when I say I’m in a supermarket, driving or whatever. Must be the way I tell them).

So she pitches – and I say: I’m not sure which of my outlets this would go into.

She falters, stammers, says “OK, nice talking to you” and goes away.

A question is not a dismissal

There may well have been something in the story or stories, I’ll never know. The thing is, I’d have been pleased to read and listen if they’d actually answered. Someone might well have noticed something about the publications for which I write that had escaped me, and if I end up with a commission that’s great – it’s how I earn my living.

Unfortunately they hadn’t thought through to the obvious questions. “Who’s it for” doesn’t just mean the journalist, it means think about the reader. If either of those people had given the matter any thought they could have come straight back at me, to our mutual advantage.

I can’t see that either of us has won as it is.

Do you need help with your PR pitching skills? I can help – fill in the form below or call me on 07973 278780 and we’ll talk.

Don’t pitch me a client, pitch me a headline

I led two masterclasses on pitching yesterday, at a PR company I won’t disclose because my clients are always confidential. One thing became apparent during the session: everyone wanted to pitch their client to me.

Which sounds perfectly logical. But it’s not.

One of the delegates came out with something like this: “Hi, I’m calling with a photo-opportunity. My client is coming to the UK and will be making a speech to his/her employees, and you’d be welcome to come along with a photographer.

Her colleagues congratulated her on the pitch and her manner was indeed superb. The pitch, however, would most likely have died on its backside.

The pitch isn’t about you, it isn’t about me

The problem with the pitch above is twofold. First, it’s all about the client. It doesn’t have to be about me, whatever some journalists tell you, but it’s absolutely got to be about my readers. Consider it again: there’s a photo-opportunity (which sounds a bit manufactured anyway), there’s a chief executive and there’s a speech.

I know nothing about the content or whether it’s going to be relevant to my readers at all at this stage.

The second problem is related to that first one: the delegate had actually pitched me the process, the mechanics of what his or her client was doing, and stopped there. You get limited time with a journalist on the phone. Why would you focus on the process rather than the content? (Come to think of it, why do so many people phone me and start “I’m just giving you a call”? I know that bit already…)

Start at the end

Here’s the way I’d do it. Start from the final output you’re looking for. Imagine you’ve prompted me to write an article. It’s in the paper, on the web or wherever, and you’re happy with the coverage and the headline.

Ask yourself: what does the story say? And what’s the headline?

Now back in the real world, pick up the phone and pitch me that headline. Never mind the process, never mind that your client has done a survey of 3000 clients, never mind that your organisation is in the top ten widget suppliers to the small business market in the UK – that’s background.

Lead in with the story. Tell me that your client has found that half the people who believe they understand IT security still have the default passwords on their phones. Tell me that your business has enabled someone to increase productivity by 30 per cent, meaning they’ve avoided making redundancies. Tell me why someone’s life is better because of your client.

In fact, just tell me the story. If it’s a good one I may well be interested.

Do you need help pitching to journalists? My pitching masterclass is ready to go – fill in the form below or call me on 07973 278780 and we’ll talk.

Pitching to journalists: where are you going with this?

Pitching is difficult if you’re in public relations. As a journalist I’m relatively busy I like to think. So when someone who doesn’t know me calls up with a story pitch, it had better be good. “No thanks” is by far the easiest answer as I don’t have to make any effort to produce it.

I was reminded of this today when I had a pitch from someone who’d been trying to get me to meet their client for ages. He would be in my subject area, they told me. He’s interesting. You’d like him. Here’s a list of dates, they said, so I gave in and chose one. Then they asked the deadly question.

“What questions will you be asking and what areas interest you?”

Pitching can be courteous but ineffectual

That just sounds polite. Like a lot of journalists I don’t want to be told what to do. I don’t want to be told “such and such will not speak about such and such a subject”.

However, I didn’t have any strong feelings about the interview. I was going because they’d been persistent, not because I particularly wanted to speak to the client. “Who the hell are you” is a likely first question, not that I’d phrase it as such, and other questions will depend on the response.

I threw it back and asked what their client would want to talk about. They ummed and aahed a bit. In other words, they’d spent ages and a lot of energy setting up a meeting for which they had no real objective.

Know your destination

This approach is often the fault of the client. Get me some coverage, they say, and the PR team finds itself measured by the amount of journalists’ hands that get shaken. It’s a faulty metric but if your client uses it, I’m not going to hurl insults when you adopt it.

However, it’s better if you can work out some sort of game plan beforehand. Journalists are almost certain to ask why they should meet a particular executive, so tell us. We may well be receptive if there’s a good answer. We certainly won’t if there isn’t.

Today wasn’t the worst example of this that I’ve had. Many years ago (that’s right, I’m off again) I was sent to a press trip to America. There was a party, and in the middle of it all the European press were yanked out because the CEO of a company called cc:mail wanted to meet us, we were told.

(Never, ever, drag a bunch of twentysomething journalists out of a party. Or anyone, if it’s phrased like an order. It’s just rude.)

So they dragged us out and put us in a room with this CEO. He smiled at us, we nodded frostily.

There followed 45 minutes of the most strained silence I have ever endured. I imagine he’d been pulled out of the same party and told we wanted to speak to him.

The PR person blamed the journalists of course, it was easiest – I do wonder how much longer she lasted.

If you want to pitch to a journalist, great. Don’t let the fiercer ones put you off, we need interviews or we stop earning a living. Try, though, to have an idea of why we might be interested. You never know, we might even agree.

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Media training: Are you paying someone to screw up your pitches?

I get a lot of story pitches in my work as a journalist as you’d expect, mostly from people with no media training behind them. And why should they – they’re often start-ups, so I imagine they’ve just bought a cheap off-the-shelf template and are hoping for the best.

In fact I know that’s what they’ve done. I know this because the similarities are too great to be coincidental. And the truth is that once you’ve seen one or two, they all start to look samey and boring. I start to switch off after a while. They don’t work.

Where the template goes wrong

They run something like this.

They start with “I wanted to introduce you to my story” or thereabouts.

They move to some biographical information. Generally these people are into some sort of second career.

They introduce the second career and an example of why they think they’re fun/quirky/whatever.

Then they move to “If you’d like to hear more of my story” or something like that, and conclude.

There’s nothing wrong with any of this, particularly those that attach a picture. No, the problem is that they’re so obviously using a template. There’s no variety, there’s no individuality – and importantly, there’s no sign that the sender has done any more than a quick search and replace on something someone else has knocked up earlier and sold them.

Maybe it’s in a book or maybe someone has started selling this as part of a “swipe file” – a set of Tweets, emails, Facebook entries and whatever that’s supposed to make marketing easier. Only I’m telling you now, it won’t work.

Talk to me, not just my job

You see, journalists are a picky bunch, for which you can read “egomaniacs”. We make our living from getting our names into print – what, you thought we were doing this out of a sense of public duty?

So if you’re going to approach us, you’d better have an idea of why you’re approaching us in particular. If I were interested, for example, I’d probably turn around and ask why you thought I in particular would be intersted. “Because you’re a journalist” won’t cut it, there are thousands of us. “Because you’re a business journalist” ditto. “Because you’ve written about startups for the Sunday Telegraph” is closer but out of date by around a decade.

It actually gets back to very basic marketing indeed. Instead of saying “Hi Guy, here’s all about me and my new business”, try starting off with “Hi Guy, I’ve seen your stuff in the New Statesman and Guardian and thought I might be able to help with a piece for…” and carry on from there. It should sharpen up your message, it looks less scattergun and is going to hold my attention for a lot longer.

So please, bin the templates and for your own good, stop paying for them. Start from your desired end point: you want to get some coverage in the press. Then work backwards from there and arrive at your starting point, the right journalist. Target them, make it obvious that you’ve done your homework and you should get a fair hearing.

Do you need help approaching the press? I can help – fill in the form below or email me by clicking here and we’ll talk.