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.

Should you stop annoying journalists?

Last week I asked readers what they’d like me to cover in a webinar I was due to host this week. That’s now postponed for a fortnight but one request caught my eye: someone wanted to know how to avoid annoying journalists. Maybe oddly, I’ve concluded that a good PR person should be an annoyance occasionally.

Let’s just be clear before I get slaughtered: I’m not talking about annoying us for the sake of it, calling every five minutes (one PR company took to calling me every day when they’d issued a press release a while back, and that achieved nothing for them or their clients). But there are others who call when they have something distinct and useful to say and that’s welcome.

I’ve seen people on Facebook and elsewhere offering advice like: don’t call journalists. Don’t follow up a press release, ever. Don’t delegate journalist contacts to young women, older male journalists know what you’re up to (genuinely, someone hinted at this on a Facebook group only last week).

I have another suggestion.

Don’t forget who you work for

I get that I’m not going to win any popularity contests among some of my colleagues for saying this, but: who do some of these journalists think they are? We have the word “journalist” in our job title and this, to my mind at least, implies that people who believe they have interesting stories may get in touch.

Of course, “interesting” in turn implies that you’ve found out about my readership and what I actually write about. Scattergunning any old release at all journalists whether they’re likely to give a whatsit or not is counterproductive.

I speak to a lot of PR people, though, who listen to journalists chanting the “don’t call me” mantra but when you ask quietly they confirm that relevant press releases followed up by a call tend to produce better results than those not followed up at all. And the job is to get a result, not necessarily to butter up an insecure hack who has forgotten that he or she doesn’t employ you so their best interest is in friendly co-operation rather than in outright hostility. That doesn’t mean responding positively to every approach; it means declining politely when something doesn’t appeal, and giving a reason why where possible.

So here’s my guide to not annoying journalists. First, accept that some will always be annoyed. A handful are resentful of the fact that they need PR people at all, considering them somehow “impure”. Ignore them, they’ll never be happy with you. Focus instead on the politely responsive, and tailor your pitches; have an idea of where you’re aiming your story and why it will appeal. Be selective about when you call. If it’s after every release the call becomes white noise. If it’s only after the ones you really think deserve our attention, we’re likely to listen.

And difficult though it is, don’t let us get away with patronising you. You don’t work for us, we don’t work for you but we can share aims on occasion so an atmosphere of understanding the other side and its objectives will help everybody. If we’re treating you like an idiot because we think you’re 20 years younger than us, that’s our problem – journalists with that attitude probably think 40 is “young”.

Actually, now that I think of it, I wouldn’t mind being 40 again…

Where should your press release go?

Most press releases are awful. There, I’ve said it. People send them to me and I delete the majority. It’s not the quality every time, though. It’s the relevance, or rather lack of it.

Press release work must be the bane of the public relations executive’s life, to say nothing of the pain it is to the business owner taking the DIY approach. I can often tell they’ve taken care and drafted a press release well – but what happens to them next is crucial.

It’s clear they’ve sent them to me in my role as “any old journalist”.

Here’s a thought: I’m a technology journalist who also writes a bit about business. I edit New Statesman Tech for the moment and Professional Outsourcing Magazine and do a whole load of one-off bits and pieces, but they’re all in the business and tech area. I’ve done little else for at least two years. So I end up asking myself why have I received the following in recent months:

  • A query about whether I am writing anything about gifts people buy each other when they get engaged;
  • Something on quality wooden toys for the Christmas market;
  • A recipe for whole sea bass with orange butter;
  • A solicitation to sample some beer (I always say “yes please but I don’t write about beer” – nobody sends me the free beer these days)
  • Top tips on winter skin care
  • A luxury hotel in London

OK, I used to run a lifestyle blog for middle-aged men so the first, fourth and fifth might be understandable. They are out of date, though. The company that sent me loads of press releases on female sex aids a couple of years back was fascinating but not something I’d be writing about.

Send your press release wisely

Too many people see the word “journalist” in someone’s job title and send out a press release regardless of any specialism that writer might have. It’s honestly, honestly worth thinking about who I am and what I write about before sending it off.

You’re actually better off making a smaller list. Take the top ten journalists, bloggers, websites or magazines on which your business would like coverage. You’re never going to get into all ten, the competition’s immense – so why not improve the quality of your pitch and tailor individual releases/communications rather than send the same thing to 20 people?

The personalised approach often works better. I get the impression you’ve made an effort and know who I am, and over time you get a feel for who’s going to respond to what.

Just don’t get stalkerish. I had a call about 15 years ago from a nervous young PR person. My then-new daughter was safely at nursery and the shaky young (male) voice started off, before even introducing himself: “How is your daughter, Guy..?”

If I’d had security staff they’d have been onto it like a shot.

Media mistakes 3: It’s a good idea to answer at length

One of the frustrations I often face as a journalist is that people answer my questions as thoroughly as they can. I’ve just got off the phone with a guy I’m covering for the New Statesman; he was genuinely interesting and had a lot to say and I’m going to share as much as possible with the readers.

Note, “as much as possible”. In other words I’m going to have to be selective, cut a bit, eliminate repetitions and turn it into journalese.

In this case that won’t be a problem because the guy was himself a journalist. He was, consciously or otherwise, aware of my need to make an article out of his comments. Not everybody is as informed.

Read the papers, look at the quotes

When I first started writing, I naively thought the seasoned commentators would speak in pure quotes. They don’t, of course. I was quite shocked when I asked a guy why he’d chosen to sell a particular gadget and he came out with about 200 words.

I did my best to select what the readers would need to know and probably got it about right at the time. That was, however, a risk on his part.

It’s worth looking at the newspapers, magazines and online sources, whether multimedia or otherwise, that you’re targeting. How long are the quotes that they use? There are unlikely to be any strict rules but you’re bound to notice there isn’t much waffle. More than 15 words in print is going to start looking like a soliloquy.

This needn’t be a problem to the journalist, we’re used to cutting and getting to the nub of the story. It’s what we’re paid for. But…do you want our choice of your words speaking for you, or would you rather have yours? The only way to ensure I use your choice of quote, that will serve your company well, is to make your point briefly and then, politely, stop speaking. And the only way to make sure those words work for you is to prepare carefully.

If I have a choice of 200 words, I’m going to choose those that fit my story the best. I won’t sabotage your quotes but my idea of “best” may not be yours. If I have only 30, I’m pretty much forced to use your choice.

So, how thoroughly do you generally answer questions?

Do you need help with interview technique? Contact me on 07973 278780.

How do you write a news story?

I currently write for the New Statesman – here’s a recent supplement I edited – the Guardian, and edit Professional Outsourcing Magazine, just entering my third year, as well as a lot of freelance writing. One of the things I found most difficult when I started up as a full-time journalist was news writing.

I just couldn’t get it. Snappy intros, finishing with a brilliant quote – and then the subs would turn it into what I perceived as mush, and in my view spoil it. Except, of course, they weren’t – they were improving it drastically, and here’s what they were doing.

The rules

The first rule I had to learn was that all of my thoughts about becoming a brilliant, erudite writer, were in themselves a load of mush. If I wanted to become a news journalist I had to keep it simple. That’s even truer now than it was then as we live in an increasingly global environment. Simple phrasing is easier to understand.

Some of the advice was poor, mind you. Always stick to short sentences, they said. Short is better. People won’t read longer stuff. They like brevity. But you can’t develop an idea. Only when you allow yourself a bit of length can you really explore something and open out, as long as you ensure the sentence itself is comprehensible. (See what I did there?)

The big lesson, though, was to consider how people read news stories. Only very rarely will they read right to the end. So the important stuff has to go at the beginning. It’s like a pyramid (see that picture at the top of this post?); if you cut the bottom layer off, it’s still a complete pyramid. People reading a story and not finishing it still need to take away the salient facts. People reading a story that’s been cut for length – and sub-editors will always cut from the bottom in a news setting – still need to understand what’s gone on.

That image has stayed with me for years, even as people’s tendency to read to the end has diminished with the increasing distractions of the Internet. It still works and probably always will. It’s also something to bear in mind if you’re in PR rather than journalism. Adopt that pyramid structure for a press release and a journalist, no matter how subconsciously, will identify that the release has been written in his/her language.

So have a look at your own news output. Could you take off the last few lines and leave the sense of it intact? And if not, should you be fixing it?

Do you need coaching with your writing skills? As a current, practising journalist I can help. Fill in the form below and we’ll talk.

Magazines: what’s the deal?

I edit a magazine, Professional Outsourcing. I also edit, from time to time, supplements for the New Statesman. These share something in common: we very frequently use contributions from people whose day job isn’t journalism. And I’m guilty of forgetting, from time to time, that not everybody is going to know the “rules”. So in case you or a client are ever in that position, here are some thoughts based on mistakes I’ve seen people making.

  • A magazine is probably not a professional document. There are exceptions. The Lancet, Hansard, no doubt others are, but most magazines are going to be written with consumers in mind. Even if they’re intended for a professional audience the editor will anticipate that they’re going to be read in the lunch break, or on the commute. So if you’re writing for a magazine, remember to relax the language a little – and if someone is writing a piece on your behalf, don’t be at all surprised if it doesn’t look like something from your internal knowledge base. (Side note: this applies to any written quotes you might supply – I’ve agreed to accept written quotes before and been faced with a 700-word screed for a 1000 word article – nobody is going to use a quote that long!)
  • A magazine isn’t an extension of your marketing department. This means an editor will take what you’ve written and manipulate it to serve the readers best. This is in everybody’s interests but it does mean that the editor might well tone down some of the hype in your piece, if you’ve put any in. If you’ve written well and authoritatively, this won’t matter, the article will still serve you well.
  • A related point is that editors are aware they’re working in a visual medium but they may not have a good visual sense. I don’t believe mine is particularly strong and I’m pleased to have the backing of a superb designer, Leon Parks, for both the outsourcing mag and the NS (plus a proofreader, Louise Bolotin, who is better at micro-editing than I am). One result of this is that we tend to regard the written side of an article as entirely separate from the illustrations – so if you had a particular slide, or graph, you believed was central to your piece, do draw it to our attention. If the article stands up in its own right – and a well-written article will – we’re likely to leave the visuals in the hands of the designers, whose job is to make it as arresting as possible. This doesn’t always chime with the writer’s intention.
  • Be prepared for us to edit. I’ve had two incidents that clash with this idea recently; on one occasion a writer took it badly that a chart had vanished (see above). The other was when a client for a sponsored supplement of a magazine did most of the commissioning himself. I’ve no doubt he was trying to save me time – but that couple of weeks when you don’t know what’s coming in and haven’t seen the brief (hello, I’m supposed to be editing this!) can be pretty nerve-wracking.
  • Finally, a deadline’s a deadline and an agreed length is an agreed length. If you can’t commit to delivering 2000 words within three weeks, don’t commit at all, that’s not a problem. Whatever you do, don’t deliver 700 words after four weeks and assume that will be OK. I’ve actually had this happen and the writer didn’t see a problem (note: you can edit down but rarely up – or at least not to that extent).

Do you need help writing for the press or engaging with us in interviews? Drop me a note by clicking here or fill in the form below and we’ll talk.