Tag Archives: public relations

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.

Don’t say this to journalists

Last week I looked at things not to say to editors. Suppose you’re an interviewee rather than a writer: what would be my top five things not to say?

In no particular order I’d recommend against the following;

  1. No comment. Even if you genuinely have nothing to say, this sounds evasive and as if you’re hiding something. I was once told “I don’t want to comment and I don’t want to read your paper saying I declined to comment.” The thing is, the guy had declined to comment and it was my job to tell the truth. There’s almost always something better to say; bridge into another subject if you possibly can. “My customers aren’t raising that point with me, what they really care about is…” will get you out of a lot of trouble. I’m unlikely to argue with your customers.
  2. I’m not talking about that today: Frustrating though it is, journalists aren’t there to jump to your tune. Of course you want to focus on your own agenda but you wouldn’t be this rude to a client – so try being a little smoother with someone who’s going to communicate with thousands of clients. Your announcement schedule has everything to do with your internal schedule and nothing to do with ours – try not to pass the problem on to us, we’re probably not going to like it.
  3. Can we go off the record? Loads of people use this one. If you absolutely must, go ahead, but be sure the journalist is trustworthy, organised enough to remember what was on the record and what wasn’t and that you’re both talking about the same thing. To me, “off the record” means unquotable; I’ve seen others who assume it means “print it but don’t attribute it to me”. If it could only have come from you, you could still end up in trouble.
  4. Your paper is rubbish. Seriously, I’ve had this. You’re entitled to your opinion and for all I know you have a point. But what useful objective is going to be served by annoying someone – not just journalists, in any context?
  5. I don’t read the press. You probably do a bit, since “online” counts, but that aside, this is a subset of “your paper is rubbish”. Starting off an interview by trying to belittle the other person speaks loudly about your own insecurities, and most journalists are experienced enough to understand that. Try not to tell us you’re terrified, we’ll only scent blood…

Do you need help engaging with journalists? Contact me using the form below or call 07973 278780 and we’ll talk.

Five things not to say to editors

What should you never say to an editor if he or she is commissioning you?

I’ve been involved in setting up a new website for the New Statesman this month, editing numerous supplements for them and also editing Professional Outsourcing Magazine for more than a couple of years. It strikes me that there are still some pretty fundamental mistakes being made by a minority in the PR and business world.

Let’s make this clear: this is about people pitching commercially-driven articles rather than independent journalists or members of the public being interviewed. Journalists will know how we work and members of the public shouldn’t have to.

So, some pretty fundamental errors I’m still hearing:

  1. That’s the deadline? I’ll try. You’re trying to be helpful, I understand that. But if you’re going to struggle with a deadline, the longer I have to plan, the easier my job becomes. Editors get so close to the job (as do other professionals) that we assume you understand this – so when you say “I’ll try” we hear “I’ll definitely have the piece with you in plenty of time”.
  2. The deadline is difficult for us this month; can we go into next month’s issue? The chances are this is a “no” because I’ll already have the next slot filled. It gets worse. The person who asked me this recently was asking about a specific supplement for a specific magazine, so there would be no repeat of an appropriate slot in the immediate future; not only that but the magazine is weekly. The magazine I actually edit is quarterly. Anyone asking me about “next month’s issue” goes straight into my mental “not a clue” file. (I do stress I’m talking to people who are pitching to me for their own company or client’s gain – so I have the right to expect them to have done the basic research; readers and members of the public can make all the mistakes they want without prejudice).
  3. I’ve written over length, that’s OK, isn’t it? Yes it is as long as you don’t mind me making all the cuts I fancy. Editors, when they ask for 1000 words, mean precisely that. Technically you can indeed go over length on the Web, but if our house style is for shorter pieces we won’t accommodate longer pieces. And on the printed page we don’t have the flexibility. I’ve actually had people send 800 words for a 600 word slot and failing to understand that we can’t fit it in.
  4. I’ve got a colleague/associate to write this. This is probably fine as long as I know about it in advance. Next week there’s a supplement coming out from the New Statesman. I’ve edited it and there’s a piece from an academic; it was prompted by an interview with one of his colleagues, who I initially approached. It was clear very quickly that choice 1 wasn’t going to be able to fit it in, while choice 2 was probably a better expert anyway. They kept me fully abreast of this and re-confirmed when they’d made a firm decision; the resulting article is utterly superb. I’ve had other instances in which, at the last minute, having the layouts done including a headshot of the contributor, copy has come in by someone who’s been a complete stranger to me.
  5. I decided the subject wasn’t interesting enough so I’ve written about something else entirely. Genuinely, I had this only the other week. Now look, guys, I’m the editor – and if I’m expecting an article on a given subject I don’t want to be surprised at the last minute. Nor do I want to read an article that appears completely irrelevant after discussing it with you. If you find there isn’t enough substance in the original idea I’m fine with that – pick up the phone, talk to me, it proves you’re thinking about it and engaged! That’s a great thing. Never, though, decide you’re going to do something else and forget to tell me. For all you know I’ve commissioned someone else to write about something identical to, or too close to, your new idea, rendering it unusable.

The majority of people get it spectacularly right, most of the time. The guy in point 4 has written one of the best pieces I’ve ever commissioned, seriously. If you’re one of the small number who do otherwise, please take note!

Do you need help engaging with the press? Contact me via this form and we’ll talk.

Tip Sheet: Before the media interview

Let’s assume you’ve done the tricky part and attracted the attention of the media. Whether local or national, you now need to prepare for the interview. Don’t assume you’ll get to see all the questions in advance (depending on what you might say, we don’t actually know all of them yet). It’s a free country and we’re going to feel free to ask whatever occurs to us on behalf of the reader.

So here’s a quick checklist of things to have ready before your interview.

  • Three clear messages. Ideally these should be tied to your desired outcome. If you’re looking for customers, tailor the messages around why buying from you is a good idea (but don’t be too salesy). If you’re looking for investors, prepare messages about financial solidity, and soforth.
  • Prepare techniques for getting back to your messages every so often. Don’t ignore our questions, you’ll look untrustworthy – but come back to your points, as you would in any business discussion. I look at techniques for doing this in my media training sessions.
  • Interviewed by phone? Great – have a list of your company’s figures and facts, and everything you really ought to know by heart but you know you’re going to be nervous.
  • Even if you’re going to be in vision, prepare a list of likely questions and make sure you can answer them.
  • Then prepare a list of questions you hope they won’t ask and prepare answers to those, too. If the journalist doesn’t ask, fine. If they do, you’ll be glad you prepared.
  • If you’re going to be seen on screen, remember patterned shirts and jangly jewellery can be distracting – blocks of colour and simple apparel is best.
  • If you’re getting a new suit/dress/haircut for the event, get it a few days beforehand so you’re used to it. Feeling self-conscious is the death knell for so many interviews.
  • Try to video yourself answering questions and without being overly critical, watch out for repetitious phrases and physical habits people might find irritating.
  • Take all the advice you’ve ever had about how to sit up straight and keep your hands to your side in an interview, and bin it. As long as you’re not actually assaulting the journalist you’re better off being natural.
  • Ask the journalist what his or her first question is going to be. If you’re live on a streaming audio or video show there’s nothing worse than the first response being “Umm…..” – I’ve been there, done that, it doesn’t end well!

Media mistakes 10: Your media trainer won’t write about you

“I would never hire a media trainer who didn’t guarantee to write about my client immediately afterwards, I wouldn’t be doing my job.” This was the dismissal I had a few years ago from a formerly trusted contact who’d seemed interested in using my services. It was wrong on so many levels.

I don’t come across it often but it happened so it’s worth addressing. Here’s the deal with ethical, proper media trainers:

  1. We’ll tell you that nothing is off the record when you’re dealing with journalists – except when we’re training you. On that occasion we’ll keep confidences as we’re acting as your contractor (or if you’re going through a PR company, a subcontractor).
  2. Very importantly, we’re in your pay while we’re doing this contract work for you. No, I don’t care if there’s no formal contract, a court will recognise the fact that we’ve been hired as contract enough. We therefore can’t claim to be independent or unbiased – you owe us money,  we have a vested interest in your continued existence. And even if only for a few hours, we’ve been insiders.
  3. Now, our only value to editors is as unbiased sources of information – so, would you commission a writer with vested interests if you were that editor?

Of course you wouldn’t. And no decent media trainer will pitch stories about companies they’ve trained for months after the training has happened. One guy with whom I trained a decade or so ago told all his clients not to bother pitching to him for six months after the training session, he had a distinct cut-off point.

Not just trainers

I’ve seen a number of dubious practices over the years. The PR person who approached me with a view to getting stories placed, which would involve payment to me and there was no need to tell any editors as this was “commercial reality” that “most journalists” would understand. I didn’t bother calling him again. The people who called me once about how much I’d charge to write about them in the national press and who were genuinely surprised when I told them any payment would come from the publication, assuming there was a decent story in it. They’d apparently been paying another journalist good money every time their name was mentioned and hadn’t been aware that the paper would have been paying for the work, too. Then there was the journalist who couldn’t be bothered to write anything so got a PR person to write an entire article, to which he added a first and last paragraph – and took full credit and payment from a national newspaper.

None of these practices are ethical or fair to the editor or reader, both of whom have the right to know what they’re reading.

So no, if you want to hire me as a media trainer there’s no point in insisting I should write about your client immediately afterwards – that would be a clear conflict of interest and no decent journalist will do it. A PR person will do this and will declare their interest to an editor, so there’s no difficulty because everyone is aware of the circumstances. But if a trainer claims they’re going to place an interview with you in a publication shortly after your session with them, be careful – if the editor finds out about the deal ,the piece probably won’t appear, and your trainer will vanish shortly afterwards.

Do you need help understanding how the media works? I can help – email me by clicking here and we’ll talk.