4. Making the Pitch

The Pitch (that is, selling your story) has changed over the years. Pitching is often not done just by regular mail, telephone, or even fax anymore. These days, most contacts are made through email.

Before sending anything, you should try to find out how a particular editor or journalist likes to receive pitches and in what format the pitch should be presented. In-depth database research on numerous publications and reporters is available from companies like LexisNexis and Dow Jones and can be a real asset to public relations professionals looking for contact preferences.

Every editor or journalist has their own preferences for receiving news releases and pitches. Knowing whether to call, fax, or email makes a world of difference—and may even be the difference between getting your news read and covered, and not. While sending the same email to 20 editors is quick, easy, and painless, your pitch may not get the attention your organization deserves.

Though e-mail has simplified and certainly quickened the transfer of information between public relations professionals and their media contacts, email has some drawbacks. Email is not as personal as a phone call, as quick as glancing over a fax, or as formal as a letter sent by post. The ease and ubiquity of email can sometimes make building a working relationship with certain editors or journalists more difficult.

For example, a particular Bloomberg reporter (who shall remain anonymous) does not like receiving pitches by email. In her words: Email tells a one-sided story in its pitch. It makes it impossible to ask questions regarding some uncertain aspects. Because of this, this reporter prefers to be contacted by phone. She will only read and accept email if the email relates to her beat and covers all the points she wants covered.

David Andelman of the New York Daily News prefers receiving pitches and news releases by fax, which he can read instantly without having to print them out. I am [always] getting an abundance of press news, he says. But at least with faxes, I can filter through them easier and quicker than I can with emails, deciding what is trash and what I can use. Don't waste my time. We are a daily paper.

Samuel Brittan, an economic commentator with the Financial Times in London, likes old-fashioned snail mail. There are problems which occur with email, be it privacy issues, bounce-backs, or just an over-abundance, he says. I simply prefer to be mailed directly through the postal service.

Carrie Donovan, an editorial assistant for The Washington Post, states: Initially, I prefer postal mail pitches, since I receive artwork and photos for stories. Images sent via email tends to be problematic, either too small for us to run or it may look bit-mapped (jagged-looking). She also observes that emailed releases are more likely to have missing information, something as seemingly obvious as an address to an event. Like most media professionals, Ms. Donovan wants all the facts delivered coherently and comprehensively. Failure of a public relations representative to do this is enough to turn her off completely.

Whatever method you use to correspond with an editor or reporter, always remember that media people are extremely busy. After all, they live and die by deadlines. Although you may want to know if your contact has received your pitch or news release, phoning them is generally not recommended. Most editors don't have the time to answer follow-up calls or engage in lengthy conversation. This again underscores the importance of giving them all the information in one neat and clean delivery. As Mr. Andelman bluntly states, We aren't idiots. If you faxed it to us and you didn't get an error message back, you know we received it just fine. And if we decide to use it, chances are we will contact you for more information.

First impressions count. The best advice we can give when you are dealing with a news editor for the first time is to tailor the pitch specifically to that editor's beat. Then sit back and hope for the best. Although this approach sounds unpredictable, this is the nature of public relations.

By corresponding with editors in the way they prefer (which may not be the easiest or most convenient way for you), you will set a good impression for your organization. With persistence and good manners, you may eventually become an authority to whom journalists and editors willingly turn for commentary.

4.1. Getting the Editor's Attention

Editors pride themselves on keeping current with the latest developments in their field. Indeed, being current is a central aspect of their jobs and practically inescapable, considering the mountains of information delivered to their desktops. Since they take this responsibility very seriously, most editors read—or at least scan—every single release that comes in.

The big read usually begins as an accompaniment to the morning cup of coffee. Editors will read the release's headline, perhaps scan a paragraph or two, and decide whether the piece works for their publications. Since so much depends on passing this preliminary test, we will discuss in Chapter 4 how to give your release the best chance of being picked up.

Not every news release will contain earth-shattering news. In fact, many will be written mainly to keep the organization's name in front of the editors. Nonetheless there will be times when an item will be particularly newsworthy, timely, or significant to at least one editor. That is the time to pick up the phone and bring the item to their attention. Editors are sensitive to significant announcements and do not want to miss them any more than you want them missed, so calling is appropriate on these occasions. However, there are a few caveats.

First, remember never to call during the editor's deadline time of the day, week, or month. Note these periods in your contact database. Secondly, use the phone strategically. Do not phone too often or for trivial news—that is equivalent to crying wolf. If you will be making several important announcements within a short period, let the editor know you will be doing this instead of calling separately about each item. Only pick up the phone when all of your ducks are in a row; that is, when the information is ready to be released, and you are prepped and primed to answer questions. Finally, remember that any phone call should be brief and to the point, with additional information sent by email (or whatever format the editor has stipulated).

Using the telephone intelligently and to maximum effect will demonstrate your public relations savvy and professionalism. This, in turn, will increase your organization's credibility, increasing the likelihood that your news will be picked up.