TECHNIQUE: Inbox of tricks for sending a pitch

E-mail is fast becoming reporters' preferred method of contact. But it's still necessary to follow up, and to remain more professional than personal

E-mail is fast becoming reporters' preferred method of contact. But it's still necessary to follow up, and to remain more professional than personal

A recent Middleberg Euro RSCG survey of journalists' use of the internet found that for the first time, more journalists favor e-mail to communicate with sources than the telephone or a personal visit. Furthermore, e-mail is quickly catching up to press releases and personal leads as a source for story ideas, the study found, proving the increasing popularity of the e-mail pitch. Any media communications pro who pitches via e-mail knows the basics: Write a catchy subject line, be concise, give the "meat of the story in the first paragraph, don't send attachments, and don't spam. Furthermore, it's no secret that nothing annoys reporters more than a pitch that doesn't fit the profile of the publication, or one that is too general and obviously sent to 50-plus reporters, or one that is overtly promotional. But some of the preconceptions for writing a successful pitch are not as bulletproof as they seem. Reporters and editors have their unique preferences and quirks, so there is no formula for writing the ultimate attention-grabbing pitch unless you know the person to whom you are pitching. To that end, many PR professionals say, establishing a relationship with the journalist is essential. But it's far from enough to get your story covered. Dick Grove, president of PR agency INK, says one of the great fallacies in PR is thinking a journalist will run your story simply because he or she knows you from prior contact. "A journalist is going to run your story because it is a good story, Grove says, "so when we pitch stories, we always make the assumption that we haven't worked with that journalist before." Grove is on the right track, confirms a study by Vocus, which found that 35% of journalists would look at a press release that appeared newsworthy, while only 22% would read a release sent by someone they knew. The take-home lesson, it would seem, is that when you pitch a story, make sure you actually have a story. "The worst pitches are written in a way that you can tell there's no real news delivered, and it reads like a marketing campaign, says Michael Sharman, a former business reporter at Bloomberg news, and currently VP of the financial communications group at Ogilvy. Sharman claims nothing would annoy him more than words like "revolutionary and "unique in a pitch. "There are no revolutionary and unique things these days, he says. Establishing relationships with reporters is important to the extent that your name is associated with relevant pitches. But even though e-mail tempts you to be more familiar, don't overdo it. "People are used to sending e-mail to their friends - it's a personalized form of communication, and it's dangerous if you slip into that mode and then deal with the media that way, says Anthony Mora, president and CEO of Anthony Mora Communications. Make the pitch short and clear, but still formal. "I would not go into the, 'Hey John, how are you?' type of communication, Mora says - a piece of advice that reporters seem to agree with. "Be kind of fun, but be sure to keep that fine line of etiquette, says Saideh Barlow, a senior PR specialist at Hirons & Company, and former business reporter for 10 years. Barlow recalls that she always appreciated the PR people who inquired about her deadline when they pitched stories to her, so she now makes it a practice of hers as well. When you pitch to magazines, remember that they usually have longer lead times - often up to six months. This alone might determine whether or not your story gets coverage, says Meg North Taylor, PR manager at Latitude Communications. She herself received hundreds of pitches when she worked for Good Housekeeping magazine. Taylor says the worst pitches she received were from people who had obviously not researched the publication and its readership, and had therefore pitched completely inappropriate stories. So, can you get to know a reporter's preferences and keep up a relationship via e-mail? Possibly. A lot of PR pros seem to believe that e-mail will render the telephone and fax machine obsolete because, unlike a phone call, e-mail does not interrupt work; and unlike a fax, an e-mail message will surely get to the right mailbox. The Euro RSCG survey also found that the fax machine might indeed be going the way of the dinosaur - only 4% of journalists still prefer to work with sources via fax, as opposed to 61% who prefer e-mail. The fax machine is a dust-collector in the TV and radio newsrooms, too. Sheri Baer, a broadcast director at The Hoffman Company, and a former TV reporter and producer for 13 years, says TV newsrooms also prefer being pitched through e-mail instead of via fax. Overall, 51% of survey respondents said they still prefer to be contacted via phone. But one of the most common mistakes, according to Richard Wolff, managing director of Golin/Harris in New York, is not following up an e-mail pitch with personal contact. "We don't leave it at e-mail, Wolff says. "We follow up with a phone call." But make sure you contact the right person, and that the producer you're pitching checks his or her e-mail regularly. TV and radio people work on extremely tight deadlines, and though your pitch might be news today, it might not be news tomorrow. Stephen Roulier, a media relations specialist and freelance television reporter, learned this the hard way. "I recently had a pitch fail, as I e-mailed the assignment editor of the local TV station and received no response, only later to find out he never checks his work e-mail address, he says. The best way to avoid such problems is to do your homework. Check out the contact information of thousands of journalists using one of the media-contact database services. Most of these records also include journalists' pitching likes and dislikes.

Technique Tips

1 Do get to know the publication you are pitching - its readership, style, sections, lead time, and editors
2 Do write in simple terms. If you're not able to explain the story to your grandmother in 15 seconds, it is probably not simple enough
3 Do follow up your e-mail with a phone call (but indicate so in the e-mail message)

1 Don't spam - ever
2 Don't tell the whole story in the pitch. Give enough to get the
reporter interested, and they will call you back
3 Don't send attachments, unless the reporter is expecting you to do so

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