Avoiding a Kobayashi Maru scenario when pitching reporters

There are a handful of best practices to help avoid this no-win scenario

It is not uncommon for a reporter to utter the following in no particular order:

"Email me your pitch and I’ll take a look"

"I never saw your email, can you resend it?"

"I get hundreds of email pitches a day! I don’t have time to read through them all.

"Don’t ever pitch me over the phone. Email only."

What we have here, ladies and gents, is your classic Kobayashi Maru scenario. Star Trek fans know all too well that Kobayashi Maru is a training simulation for Starfleet cadets whereby a "no-win" scenario is presented: save a civilian ship in distress and have your ship attacked by Klingons, or don’t save the ship which will result in the death of all those aboard. However, there was one cadet who beat Kobayashi Maru — James T. Kirk, who reprogrammed the simulation (i.e. cheated) so that it was possible to win.

Social media, Twitter in particular, has emboldened reporters and editors to "pitch shame" PR professionals by pasting or recapping the endless misdirected, lazy or just plain awful email pitches they receive on a daily basis. To be fair, the reporters are not misguided: pitches bombard their inboxes that have nothing to do with their beats, or arrive via mass distribution e-mail systems that result in highly personalized greetings such as "Good morning INSERT NAME HERE." All of this helps explain why in a 2018 Muck Rack/Zeno survey nearly one-quarter (24%) of U.S. journalists described their relationship with PR firms and people at PR agencies as "a necessary evil."

Kirk’s maneuver aside, how are PR professionals to handle the aforementioned predicament, whereby reporters only want to receive pitches via email yet are so overwhelmed by the volume of emails that most pitches never see the light of day? And before I continue, let’s set aside reporters and editors you already have an established relationship with and whom you know will be responsive to calls and emails. Young PR professionals –- or even more seasoned ones –- don’t know every reporter. Beats change, people come and go, so there will always be a large universe of press that you have minimal to no relationship with.

Absent a Kirk cheat around Kobayashi Maru, there are a handful of best practices to help avoid the no-win scenario altogether.

Build relationships on Twitter.

To be clear, I am not suggesting you pitch a reporter through social media. Bad idea. But you should follow media contacts on Twitter whose insights you enjoy, as many are willing to engage more casually on a broad range of topics. Going back to the Muck Rack/Zeno survey, it is clear that social media -– Twitter in particular -– is where media spend considerable time as 27% of journalists choose Twitter as their primary news source. Overall, 37% of journalists expect to spend more time on Twitter this year so investing in relationship building here is likely to pay off. This is not an insincere process. Social media was built to form this type of engagement and if you are genuine in response the results will be positive.

This strategy can also make the press more approachable. As comfortable as younger PR professionals are with social media, I still find many hesitant to interact with seasoned journalists on Twitter (not ignoring other social channels but Twitter is where press tends to be most accessible). It’s an understandable phenomenon. Junior or mid-level PR professions might fear that one misunderstood or ill-timed tweet could land them on the reporter’s blacklist – indefinitely.

Don’t hang up just yet

I recently came across a twitter thread involving reporters discussing how they don’t like to be pitched. At the top of the list for some was phone calls. Personally, I don’t think it is because they are opposed to a prepared PR professional spending 30 to 60 seconds on the phone giving it his/her best shot. But…if you add up dozens of these calls a day reporters would never be able to actually develop story ideas and write.

I lack hard evidence to back this up, but in my experience phone pitching leads to better results than email pitching. When I make this case to the younger generation at my agency it results in skeptical glances and eye roll [emojis]. But calling reporters should be part of the outreach equation for several reasons: first off yes, I believe the results are better; second, it requires a much deeper understanding of the client and topic you are pitching.

With email, you really don’t have to know anything. If a reporter responds with questions, they can be answered in collaboration with colleagues and/or sent to the client. You will never be challenged to explain a product claim, differentiate from competitors or think on the fly in any form. This approach doesn’t mean badgering reporters on the phone, but instead, studying up in advance and being respectful of their time.

Don’t fall into the "car wash" trap

My favorite media pitching analogy is the car wash. Inevitably, on the first sunny and warm weekend day of the year, everyone goes to the car wash. Yes, it’s great to have a shiny, clean car, but it’s not so fantastic to arrive at the car wash to learn that dozens of other drivers had the same brilliant idea.

Too often, this happens with media pitching. You reach out to reporters to follow-up on a story they just wrote for which your client was not included, or maybe it is trying to arrange a briefing at CES when hundreds of others are doing the same.

Sure, feel free to give it a shot during these times, but you’ll end up lost in an endless line at the car wash with all the others. Go against the grain when it comes to reaching out to reporters. This means avoiding peak periods when it will be impossible to grab their attention and instead thinking in advance about time periods and venues when the reporter will have less on their plate.

Kirk out.

Brian Lustig has most likely carbon-dated himself in this article as a "veteran" communications professional with Bluetext, a branding, digital marketing and strategic communications agency.

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