Pitching news that isn't

Yes, you do have options when you're asked to pitch something with no inherent news value.

If you’ve spent any time at all in PR, you’ve been asked to "PR something." Nobody ever phrases it that way, but you know exactly what I’m talking about. A client or boss has something that has been deemed important, and they want lots of awesome coverage for it.

The problem, of course, is that the important thing has no inherent news value. At all.

Now what? It’s very hard to tell a boss or client that the important thing they’re so excited about is a total non-starter for reporters who need every headline to compete for attention. On the other hand, if you accept the assignment, you risk coming up empty.

It’s a sticky wicket, for sure, and very likely a familiar one. While no single approach is guaranteed to work every time, there are ways to mitigate your risk and keep your reputation intact.

Engage immediately. You know a bad pitch when you hear one, so don’t wait to start managing expectations. Be polite but firm and lean on your experience. You’re in your role to be a counselor, so counsel. The important point here is, don’t wait to push back. The longer you wait, the less authoritative you sound.

Explain the reputational risk. There’s no quicker way to sour relationships with reporters than sending a pitch that you know is wasting their time. And it’s not just your reputation, it’s your company’s or your client’s reputation as well. Explaining this can sometimes help, but before you can even mention reputation, you have to get your boss or client to recognize that their important thing isn’t newsworthy.

Use examples. If you’ve been stuck pitching a non-newsworthy story to an equally
this-isn’t-what-they-cover reporter, share that story. Cite specific conversations you’ve had with reporters. Hopefully your boss/client trusts you, but if it’s a new relationship, providing very specific examples of bad outcomes resulting from bad pitches can help.

Shift the focus of the discussion. It’s tempting to spin up all your arguments about why the important thing isn’t newsworthy. But respond with a conversation, not a lecture. Bring your boss or client in on the decision-making process.

Ask why they want news coverage; sometimes you can identify solutions without a pitch that still achieve their goals. Get them talking. If it feels like an argument, it’ll be hard to get them to agree with you. If, however, they feel they’re being heard and their goals are being met, it’s much easier to reach a consensus and a resolution.

Try really hard to avoid saying no. Put yourself in your boss/client’s shoes. They’re also under pressure, and they need your help. An instant "no" could damage an important relationship. Try to work with them to identify solutions.

Can you build the important thing into a larger trend-story pitch? Can you leverage media interest in your rarely-gives-interviews CEO to include the important thing in a more wide-ranging discussion?

Maybe the story works better as a video posted to owned channels. Keep the communication going until you have something viable.

But if you have to, say no. If all these tactics fail, and your boss/client isn’t willing to listen to your (or anyone else’s) sound advice, well, that’s when you should say no. Otherwise you set yourself up for future failure.

Not only do you raise the odds of reporters ignoring your pitches, but you establish a precedent that you’ll pitch anything thrown at you. Either way, your reputation has gone from "being at risk" to "circling the drain."

Note, by the way, that I said you should say no. I didn’t say you must say no. Standing your ground could earn you some respect in the eyes of your boss/client. But in the real world, unfortunately, not every boss or client will see it that way.

If that’s the case, do what you must to survive the day, then go find smarter people to work with. You’ll have many jobs in your career, but only one reputation. And if there’s one thing a good PR person understands, it’s how to manage a reputation.

Bob Rybarczyk, a freelance writer and the principal of Chicago-based No Bounds Communications, can be reached at bob@noboundscomms.com.

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