Pitch Please by Rachael Bolton

How to find & approach a journalist

It appears the start-up scene in Australia is hot right now. Millennials are on the entrepreneurial bandwagon, along with a spike in the over 55s giving independent enterprise a shot.

Maybe it’s just fashionable. Maybe access to digital technologies has just made it so easy to set up a new venture and potentially access a global market. Maybe it’s just the pursuit of a more balanced lifestyle. It’s probably a combination of all of these factors.

Whatever the cause, you’re out there, new business owners – we hear you! As a freelance journalist who spent many years covering new business, tech and finance, I get my fair share of LinkedIn message requests from new entrants looking for guidance.

And I get it. You can teach yourself to re-upholster a couch or play an instrument or speak Japanese using nothing but YouTube. Your budget is tight and you’re the one who knows the most about your business. Surely, you can do your own press, right?

So I’m going to lay down some home truths for you from my side of the aisle. Hopefully this info will help you pursue a more successful press strategy, and also explain to you some of the complexities of the situation that you are possibly unaware of.

– 1 –

The Australian media job market is a post-apocalyptic hell-scape littered with the bodies of our fallen comrades and we’re all dumpster diving for sustenance.

Round after round after round of redundancies at Australia’s major employers of journalists have left major metropolitan newsrooms sallow and emaciated. Those cut loose are wandering the wreckage in need of steady work. Lots have fled into the arms of the public relations and corporate communications sectors. Others are fighting to pay their rent and put food on the table as freelancers. And with so many highly-trained, high-quality freelancers flooding the market, the price they can charge for a day’s work is also in free-fall.

Bottom line: we’re not in a position to offer you hours of free advice.

– 2 –

Press relations is more time consuming and skills-oriented than you think. Good flacks are gold to a business. Yeah, it might seem like they’re mainly smiling and laughing and taking people out to lunch and apologising when things go wrong. Of course they are. They’re professional relationship-builders. The amount of time it takes to create and maintain a close understanding of the interests, needs, and daily operations of that many different journalists is huge. They know which outlets have an appetite to publish the kind of stories you want, who at those papers to contact, whether they prefer email or a phone call. They have those numbers in their contact list and the reporter is probably going to take their call or answer their email. They know how to structure a pitch. They know what angle that extremely overworked journalist is going to find the easiest to sell to their editor.

If you can afford a professional, even part-time, even on a casual basis, even just here and there to craft your press releases, it really is a very worthwhile investment.

– 3 –

But ok, I know, starting up a new business is really expensive. So let’s assume you really don’t have two bucks to rub together. What can you do, on your own, to improve your pitch to media outlets?

Know what you’re trying to achieve. Are you trying to grow your client list? Are you trying to get the word out about some new company innovation? Are you hoping to grow your brand recognition? Knowing what you want will help you target appropriate media outlets. You may read The AFR every day (and it might feel good to see your own name published in your favourite paper) but if you want to target stay-at-home mums who need birthday party services, this isn’t the paper for you. You might love The Australian, but if you’re trying to sell custom tech services to small business clients, you’re probably actually after coverage in specific B2B industry magazines.

Research appropriate contacts. Don’t cold call/cold email/cold LinkedIn journalists at random because you happen to know how to contact them and ask for advice or referrals. We’re generally strung-out, highly stressed, barely-holding-it-together-by-the-skin-of-our-teeth, trying to make a deadline, trying to pitch a feature we’ve already invested 15 hours into, trying to make our kids breakfast. Asking us to carve out 30 minutes of our day to research who you would be best positioned to contact is just rude. Once you have researched publications that address the markets you are interested in, open the magazine, go to their website, and search for key words relating to your industry. Write down all the names of the people in the by-lines for those articles. Who is appearing there the most? That is who you want. That is the person covering your ‘beat’. They are the one most likely to have an appetite for your story. You can now search for that reporter’s email address or call the admin for that publication and ask for their contact details.

Craft your pitch. So you’ve worked out what you want from this media coverage, you’ve researched appropriate media contacts, it’s time to craft your message into something that the journalist is going to find compelling. Don’t list out your media goals: I don’t care about what you want, that’s not my job. Don’t give me your life story: I don’t have time to read it, I need to research and write six stories today to keep the lights on. The most successful pitches do a lot of the journalist’s job for them. When we pitch a story to an editor they’re going to want an ‘angle’. The angle is based on criteria we call ‘news values’:

  • Timeliness. Can you pitch me something that is happening right now or about to happen?
  • Significance. Can you explain why this publication’s audience will care about your issue?
  • Proximity. How close is your story to the community this publication speaks to? This can be physical proximity (e.g. your local paper), or community proximity (e.g. Facebook group created for people interested in your field).
  • Conflict. The old newsroom adage goes: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Stories with conflict or where you have overcome adversity are much easier to sell. Do you feel comfortable taking a public position against a new political policy relating to your industry? Some change at the regulatory body? Commenting on a current court case affecting a corrupt competitor? This is an ethical choice you have to make but strategically used, could get your name out there and build relationships with reporters who are always keen for comment on the controversial topics.
  • Proximity to power. Do you have an influential new client you could leverage? Engagement with politicians, corporate big-wigs, celebrities, even just well-known players in your industry can all be potential ‘angles’ for your pitch.
  • Human interest. This pitch is about you and your personal story or the personal story of how your company helped someone else. It needs to be something special and stand-out. Not all outlets are very receptive to these pitches so choose your journalists wisely.
Mind-mapping news angles for your company

Brainstorm your business and the broader news landscape. What is new or special about you? How does that tie into other things happening locally or around the world? Now list out your dream media outlets: what are their goals? How can you create a story from your list that aligns with those goals? THAT IS YOUR PITCH.

When you present your angle it needs to be clear, in the first par of your email. Feel free to use a short introductory paragraph followed by clearly stated bullet points. Include attributable quotes that are clearly indicated with quotation marks and full name, position and company name spelled out afterwards. If you can offer additional sources, this is an added plus. Contact your best clients and ask if they would be willing to contribute to a story. With their permission include attributable quotes and/or contact details for those people in your pitch explaining what they can add to the story.

Don’t try and write your own story and pitch it as a finished product – no reputable media outlet will accept that. Depending on your media goals, you could write an opinion piece (Op-Ed) and pitch that but it would have to be very topical and well-written to get a look-in and would need to be pitched to the Op-Ed editor.

Offer only those angles that your research tells you will appeal to this specific reporter. Address your email to them by name, explaining you have read/seen their work and feel your story might be something that world interest them. If you have a preferred media outlet, pitch your story to them first as an exclusive. Exclusive stories are much easier to pitch to an editor than a story that’s being shopped around everywhere. The title of your email should look like this:

EXCLUSIVE PITCH: Local man eats dog.

or if it’s not exclusive

PITCH: Local man eats dog.

Keep the core of your pitch theme clear. A lot of emails from unknowns go straight into the bin folder so you need to grab them quick. Avoid saying things like “MEDIA OPPORTUNITY”. Remember, this is an opportunity for you, not the journalist.

RACHAEL BOLTON

Artwork also by me.

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