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Secrets to Pitching Reporters

Overcoming a Shrinking News Hole

Finding it tougher these days to get ink or airtime for your story in the top-tier media?

The incredible shrinking daily news hole is getting even smaller, warn prominent editors.

What with a limping economy, the ongoing Iraq and Afghan wars and terrorism saturating the headlines, airtime and column inches for "softer" stories are still tight in U.S. newsrooms. At media outlets with waning budgets and a spread-thin staff, reporters are also being pulled off their regular beats or putting in overtime to cover more homeland security issues.

How, then, to keep otherwise worthwhile news stories from getting bumped? Here are a few tips from veteran journalists to help you gain a competitive news advantage. While some may sound like common sense, reporters say surprisingly few organizations follow them.

Insider Media Tips:

  • Content and timing are key to every news pitch. Know what's relevant for particular journalists and what they're covering day to day. Pay special attention to tone and the appropriateness of your story angle. These days it's nearly impossible to predict whether a news day will be frenzied or relatively quiet, so it's important to be flexible in deciding when to announce or promote a particular news item.
  • With less airtime and fewer column inches available for stories that aren't war- or terrorism-related, be realistic about the amount of coverage your announcement can generate, particularly in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Washington Post. News outlets with longer lead times -- regionals, weeklies, trade and vertical publications -- might be less affected by breaking war and terrorism news, offering a better chance at your story. At least two weeks before you decide to go public with a news item, closely monitor the extent to which target media outlets are covering your industry sector or subject matter. If there's scant coverage, adjust your expectations accordingly.
  • Know media deadlines. Don't ruin your credibility by interrupting a journalist who's furiously cranking copy just to take your pitch about a non-breaking news item.
  • Know more about your industry or subject than the journalist you're pitching. Nothing will kill a story faster than not knowing answers to basic questions when a reporter calls. Have talking points and soundbites handy. And have access to a credible management rep or expert for the reporter to talk to if you can't answer the questions being asked.
  • Be a resource. If you don't have the answer to a reporter's question, point him or her to other experts and information sources to help them understand and write their story.
  • Be familiar with the reporter's medium. Know the publication's or station's format as well as its readership/audience.
  • Know whether reporters prefer receiving information by phone, fax, e-mail or regular mail and which wire services they have access to. Tailoring your news content and format to their preferences is critical (e.g., style and content of e-mailed news releases are far different than their paper-based counterparts).
  • For journalists who prefer email over other communications channels (and more do these days because of the potential for anthrax-laced postal mail), know and abide by standards of online etiquette. Never email unsolicited attachments -- they can contain deadly viruses. Either ask reporters if they want an attachment before sending it or include a web link to that attachment in your email. If reporters are interested, they'll access it directly from your web site or ask you to send the attachment to them.
  • If you're mailing a press kit or other promotional materials to reporters, make sure mailing labels and shipping containers prominently display your organization's logo. Anxiety about bio-terrorism is understandably high among reporters, particularly those with high public profiles. Don't send "teaser" promotions that look like anonymous mailings meant to pique reporters' interest in some future announcement or product.
  • Establish and continually update your media lists. Reporters frequently change beats and the publications or stations they work for. Using a list that's not updated at least once a month wastes valuable time and energy — yours and the reporter's. Know which external media database providers have the most reliable, accurate lists and double-check your data against theirs. Always double-check the spelling and pronunciation of a reporter's name. If in doubt, call the media outlet to verify the information.
  • Track which web sites pick up your news, monitor those sites and correct media misstatements. In today's hyperspeed world, media inaccuracies that go uncorrected could quickly and negatively impact a company's reputation, financials or lead to lawsuits.

What Reporters Hate Most:

  • Irrelevant story pitches, especially when major news is breaking elsewhere
  • Unnecessary phone calls (e.g., "did you get my release?)
  • Lack of familiarity with their news outlet
  • Not understanding their beat
  • Unavailability of PR contact or quotable source when on deadline
  • Unsolicited email attachments