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With media pitches: keep it simple, keep it brief and pledge to keep in touch

Thirty seconds on the phone with a reporter--or even a reporter's voicemail--can reap dividends that include distinguishing your media pitch from others vying for their attention.
Thirty seconds on the phone with a reporter--or even a reporter's voicemail--can reap dividends that include distinguishing your media pitch from others vying for their attention.
Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images

About 15 years ago, when e-mail was still relatively new to most people and fax machines were one of the top vehicles for transmitting news releases, I had a hard time convincing folks to send me their pitches by e-mail.

They were hooked on fax, and kept dispatching their stories that way. This, despite my pointing out that they had a much better chance to get attention if they sent me something that was in an easy cut-and-paste format.

Nowadays and for quite some time, of course, e-mail has unquestionably ruled the roost when it comes to sending communications that you want to be easily reviewed and managed. But its ease also represents why it is a pitfall: as e-mails zoom from you to anyone else around the world, they can just as rapidly get tossed into the cyber trash can--or never make it past a reporter's spam filter.

So, against that backdrop, how do you make sure that your outreach to the media stands a strong chance of being seen, let alone get acted upon? Find out what sparks reporters' interest and keeps them from relegating your story idea to the "delete" folder. And to do that, get the inside scoop from as many journalists as possible on what they like to see in a pitch or news release.

Make sure it's relevant to that individual reporter, that it's timely, and that it serves him or her--when you give 'em what they need (legitimate news), you and your client will more frequently get what you want (media coverage).

But sending the release via e-mail doesn't distinguish you from the pack. That's where picking up the phone and dialing comes in. And having been on the receiving end of such pitches for about 20 years, one trait that is universally appreciated when reaching a journalist by phone: keep it brief. As in, less than a minute--maybe a little longer if the reporter starts asking questions.

Unless you are reaching out about something that is highly time-sensitive, you have little to lose and much to gain by this soft-sell approach.

This principle borrows from some sales training wisdom received years ago from the likes of Matt Tsuruda, an Amway Diamond and longtime leader with World Wide Group, an Amway Approved Provider as a training-and-development organization. As leaders like Tsuruda have long emphasized, don’t “oversell” to the point that the person starts resenting your presence and resolves never to buy anything you ever have to sell, even if it’s a cold glass of water in the middle of the Sahara Desert.

Relationships, when pursued the right way, are much more like a marathon than a sprint.

So do all you can, whether in interactions with the media or anyone else, to leave before they want you to go. This reflects a respect for the other party's time that may well be rewarded, in the near future, in the form of a purchase. And sometimes, on the spot, the prospect will state that he or she wants to hear more—and may even be ready to buy.

The objective is not to cram all that know, and think the reporter should know, in one high-pressure encounter. Odds are good that such a hard sell will prompt a stiff-arm. Often, the stiff-arm is undetectable--a reporter is polite and professional on the first contact, but avoids all future contacts whenever possible.

When You Reach a Journalist's Voicemail

This is the usual scenario, as most don’t pick up the phone if they don't know who's on the other end. From there, your mission is simple: leave a brief message with the gist of your call and a mention that you will soon e-mail more detailed information.

With that as the transitional bridge, the e-mail message begins pretty much the same way from one media outreach campaign to the next: "Following up from the voice mail I just left for you…”

Guaranteed, this is not a frequent phrase in reporters' in-boxes and will put you in select company, since most publicists don't bother to pick up the phone but rely (naively and, yes, lazily) on e-mails to do all the work for them, as if by magic.

When You Reach a Journalist Directly

When reaching a journalist directly, your first comment ought to be a pledge of brevity. Something like: "Are you on deadline, or is this a good time to talk for 30 seconds?”

Such a courtesy signals that you know their world—and are not about to waste their time. Saying “30 seconds” is intentional—when people trot out “Do you have a minute?” they usually don’t mean 60 seconds, but 5 or even 10 or more minutes.

Now, if someone starts to engage you and you stay on the phone longer, that’s great. But it has to be their call.

Your objective in calling is not to “close a sale” as they cheerily promise to crank out a story. Rather than closing anything, you want them to open up and warm up to the idea that the e-mail you’re about to send is worth serious consideration.

This initial contact is merely the opening chapter of what you should aim to turn into a lengthy dialogue, not only related to the immediate story idea, but many others in the future. And just as those in the 1990s who weaned themselves of the fax machine and took advantage of e-mail's convenience and immediacy gained an edge, so will today's advantage go to those publicists and marketers who push past the e-mail and call reporters too.

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