Sunday, March 7, 2010

Do Successful PR People Show Clients the Real Pitch?

I screwed up the other day. Any PR person who actually knows how to pitch media and place stories - and is good at it - knows that you should never show the client your pitch. Oh you make a really nice communications plan and talk about messages and strategy and lay out what you are going to say and get their feedback.

You do the press releases the way they want (with a lot of suggestions to improve SEO) and make fact sheets with a lot of their explanations of their business. But that's not what you pitch.

Even if you are good and start with the clients' pitch within a day or two you've changed it. Why? because they're sanitized and long and not succinct enough to get someone's attention in five seconds. And today those pitches are read on a Blackberry in a car that hopefully is not moving.

Media today - your whole pitch is an email heading and ten seconds on the phone. Getting media to open the email is most of it. Then you must capture your pitch in a sentence. Clients are caught up in their business and the love of what they do. They want all the information in there - exactly the way they talk and write about it. But that's not what they hire you for.

Yes there are still journalists who are thoughtful, smart, check facts, have real editors, etc. But their numbers are shrinking and most of their mail is read by screeners who are 20 year-old communications interns or were just hired as new staff. So good luck with that.

I read HARO which is a great resource to see the simplicity of what is pitched these days. Here are a few from Friday's - look how boiled down they are:

Credit Card Phone Scams (major financial website)
25 Young Entrepreneurs for Book ages 6 + (Raising CEO Kids Book and website)
Un-famous People with Famous Names (National magazine)
Brain Damage and Stereotypes/Categorization (Anonymous)

If you can't get your pitch down to something that simple -- you have no pitch.

And what many clients don't get either is that pitches evolve. You start out with this nice perfectly worded pitch that's a couple of paragraphs and then you start calling people and they start telling you why they don't care. Or they feign interest and then don't follow through which is the worst because then you tell the client they're interested and then they're not.

In an ideal world - the journalist gives you five minutes, tells you what they're interested in and it's some sort of derivation of what your client does.

When I used to pitch editors as a journalist I had more leeway. They wanted the trend - examples of the trend - data on the trend - sources on the trend - etc. And you could put that all into a pitch note. But you can't anymore because no one will read it. Capture their interest right away. Make a connection. Or it's over. The follow-up after they've said they are interested can be longer and more thorough - but the first time - go for concise.

We went through this with We started with national media pitching of this consumer pricing guide as a new service for consumers. But nobody got it - the healthcare writers wrote about it a little but the first couple of months a lot of the press we got was writers saying it would never work.

Then we went regionally and started pitching healthcare bloggers in major metro markets. We did research on pricing disparities in those markets and went to the writers with that data to get their attention. And it worked. Some used it and some didn't. But they all read the pitch.

Finally, we went after consumer finance writers. Because in the end the Healthcare Blue Book is about saving money. And that's when the press coverage started to take off. Our first huge hit was the WSJ and they were kind of upset about it because they were featured amongst their competitors. I started getting a slew of the look who got coverage in this great story and we're not in there emails.

But then they became the company that got the first call for a healthcare pricing story. And all was happy in client land.

Now we're working on an event that is nine months away and science-related. I called up a healthcare reporter that I know at one of the majors and asked him if anyone covered science anymore. He started to laugh and then we commiserated. All the science writers have been laid off. The Washington Post has one science writer - Rob Stein - for all of science. Can you imagine? So try pitching them an event that's nine months away.

So we're pitching deadlines to participate in events related to the big event which are this spring. When you've got 30 days people start paying attention. And it's working.

I was so happy with someone who actually did exactly what we wanted them to do, I fired off their return email to the client thinking well this is a kudo. What I didn't think about was that the pitch was attached and they would read it and critique it. And of course they did.

Then we have the client/PR person email or talk. In the nicest way possible, I tell them that I know what I'm doing and they have to trust me. Of course, if I worked for clients who didn't accept that I'd get fired and they would pay some big agency a lot of money to do less than we would do. But that's the way it goes.

So what kinds of things bug clients - mostly it's the stuff that business people can't handle either. Strong statements. Provocative writing. Major verb usage. Tying what they do to something pop cultural that they don't like or don't get.

A couple of examples. One of my healthcare clients didn't want to say that we advocated people negotiate price with their doctors. They had some big vague way of describing it that the average healthcare industry person would understand but would leave the rest of us bleary eyed. They thought advocating negotiation would get them in trouble.

Another client had an opera performance with a very specific title and description that explained only to someone who is an opera afficianado what the event was. I called it a Glee Club which was not perfect but at least everyone knows what a glee club. Glee is very popular these days. It got response.

One thing I often remind clients is that even though you think you are pitching some high brow journalist -- the person who gets your pitch may be a 20 year-old news intern who is skimming through headlines, bored and pissed off that they're not the writer.

Or the school superintendent with the PhD that we want to reach has a 50 year-old assistant who has been his assistant for 25 years, acts as his super screener, and is so ready to retire she's just not that thorough anymore.

You have to appeal to the largest common denominator. The journalist won't think you are an idiot for referencing pop culture - most likely they have kids and watch that stuff too. So pitch the screener.

I'd like to hear what you all think. Other war stories in the form of comments would be good.


  1. Never ever show my clients my pitches. Agree with all your arguments here.

  2. "pitch the screener" Great tip, and yes, this is true about client's pitches evolving and working the angle multiple times to different outlets, all in the name of the bottom line goal.

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