Many years ago, our lead trainer Guy had a media training client who taught him something about targeting. The client owned a chain of mobile phone stores, let’s say they were in the Reading area. He had been offered the chance of a profile piece in the Financial Times.
He had declined.
Guy was a picture of consternation. What, he wondered, was the point of training someone to speak to the media if they were going to turn down such a great opportunity?
The client’s answer was simple and instructive. His objective, he said, was to sell phones. The FT would publish a trustworthy and accurate piece – and one that would get him precisely nowhere. The publication would deliberately resist anything so promotional whereas the local paper might – we don’t know if he was correct on this point – be open to a promotional idea of sorts. If local people read about his shops they might actually visit, he reasoned. His mum would like a nice FT piece but he couldn’t see it working for his business.
Of course he was right.
Targeting is vital
This is why, in our PR pitching masterclass, we talk a lot about targeting your press releases to the right journalist and publication. There are two elements to this (actually three but we’ll come to that at the end of the section).
First you need to decide which journalists or other media professionals are going to respond to you. This, if you don’t use a professional public relations agency, is a case of asking your contacts and seeing what they think.
That might sound a bit haphazard and there’s a good reason for that. It’s not an exact science. In the same way that a mate can recommend a restaurant and you can turn up and find it’s just not right for you, you can find you just don’t hit it off with a journalist, or the idea is fine but they’ve just written something like that and it will be published next Tuesday. Never forget that “no thanks” is by far the easiest answer to a pitch. It allows the listener to do precisely nothing if they choose. Also remember, however, that journalists and other publishing professionals depend on good ideas for their livelihood. No matter how cynical and jaded they sound, if your idea is good and relevant they need you.
Know the journalist
You need some knowledge of the journalist and what they write, podcast or broadcast about to remain relevant. Many are specialists. Lead trainer Guy has been writing about technology as applied to business (with some minor forays into consumer technology) for over three decades. Here are some of the things that have come into his inbox over the years:
- Typing at 11.47 on 7 December 2022: a glance at the in-box tells us the BBC has sent a release telling Guy that Robson Green is fronting a new TV series. Guy did write about a new programme for the Radio Times once. In 2005.
- On the same day there was a press release to Guy’s inbox telling him that the Supreme Court had said that bans on prayer and help for women in crisis could be implemented in Northern Ireland. This is something Guy personally regards as important. However he needs to read a complete story when a relevant expert has evaluated it, spoken to people and found out what’s really going on rather than a release from one interested party.
- Guy’s favourite example was the company that kept sending him information on female sex toys for over a year. Mysteriously he forgot to ask them to stop sending these releases; we have never had the guts to ask him why not.
There was also a lot of relevant stuff of course, a lot of public relations professionals get it exactly right. The good news is that it’s not difficult to rise above the rest. One of our favourite games is to get the phone out during a PR Pitching Masterclass session and see what’s come in during the previous hour. In the ten years since launching this course there has always been something irrelevant to highlight.
Know the publication
It should almost go without saying but it seems not to. Knowing the publication is crucial. If you have a local story because you work in Edinburgh and have created 50 new jobs at the height of an economic downturn, great! There’s a good chance The Scotsman will be interested but don’t expect much reaction from the Argus in Brighton. Likewise you might have a hot news story to pitch to the Nationals but you’ve got your heart set on somewhere less immediately relevant. It happens.
It’s important to know the publications and also to understand what the readers are likely to do next. Remember the wise delegate at the beginning of this entry; he rejected the Financial Times not because it wasn’t a great publication but because he knew it wouldn’t be great use of his time.
But does it work for you? Targeting your objectives
Knowing the journalist and who they’re writing for are undoubtedly excellent things. However, there is a killer question you need to ask: do you want to end up working for the journalist or do you want to build your own business up?
This isn’t as glib as it sounds even though you know the answer without thinking about it. You want to build your business, of course you do. Everything we’ve said so far, though, has been about finding the right journalist and outlet. We’ve discussed what the journalist does as they’re specialists and we’ve also gone through some real life irrelevant pitches.
So let’s say you’re a small consultant in tech security. You assess your market, you pitch to the journalist and he or she comes back with “that’s great but I need a user or case study to talk to”. That’s sounding good – then the article comes out and your client is cited as someone who had a tech problem and overcame it. No matter how many times you scour the article, you can’t find yourself or your business named as the person who sorted it out.
Will they credit you properly?
This happened to one of our delegates once. He told us he was up at 5am to appear on BBC Breakfast and represent his company (which was a larger concern as it happened). He’d done what he thought they wanted by avoiding mentioning his company name. He assumed they would credit his company in the caption. In the event he just came out as “Technology expert”.
There is a real risk for spokespeople: they can end up working for the journalist and the publication rather than the business for which they are responsible. Journalists mostly don’t have huge resources so if you mention that you’ve seen an important report they’re likely to ask you to send it over, free of charge. If you’ve written a book they’ll expect you or your publisher to provide the review copy. They will want a particular angle and they need to arrange their story around it. They are working for their editor and their readers and they will see everything in this light. It’s important to look at every opportunity that might come up and ask yourself: does this actually help our objective? If not, it might not be the right opportunity for you and you’ll spend a lot of time and effort working on the journalist’s behalf.
The mysterious “third element” we mentioned at the beginning of the last section is of course the sheer size and impossibility of the task. Keeping track of so many people is difficult. It’s one thing us Guy pulling out his phone and seeing who’s pitched something fairly ludicrous, ignoring decades of what he’s actually been doing. It’s another completely when someone has to sift through all of the potential contacts. According to Statista (see this link) there were around 110,000 people who could be described as journalists in the UK in 2022. That’s up from 71,000 people ten years previously. Many are likely to change jobs, go freelance, others will suddenly start a blog or podcast, still others will start or close a publication.
Nobody is underestimating the difficulty of keeping track of all those people. Unfortunately that’s what the job involves.
Targeting is fundamental
You can have an excellent story. You can understand why it affects many people who are outside your organisation. If you don’t take the trouble to find out about the media professionals and outlets that might be interested, however, you’re unlikely to get much coverage. Make sure you know why a story is important and to whom, ensure you approach the right outlet and the most suitable writer and you should stand above some of the actual professionals working in communications right now.
One more acid test, if we may. When you’re writing your pitch or formulating what you’re going to say to the journalist, ask yourself: why am I telling them this? If you don’t have an answer, start again – if you don’t know, they won’t either!
Further information on “Pitch Perfect”, our media training masterclass, is available by clicking here.