By Huong Cao
“Raise your hands if you have never felt nervous about picking up the phone to pitch a journalist?” asked Anna Hughes, director of global communications at BSA | The Software Alliance, the moderator of a lively discussion “Meet The Media: How to Make Friends and Influence…Your Media Contacts,” hosted by the National Capital Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America on Nov. 16. Most of the PR practitioners at the event did not raise their hands, which showed that pitching is a challenging task for many public relations professionals and hearing from a panel of journalists is valuable.
The panel consisted of Michelle Hackman (@MHackman), a reporter in the Wall Street Journal’s Washington, D.C. bureau, where she covers health policy and politics; Tim Starks (@timstarks), a cybersecurity reporter at Politico, and Anna Yukhananov (@AnnaYukha), an executive editor at Morning Consult.
What do journalists think of PR professionals?
Hughes kicked off the panel discussion by asking the panelists what they thought of PR professionals. Yukhananov said it varies, but she values PR professionals who know what they are talking about and can connect her with people that can help her with a story. Yukhananov added that it is helpful when PR professionals approach her to make the case why they should talk to her or a journalist before setting her up with someone. Hackman explained that she mainly interacts with PR professionals in government, so she especially appreciates professionals who help connect her with staffers on the Hill.
The panel discussion went on to address important questions regarding pitching, including “What are the best ways to pitch journalists?”. The three panelists shared their thoughts on receiving pitches from PR professionals.
Pitching through email and follow-ups
“I generally prefer email. I don’t mind a follow-up email or a follow-up phone call,” said Starks. He said that follow-ups could be helpful, but if he does not respond to the fourth email, it is probably because he is not interested. Hackman added that she also does not mind follow-ups. However, both Hackman and Starks emphasized that it is very important for PR professionals to be familiar with a reporter’s work and try to pitch things that are directly valuable to what they do.
Pitching through Twitter and LinkedIn
Yukhananov said that she uses Twitter to find people and keep track of what is going on. According to her, Twitter is a useful channel to pitch an event. Hackman said she accepts pitches from anywhere as long as they are valuable, and she uses Twitter to connect with people. “If you reached out to me that way, I would definitely see it. It’s just a matter of whether your pitch is worthwhile,” she added. Starks said that LinkedIn is a platform he uses to reach out to people. He also noted that he might not accept an invitation on LinkedIn from a random person he does not know. “I read the names and look at their backgrounds, and if it looks like someone who I might want to be in touch with, I may accept,” he added.
Pitching through press releases
“There’s nothing I love more than a press release,” Starks said. According to Starks, the format of a press release is less important than whether it conveys something significant and useful. Yukhananov emphasized the importance of accuracy in press releases, especially those that cover technical subjects. “You want to make sure you have the numbers right, and you understand exactly what’s happening,” she added.
Besides giving the audience valuable insight, the panelists offered a few suggestions to help PR professionals pitch effectively.
Take advantage of getting-to-know-you meetings
In addition to sending a pitch via email, Yukhananov noted that meeting journalists before pitching them can be helpful. According to Yukhananov, meetings are opportunities where journalists and PR professionals get to know each other. “It makes it more likely I’ll respond rather than a cold call or cold emails,” she added. However, these meetings work best when PR professionals have a general understanding of what journalists cover and how they can help journalists, before the actual meeting takes place, according to Starks. He also added that he has ended up meeting with people who work with him via emails and phone calls because they have provided him with useful information.
Who to pitch? Reporters, always.
Yukhananov noted that as an executive editor, she oversees different things, so PR professionals should pitch reporters. “Most of the time, the reporters bring ideas, I guide ideas,” she added. Hackman also agreed that reporters bring their ideas to their editors and are mainly responsible for their stories. However, according to Starks, in his organization, it’s worth pitching to both the editors and the reporters. “But please don’t pitch only the editors,” he emphasized. He explained that this could lead to potential embarrassment for a reporter who might feel he or she was not on the ground or not considered having authority.
Clarify “on background” and “off the record”
Starks noticed that PR professionals have varied definitions of “on background” and “off the record.” “I would suggest that people clarify that upfront,” Starks said. Yukhananov noted that PR professionals should avoid using “off the record” and “no comment” because journalists may feel they did not contact a source.
Express motivation when pitching
Hackman and Starks noted that it’s important for journalists to know why professionals or anyone provides them with information. Hackman wanted to know why PR professionals wanted to give her information, where they were coming from, and why they put in all the work.
The panel discussion proved to a useful event for both the panelists and the attendees. In addition to useful suggestions for effective pitching, PR professionals learned that even though a complex interaction between journalists and PR professionals does exist, journalists still value PR professionals as both sides have roles in providing truthful information.
Huong Cao is a public relations student at George Mason University.