When I first started out in PR, as a junior executive in a PR agency, a large amount of my time (in addition to stuffing envelopes and making tea) was spent undertaking the ‘sell-in’, that is, following up on a press release by ringing round all the journalists on a very long list of publications.
I often see this aspect of the PR professional’s tasks as receiving a great deal of criticism from journalists, who are very busy and don’t want to be pestered with an unsolicited call that may not be relevant for them. Increasingly, I am seeing journalists state that they only want to receive information from PRs by email. Whilst I will always respect their wishes, I can also name many times in the past when establishing a rapport with the journalist over the telephone has led to media coverage, where an email pitch would be lost amongst a pile of thousands.
So in the world of digital PR, is there still a place for the old-fashioned phone pitch? I would argue that there is, but here are some tips for developing a strong telephone pitch and ensuring your message is heard above other PR consultants:
• Research: Before calling, thoroughly research the background of the journalist you are targeting to make sure what you are proposing will interest them. By reading past articles you will be able to ascertain what topics they tend to write about, and what particular columns or interview opportunities they run.
• Timing: The best time to contact a journalist is mid-morning and mid-afternoon. However, this may depend on the frequency of the publication you are contacting. Journalists writing for a daily evening paper, such as the London Evening Standard, will no doubt be on deadline during the morning before the paper goes to print. Fridays are notoriously bad days to pitch stories as journalists will be tying up loose ends before the weekend.
• Content: Make sure you know what you are talking about, and if you don’t fully understand the issues, ask someone who does. I usually jot down a few key messages that I want to get across. Time will be limited, so identify the most important and newsworthy points that will grab the journalist’s attention – perhaps it is the brand name, or celebrity spokesperson that will encourage them to take notice. Learn the key facts, but don’t read out a script as you will come across like a telesales operative, and the journalist is likely to lose interest.
• Conversation: If you do engage the journalist, try and maintain a dialogue with them. Find out if they are working on any projects or features that you might be able to help out with. Use the conversation as an opportunity to put forwards other ideas.
Finally, always follow up with an email. Regardless of how interested the journalist may have seemed, you want to ensure all the facts they have are correct. Also, unfortunately, they may have a short attention span, so follow up immediately so it is front of mind.