Michael Smart, CEO at MichaelSMARTPR, shares best practices for pitching to the media heading into 2021. Michael discusses the findings of a recent study his team conducted on journalists’ opinions about various pitches they’d received (grab the ebook here).
He provides practical tips that communicators can immediately implement into their pitching strategy to see more effective results. Michael also breaks down some of the internal stresses when it comes to navigating what’s needed to pitch a story successfully.
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About the Host:
Host: DOUG SIMON
Guest: MICHAEL SMART
DOUG: Michael, it’s great to be talking to you, and it’s really going to be a treat for our viewers to get a sense of what the media opportunities and best pitching practices are going to be going forward and into 2021. So, what’s your take on what organizations need to be doing to get their best pitching results?
MICHAEL: It’s an honor to be here with you, Doug, and to talk to your audience. I’m sure it seems to them a natural succession to go from the chief communicators at Procter and Gamble and CVS to the CEO of Michael Smart PR, a one-person consultancy.
DOUG: Well, it is a step up, but I think my audience can handle it.
MICHAEL: Yeah, thank you for slumming it and bringing me on. As far as 2021, there are certainly unknowns where we’ll be out of the election cycle, hopefully. As you and I are recording, as there’s still a lot of disputes going on. There’ll likely be transition, administrative transition, there’ll be a lot of news around that. And the coronavirus, COVID will still be dominant at the front of the year. Hopefully. God willing, it will start to wane later in the year, so there’ll be some more room for things. Really quickly, what I’ve noticed, what I observe with my clients and the analyses that we’ve done, this year harder than ever to break through with national media on the mainstream general news level, like the national networks, the 24-hour news networks, Washington Post, New York Times. That said, the same level of success, maybe even a little better, among really smart PR pros in landing slightly focused targets, even the Wall Street Journal, with its more business focus, Inc., Fast Company, Wired and then on down the road from there.
DOUG: So, what are some of the pitching mistakes you see? Obviously, you give training sessions for organizations looking to improve the quality of their pitches. What are some of the best techniques and what are some of the things to avoid?
MICHAEL: Well, the things that people think they’ve already heard, they’re really the most common mistakes like, I know we shouldn’t send template pitches, we shouldn’t blast pitches. I know we need to get the mail merge right. But journalists continue to complain that people get this stuff wrong. So, I say this without joking, Doug, if you can send a customized personalized pitch and get the journalist’s name right, you’re 95% better than your competition. Really.
DOUG: Now it is also at a parlor game for journalists to give PR people grief. And you actually did a piece with Muckrack where they attract sort of the negative comments journalists had made about PR pros. What were some of the findings? Even though we know the truth is, when you’re a good PR pro, journalists not only need you, they want to work with you.
MICHAEL: Yeah, unfortunately, the study wasn’t merely of bad comments that journalists said, It was all comments on Twitter that where journalists’ tweets included the words “PR pitch,” and all five hundred and sixty of them over the last three years were negative. And my team and I quantified quantitatively and analyzed those, and the most easily fixed concerns were those I’ve already referenced about personalization and templates and getting mail merge wrong. One of the more illuminating findings to me was the most common complaint out of all those three years’ worth of journalist tweets was about getting pitched on the same topics over and over. And the top three most complained about topics were coronavirus, which I think is a one off because those were all in March of 2020, the complaints didn’t persist after that. Number two was CBD, which has been a consistent complaint over the three years that we looked at. And then number three was cryptocurrency and blockchain, which is starting to wane a little bit.
DOUG: So that’s good. So, it’s a bad idea for me to be investing Crypto in a CBD company. We’ve actually seen on local news there’s actually been stronger interest in covering stories, actually interviewing brand spokespeople. 86% of TV producers are open to that. From our perspective, we’ve seen COVID impacted so many different stories as it’s changed the workplace, it’s changing education, it’s really changed parenting, parents have become teachers. There’s so many things that are different. Let’s turn into positives, because I do want a takeaway for our viewers of what are some steps easily taken that can improve the quality of their pitches right off the bat.
MICHAEL: Yeah, and you talk about COVID being an opportunity. One of my clients got a new account. The company doesn’t do anything particularly sexy right now, but she dug in and found out that they were having socially distanced outdoor meetings. This was early enough when that was rare, and she has strong enough relationships with journalists that she could ask, what are you working on right now? And one of them said, guy at the Journal said, we’re trying to figure out how people are communicating outside of Zoom, and she suggested this, and he said thanks. She coordinated the photo shoot and ended up getting three or four photos in a Wall Street Journal article, not because of her companies or clients core business, but because she knew how to fit what they were doing into the needs of the journalists that she was reaching out to at the time.
DOUG: Yeah, and that’s a great point. One of the things that we like training people when they start is what I called the non-pitch pitch. And that can be you’ve got a new client, but also it’s so important to really understand, there’s really no excuse anymore not to be aware of what a journalist has written, covered, produced in advance, even complimenting them on a story or post that they made that you had interest of. That’s something that can go a long way to differentiate yourself from the other people who are reaching out to them.
MICHAEL: Yeah, and that that reminds me, Doug, journalists now, going back to our Twitter analysis, they’re now complaining about the fake compliment, where someone says, I loved your story on… And it’s either something they don’t cover, or in one case, it was literally 14 years old, the story that they were citing and just served up in a lazy search. But it does work when you propel, you take a story that they’ve covered recently and you propel it forward. So, I saw that you have already covered air pollutions impact on elementary school kids, and we are are looking at the latest research on air pollution’s impact on college campuses. Similar, but propelling it forward.
DOUG: It’s funny, that is actually a story that we had worked on in the past. I thought you were doing some research on us. I believe it was 14 years ago that we did that story, so you might have to up your game a little bit. Any final thoughts for people? It’s frustrating. You get a lot of no’s, It seems harder and harder. A couple of key steps seem to be like make sure it’s the right outlet. Maybe here, I’ll add this one in, because this is something almost every PR person, especially on the agency side and even internally, has a challenge with. Your boss says, get me on this show or this publication and you just don’t have the goods to bring to get that story. Obviously, you can try and be creative, but what are some ways to handle some of the internal stresses so that there’s an understanding of what’s needed to be successful and pitching your story?
MICHAEL: Yeah, sure, I’m going to I’m going to take it from the direction of the boss has a vanity dream wish list that you’re never going to be able to hit. In that respect, it’s easier. Instead of telling him no, it’s easier to identify some of your key audiences that, you know, he cares about who attends to different outlets and get them in those outlets. So, a classic example is the university president who wants to be in The New York Times. Well, that’s, this year in particular based on the data I cited earlier, stretching too far, but when you can find some of the outlets or websites that prospective students or their parents in your area read, that’s where you can get them some success and then tie that back into increasing enrollment numbers and he’ll be happy with that.
DOUG: So it sounds like it’s really key to have more up front work in developing the pitch so you can go out with a better understanding of the journalists wants and needs and a story that would be a fit for them. Any final thoughts you want to leave our audience with?
MICHAEL: On that note, one of the fun findings from the Twitter study was the most complained about holiday or event was Christmas, like who doesn’t like Christmas? But when I looked into more of all these journalists complaining, they were complaining about getting pitched for holiday gift guides too early. And that’s actually not a timing problem, it’s a targeting problem. PR people are just pitching the wrong journalists. Because there are plenty of journalists who do work on holiday gift guides in the summer, long leads, but these folks were all digital. So, I want to reinforce what you just said. The key today is targeting the right people, customizing the outreach for their needs and resisting your boss who wants you to spam or blast the same message to all the same people. Scaling is a great word when you’re building an Internet company, it’s a terrible word when you’re talking about media relations.
DOUG: I might add to that. Just get them set up on technology just like you do there. And of course, I put some time and focus on that so they could do an interview on TV using Zoom from where they’re set up and make sure it looks and sounds the best. So, you have an opportunity to pitch that. Stations are increasingly open, more than 80% of them to taking in signals from a Zune or Skype feed.
MICHAEL: Yeah, and that’s not going to change after we all go back to work. The production value standard has been lowered and we get to seize that. And it’s going to open a lot of doors. I remember producers telling me that they would have to go back to the same experts over and over because those experts were the ones who could get to a local affiliate the fastest, and now that barrier to entry is just gone. Thanks to services like yours, PR pros can get their experts on the widest possible reach on broadcast.
DOUG: I’ll throw that compliment right back at you. I think anyone watching this piece has learned a lot. Thanks so much for your contributions to making our industry better, which I think is an important part of what you do.
MICHAEL: I always love working with you, Doug.