When Andrew Carnegie was hiring architects to work on Carnegie Hall, breakfast was his deciding factor. He would wait for the food to arrive, and pay attention to see if the job candidate would taste his food before salting it. If they reached for the salt before they tried their eggs, he wouldn’t hire them.
“You suffer from preconceived notions,” he’d tell them. “How do you know the chef didn’t season the eggs in the kitchen? You assumed they were unsalted before tasting them, and that means preconceived notions and potentially false assumptions, and I am building what will be the most acoustically perfect concert hall in the world. Preconceived notions are incompatible with innovation.”
I have a similar test for comms directors for campaigns. If they still use press releases, it tells me they have zero understanding of how the modern media works. The press release, as a tool by which to obtain free media coverage, has been dead for the better part of a decade.The only place it exists as a standard tool is in the investor relations game, in which public companies must issue press releases to fulfill SEC regulations on the public dissemination of company information. Outside of that small echo chamber, press releases exist only in the trash bins on reporters’ email inboxes.
The primary cause for this paradigm shift is the massive reduction in the actual number of media contacts working today. About 20 years ago, the Cision media database -- formerly known as Bacon’s Media Guide -- boasted more than 575,000 media contacts in North America. This list encomapsses every individual who worked in the decision-making food chain for broadcast, print and online news outlets. Today, that database stands at about 225,000, and it’s populated by a far more transient and younger base of contacts than ever before.
Media conglomeration, mergers and acquisitions have caused massive layoffs and early retirements among media professionals. Gone are the standards-bearers with their advanced degrees and 20 years of experience, except for a few top tier outlets. They have been replaced by younger, lesser-educated and lesser experienced media pros who are now responsible for three times the content of their predecessors, as well as the maintenance of active social media profiles on multiple platforms. The typical local newspaper reporter must write two to three stories a day, AND post on Twitter and Facebook at least three times, according to most of the employee manuals I’ve seen. Some local TV stations have gone to places that would have made Walter Cronkite stroke out, such as asking female on camera talent to post bikini photos on Instagram (true story from a broadcast veteran in a major market).
The end result is that these folks have zero time to read press releases. They are irrelevant sales materials to them, and if there is anything the modern media hates, it’s being sold anything.
But it’s not all bad news. As a consequence of the increased output being demanded of low and middle-rung media contacts, they respond quite well to pitch letters that lay out -- in just a couple of sentences -- a story that would help them fulfill their daily quota of content.
The keys to a successful pitch letter are:
READ or WATCH the coverage of the reporters on your target list -- Relevancy is king with story pitches, so if you have a reporter who has written five stories about the MARTA referendum in Gwinnett County, then they would likely be interested in a candidate who has something to say about it that hasn’t appeared in past coverage.
Make it Short and Sweet -- If your story pitch is longer than one paragraph, forcing the reader to scroll down in the email box, you’re doing it wrong. Comedian Lewis Black once said “If you can’t describe what your company does in ten words or less, it’s friggin’ illegal!” Similarly, if you can’t describe the story you’re pitching in less than a few sentences, it’s probably too “inside-baseball” or irrelevant, anyway.
The Magic of the Exclusive -- Too many times, campaign comms directors send the same press release (ugh) or the same story pitch to multiple contacts at the same time, and wind up getting nothing, or just short blurbs as a result. But consider this value-statement: It is far more desirable to get one outlet to post a detailed piece on your topic than it is to have all the media outlets cover it in a minimal fashion. News coverage is not about “look how many placements we got.” It’s about placing editorial coverage that moves the needle on votes, money or both. BIG pieces move that needle. A smattering of singles can’t run up the score like a few well-placed homeruns can. The exclusive is how you swing for the cheap seats. Offer one outlet a one-day exclusive on a key announcement or policy rollout, and they are far more likely to not only craft the piece, but also make sure it gets placed prominently where the most people can see it. The “scoop” is the holy grail for those outlets competing in the 24/7 minute-to-minute news cycle. Further, competing outlets will see the piece, and realize they need to play catch up, and in many cases craft an even more detailed piece than the exclusive. This is standard operating procedure in almost every newsroom, so use it to your advantage when you can.
So, what does this kind of pitch look like?
I’ve been reading your coverage of the MARTA referendum, and one element that hasn’t been mentioned yet is how important commuting is to businesses looking to relocate to the area. I work for John Doe, who’s running for county chair, and he’s dug up some key statistics that spell out this very real issue critical to attracting new businesses to the area. If you wanted to speak to him about it sometime this week, we could let you have it as a 24-hour exclusive. Let me know, and I’ll set it up.
If your comms director doesn’t understand these core principles, they are not going to be effective in getting your message out. If you want to know more about how this works, and how Bold Blue Campaigns could help, feel free to inbox me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We can help, and we can do it without replacing anyone on your staff. That’s not our model -- we augment your team with ours, and usually at rates that will make your finance director smile.