Pitching reporters: what do they actually want?
Updated: Jun 19
Approaching reporters can sound intimidating at first. But you can employ a tool most people are given before they even know what a pitch is: W5 + H. Easy, right?
The Who, What, Where, When, Why and How of a story are crucial in hooking a journalist’s interest. The Why and How can be tricky to provide -- but the other four are the bare minimum.
What reporters want is pretty much what we all want -- an informative story for our readers that makes our client happy, which makes us happy, which makes the reporter happy.
This is your after-action report on Mind Meld PR vlog #6, with extra excerpts and insight on reporters’ needs. Annnnd we’re live!
What makes a news story when you’re pitching reporters?
“‘What’ could be just about anything. The operating principle is, new is news. So what is the new cool thing? Do you have an AI-powered drone, chatbot, or nuclear reactor? It could be that your company just got funding of a million dollars, or five million, or ten million, and now you've got all kinds of things you can do. Your target audience is going to want to know about that.
“If there's a new story, good or bad, that strongly involves your company, PR professionals have to come in and make sure that message gets out the way you want it to, despite the unpredictability of events.
“Let's say you're in a position where actually you don't have a new product or service coming out. Do you just stay quiet? One thing you can do is latch on to news that's happening elsewhere that is controversial, and offer an opinion or a listicle of five things that tie into the thing that everyone's talking about.”
Think about the standpoint your company takes -- do you work for a healthcare company? Tech? A charity? Recent broadcast news might not relate to your business, but every brand has a voice and an opinion. A reporter might want to know what your business thinks, and where you stand.
Conversely, do you have a piece of news or an update that matters little to general news outlets, but a lot to topic-specific ones? What matters to National Geographic might not interest the BBC, and what matters to Canadian Living might have little weight to The Hockey News fans. Different news matters to different audiences, so think about your target audience before you pitch a potential story.
When are you pitching reporters?
“There's a word we use which I think is kind of a made-up word, and it's ‘recency’. We’ll be working on a document or a campaign or something and you'll say, “Where’s the news hook in this? Where's the recency? How long ago did this happen?”
“As you're speeding along through your time you latch on to whatever happens to be passing by you. But you can't latch on after a certain amount of time has passed, and in some media contexts that period of time is 24 hours. In some other context it might be two months.
“Milestones are also a very useful ‘win’ type of hook, and it relates back to the ‘What’ as well. There's always holidays coming up you can peg certain pitches and ideas to, there's pop culture that everybody's talking about -- you can usually find a way to get a mention of your client in there somewhere.”
The most obvious ‘When’ rule is the ‘recency’ we discussed in our vlog -- news is news, because it’s new. Reporting on a story a week or so after the fact won’t interest your audience -- unless you have something new to add.
To get around this, you need to be aware of relationships between events. Your pitch may not technically be news, but can make a connection between multiple recent events to draw a brand new conclusion -- that then becomes a piece of news in itself. Look how Ryan Reynolds newsjacked the exercise-bike company Peloton on behalf of Aviation gin, for example.
Some easier wins are anniversaries, holidays, and similar milestones. Know what upcoming recognised ‘days’ are relevant to your business and what you can tie to them. Is Halloween around the corner, or is your company celebrating its 10-year anniversary? Relevance is often right there in your calendar.
Why should the reporters you’re pitching give a damn?
“What reporters want to know about ‘Why’ is not even really about ‘why is this important’ or ‘why is this newsworthy- -- it's a much more elemental question which is, ‘why should anybody give a damn?’ You're always battling apathy in this trade. Why has this thing happened, and why should anybody care?”
A straightforward recent example is pitching for businesses that are transitioning from physical delivery to online services -- and why? COVID. The ‘Why’ when amplifying a client’s strategic change, or new service or product launch, comes from the market conditions. Why does this announcement matter? Does it solve a gap or problem in the market?
Understanding your audience is particularly important here -- if you’re speaking to consumers, the ‘Why’ is different than for shareholders. As a consumer, you’d want to know why this product or service will improve your life. As a shareholder, you want to know why this launch is going to bring in some money.
Where are you pitching reporters?
“Very often when you're putting out a press release, you're going to target media that are gonna find it relevant, and if you only offer your service or product in a particular in one city then you're probably just going to focus on regional coverage.
“There could be exceptions to that. Say you have a seriously leading-edge technology or something that's never been seen before, and you're doing a soft launch in one or two or three cities, just to test out the market to see if there's product market fit. If it's some of the really trendy, leading-edge technologies people care about today, that could be a national or even international story. Where something is happening really affects whether you're gonna bother targeting journalists abroad.”
A story might have great international clout, but missing out on local coverage would be a huge mistake. There’s a knock-on effect in media coverage -- you might be pitching to locals, but larger, national or international media outlets may be scanning these local news stories on their own to pick up relevant stories.
When building connections and relationships, starting with local media outlets is easier and effective. At the same time: “Building a relationship with a journalist isn’t a guarantee of coverage, but it does give you a couple extra seconds of reading time -- into the second or third paragraph. You still have to really bring the value.”
A story that’s local can still have international relevance. A product that makes a big impact regionally may have ramifications for worldwide audiences. The pitch might be different depending on where it goes, but it originates in your region. Find the ‘local flavour’ your pitch needs. Research the media situation where you want your story to go.
Who is actually involved when pitching reporters? Who is the expert source?
“Journalists are looking for an expert source: someone who, by virtue of their job title alone, looks like they would know a thing or two about the topic at hand. Often the main expert source that we are providing to journalists is a CEO or CTO-level individual, certainly at a leadership level. Occasionally there will be other members of the team who will come up, but generally, at least for the kind of PR that we do, it's mainly that C-suite.”
The ‘who’ isn’t who is at the heart of the story -- it’s about who is delivering it, who is contributing to it, and who has something interesting to say. A reporter doesn’t usually want to hear from Joe Blow standing at the bus stop; they want to hear from the experts, the sources of knowledge.
At the end of the day reporters are looking for a story, and you’ve got to deliver something recent, solid, and with a bit of flavour to it.
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