• Lyle Neff

How to pitch reporters in a pandemic

Updated: Jun 26

Here are some useful extracts from a long and thoughtful conversation about approaching the media in these curious times, in the third instalment of the Mind Meld PR vlog. We’ve added some additional commentary and details to chew on too.

The takeaway, for those seeking media coverage in a pandemic? Don’t be horrid, stupid, insensitive or ridiculous, of course -- but that’s just table stakes. And sure, in a crisis like this, marketers and PR people need to keep adding value for their clients and the consumer -- but that’s just baseline.

In the end, this chat was mainly about how to contribute even more valuable, actionable information to that hard-pressed creature of our age: the journalist. To wit: how do you pitch reporters in a pandemic?

1. Understand the pandemic’s impact on reporters for a sensitive PR pitch

“The media, I thought, was one sector of the economy that was completely virus-proof. People are going to want to know things, media tells people what they want to know, ergo wealth. But of course, readers haven’t paid the bills at media operations in decades. So it turns out there's strange economic effects. Like the local paper, a favourite of ours, that was forced to close its doors just recently in the middle of the pandemic. They had readers, more than ever. But they didn't have restaurant or real-estate flyers. Their revenue completely dried up and they weren't able to keep operating.

“So in situations like this, where a lot of reporters, on top of being worried about the virus, on top of being pressed for time as reporters always are, are also worried about their jobs, well, that makes it even trickier for PR approaches.”

Consider the devastation coronavirus has caused in just one media segment -- sports journalism. Fears of something similar continue to drive -- and inform the actions of -- reporters all across the media spectrum. The fairly bleak irony that journalism is actually booming in terms of audience -- 92 percent of US adults say they’re avidly consuming pandemic news -- doesn’t help.

The effect of such a climate is a drastic decline in journalists’ tolerance for BS. Stressed reporters will no longer respond to empty bombast about how we’re all in this together, nor to COVID/ brand angles that are tenuous or obviously contrived. Marketers and PR people need to bring real, solid value to the table.

Here’s an example of how. The marketing department of one B2B SaaS company realized early on that reporters online were assembling lists of tech companies which were donating resources to anti-COVID efforts -- as they were themselves. So, sure, they worked with journalists to get their enterprise on those lists.

But then they collated a number of those lists, in a way no one had thought to do before. And published the resulting, increasing useful list of lists along every channel they could -- as a further public service.

They got some notice for themselves. Baseline value. They helped people with donations find people who needed them, and vice-versa. That’s added value -- for readers. And they expanded the reach of a large number of media outlets. That’s added value for the crucial people who built the lists to start with: the reporters.

2. The newsjacking PR pitch still has its place

“We actually pulled two pitches in the early coronavirus days. They were ready to go, and in one case the client got cold feet and in the other case I got cold feet. I didn’t know if I wanted our company associated with this novel COVID-19 corona… thing. I would say that was the instinctive reaction from a lot of our clients. I recall the one campaign was going back and forth with the client and they were saying, ‘obviously we don't want to be associated with sickness and a pandemic, I mean that's just a basic thing.’

“So we had to come in -- this was towards the end of March, and we had a full pitch and release ready. They said, stop, don’t even refer to coronavirus in this material! And maybe we appeared very cynical and jaded -- but we had to go in and say, listen, there is no point approaching reporters with any stories at this point that don’t mention the virus, full stop. Because nobody, and I mean nobody, is listening to it. So we’ve been walking a fine line, like everyone in PR, like everybody else in the media, for what seems like a long while now.”

The PR strategy called newsjacking -- tying brand narratives to current events, so as to be close to the centre of public conversation -- can seem a touch cynical in times like these. A badly-timed or poorly-phrased newsjacking angle could damage your marketplace credibility, or even cost you clients. So does it perhaps make strategic sense to shelve the practice for now -- or even abandon it?

Well, that depends whether you can afford to. Consider: we’re already at a point where marketing/ ad spending is projected to contract by 69% for 2020. If the locked-down world abandons proven PR/ marketing techniques entirely, out of concern for striking the right tone, is that going to help the economic crisis?

PR and marketing, for the active parts of a stricken economy anyway, are absolutely critical economic activities. My view is that no one should be embarrassed about using imaginative strategies to pitch companies, products and services, even in strange times. What you’re doing will eventually benefit everyone - that’s why they call it “value”. A Covidian-age PR newsjacking pitch should be tasteful, sure. But so should every pitch.

3. Digital media remain receptive to the useful PR pitch

“If you're dealing with tech companies, you don't have to go very far, actually, to find a solid and a useful coronavirus angle. Because it's about connection, it's about hardware and software that actually allows people to work together, talk together and communicate. Basically the whole digital world is communication. And so fortunately we're in that part of it that's not too badly damaged. [Both laugh but not much] Yeah, I mean I don't want to overstate that. We’re not, uh, completely unaffected. The threat is real. So’s the economy.”

To kickstart post-COVID recovery, the world economy badly needs a functioning, problem-solving tech ecosystem. And the whole web of media that circulates information through the sector, from giants like Wired to crucial niche sites like DevOps.Com, is in turn key to keeping it healthy.

Lofty thoughts, right? But here’s the nitty-gritty for PR-pitch targeting: tech media is likelier to retain its advertising base than, say, the local-newspaper segment. If your company or service doesn’t have at least a tech angle, you might consider finding one.

We won’t be held to any hard-and-fast predictions here! -- but as of this writing, technology-focussed media outlets appear mostly stable, with numerous journalists still on the lookout for new information, and any value a marketer or PR pro can add.