Catching a Journalist’s Eye

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Public relations professionals today are—rightly so—highly focused on the rapidly changing media landscape and how to harness social media for the good of their companies and clients.

However, great value remains in good old fashioned media relations—developing a strong pitch to a carefully targeted reporter who then writes a positive story.

Metzger began pitching a story on our client the Denver Rescue Mission and their outstanding work with the Family & Senior Homeless Initiative (FSHI) to Matt Branaugh, writing for Christianity Today. It was a large story which required many hours of research from Matt, but the result was a positive story in a targeted media outlet that may lead to expansion of a program that has proven to improve the homeless situation in Denver.

After the story was published, we went back to Matt and asked him about our pitch and what drew him to the story. Below is the Q&A with his insights on what makes a compelling story and what they look for or reject in pitches.
Metzger Associates: What made the pitch compelling?

Matt Branaugh: There is no simple recipe for a pitch. A pitch may have all of the right elements of a good story, but simply come at the wrong time in the publishing cycle of the magazine or website. Or it may be the right time, but not all of the elements are there. There is, to some degree, an element of serendipity (or, as I might like to think, providence) involved.

In this instance, the right elements were there. But the timing was problematic at the outset. Given my many other duties and responsibilities, and the ongoing process of lobbying for pieces, it took many months for this assignment to become reality. Metzger Associates was patient and persistent to keep this going until the right timing came together.

Part of the initial delay was due to the fact that the topic of outreach to the homeless has been covered many different times and from many different angles. What was fresh about it? What was different here that would help readers of Christianity Today see a familiar topic in a new light?

Three elements of this story ultimately won the day: (1) A unique example of government leaders and church leaders coming together; (2) A number of program participants willing to talk about their journeys of homelessness, their struggles to sustain their lives, and their spiritual journeys, especially on the heels of the country’s “Great Recession”; and (3) A sense that the numbers—in terms of people staying in permanent housing for more than one year—suggested something better might be happening in Denver than the rest of the country. It also helped that the concept has replicated to other parts of the country, an appealing aspect for a national publication.

Metzger: After you gave some interest, what did Metzger do to help you get the story done?

Matt: Metzger was quick to supply basic background information and provide the basic contacts I needed to interview. Their team did a masterful job of interviewing subjects and explaining important details, and putting all of that in front of me. But as the Metzger people know, these pieces are only informational for journalists like me. I want to go and meet and talk to people myself. I want to hear what they have to share—good, bad, or otherwise—to bring their stories to life. So Metzger gave me helpful leads as I got started with my work, but they trusted me to let the story lead where it may. I found other sources on my own, and at the end of the day, I feel like the piece shared a well-rounded view of what is happening in Denver.

Metzger: When you’re getting pitched, what are some typical mistakes?

Matt: Every day, I receive numerous e-mails from PR agencies that obtain my name from God-knows-where. Somehow, they think that pushing an e-mail in front of me, unannounced and without any other personal connection, will grab my attention. In a few instances, the subject matter might deserve that attention. But the vast majority of the time, that approach winds up filtered into the background, lost in the proverbial shuffle of other work, other e-mail, and the “tyranny of the urgent.”

So, it’s my sense that pitches work much better with some pre-planning in mind. If you don’t know the individual you plan to contact, then take some time to send an advance e-mail indicating you have a pitch in motion that you think the writer might have an interest in. Or ask to schedule a 15-minute phone call to talk. Or, if you’re both local, connect face to face. And if you have no ability to do any of these things, perhaps due to time constraints, then at least craft your e-mail with some degree of personal approach—immediately explain how the pitch directly connects to the audience the writer serves (in my day job, you’d be surprised at how many pitches come to me that have absolutely nothing to do with my coverage).

Metzger: If you know a PR person, does that make you consider the pitch more? Would you ever take a not-so-great story just because someone was a professional friend?

Matt: As I just mentioned, personal relationships do matter. But personal relationships require trust and respect. Leveraging a personal connection to try and get coverage of a not-so-great story can quickly become counterproductive.

Both sides need to understand upfront that a PR person has a duty to represent their client to the best of their abilities and the writer has a duty to represent their audience to the best of their abilities. If the PR person’s pitch doesn’t work, then there needs to be a healthy respect for the “no” the writer gives. Doing so furthers the trust between the two; the next time the PR person calls with a different pitch, the writer is more likely to respond, and that particular pitch may be a winner the writer loves. It would be unfortunate if that discovery never happened because a pushy prior attempt with a not-so-great story soured the relationship.

It’s important to remember this: Good stories stand on their own. Either they have the right elements and timing—or they don’t. Thankfully, in our case, they did.

Thanks to Matt Branaugh for taking the time to speak with us and provide his insights on pitching stories—a critical tool in the PR toolbox.

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