To have a story run in the mainstream media – print, television or radio - you need to sell it to journalists.
This can be one of the hardest and most stressful parts of getting your story covered, but it is one of the most important.
Journalists today are under increasing time pressure and consume a range of information sources all day, every day - media releases, twitter feeds, blog sites, emails, instagram, the list goes on. Your initial ‘pitch’ has to make a good first impression to avoid being consigned to the recycle bin like 90 per cent of those sources. It has to grab a journalist’s attention, be well communicated, short, sharp and easy to understand.
This obviously becomes easier if you already have a good relationship with a journalist. It means that your pitch, your email, your tweet, is higher on their radar than the pitch of the average person. So developing good relationships gets your foot in the door.
But no matter how good your relationship with a particular journalist, they will seldom run a story as a favour - and if they do, their news editors will most likely cut it. You will still have to convince them that the story is important and will interest their viewers, listeners or readers. So don’t just pick up the phone and start talking without having thought through the pitch.
There are a number of secrets to pitching a good story:
▶ Pick the right journalist. Journalists often write within a specific round (e.g. education, health, environment) and often campaign on specific issues within these rounds. Pick the journalist with a specific interest in your issue of concern. With the increasing advent of opinion pieces and columns and blogs, it is easy to identify how journalists feel about certain issues – their judgement on the facts of a particular story. If you find a journalist who thinks that the Government is spending too much money on welfare payments, don’t pitch them a story about the need for higher unemployment benefits. You won’t get your pitch listened to and you won’t get the story written that you’re looking for.
▶ Pick the right outlet. Think about what impact you want your story to make. Do you want your story to be a feature piece for a weekend paper, do you want it to be on ABC AM at 7.10am to start off a weekday, do you want it to be a hard hitting story on 7.30 or a lighter piece on The Project? Think about your audience and what impact you want to make.
▶ Be concise. Tell the journalist quickly what the facts are, why they are important and why their audience will find the story interesting. Keep in mind the earlier point about the time pressure that journalists are under and how many information sources they consume – a two page email may include all the information you think relevant, but you’ll lose their interest if you don’t make your point in the first few lines.
▶ Have the key ‘angle’ worked out in advance. Reduce the point of the story to one sentence. And have a back-up angle available if the journalist starts ‘umming and ahhing’. Your angle should be what you think the first line of the news story should be.
▶ Say something new. Journalists are after news—make sure your story is news worthy. Make it new – and different. The minute you say ‘your organisation ran something like this recently’ you’ve lost them. Journalists have to be able to pitch this as a ‘new’ story.
▶ Describe possible pictures. If relevant, tell them about the photo opportunities that go with the story. A good photo will get the story onto page five and a terrific photo could get it onto the front page, even for an event that is quite trivial. With journalists busier than ever, helping to offer them to find a picture (and saving them calling around trying to find one) is a big asset.
▶ Offer ‘an exclusive’. You can offer a journalist your story exclusively, giving them a story that others will not have. But think about this deal before you make it. If you have a big story that will make national news, it doesn’t always make sense to give it to just one journalist in one media market. Doing special deals can also damage your relationships with other media outlets. The golden rule of exclusives if that once you’ve offered it, you have to respect the deal you’ve made. You can’t offer an exclusive and then give it to others – your word is your credibility.
▶ Provide research help. Offer to help the journalists with the story should they choose to run it – by giving them facts and putting them in touch with other people relevant to the story.
▶ Don’t get bitter. Remember, not every story will get up, so don’t give up on a particular journalist or outlet if a particular story does not run.
Journalist friend or foe?
When you’re working with a journalist remember you are a professional and so are they. Even if you develop a close relationship remember at all times they are a journalist first and foremost.
Just because they run a positive story about your issue one week it doesn’t mean they’re on your side and will never write about the issue from another point of view.
If a journalist has written or produced a story that you feel is incorrect or contains wrong information, call them and discuss your concerns professionally and politely. Don’t just fire off an angry email. If you are unhappy with their response or if a journalist continues to use incorrect information, send a note to the outlet's chief of staff with the correct information attached.
Social media also allows for immediate corrections of incorrect stories. If The Daily Telegraph has written a story that is incorrect about you, the first response should be to contact the journalist concerned. If you are unhappy with their response and don’t feel a correction will be issued, you can have your response on your Facebook or Twitter page by the time most people read their morning paper. Use social media to your advantage to rapidly respond to incorrect stories. You can also use social media to promote positive stories.
Always try and work with professional journalists who are interested in getting the facts right.