Why I Hate the Word “Pitching”

I’ve grown increasingly frustrated when I hear my PR colleagues tell me they’re going to “pitch the media.” Maybe it’s because my non-PR friends look at the term so pejoratively. Maybe it’s because it implies a certain level of salesmanship. Maybe it’s because it erodes my own idealistic view of the media as the fourth estate and that I hate seeing so much of it be controlled by pitchmen who take advantage of lazy journalists. Maybe it’s all of the above. For me, it’s almost as bad as our industry’s most hated word – “spin.” Then I read Amber Mac’s excellent piece on Fast Company about how social media can help save the PR industry from bad pitches as well as Gini Dietrich’s follow-up post on Spin Sucks, and I got all riled up again how PR people rely on blind pitching instead of focusing on the “relations” part of public relations.

When someone tells me that they’re pitching something to the media, the default image in my head has sadly become this –

From spamming thousands of reporters and bloggers at a time in the hopes of getting 1% of them to cover your “news,” to copying and pasting entire pitches and only changing the name, to using outdated information, PR people have become used car salesmen, interested more in making the sale than on building an honest relationship. At some point, it became acceptable to send an awful pitch out to 10,000 people and hope that 1% would cover it instead of crafting customized pitches that go to 200 people with the expectation that 50% would cover it. Wonderful. Glad to see that we’re modeling our pitching approach after Nigerian email scams. Aren’t we better than this? PR people have to stop trying to take the easy way out. Stop being lazy and start taking pride in each and every pitch you make. It is YOUR name after all that will be tied to that pitch. It’s YOUR agency’s name that may end up on a blog somewhere as an example of a bad pitch. Act like every pitch you make is a reflection of you and your agency…because it is.

One of the things I’ve told my teams over the years is that the best media pitch is usually pretty simple. It’s usually something along the lines of “hey man – just read your latest post and wanted to clue in on a client of mine who’s got a cool new product that I think you’d like. Check it out and let me know what you think.” While the “pitch” is surprisingly simple, the reason it works is because of all the work that’s required to get to that point. For it to work, it assumes that you’ve established a relationship with this person, that they trust you, that you only share things like this that they are truly be interested in, that you’ve interacted with them before when you weren’t pitching him on something, and that the link they click will give them everything they need to know – photos, videos, quotes, contact information, research, etc. In other words, there’s no need to worry about crafting a perfect pitch if you’ve already laid the groundwork – at that point, it’s just two people talking with one another.

Let’s all work together to change the connotation of the word pitch and agree that we should aspire to be better than used car salesmen and spammers. Let’s make pitching less about trying to sell the media on something and focusing on providing them with what they need – good stories to tell that will be interesting to their readers. Let’s pledge to:

  • Get to know the people covering our clients before we start pitching them
  • Read at least three different stories/articles/posts they’ve written before reaching out to them
  • Know if my contact prefers to be contacted via Twitter, email, Facebook, phone, or carrier pigeon
  • Avoid making our first contact with the blogger/reporter our pitch email – Retweet them, comment on a blog post, answer a question they have
  • Help the media do their job even if there’s no direct benefit for me
  • Pitch fewer people but aim for a higher success rate
  • Stop blindly “trying to create more buzz” and instead be more of a PR consultant to my client
  • Write my pitches in actual English like I’m talking to a person instead of my client’s key messages
  • Refrain from spamming dozens of reporters with the same email
  • Never ever send an email with any form of the words – “just checking to see if you got my email” (because they did, and then they deleted it)
  • Validate everything that I find out about a reporter/blogger from a PR database
  • Clearly identify the “what’s in it for me?” for everyone I contact
  • Include my name, contact information, and links to more information
  • Stop overselling our pitches – when everything is ground-breaking, innovative, and the first-of-its-kind, nothing is
  • Coordinate our pitches with our clients so that they aren’t surprised by questions from the media
  • Realize that no one likes to feel like they’re being pitched, but they do enjoy hearing a good story
  • Read and proofread and read and proofread everything before I hit send

These are just off the top of my head – I’m sure there are plenty of others. If you’re a PR pro, what other tips would you add here? If you’re a reporter/blogger, what do you wish PR people would do better when pitching you?

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Profile Photo Corey McCarren

I guess I’ve had the fortune of being – at least to a point – on both sides of the relationship (it’ll be back to the PR/marketing side for me starting Monday!). It’s important to be empathetic towards the reporters/bloggers. Realize if they’re good reporter/bloggers, they are getting tons of pitches. By being empathetic to the amount of pitches they are getting, you can make yourself stand out using the tips in this blog post.

Profile Photo David B. Grinberg

Nice post, Steve, very instructive. I would emphasise that with the proliferation of online/digital media, PR folks — as you noted — have forgotten the most basic and important rule about public relations and media relations. To paraphrase James Carville: it’s the RELATIONS, stupid! Get to know reporters, they will appreciate your time and effort, especially because so few PR types personally reach out these days. Some of the old-school, time tested, techniques still work wonders: invite reporters over for an “open house” informal meet-and-greet (off-the-record); have lunch with a reporter, they may even pay for it; get to really know the most influential reporters: how is your family, the kids, the dog, etc.; v isit a reporter in their newsroom for coffee. These are a few ways to build long lasting trust and recognition, which often result in mutually beneficial relations that will put you one step ahead of the competition. Remember that journalists are people too, not just bylines or talking heads. Treat them with respect and admiration and you will usually get the same treatment in return.

Profile Photo Steve Radick

@Corey – I think empathy is one of the most important things that I’ve learned over my last eight years as a communicator. Being able to put yourself into someone else’s shoes and really understand their perspectives, pain points, and interests has made me infinitely better at my job.

Profile Photo Steve Radick

@David – I think some of the old-school tactics can and definitely should be used more often, but more than tactics, it’s about the mindset. I can still be a slimeball with an ulterior motive and be nice to you over a lunch – it becomes pretty obvious that you’re trying to sell me on something. Sure, it might be better than spamming you with pitches, but the intent is still the same. That’s why I prefer my team start reaching out to reporters, commenting on their material, sharing their posts, etc. before they even know what they’re supposed to be pitching, what they can or can’t say about the product, etc. I want to remove the “sell” from the equation entirely and have them just focus first on creating that relationship.

Profile Photo Anne Deeter Gallaher

Very good list on how to reach out to reporters and the media, Steve. I don’t take quite the offense you do to the word pitch. And most of my PR colleagues and IABCers are highly professional in their pitching and contacts with the media. There are two realities that I think are important in PR: 1. We won’t be successful if we create or sustain an adversarial relationship with the media–we both need each other, and we can certainly make their days go smoother with great information about important companies doing important work; and 2. We won’t get paid by our clients or keep a client if we don’t succeed in getting the best stories into the hands of editors and reporters whose readership will benefit from that type of news. Those that do spam reporters probably won’t have a job for too long. When we’re passionate about our clients and care deeply for their business success, it makes pitching a story to the media very easy. With social media now, there are new channels to connect with reporters and that’s opened up many opportunities to move the conversation to an in-person meeting and business introduction. When we’re helpful to the reporters, respectful of their deadlines, and passionate about our clients, pitching becomes a positive service. Thanks for sharing your post!

Profile Photo Beth Miller-Herholtz

Hi Steve,

Your blog post today is music to my ears! In any field where relationships provide the foundation for success, one cannot simply pitch something over the fence in the hope that something may stick. Early in my career, I participated in a class taught by Richard Tyler. In it, he was adamant in the power of word choice and noted that many words we use during our conversations actually evoke fear. Spin, spiel, and pitch are three such words. Why not use presentation or demonstration? These words mean you’ve actually put some thought behind what you’re saying or writing. To this day, I cringe when I hear “Fear” words; they become the deciding factor in whether I continue a dialog, in fact. Thank you for writing about this today. Continue being awesome!

Profile Photo Joe B. Johnson

Steve’s ideas are absolutely right, but they take way more time per “pitch” (let’s just use the word among ourselves, not with folks outside PR). The real issue is: does more research, fewer contacts pay off?

Profile Photo Eric Koch

Steve,

Very entertaining post as this reminded me of a similar article my boss wrote up on his blog a couple months back titled, Spray and Pray Lives on, which discussed how his email inbox was being “overrun by off-target, blast pitches from PR reps.”

Thanks for sharing.

Profile Photo Martha Garvey

Steve: I come from the movie and tv business originally, so the term doesn’t bug me. Back in the day, I knew we were getting close when we had to shrink our pitch to the size of Ted Turner’s attention span (three sentences MAX). I also once had to “pitch” something called Trauma Week, a coordinated week of trauma medicine events to local news folks…and to the doctors who I prayed would show up, even though they came from competing hospitals.

My boss, a PR genius, figured out that the way to do it was to stage a story…we reunited two trauma victims with the EMTs who had saved them. The trauma victims had been unconscious when the were saved, so it really was a great moment for all kinds of reasons. All the doctors needed and respected the EMTs, and the press couldn’t resist it.

I learned so much about story, research, and hitting the sweet spot from this event. And yes, it took tremendous time to set up. But so worth it.

Profile Photo Steve Radick

@Martha – great story and great case study. Rather than creating some press release filled with empty buzzwords and marketing language, you offered something of value to the media – a great story. They weren’t forced to try to interpret the stuff you sent them or look for that angle on their own – you helped them do their job better. @Joe – of course it’s a lot more work to do it this way, but I think most PR pros will say that it’s well-worth it, not only in the short-term, but also in the long-term, as you’ll also build and maintain relationships that can be leveraged again and again and again.

Profile Photo Steve Radick

@Beth – thanks for the kind words! I think we all have to stop analyzing and overanalyzing every Tweet, word, and Facebook status update and stop constantly worrying about the best times to Tweet, the best words to use to get retweeted, the best way to comment on a blog, etc. and spend some time realizing that we’re just people talking to other people. If you send me a pitch that you’ve “optimized,” I’m going to be able to tell because people don’t speak like an optimized pitch. They speak like human beings, and I’m interested in speaking with other human beings, not some SEO or readability-optimized pitch.

Profile Photo David B. Grinberg

Steve, while I admire your sentiments, the fact is that “pitching” stories, or whatever you choose to call it, always has been — and will always continue to be — an integral part of successful PR campaigns. You ignore it at your peril, regardless of how well your personal media relations may be, or that of your staff. The “pitches” you and your staff fail to effectively make will surely be made by your competitors to the detriment of your strategic objectives. Moreover, if you believe strongly in the product, cause, or whatever you are “pitching” then there’s no reason to feel like a sell out. Finally, with all due respect, if you find this fundamental and critically important element of PR to be repulsive, then perhaps it’s not the right industry for you. Just some friendly food for thought.

Profile Photo Steve Radick

@David – I’m not suggesting we do away with “pitching,” just pitching in the traditional sense. I don’t find “pitching” repulsive – I find the way most PR “professionals” seem to practice it. It’s not about spamming hundreds of people with press releases – effective pitching is about cultivating some sort of relationship with the media.

Profile Photo David B. Grinberg

Steve: it sounds like we are on the same page overall. However, I would differentiate between a “technique” (my language) and a “tactic” (your language in response to my initial comment Friday). I believe in sincere and time-tested media relations techniques or approaches that emphasize the personal human element to reporters/producers/editors, etc. — not tactical spin and/or reading from talking points.

However, one still does must sell/pitch the story (use whatever term you like) at some point — even with excellent interpersonal media relations. As you know, this is because the reporter often needs to convince and win the approval of his/her editor to move forward with your story, rather than whatever the editor may decide to assign for coverage. In turn, the reporter’s immediate editor may need to first obtain buy-in from the national desk editor or managing editor — whomever their superior may be — due to competing or breaking news, dozens of other story pitches, or whatever has been waiting “in the can” for publication/broadcast. Therefore, making an effective and persuasive “case” to the reporter is necessary in order to get the story written, placed, produced, broadcast, etc. Here’s part of my earlier comment (bold for emphasis) about the importance of appropriate and effective media relations:

The most basic and important rule about public relations and media relations: to paraphrase James Carville: it’s the RELATIONS, stupid! Get to know reporters, they will appreciate your time and effort, especially because so few PR types personally reach out these days…get to really know the most influential reporters: how is your family, the kids, the dog, etc…build long lasting trust and recognition, which often results in mutually beneficial relations that will put you one step ahead of the competition. Remember that journalists are people too, not just bylines or talking heads. Treat them with respect and admiration and you will usually get the same treatment in return.