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Can’t Pitch This: Reporters Dish on the 5 PR Mistakes You’re Probably Making

A surefire way to make sure your business doesn’t make headlines is to annoy the crap out of journalists. Don’t just take it from me—although I am a former journalist with an advanced degree in the subject. I talked to a few reporters recently who explained their pet peeves when it comes to PR pitches that truly belong in the trash bin, not their inboxes. If you make these amateur mistakes, you (and your business) will become the butt of newsroom jokes. Blunt? Yep, but so are journalists.

Take Kate Talerico, a Brown-educated crackerjack reporter who covers growth for my hometown newspaper, The Idaho Statesman. In an era where PR people outnumber journalists by at least six to one, Kate says: “None of us have any time at all to report on anything, so if you’re going to send something, make it worth my time or I probably will start to ignore your pitches.”

Molly Priddy is a Minnesota-based writer for a number of national publications, including Vice, The Guardian, and Autostraddle. (She’s also got a fantastic Twitter account.) She loathes pitches that include a long, deeply thought out message and mess up the greeting by misspelling her name or worse yet, actually say: “Dear [Put Name Here]”.

“It just reinforces that this pitch wasn’t specifically considered for our publication,” says Molly. “We already know that’s often how it works, but when it’s that obvious, it just ends up as newsroom fodder.”

This should be obvious, but at the end of the day, journalists want—and need—information.

“Give them the who, what, when, where, and why in easy-to-see places, don’t make them guess,” says Molly. Reporter, Keila Szpaller weighed in, “Sometimes, news releases include contacts who have no idea they’re even listed. That’s not helpful.”

If you aren’t hearing back, it may be time to pick up the phone, particularly if it’s a local or regional outlet. Kate is among the few Millennials I know (journalists or otherwise) who don’t hate receiving phone calls. While many journalists (especially national ones, in my experience) prefer email pitches, Kate says: “If you want your pitch to stand out, give me a call. You’ll need to tell me why the story is newsworthy and why now. If you can point out a key tension in your story, or something in it that speaks to a broader national or cultural issue, even better.”

So before you send that next pitch, make sure it adheres to the following standards:

    1. It’s aimed at a specific reporter. You are pitching an actual person who covers your actual beat. Don’t do what Molly hates and make it obvious you are applying the dreaded “spray and pray” approach. A city editor at a mid-sized daily paper put it this way: “I disregard any publicist offering up an expert to talk about something that has nothing to do with my beat or community. It’s not even a pitch, it’s lazy.” #preach
    2. The right timing. Don’t be too early or too late. If the publication has an editorial calendar, use that as your guide. 
    3. It’s newsworthy. When writing a pitch, you want to think in terms of headlines. What’s going to grab the attention of the reader? What’s going to actually make someone care about this news other than the business stakeholders? If you can answer those questions with unique attention-grabbing angle, your pitch is likely to read. But just to be sure, check out my blog Five Signs Your Press Release Isn’t News.
    4. Contextualize. Does your news fit into a local or better yet national, trend? Spell it out for the journalist. “We aren’t going to cover something that has zero relevance to our community,” said the city editor at a mid-sized daily paper. “Show me the connection to the city, community or state our readers live and work in. And give us good contact information of people willing and able to talk on the record about the subject.”
    5. Keep it short. Press releases are great for reference but rarely pique a journalist’s interest on their own, especially if they are long. Hone your pitch and you are more likely to get a reply.

And when in doubt, send an MC Hammer meme along with your pitch. (Oh wait, ignore that one! Can’t pitch this. Cue the music.)

Four Female-led Businesses I’m Stoked About

Nothing lights my fire like a female entrepreneur who has put their blood, sweat, and soul into an idea or a product that helps solve a problem or meets the need of an underserved community. The bravery, creativity, and determination of female leaders are what inspired me to start Full Swing Public Relations almost six months ago—and working with many of them gives me that extra boost of encouragement to keep chasing my business and personal goals. Here’s a roundup of four female-led businesses that I’m extra excited about right now.

Armoire. 

You’d have thought I met an A-list celeb from my excitement when I sat down with Ambika Singh, founder, and CEO of Armoire, a wardrobe renting service tailored specifically for the BSSLDY—and a new client of Full Swing. I fell in love with Armoire months ago, not long after I Marie Kondo-ed my house. For a monthly fee, you get a virtual closet selected for you based on your style and fit preferences, and you can keep items as long as you want and even buy them. All items are meant for the modern working woman who is kicking ass at work and in her social life—just like the almost all-female staff at Armoire. Their motto: “Go conquer the world—we’ll make sure you look damn good doing it.”

MyVillage

Speaking of helping your own community, Full Swing client MyVillage aims to do just that starting with parents in Montana and Colorado. Frustrated with the price and scarcity of quality daycare options for their little ones moms and serial entrepreneurs Erica and Beth founded MyVillage and set out to build a community of in-home childcare that focuses on quality care and early education for children 0-5 years old. The startup closed the largest seed round in Montana history last April, and this month, they are giving away a year of free childcare to one deserving Colorado family through a video contest. Learn more on how to enter for their video contest here

Slumberkins

Another super-mom duo start-up that came across my radar when I attended Alt Summit last spring is Slumberkins. This company uses stories and snuggly toys that help parents and caregivers teach emotional life skills to babies and toddlers. From The Self-Esteem Collection to Slumber Sloth and the Growth Mindset, you can find a toolset that will help your little explore and grow their emotional intelligence in all different situations. 

Zume Pizza

Lastly, learning about this female-entrepreneur left me heart-eyed and jaw-dropped after learning how she turned the regular routine of ordering pizza into an automated mobile delivery service that’s affordable and made with the freshest ingredients. Located in the Bay Area, where ordering anything out is expensive to boot, Zume Pizza took the storefront out of the equation and instead uses food trucks and robots to deliver fresh, hot pizza to your door. 

When more women take our seats at the table, we change the world. Pretty much every social and environmental problem facing our world would be solved if women and girls had an equal voice in making decisions that impact all of us. I tip my hat to you for creating businesses that not only profit but seek to serve and empower others.

How To Rock Your Next PR Event
How To Rock Your Next PR Event

I’m going to let you in on a secret. Nobody is ever going to pay as much attention to your business as you do. Once you acknowledge that, you can stop wasting your time on press releases and start figuring out more creative ways to gain attention for your business. In my experience, when you capture the right strategy, recruit the best messengers and expertly execute a creative event, media attention will follow. 

Many companies and organizations treat public relations events as a task on a to-do list that has little or no relationship to an overall business strategy. Send press release. Check. Recruit influencers. Check. Host an event—ah, we’re all too busy, so how about just a happy hour at our new office that only our friends and family attend—check. But actually collecting press clips and qualified business leads? The line falls flat on that. 

To leverage an impactful event for your business, you need a dual perspective. That requires identifying your ideal customer and your ideal news source. What sort of event will resonate with your target audience and inspire them to engage with your brand? Which reporter at your dream news outlet covers your beat, and what can you do that is newsworthy enough to catch his or her attention? 

Scratch the white linens and plastic wine glasses so that your next PR event packs a punch with potential customers and creates a real opportunity for media coverage. 

In 2015, I helped rocket Montana Governor Steve Bullock’s effort to pass universal pre-K for the state’s four-year-olds into the media and the hearts and minds of voters. Knowing the target audience was parents of preschoolers, I created new lyrics to the popular song from Frozen, “Let It Go,” framing it as “Let Them Learn” and partnered with the national parenting magazine Mamalode to create interactive events across Montana’s larger towns. We hired a face painter, provided hot cocoa, and of course, “Elsa” and other characters from the movie were on hand to excite the kids. The campaign drew hundreds of parents and educators who contacted legislators to support the bill

Always think of your event as part of a campaign, regardless of whether you work in politics. 

What’s the win? How does your event fit into the larger narrative you are trying to weave across all your marketing channels? A stand-alone event can only accomplish so much, and ideally, it will reflect your key messages and amplify the “echo chamber” created by integrated marketing tactics like digital ads, social media, print, billboards, or radio and TV ads. An integrated campaign has a creative concept, an attention-grabbing headline and strategic actions for people to take—all of which work together to funnel your audience to take action.

One of my proudest professional moments came when my former client, national nonprofit Women’s Voices for the Earth, signed off on my idea to spoof Justin Timberlake’s “Dick in a Box” video in order to draw attention to toxic chemicals in menstrual products that could harm women’s health. Our “Detox the Box” campaign targeted Procter & Gamble, and the video we produced shattered the organization’s records for social media engagement and number of views on youtube (more than 74,000). Since the client was a national membership organization, “events” were mostly virtual and the call to action was to convince women to contact P&G and ask them to remove harmful chemicals from their products. 

Remember, your next PR event doesn’t have to require a hotel ballroom—make it digital. 

Are you targeting busy moms who can’t get away? Or perhaps entrepreneurs in need of your services but who lack predictable schedules? Tailor your event to meet your audience’s needs and know that may mean going beyond the four walls mentality to bring your event to more people, perhaps even hosting it exclusively online. 

A digital PR event might be anything from a live Q&A with your company’s CEO or an uber-successful franchisee or perhaps its a guerilla marketing stunt captured by cameras while attendees tune in live. Remember Red Bull’s space jump? That event was created solely for the purpose of capturing media and customer attention. Red Bull had a large net to cast since the product is available nationwide, so they needed to do something that would capture a large target audience as well as members of the media. 

Needing only a screen and internet access—two things nearly all consumers have these days—this virtual event launched Red Bull to the coveted top-of-mind consumer headspace. Six months after the event Red Bull reported a sales increase of over 7%.

You don’t need Red Bull’s budget or to drop a human from the sky to communicate your message to your desired audience. When it comes to your business’ events, creativity and gumption can take your brand or cause a long way. What events have worked well for you in the past, or perhaps fell flat? I’d love to hear about your experience via Twitter @caitlincopple or email me at caitlin@fullswingpr.com

#FakeNews is an opportunity to gain consumer trust—for real.
#FakeNews is an opportunity to gain consumer trust—for real.

As a former journalist, I appreciate the grit and heart that it takes to produce accurate and informative news stories day after day. I cringe every time I see an attack on the press. With #fakenews regularly invoked by politicians at the highest levels, the hashtag has become a punchline, and it’s easy to feel despondent about the future of our democracy. But I’m an optimist, or at least aspire to be, and as a public relations professional, the era of #fakenews offers an opportunity for people and businesses doing good to shine.

Scrutiny of the press has made consumers more discerning, but that’s good news. A discerning customer is a good customer. By the time they’ve found and vetted your product or service, they’ve determined they can trust you, and that trust will hold as long as you continue providing a solution to their problem and living up to your values. Here are four ways to strengthen trust with your customers through earned media.

Know your audience. Marketing 101 teaches you about understanding the likes and behavior of your target customer, but now more than ever, brands need to understand what media sources are trusted by their audience, and where and how targeted consumers get their news. A customer may have their guard up when they see a commercial, billboard, or digital ad, but when your company is featured in a beloved news outlet, you’re one step closer to gaining their trust. According to a study done by Nielsen, 58% of consumers trusted editorial content over just 33% that reported online banners as trustworthy. If a news outlet your target customer respects has determined your company is worthy of a positive news story, that customer is more inclined to agree and purchase a product or patronize your services.

Hire a trusted team. With PR pros outnumbering journalists by six to one, it’s not just consumers who have their guard up. Members of the media are understandably suspicious, and it doesn’t help that they often get pitches that are not a fit for their outlet or beat. Make sure your PR team researches the types of stories reporters are looking for and knows how to pitch to them in a succinct, respectful way. In the face of staff layoffs and budget cuts, many news outlets face pressure to crank out content quickly and frequently, so if your team gives them a story that’s worth writing, they are more likely to engage with you or at least give your pitch full consideration.

Walk the walk. Your company lands a big story in a best-fit publication, and your inbox is lighting up with sales leads. That’s great, but you’ve still got to play the long game. Your company must deliver an excellent product or service that lives up to its brand promise and values, delivering on your claims of transparency, character, and backbone. If you’re not living up to the promises you make, consumers will sniff you out as a fake and you may lose them for good. When acquiring a new customer can cost up to five times more than retaining one, your company’s success relies on maintaining a positive relationship with customers who have already converted.

Be newsworthy… for the right reasons. Most businesses exist to solve problems. Many of these problems are extremely compelling, at least among my clients. Whether your business is trying to end the childcare shortage and support high-quality early education or dismantle the traditional barriers to women succeeding as attorneys, hone in on the most interesting messengers to help tell your story in the press. Stand out when it aligns with your brand’s personality. Be creative when you examine your press release from a journalist’s perspective. Find a way to capture the attention of your target audience and tell a story that makes a lasting connection.

Businesses Should Support Real Change, Not Just Rainbows, Especially in Red States

Pride season is in full swing (pun intended), and corporations are decking themselves out in rainbows and sponsoring parades.

That’s not a bad thing, but it’s not meaningful brand activism either.

As someone who grew up in a suburb of Boise, the LGBTQ hub of my deeply red state, I’m heartened when I see major Idaho corporations publicly supporting Pride. My jaw dropped when I drove past the billboard on JUMP (the nonprofit community center built by the heirs of french fry magnet J.R. Simplot) advocating the 30th anniversary of Boise Pride.

As a kid attending public school in Nampa during the 1990s, I didn’t know a single openly LGBTQ person. The messages I heard about sexuality were overwhelmingly straight, white, Christian, and conforming. In my town, gay men were considered disease-ridden perverts; lesbians were unattractive tomboys who couldn’t “get a man,” and bisexuals were confused sluts, if they existed at all. (Trans+ people certainly didn’t.) It wasn’t until I left Idaho in 2005 that I began the journey to accept my queer identity.

My upbringing in Nampa was 20-plus years ago, and I’d like to think a child in school today would have a better experience. Yet just two years ago, a gay man named Steve Nelson was murdered in Nampa because of his sexual orientation. And the Idaho legislature is comprised of many of the same old, white men who ran the state when I was a child, who are related to many of the same people who ran the state when my parents were growing up. Because of their lack of leadership and understanding of people who are different, we still lack state laws to protect basic LGBTQ civil rights.

This underlies why a rainbow float in a Pride parade doesn’t cut it for me when it comes to corporate activism. If you care about supporting full equality for our community, challenge yourself to do better.

Real change means using your corporate platform to advocate for adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s human rights laws so that no one can be fired, denied housing, or public accommodations based on who they are or who they love. It means sending your C-suite to the legislature to support the programs that support the 40% of homeless youth who identify as queer. It means showing up to support access to healthcare, including STI prevention and comprehensive sex education in public schools. It means working with law enforcement to end violence and murder of transwomen, particularly transwomen of color. It means cutting a check to organizations like Pride Foundation or volunteering your time to increase access to scholarships for LGBTQ students and grant money to the nonprofits working toward real change.

What is PR, Anyway?

More than once, a client has asked me what public relations actually means. It’s a fair question. Public relations, much like its umbrella industry, marketing, can be hard to pin down. Perhaps you’ve heard the saying: “Advertising is what you pay for; publicity is what you pray for.”

Publicity doesn’t come from the gods, but rather hard work and a solid strategy. PR is defined as any effort toward creating a favorable opinion of your company or brand in the eyes of the public. Yet who is the public? Unless you are a mega-brand, chances are Jane Public will never know who you are, and probably doesn’t care. That’s why I prefer to define PR this way: Any effort, aligned with business goals, that creates a favorable opinion of your company or brand in the eyes of your target customers.

PR is valuable because you have to earn it; it’s not paid advertising. This is why it holds greater credibility than advertising in the eyes of a brand’s target audience. PR strategists often refer to “earned media,” meaning press mentions such as print, online, radio, or TV articles, social media posts (but not social ads and not paid influencer posts), guest blogs for third-party sites, op-eds and letters to the editor. The reason brands invest in PR is because trust equates to a higher conversion rate at about 5%, versus paid advertising, which is less than 1%. Even in the era of “fake news,” most consumers still have particular news outlets, blogs, and people that they trust. The key is to get your brand’s story into those best-fit outlets, based on what your target audience finds credible.

I’ve found PR to be most impactful when buffered by an overall marketing strategy that includes paid, earned, owned, and social media and measurable goals around each. Known as PESO, the good folks at Spin Sucks invented this model and have all kinds of resources to help you leverage it for your company.

Caitlin Copple Masingill brings more than 15 years of experience in journalism and strategic communications for corporations, CEOs, authors, political campaigns, and nonprofits. Read Bio

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