Phone Pitch Tips for Young PR Pros

Last month, Jeremy Pepper wrote a blog post saying PR pros have become too dependent on things like email to pitch reporters. In the comments section, Jeremy says the post was mainly a primer for entry-level PR people not to use technology as a crutch.

That reminded me about the many times I’ve heard people point to junior-level PR types as the major culprits when it comes to not picking up the phone to pitch. That may be true, but only because they’re usually the ones doing all the pitching. Too many senior-level PR people don’t actually pitch stories.

Yes, that’s one of the main responsibilities for junior-level people. But it’s our responsibility to make sure we’re not throwing them to the wolves. I have a friend who was told to pitch The Wall Street Journal on her first day at her first agency job out of college. She stumbled through the phone call, annoyed the reporter and felt like a tool.

I think one reason younger PR folks avoid the phone is because they are petrified of getting yelled at or becoming the subject of a pissed off reporter’s new blog post. That’s why we need to be purposeful and persistent in sharing media relations best practices with them from day one

Jeremy shares a couple tips for them on his post in regards to picking up the phone to pitch. Here are a few more that I’ve found helpful:

  • Encapsulate the story in one brief sentence for your opening. For example, “Bob, my name is David Mullen. I have a story about a high-profile family overcoming personal tragedy to found a camp for sick kids. Do you have a minute?” Bob will know right away if he’s interested enough to hear more or not.
  • Don’t launch into your pitch without asking if he “has a minute.” That annoys most people, not just journalists.
  • Capitalize on a “no.” If he hears you out, but isn’t interested, take a second to ask what topics he is interested in for future reference.
  • Keep it in perspective. My first boss said, “if you call 10 reporters and seven say ‘no,’ that can seem like a bad media relations outing. BUT keep it in perspective. Batting .300 will get you in the Hall of Fame.”

Your turn to help. What tidbits would you add to help young pros approach media relations with more confidence and better results?

*Image by Alexander O’Neill.

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17 responses to “Phone Pitch Tips for Young PR Pros

  1. I would add that you should know your stuff. Be prepared to answer any questions a journalist might have about what you are pitching and the company your work for or are representing. The added benefit is that if you know your stuff, you are less likely to sound like a robot who has pitched the idea a million times.

  2. Thanks for the good advice. I’m currently a senior PR student and have heard several horror stories similar to the example you gave in the the post.

    I couldn’t agree more that the power of your voice can be so much greater than that of the written word. I’ll pass this along to others!

  3. Your hello is the equivalent to your handshake. Use a warm tone, smile, avoid a high pitched voice. Don’t say things like “I feel, I think, sort of, only, you know and like;” they are credibility killers and make you sound young & inexperienced.

  4. All good points. It’s also worth noting that reporters are people, too. Talk with them, not at them or to them. The best thing is to build a relationship with a reporter and phone calls help.
    If they say no to your pitch, thank them and ask if it would be ok, in the future, to send whatever news your client has.
    Also it doesn’t hurt to show the reporter that you have read their articles. I always like connecting what they’ve written in the past and connecting why they should write about my client, either now or later.
    The last bullet about perspective is spot on. There should never be the feeling that if you didn’t get the interview that you’ll be fired. If you build the relationship now, it will reap rewards in the future.

  5. This is good advice not just for calling reporters, but anybody you are pitching something to! Thanks, David, as I am getting ready to call the assistant of Angelina Jolie’s Manager again to see if he got my email, I will use these tips and let you know how it goes. The only thing I wish I had done the first time I called the assistant is to ask for his name. Duh.

  6. To the “capitalizing on a no” point, ask why. It could be a bad pitch that isn’t tailored correctly or it could just be a bad time.

    If it’s a bad time, ask if there’s a better time to call. Some may never admit it, but there are days and times when reporters are more open to talking on the phone. All depends on the person. I’ve done it in the past, had great pitching experiences, once it worked their schedule.

  7. It’s all about confidence. Patrick pointed out you need to know your stuff — that’s key to feeling confident going in. One of my first bosses told me early in my agency career that it’s your job as an agency PR rep to know your client’s business better than they do. This is great advice when it comes to building confidence for phone pitching.

    Also, practice out loud! Sit down with a peer, a more senior person on your team, your mentor – even the office receptionist or an intern – and practice saying the key points of your pitch out loud.

    It’s true we spend so much time isolated at our desks, silently tapping at the keyboard, writing out our pitch angles to send out in email. Sharing the pitch with a peer or other colleague can also help you fine-tune it and get you ready to breeze through a great conversation with the reporter.

  8. Totally agree with DM’s comment re: Encapsulating. Nice one!

    To the ‘No’ point, I’d add to ask why. Ultimately clients are going to want to know that. (plus if you’re getting the same answer from several people you’ve got a good sign that something needs to be changed!)

    As for my 2 cents (which used to be worth 2.1 cents US, but now are only about 1.2 cents US)…
    There are really two key things for any pitch
    1. Know your target.
    2. Know your subject.

    1. understanding who you are going to be talking to is so very important. Have you reviewed the journo’s most recent pieces? Is there a trend in tone? style? focus? (And don’t underestimate the power of telling a journo that you enjoyed an article of theirs – as long as you’re not being false and sappy.) If you’re angle and their beat don’t meet head-on, have you figured out how to facilitate the connection? Do you understand the overall mandate of the media outlet? And though it’s tough to do, there are times when you can contact a journo and say, I’m not pitching you, but I want to better understand what kind of info you want and how you want it. Sure some will turn that down, but from those that don’t you can reap an immense amount of knowledge and info.

    2. think about the best presentations you’ve ever given. Chances are that one of the common elements for all the really good ones is that you were confident with the material you were presenting. Same goes for a pitch because it’s a lot like a presentation – but it’s also like a dance (or a duel!). The more you know about what is beyond and behind the story you are pitching, the more flexible you can be in your discussion. And when you are flexible you can engage a journo in a conversation rather than just trying to get coverage. Remember, you are often going to be both adapting your client’s story to fit the journo’s need and trying to convince the journo that your story addresses their need. You can only do that if you have the knowledge to be flexible. If nothing else, that act alone will raise your worth in the journo’s books and you’re not likely to have as tough a time in the future.

    And now, because I like David, I give you PRJack’s Pitch Fist! (I actually use this descriptor and our agency is considering making up t-shirts with a stylized karate fist and the phrases ‘Strike First’ ‘Strike Hard’ ‘No Mercy’ around it. LOL but no stealing my idea!!)
    1. ensure that the story is newsworthy, relevant and timely – and that these link to the media person you are talking to
    2. have a competent spokesperson who can answer questions or is suitable and pertinent as a contributed piece author.
    3. have 3rd party corroboration – user, customer, analyst, industry expert, etc – who is not overtly connected with the client
    4. have images. whether that’s graphs, diagrams or photos. Even if you’re pitching radio, the images can help the producer better understand what your talking about. And know how the media you’re dealing with want images – ftp? Lo res samples? high res right away? and who do images go to?
    5. backing info – stats, reports, surveys, etc

    if you have all that put together… you should enjoy a modicum of success! (more than Mullen’s paltry 30%, that’s for sure! Kidding David!! LOL)

  9. oh, as if I didn’t babble long enough… the great thing about a phone pitch is that it is actually a better vehicle for doing what I said above than email. I find that if I need to facilitate, I use the phone. If the pitch is really simple, I’ll email. I also keep track of which contacts don’t want to be called.

  10. great tips everyone!

    @PRJack – thanks for the laugh. i will note that he was making a baseball analogy and threw out numbers for easy math, not referring to my personal pitching success rate. I’m a media beast! 🙂

    Seriously, though, your “pitch fist” reminded me of something I lived by starting out. I still do today, but it’s so ingrained that I don’t even really give it thought.

    At my first agency, our national media relations director always talked about serving up your story on a “silver platter.” What he meant was along the lines of what you’re talking about. Bring all the possible pieces to complete a story to the reporter. If they’re interested, it helps push them into a “yes.” And it tells them that you’re a good resource and that you’ve put thought and planning into the pitch.

  11. 1. Relate your pitch in some way to the reporter’s past coverage. Let them know you’re calling them for a reason (if you haven’t worked together before).

    2. Believe in what you’re pitching. Nothing is worse than calling (or receiving a call) about a product/service/event that you see no value in.

  12. What a great collection of tips here. Trying to add something new… one of my favorite “secret weapons” for media relations is to bundle stories. Include several angles for a pitch and provide anecdotes/examples/sources for each, all of which should go well beyond just your client. We’ve had great success with this and on the recent HARO “how to pitch” teleseminar, top reporters echoed that this approach tends to get their interest.

  13. Thanks for a great collection of tips! I just printed out this post and all the comments and highlighted key points so I can hang it up in my cubicle, right by the phone.

    You’re absolutely right about young PR folks being petrified of getting yelled at or becoming the subject of an angrily-written blog post. As comfortable as I am meeting and talking to people, phone-pitching is one of my least-favorite tasks. Fortunately my colleagues are helping me ease into it by giving me lists of “nicer” reporters!

  14. susan and lara – great tips. thanks for adding them to the mix!

    libby – glad you found the post and tips from me and others helpful. that was my hope.

  15. Thanks for extending the conversation, and helping people go through the baptism of fire – because, well, that IS what it’s like most of the time.

    We throw you in the water, and you gotta swim.

    And, well, it gets easier. 🙂

  16. Thanks so much! just went from an in-house position in a very specific market to an agency position with multiple clients in various areas…this helps a lot 🙂

  17. Esther Steinfeld

    Great list. And to the point of your piece overall, PR pros rely so much on email pitching these days because journalists prefer them. If you have access to Cision or Vocus, you’ll see that lots of reporters choose email over phone call as their preferred method of being contacted.

    All that said, we can’t lose the art of the phone pitch (and it IS an art). It’s also much easier to establish a relationship with a reporter or journalist if you’ve actually spoken to him/her. Email can be easily forgotten.

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