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Vol. 37, No. 2

Have a story to pitch? Boost your odds with better media relations

by Marilyn Cavicchia

Say you’ve got a press release all ready to go, detailing a successful bar program or a major accomplishment by one of its leaders. So you send it to some local media outlets, and then … nothing.

What went wrong?

It’s possible that you didn’t do enough research first, and that you were thinking only about your need to get the news out, not about the particular needs of the publications or other outlets you hoped would use it.

That was one of the main insights shared by a panel of Denver-area journalists and public relations professionals at October’s National Association of Bar Executives Communications Section Workshop.

“Know where you’re sending that story,” advised Amber Vincent, an account manager at Alyn-Weiss & Associates, a PR and marketing firm focused on the legal profession. As much as you want to push your message out, she explained, it’s also important that you understand what might be of use to each news outlet you’re sending it to. What is it that the publication is trying to convey, and how well does your piece fit into that context?

And be honest, added Heather Draper, a reporter whose beats for the Denver Business Journal include law. “If you’ve never seen anything like that in a publication,” she said, “there’s probably a reason for that.”

A personalized pitch

Once you’ve assessed whether a particular publication might be interested in your news, you should develop a “short, concise pitch” that will let the reporter or editor know exactly why he or she should run the story, Vincent said.

Take a tip from Twitter, Draper suggested: Can you convey your story idea in about 140 words? This brief pitch should be targeted, she added, and might actually be a few different messages that vary according to each publication’s needs.

Panelist Meg Satrom, managing editor with Law Week Colorado, said it’s not just the wording of the pitch itself that should be personalized. Think about your method of delivery, too, she advised, noting that she gets many emailed pitches each day.

“The reason I open some of them is that I trust the person,” she said, “and I know I’m not being BCC’ed along with everyone else in the state.”

BCC stands for blind carbon copy and refers to those mass emails where you can’t see who the other recipients are. A nice touch, Satrom added, and one that helps establish that you are reaching out only to specific members of the media, is to begin your message with “Dear” and then the person’s first name.

It also helps to know the production schedule of the outlet in which you hope to place your news item, Satrom and Draper agreed. Law Week Colorado goes to press on Fridays, Satrom said, noting that “most good sources” know not to contact her that day because she’ll be forced to ignore them. For Denver Business Journal and many similar publications, Draper said, deadline day is Wednesday, so a pitch made on Thursday or Friday for the following week’s publication has the best shot at success.

Working together to ensure accuracy

Among people who work with the media, a common fear is that the story will come out … and there will be mistakes in it. How can you help prevent this?

Not by asking to see the whole article—or even just your quote—in advance, the panelists agreed; almost without exception, journalists consider this to be a big no-no, akin to making the story an advertisement or PR piece rather than an objective news item.

But what can you do, especially when, as Draper said, newsroom staff are now so scarce and overextended that “There’s no time to do anything as a reporter”?

First, suggested Vincent, remember that what reporters need is clear, concise information and quotes. If what you provide them is already in that form, she said, the final version will be much closer to what you intended than if you give them a lot of miscellany to sort through on their own.

Ask when the deadline is, she recommended, and if you can call back in 15 or 20 minutes (and then do call back on time). Then you can “scramble in private” to develop two or three clear, concise messages, she added.

The panelists disagreed regarding how those two or three messages should be delivered. Vincent recommended emailing a statement or quote, or perhaps three bullet points. But Draper said those emailed quotes are “clunky” and “sound canned,” and Satrom noted, “My reporters just enjoy really good conversations”—the type that typically occur over the phone or perhaps in person, not by email.

What if, despite your best efforts, there is a mistake? There was a difference of opinion here, too. The panelists agreed that one or two words out of place are understandable and not worth a correction in most cases. But if the error rises to the level where you do need to speak up about it, then Draper believes you should contact the reporter you worked with, whereas Satrom thinks you should talk to the editor. The two did not reach a resolution on this point.

In any case, Satrom said a letter to the editor can be an effective way to clear up any errors you saw.    

There’s also the idea of writing an article yourself—that way, it says exactly what you intended. Both Draper and Satrom said their publications accept contributed pieces; in fact, Satrom went as far as to say she loves them, because they can free up reporters to focus on longer, more investigative articles. But, she added, Law Week Colorado—and likely other publications, too—wants these contributed pieces to be written by practicing lawyers and not by communications staff.

Satrom’s publication has a 52-week editorial calendar, with different areas of practice taking center stage during different weeks, she said, adding that your placement odds can increase if you synch up your contribution with what a publication has scheduled. Draper noted that most publications have something like this, and it’s usually available online.

Building relationships

At several points, the panelists brought up the idea that your relationship with members of your local media is just that—a relationship, and one that is built through mutual consideration and courtesy.

Regarding any limitations that the bar or its leaders might have as far as going on record, speaking for the association, or any other concerns, the panelists agreed that most reporters and editors will respect and accommodate them—especially if you mention them up front.

One way to build the relationship and to encourage a positive result when you have an idea to pitch, Draper said, is to help a reporter with an article in which you have nothing to gain. That is, if the reporter knows he or she can call you—“on background” rather than to be quoted—to help untangle complicated legal details in a subject he or she is covering, you might get a better response the next time you call to discuss, say, a leader’s pro bono work.

Don’t be shy, Draper said; as a reporter, she genuinely likes to hear from a contact who tells her there’s a big story brewing, why it is she should cover it—and that the contact can send her some information and some leads to potential sources.

And don’t approach the relationship with the idea that the reporter is out to get you, Draper added, noting that she doesn’t intend to trap or trick anyone. Likewise, she doesn’t want to be trapped—by the source who says he or she will call back well in advance of deadline … and then doesn’t —or tricked, by the contact who tries to deceive her into thinking a story idea is much more than it turns out to be.

Behavior like that will land you in the “bad PR file,” Draper joked—and that’s not a good place from which to publicize the bar’s next big story.