Want to get your company some publicity? Take this advice from the people who decide whether or not your story is worth telling.
ILLUSTRATIONS BY CHRISTIANE GRAUERT
In a world where a mention in O, the Oprah Magazine can turn an unknown book into an overnight bestseller or a cameo on the evening news can send the sales of a small business soaring, it's not surprising that companies vie to catch the eye of the media. What's shocking is how many don't know how to go about it.
Natalie Rodriguez, an assistant editor at This Old House, is always flabbergasted when she gets pitches for an older product that a company tries to pass off as "new."
Jennifer Owens, senior director of editorial research and initiatives at Working Mother Media, never ceases to be amazed by companies that are rude when following up on an emailed story idea. After sending a pitch while she was on vacation, one publicist bombarded her colleague with calls and left demanding voicemails. Upon returning to work, she found a poorly timed pitch that was inappropriate for Working Mother - and hit delete. "Have some consideration for the people who put out the magazine," she says.
And Adriana Gardella, a senior editor at FORTUNE Small Business, can never understand why companies try to sell her on a story by saying it has already been covered by her competitors. "We don't want to write about you if the whole world already has," she says.
If you're trying to get publicity for your company in print, online, on TV or on the radio, you don't want your story to end up in the scrap heap. Here are some tips from media professionals on how to catch their eyes:
LEARN HOW TO PITCH: Familiarize yourself with the media outlets before sending a pitch. For magazines, it's a good idea to study back issues so you understand its niche and how it differs from competitors. "This Old House is a 'shelter' magazine, but we're not like other magazines in our category," Rodriguez says. "I hate it when I get emails or product pictures that are for the whole 'shelter' category, and the person hasn't thought of how we can use it."
Many journalists prefer receiving pitches via email, with links to the company website and an online press kit. Shawne Duperon, a former executive health producer for NBC in Detroit and five-time Emmy Award-winning documentary producer, advises including your pitch in the body of the email so the recipient doesn't have to download an attachment. She also suggests starting your subject line with the attention-getting word "LOOK" (as in, "LOOK: Tips on autumn travel bargains").
And while many large media outlets do their own photography, it never hurts to sell the visual side of your story by including an attractive, professional CEO headshot or product photos. In some cases, a publication may end up running your pictures. "Art budgets across the board are being slashed," Rodriquez says. "The better your pickup photography, the better your chances of being featured."
If you're thinking of sending a press kit with a product sample by mail, contact a journalist ahead of time to see if it's needed. And avoid mailing duplicates to everyone on staff or going overboard with elaborate, themed packaging. "It makes you wonder if what they're pitching should merit your attention in and of itself," says Alison Ashton, a former senior food editor at Cooking Light.
It's also important that the pitch proves that your company is a success. "Provide quantitative information (like sales figures), not self-promotional PR talk," Gardella says.
Steve Bills, deputy editor of technology at trade newspaper American Banker, always asks if a company can provide the name of at least one satisfied customer. But he often hears, "Banks would love this thing if they only knew it existed." Not good enough. "It's not my job to be your sales agent," he says.
He recently wrote about a tiny company that came up with a new way to help banks monitor electronic transactions after it put him in touch with a bank that liked the product. After the story ran, he says, several other clients used the service.
JUMP INTO EXISTING STORIES: It's easier to get mentioned in a piece that is already in motion than to sell a media outlet on a brand-new feature about a product or service. You can volunteer to be interviewed by checking for postings on Help a Reporter Out (www.helpareporter.com) and Profnet (www.profnet.com), which journalists use to look for interviewees with specific expertise or experiences.
HARO, which is free, sends members up to three daily alerts listing reporters' requests by subject, such as "travel." At Profnet, small business memberships, which entitle subscribers to daily alerts about media requests in 13 industries, cost $950 per year; corporate memberships range from $1,500 to $2,650, depending on the number of industries monitored.
"A site like HARO could get your story into a bigger publication if you're offering something new and different," Ashton says.
SHOW HOW YOUR PRODUCT FITS INTO A NEW TREND: Most media will be more interested in covering your company if you show that it's part of a larger story that will interest a broad audience. "Companies have to say why they have larger relevance to the readership of the publication they're pitching," says Jim Gaines, former editor-in-chief of Time, Life and People and current editor-in-chief of FLYP, a multimedia publication on American culture. "There has to be some trend or fad involved."
TIME YOUR PITCH: Check the editorial calendar on a media outlet's website so you can pitch stories with the right lead time. "You might be thinking because it's July, we'd be thinking about back-to-school, but we're closing the October issue, already planning November and starting to think of December," Owens says. "I get a lot of pitches four weeks before the issue comes out."
However, TV and radio news shows, websites and newspapers often create their lineups on a day-to-day basis, so lastminute pitches based on current events can work. If you're pitching TV or radio programs, avoid calling on days when a major news story has broken, unless you're an expert on the topic. "The first thing you should do before sending an email is turn on the TV," says Jennifer Simpson, the former head booker for CBS who now does media training for Washington Media Group in Washington, DC.
PITCH THE RIGHT PERSON: Half the battle of getting publicity is putting your idea in front of the right decision-maker. For magazines, study the masthead to see which writers cover beats relevant to your company. If they've written a story you've enjoyed, Gaines suggests sending an email letting them know and asking if you can stop by for a brief meeting next time you're in town.
"It's a great way to begin a relationship," says Gaines, who also recommends sending pitches to the editor-in-chief, who will often have an assistant route stories to appropriate staffers.
For TV and radio, pay attention to reporters who cover particular types of stories and call the stations to find out who produces the segments. However, if it's a time sensitive pitch, don't delay sending it just because you don't know the perfect contact. "You can pretty much pitch anyone in a TV newsroom," Duperon says.
If you're making a big publicity push, invest in a directory of media contacts, such as Gebbie Press's 2009 All-in-One Media Directory ($195) or Harrison's Guide to the Top National TV Talk and Interview Shows ($347). Other paid services include Bulldog Reporter's Media Pro, BurrellesLuce, Cision, Gorkana and Vocus. Duperon plans to release her own National Media Guide this fall.
POLISH YOUR MEDIA PRESENCE: Even if you're pitching a product or service, many media outlets may be more interested in telling the story of the person or company behind it. They may assess your poise as a potential guest based on a phone call, so rehearse what you're going to say, says Joanne Quinn-Smith, host of internet radio shows "Positively Pittsburgh Live!" and "Techno Granny," and author of the Techno Granny blog. "You need to leave a catchy voicemail to get the media person or gatekeeper's attention," she says.
Keep in mind that big print publications often produce online videos and TV segments with networks within the same company, and may assess you in this way, too. You never know: Oprah may just want to ask you a few questions.