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The Art of Persuasive Pitching

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Media placement is an art. Practicing it often requires as much attention to approach and style as it does to the focus of your story. Publicists can benefit from mastering some useful tips and basic assumptions prior to approaching, by email, snail mail, or phone, the keepers of the media gate.

Always tell the truth. Make sure your product or service does what it says it does and your information is accurate. If a question is put to you that you do not have an answer for, indicate to the reporter you'll get back with the information. If you don't, the info will come from someone else—and not necessarily from a source that will help your organization. Never "imagine" or "fudge" an answer. Remember, candor equals credibility. If your organization has taken an action that has reaped negative consequences, counsel your client to admit the mistake (unless the client is constrained from doing so by legal counsel). Negativity can also be mitigated if you can anticipate a reporter's tough question and frame an answer that puts the action into historical perspective or if you can develop a positioning statement that lessens the harshness implied in the question. (For example, when a poisonous substance infiltrated Tylenol bottles, the company issued the statement "we are victims too.")

Know your outlet before you call. Have you read the magazine, newspaper, or website in advance? Have you watched the TV program? Have you listened to the radio show? With print media, do you know the specific beat of the editor or reporter you intend to make contact with? Have you read his or her stories? It's fine to cold call, but don't cold call blindly (unless there really is vagueness about the person's turf).

Attitude. There are some PR people whose emotional lives seem to count on an editor's acceptance and who feel like failures when the editor says "no." "Unattachment" is the best attitude. "Unattachment" doesn't mean "detachment" or "apathy." It means coming from a centered place, with confidence in yourself and your ability to communicate a story effectively—but without being attached to the outcome. You'll find this a liberating approach, one that disallows you from becoming intimidated by an editor or producer and one that enables you to return to the same person in the future with no regrets. When an editor perceives that you are not overly emotionally invested in a story, you may actually get a better hearing. Be warm and polite, professional, and clear. See that individual as a peer and colleague. If they're brusque in the moment, they may be having a bad day. Simply ask if there's a better time to get back to them.

That said, believe in your story and believe in yourself. The best PR people see themselves as resources of news and information who work with journalists to fill valuable time and print space.

Be more empathetic than sympathetic. Being empathetic enables you to build on what was said and respond with alternate approaches. Being sympathetic means you've probably foreclosed the possibility of an alternate approach because you've agreed with the "no" response of the journalist.

Get out of the reporter's way. When you're providing a reporter, editor, or producer information where the story is time-sensitive, relay the information and get out of the way. There's a time for pitching an idea, and there's a time for simply relaying information. In the case of the latter, act like an editorial assistant. Do your job and get out. You'll earn the journalist's respect when you do so.

Don't waste their time. When you call, communicate in sharp and crystallized fashion the essence of the story. Keep it brief, respect deadlines, and ask in advance if the moment is okay for the editor/producer. NEVER call when you know an editor is under deadline pressure. Keep your message on-point and as brief as possible, but craft it in a compelling and creative way that will earn attention.

Personalize. I've seen too many impersonal, photocopied pitch letters, whether via email or snail mail. If you send something in advance of a call or as a follow-up to a call, personalize. Don't be overly chummy (unless you've been on good terms with that journalist for a long time). But keep sensitive to the fact that you're a human being and you're communicating with a human being. For emails, craft a provocative phrase in the "subject" area. Too many email messages remain unread without a compelling lead.

Listen to the editor. It's as important to listen as it is to talk. Be sensitive to any verbal feedback, cues, or clues that can assist you in fine-tuning your pitch. Keep your antennae fully extended.

Respect the "no" and be prepared for it. Ask quick, important questions: What is it about this story that doesn't seem right for you? Is there anyone else for whom this story might work better? Suggest how the story can be adapted to the outlet's needs. Best of all, suggest three to five different angles in advance. This reduces chances for rejection.

But when you get your final "no," let it go and release it. YOU haven't been rejected—just your story. And if you've handled the approach professionally and cordially, you'll always be able to come back with another story at another time. Regard your list of cultivated contacts as resources and investments for the long haul, not for quick-fix purposes.

Occasionally, pass along an item of interest that lies outside your own sphere of self-interest. Be someone who's not always out to get something. Also, supply your most important contacts with your home phone number.

Get out from behind your desk. The better you get to know the journalist on a one-to-one basis, the better your chance of a receptive ear.

Get beyond voice mail. Leave a succinct, provocative, targeted message. If you don't hear from them in two days, try calling early or leave a message with an editorial assistant or colleague. Call back that other person to learn if your message was received and if there's a return message. Sometimes, you can ask the switchboard for the department that person works in rather than a specific voice mail.

Your tone, attitude and approach with an editor or producer won't necessarily outweigh the importance of your message, but handled well, it could enable the editor or producer to give you a more serious "ear" in consideration of that message. In other words, it could make or break your chances for a "hit." Don't underestimate how you've said it in addition to what you've said!

About the Author:

Mike Schwager began his communications career at CBS News and as a writer for CBS Audience Services in New York. He then entered the public relations arena as a media specialist for Burson-Marsteller, the large New York-based public relations firm, followed by six years as president and creative director of Michael Klepper Associates in New York. At "MKA," Schwager directed award-winning public relations activities for The Exhibition of the People's Republic of China (China's first trade and cultural exhibition in the USA) and the One Year Countdown to the Louisiana World's Fair, arranging for extensive live-remote coverage by NBC's The Today Show. He also managed accounts for Polaroid, Data General, the Canadian government, Viacom, and Father Flanagan's Boys Town.

Schwager launched his own agency, The Media Relations Group, which he ran for 10 years, from 1985 to 1995, representing such clients as Kellogg's; Magazine Publishers of America; ABC/Capital Cities Publishing; World Vision; the United Negro College Fund; IBM; Tadiran; the Israeli electronics communications company; the United States-Mexican Development Corporation; and authors like Harvey Mackay (he made Mackay's book, Swim With The Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive, a mega-bestseller); Wilson Harrell, former publisher of Inc. Magazine (For Entrepreneurs Only); Richard Goodwin, former Special Assistant to John F. Kennedy (Remembering America: A Voice From The Sixties); superagent Bob Woolf (Friendly Persuasion); Louise Hay (You Can Heal Your Life); and real estate tycoon Sam Grossman (Win The Food Fight).

From 1995 to the present, Schwager has been president of Worldlink Media Consultants, representing Opportunity International, the global microfinance organization, which he literally put on the media map for the first time in its 30-plus year history; CURE International, establishing teaching hospitals to help disabled children in developing countries; Geneva Global, an advisory service that manages international philanthropy for wealthy individuals and foundations; The John Templeton Foundation; KidsPeace, the National Center for Kids Overcoming Crises; National KidsDay, on behalf of The Boys & Girls Clubs of America; and books on behalf of Rodale Press, including The Hidden Pope by Darcy O'Brien. Schwager arranged front-page New York Times coverage for this book.

For six years, Schwager was the host of his own public affairs radio program in New York City called Mike Talk on WOR Radio. He was also the first American public relations executive to appear on Glasnost, Russian television, with his own marketing-communications program during the Gorbachev era.

Mike Schwager is published in The Wall Street Journal, PR Aids, Training Magazine, and Chemical Engineering Magazine. He is the subject of a chapter on public relations in Wilson Harrell's book, For Entrepreneurs Only. Harrell was the publisher of Inc. Magazine and also wrote about Schwager in his column for Success Magazine.

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