Why pitches are more effective than press releases

Photo by Susanne Nilsson. Some rights reserved.
Photo by Susanne Nilsson, some rights reserved.

Yesterday, a participant in my free PR for Technologists teleconference asked me whether the press release is dead.

“When I send one out via wire services, it seems to have about as much impact as stuffing it into a bottle and tossing it in the ocean,” he said.

Do reporters even respond to press releases any more?

What’s the best format to use for them?

What’s the best way to distribute them so that they’re actually read?

To answer, yes, press releases still have a role to play in getting publicity for new ventures, products, and technologies. They do get read, when presented the right way.

As for formatting, check out Debbie Leven’s excellent “complete guide to writing an effective press release” over at the Marketing Donut.

But going back to presentation, that’s everything, and it trumps the format and even the actual content of a press release every time. And it goes hand-in-hand with how you distribute a release.

In fact, the best way to get your ideas and news items across to the people who could publish them for you is not to distribute them in the conventional sense at all. Distribution implies mass marketing. That’s the job of the people you’re reaching out to. Instead, think of hand delivering individual copies of your release to individual writers, editors, and producers.

Heather Anne Ritchie-Carson, Co-Founder of Onboardly puts this concept very well in her Beginner’s Guide To Public Relations For Tech Startups on the Kissmetrics blog:

Time is precious and no one understands this better than a startup founder. Instead of focusing all your efforts on cold pitching to as many writers as you can, why not concentrate on pitching to fewer in a more strategic, relationship-focused way?… Consider the value of one friend in the media compared to the value of a dozen contacts in the media. Your friend will notice your emails, associate your name with quality pitches and get back to you with feedback right away.

Note the word “pitch” rather than press release. Sure, a press release can be part of an effective pitch, and often is, but it’s the pitch that gets the attention, that is much more likely to be read, that can go a lot farther in getting you the publicity you’re after.

That’s because pitches, in contrast to naked press releases, are personal. Pitches are what I use to sell my stories to the many editors I write for. A pitch says, “hey, I know who you are and what you’re interested in, and that’s why I’m sending you this info.”

A press release, no matter how well written, just presents the info. A pitch puts it in a nice wrapper with a personal note tied up with a bow just for the recipient. It’s a lot more likely to get opened. Yes, it can take a more time to prepare one of those packages than simply hitting Send on a mass distribution list, but since it’s a lot more effective, it’s time well spent.

So what, exactly, is a pitch, and how do you write it?

Simple. After you’ve identified the key media contacts you’d like to establish a relationship with, you send him or her a personal note, just as you would any other potential colleague or friend. You say “hi,” or whatever your preferred email greeting is, and you introduce your topic in a conversational way, as briefly as possible. Then you can paste the content of your press release below that. What you’ve just done is the digital equivalent of hand delivering your message rather than tossing it out in a bottle.

How to Win Friends and Influence Journalists

SRI's Marc Hornbostel wows conference goers with his carbon sequestration tech. Photo: Michael Belfiore
SRI’s Marc Hornbostel wows conference goers with his carbon sequestration tech. Photo: Michael Belfiore

Earlier this week I had a conversation with the founder of a new company doing something innovative with a new technology.

I’d already pitched a story on his product to one of my editors, and gotten shot down. But I knew that there was more to the product than could be taken in at a glance. I had a pretty good idea that if I dug a little deeper that I could put together a stronger pitch.

So I got on the phone with the founder, and bingo, got the info I needed. Armed with the new data, I pushed harder on the editor. In effect, I said, “this thing is different, and these are the specific reasons why we need to do a story on it.” I also countered the editor’s objections, one by one. I was nice about it, but I was insistent. I even threw  in quotes from the founder, because, you know, no one tells the story of a new technology better than those who originated it.

And guess, what? This time I landed the story.

As a founder or manager of a technology company, this is what you want to happen when you engage reporters. You want advocates who will go to bat for you with editors and producers. Someone motivated to do the work of overcoming the inevitable objections, to push hard to make your case for you. Someone who is almost as excited about your offerings as you are.

Chances are it’s not a PR pro who’s going to be able to do that for you (although they can do a lot of other things ). It’s more likely a writer or editor or producer who isn’t paid by you, who has independently come to the conclusion that what you have to offer is a pretty cool idea, who can convince skeptical colleagues that the world needs to know more about it.

Sounds great, right? But how do you find someone like that?

By cultivating the right relationships with the right media professionals.

I made my new connection just this week, but I have relationships like these spanning more than a decade. I’ve written many stories for many different outlets on many of their companies. I’ve even followed founders from one company to another because, even more than I believe in their offerings, I believe in them.

To get the word about your work, you need to cultivate relationships. Again, these are not people you pay or bribe in some way. I once sent a CEO a $15 check because I forgot my wallet and he had to pay for me after we chatted over lunch. You (and I as a journalist) don’t want money to muddy up the waters. You to find want people who are independently, intrinsically motivated to get the word out about what you do, and you don’t want them questioning their own motives for advocating for you.

Here’s how to do it.

Find the right advocates

Look for bylines in the magazines and journals that you want to get mentioned in, and then seek out the contact information for those folks, and drop them a line. Compliment them on a recent story and mention your product or service as something they might be interested in. You can actually outsource some or all of this work, but make sure you the folks you or your colleagues reach out to know they’ve been singled out.

Follow up

Keep in touch, even if you don’t hear back. Maybe your first email got lost in the shuffle. Maybe your contact is on deadline that week. Follow up and keep following up on a regular schedule. It’s up to you how long to keep at it with a non-responsive contact, but give it at least two or three times spread out over a few weeks. If you’ve done your homework, chances are you’ll get through, eventually.

Let them in on your vision

My new contact on the phone this week told me about his vision for the future of products like his. It was glorious, and it gave me the big picture perspective that I needed to win over my editor. Don’t be shy here. If you’re thinking ahead three (or four or five) iterations beyond the current offering, let your prospective advocates know what the world will look like when the vision is realized.

Who’s going to be your advocate in the media?

Why your company needs publicity (and how to get it)

A few years ago, the head of a startup pursued me relentlessly for a story. I wasn’t so sure about his company and I wasn’t so sure about him. He was in an already risky business and his plan seemed even more riskier that most. Oh, all right, I’ll just go ahead and say it: on the lunacy-genius scale, his scheme slid well toward the lunacy side.

The thing was, he knew it. That’s why he pursued me. He knew there was a fair chance I could land his company on the cover of a well-respected magazine I was then writing for regularly.

I don’t really advocate this, but he persisted until he finally wore me down enough for me to pitch the story to my editor. It was a good faith pitch, too, because although I had my doubts about his project, the man’s passion finally won me over. He believed in the project, and that got through to me, and through me, to my editor, who ended up assigning me the story. It almost but not quite, made it as the main cover story for the magazine (at the last minute, it got relegated to a smaller image, but still got on the cover).

Why did my contact need that story? Because his extremely risky venture had a lot of skepticism to overcome to win over backers and customers. A story in a widely-read, well-regarded publication serves as an endorsement in a way that is very difficult for mere advertising to achieve.

A story in such a magazine has to get past gate keepers (in this case, me and my editor) who, in effect, give it their seal of approval. Simply by publishing the story, the writer and his or her editor say to the world, “This idea/product/venture has some merit and is worth knowing about.”

How did he get that story? By establishing a relationship with me, a writer for the magazine with a demonstrated interest in his field, and convincing me to pitch it. In short, by making a personal connection with the right person at the right media outlet. And all it cost him was the time to send a few emails and make a few phone calls.

Unfortunately, good publicity alone wasn’t enough to keep the project afloat. The business really did have serious problems (although I was able to retire my skepticism about the technology in the process of writing the article). But some well-placed publicity can do a lot to overcome initial objections and at least put a new venture in the running. Just ask Donald Trump.

For more on DIY PR, check out Scott Jordan’s excellent post, “Pocket Wisdom from the Other Side of the Shark Tank: Do Your Own PR to Win.”