Getting your story out: Part One—Pitching traditional mediaKellie Ladipo
The Nonprofit Media Forum, held by GCN every year, features a panel of media veterans speaking frankly about what nonprofits can do to gain traction with traditional media gatekeepers and online audiences. To share the wealth of information our attending members take away, we’re distilling lessons from the most recent forum in a series of articles, each tackling a different aspect of effective modern-day storytelling.
How can nonprofits get the attention of print and broadcast media? What do decision-makers consider newsworthy? How should I format my pitch—online and over the phone? These are just a few of the questions we’ve received from nonprofit organizations seeking to effectively engage traditional media—and when nonprofits need answers, we find them. Going straight to the source, our media partners at WSB's Family 2 Family project, we gathered a panel of media veterans for our Nonprofit Media Forum to talk candidly about a range of topics, including what works for them, what doesn’t, and what drives them absolutely crazy when fielding pitches.
Tracey Christensen | Manager of Digital Strategy, WSB-TV
Jocelyn Dorsey | Director of Public Affairs & Editorials, WSB-TV
Sonia Edwards | Senior Marketing Coordinator, The Atlanta Journal Constitution
Jennifer Grove | Multiplatform Producer, WSB-TV
Lacey LeCroy | Assignment Editor, WSB-TV
Shawn McIntosh |Deputy Managing Editor, The Atlanta Journal Constitution
Condace Pressley | Manager of Programming Operations and Community Affairs, News 95.5 AM 750 WSB
DOs and DON’Ts, straight from the pros
When discussing what does and doesn’t work in a pitch, the panel had some solid advice for crafting your next media appeal.
DO: Pitch a compelling story.
Dorsey: Journalism 101: Dog bites man is not news. Man bites dog is. So, you’ve got to think of something that is unusual about your event or what’s happening, [something] that would grab anyone’s attention.
Grove: The story that I want to know is the [one that makes] you say “That’s why I do what I do.” That kid, that animal, that result that keeps you going, that’s what’s going to impact the audience. You don’t have to guess: “Why are you doing what you’re doing?” That’s your story.
“Your press release doesn’t have to be fancy, it just has to have a good story.”
DO: Provide a human connection.
Pressley: Have a great story and identify real people. News is about people, so when you can provide people for us to talk to, [as well as] great visuals for television, and additional sound for radio—those are key elements that catch decision-makers’ attention, and get us to look more than once at the release you’ve sent.
Christensen: Coming from the PR side of nonprofits, every time we pitched a story, it had to have a personal success story with it. The chance of getting picked up by WSB, or the AJC, was so much higher if we were able to give them somebody to speak to. Your organization received a $100,000 grant; that’s great. But who did it help? How is it going to impact your community? That’s the story people in the news want to tell.
LeCroy: Your press release doesn’t have to be fancy, it just has to have a good story. Not “Here’s the walk, here’s the time,” but “Here’s what you’re going to get at the walk. You’re going to get a patient that’s going to benefit, a veteran that’s receiving a home.” Give me the story with a real person, or I’ll just file it with the ten other walks I have on Saturday morning.
DON’T: Pitch to the wrong person.
McIntosh: You have to get it to the right person yourself. Spend a little time figuring out, if you’re a health care nonprofit, who covers health care; if you’re in the Gwinnett county area, who covers Gwinnett county. You’re doing a service to get it to the right person, because they’re looking for news in that area.
DON’T: Be wordy.
Edwards: Just give me the meat and potatoes. I don’t need an email that’s four pages long, because I’ve got too much to do. Just hit hard: Tell me what’s the event, what’s the organization, and what you’re doing. Get to the facts quickly.
DO: Provide compelling audio and visual opportunities.
Grove: [Don’t just] think visually, but about sound as well—[something that] captures your attention more than a talking head.
Christensen: Include visual opportunities we want to be there for: “We’re going to make sure this five-year-old cancer patient is the first one across the finish line.” That’s a wonderful visual opportunity.
Dorsey: And put that in the headline. Grab us right at the top.
Pressley: And that headline is also well-served if you put it in the subject line of your email as well. Give us the hook in the subject line.
DON’T: Get too fancy with graphics and attachments.
LeCroy: [Your press release] doesn’t have to have a lot of fancy styling. I actually prefer that it doesn’t, because when I copy it into our planner, it’s going to turn most of your graphics into something that’s unrecognizable.
Christensen: Send [your pitch] in the body. You can send it as an attachment, but include it the body of your email also. If I don’t have to go through all my emails and start opening up attachments, it’s just much easier.
DO: Pitch “exclusives.”
LeCroy: I would pitch exclusive stories directly to a reporter you think might be interested. All of [our reporters’] emails are on our website. They’ll let you know pretty quickly if it’s something they think they can use.
Grove: Gone are the days we loved to cover a press conference where there’s five cameras and somebody standing behind a podium. That is the worst shot: a talking head behind a podium. So the idea of an exclusive, of creating opportunities for individual stations, is important. If you say, “We will pull this person away from the podium and set them aside, give you that visual, give you the story,” that’s a much better way for us to cover a story (that isn’t breaking news).
Dorsey: What smart organizations do is give an exclusive [interview] the day before an event and ask you to hold it, so that the day the story breaks you’ll have the added depth of that interview for the story.
DON’T: Forget about social media.
Grove: Use social media to reach out [to us]. You can follow the community side of WSB-TV at @WSBTV and @WSBTVCommunity on Twitter. As soon as you include me in your Tweet, I get a notification on my phone. So while an email might get buried, that notification popping up is another opportunity to let us know what you’re doing.
DO: Time your pitch appropriately.
Dorsey: The way I operate, a story’s timeliness will really be key to how we respond. Often times, people will send us something that’s happening the next day. We’re not going to respond to that—we have to plan months in advance.
LeCroy: We’re short-form, so I don’t necessarily have to have it ahead of time. You can tell me about an event the morning of. I get in at 7am, and we usually decide by about 9am what we’re going to hit. So as longs as I know by 7am, I will include you in the list of “What’s out there.”
DON'T: Forget to follow up.
LeCroy: So maybe your event didn’t get covered, but you raised $12,000 or had 100 walkers. Send me some pictures. We’ve got so many platforms here [to fill], so follow up with more. You’re not bothering me by sending your releases, and you’re not bothering me by following up to make sure that they’ve made the slate—I’d actually prefer that you do. We want to put all these things out there, but we just can’t. So, maybe hit me [before the event] with an actual person who may benefit from your efforts, or hit us on Sunday [after the event], which is actually a high-demand news day, with a lot of eyes and time to fill, but not a lot of things going on.
Christensen: Send a few photos the next day. Nice photos. It could be something we use on Instagram.
DON'T: Overlook free media resources like community calendars and PSAs.
McIntosh: [The AJC] has a self-provisioning events calendar, so you can go online and put your event in. More than a million people look at that calendar to figure out what to do on the weekend. We also have the county-by-county page. If you get a grant or some recognition, and you feel like you won’t be able to get a [full] story out of it, send it into the county-by-county page and you’ll almost always get a response.
Pressley: All the radio stations [in the Cox Media Group] share that calendar, and you can input the information yourself. If you want to get on the calendar, you no longer have to call, and send a press release, and check back to see if it’s been added. And again, there are millions of eyes looking at it every week. We can also help you [broadcast] a public service announcement. Send us an MP3 of your PSA, or, if you don’t have something that’s ready for air, we can help you produce that as well.
Dorsey: Eighty to 90 percent of PSAs on WSB were produced in-house, at no cost to the organization. Generally, the way we work is to develop a relationship before we produce a PSA, because we want to get to know the [organization] and understand who they’re serving. We reach over 50 counties, so we try to look at mass appeal. Plan six months in advance to get to know us.
Grove: We’ve produced more than eighty 15-second spots in our Family 2 Family project, and those run throughout the newscast. We also have [available airtime] for 30-second spots that run outside of the newscast, during ABC programming.
DO: Think about other ways to get media exposure.
Pressley: [Something] you might consider: We know that every month, and every weekend, we’re trying to raise awareness about some issue. I find that on the radio side, it’s often helpful to have expert analysis that helps us tell the story or give it context, [which you can provide] without betraying the confidentiality guidelines by which we’re all bound.
And the absolute No-Nos
Also be mindful of the following pet peeves, which not only drive our panel crazy, but may frustrate other media pros as well.
Pressley: Calling and launching into the pitch before asking if I’ve got time to hear it.
Dorsey: Talking to an organization and wanting to find more, then finding last year’s information on their website.
Grove: When I get to the event, and you say, “We don’t really have something visual. We can stage something.”
LeCroy: On the day of the event, when I’m trying to get a hold of you, and my videographer doesn’t know where to park, and all I have is your email. Please, please give me your cell phone number.
Christensen: When you send something late in the day and there’s no follow up. Late in the day is when they’re most busy in the news room, and unless it’s breaking news, it can be very difficult for anyone to pay attention.
McIntosh: Pitching to the wrong person. Don’t pitch a feature story to the business editor or a sweet story to the investigations editor.
Edwards: Sending a too-long pitch. Or saying, “We’re having an event tomorrow.” [In that case,] I can’t do a thing for you.
Check out our Flickr album to view more pictures from the 2015 Nonprofit Media Forum
Kellie Ladipo is Marketing Manager at GCN.