Who really decides which stories receive play in the media? Technically, executive producers (broadcast) and editors-in-chief (print and online) reserve final judgement. Realistically and more complex, anyone with authority in a newsroom can accept or kill a pitch at any time.
“It’s really a collaborative effort depending upon the pull and influence of each individual member of the team,” says Julie Zann, former producer with CNN who now runs the television production company, Zann Media. “Good ideas can come from anywhere, including interns, production assistants or executive producers themselves.”
With such a nebulous constellation of players engaged in oscillating office politics, how do PR hacks seeking coverage for their clients determine whom to approach at news organizations?
The fundamentals remain the same for pitching most anyone at news outlets. Track the news cycle for opportunities to newsjack, watch a show or follow a journalist online for weeks and months and write a thoroughly researched pitch.
If that’s impossible due to time restraints or a lack of available information, the situation becomes sort of like Will Ferrell in The Other Guys when he fires his first “desk pop.”
Don’t think, start dialing through the list of contacts at a media organization until someone picks up their phone.
“Go for it,” Zann says. “I don’t care if I don’t know you. I want to know who you are pitching. Keep plowing through the list of contacts at a program. Everyone does it.”
The calculus changes somewhat with smaller production teams, says Chad Wilkinson, who served as executive producer for several nationally syndicated radio programs such as Lars Larson and Lou Dobbs.
Wilkinson, who now runs Liberty Media Strategies in Philadelphia, says that with Larson it was often only him, the host and a booker working a show with effectively six hours of content to fill.
Due to the scarcity of time, he said that he scanned guest pitches for a maximum of 15 seconds before deciding whether or not to look into it more deeply. Should the pitch stand after a more thorough vetting, he sends it to the host for consideration.
“Radio can be much more freewheeling and loosely organized” than print or TV, Wilkinson says. “Pitches do not go beyond three people, and possibly an intern.”
Former StarMetro Calgary Senior Reporter Brodie Thomas — now with LiveWireCalgary — is more generous with his time as he works in a better-staffed print and online environment. He scans a pitch for a full 20 seconds before deciding whether or not to move forward with it.
He advises hacks to reach out to individual journalists before hitting up editors, who often only see articles at the morning meeting.
“The pressure is on reporters to find stories,” Thomas adds. “Exclusives are even better, although offering it up too early smells of desperation.”
However few and far between, PR hacks can crash the gate with a few certainties, says Ken Hanner, a 26-year veteran at The Washington Times with the final 14 years spent as the national desk editor.
Start with identifying the proper section of the paper to pitch and then send it before the morning meeting, Hanner says, where most newsrooms begin the day to determine coverage.
Everyone wants to walk in with fresh and brilliant ideas, he adds. If they don’t, they walk out with an assignment to review the new Olive Garden in town.
“Publicists need to plan accordingly,” Hanner says. “If you give reporters great stories, they will be very appreciative.”
Sav McBride, senior account executive with GS&F, relates a random conversation with a journalist on drones, about which she was extremely interested.
McBride said that he had nothing relevant to offer at the time of their discussion, but a year later he secured a drone client. He reached back to the reporter to pitch an off-site rooftop drone shoot.
With no hard news to offer, McBride says, she said that she would find a way to fit it into the programming that day simply because she was so excited. Two days later the reporter droned live from his client’s rooftop.
“While producers and assignment editors tend to be the decision-makers when it comes to broadcast interviews and coverage, if you pitch a reporter or anchor on something you know they’re particularly interested in, I’ve found that they’ll usually find a way to make the coverage happen,” McBride concludes.