How to get the attention of the news media

The working news media – from the New York Times and NPR to the Washington Post and a host of trades – has been begging … literally BEGGING … PR people to stop “pitching” messages, press releases and fluff. The news media only wants news … timely, relevant and legitimate news stories.

All the media wants is a real story.

All the media wants is a real story.

The universal commodity of the news media – regardless of location in the world – is all the same thing: Stories. Timely and relevant stories that appeal to their respective audiences. It is the “timely and relevant” magic potion that makes an ordinary story a legitimate and real news story that earns coverage. Contact a reporter and give them a new and real story that fits with their beat, area of interest and audience, and … bingo! You get news coverage.

On the other hand, call a reporter and say, “Hi, how are you today. Good, I hope. I am calling to ‘pitch’ you on …” And, at that point, either the line goes dead or you know they are no longer listening. “Pitch” is a 5-letter dirty word.

Even worse, send out a press release (which are nearly always self-serving marketing fluff) via one of those blast email distribution services, and … guaranteed … no coverage. None. Using Vocus, BusinessWire, PRNewswire or any mass distribution service spells death for any glimmer of hope for coverage. Why? Because a reporter is not paid in these days of media cutbacks to regurgitate stuff you’ve indiscriminately shared with everyone else on the planet.

Journalists are paid to report captivating and interesting stories that their competitors will not have. There is a better way .. a much easier way to not only capture great media attention but to control the media.

Bruce Springsteen with Apple's Katie Cotton.

Bruce Springsteen with Apple’s Katie Cotton.

Newsman Dan Lyons, who has written for Newsweek and Forbes, is the latest journalist to join the Greek chorus of reporters begging PR people to stop with their inane, decades-old tactics. In a piece for HubSpot.com about the retirement of Apple’s legendary head of communications, Katie Cotton, Lyons explains how Cotton generated and controlled so much media attention for Apple. Cotton always believed less is more in order to control the media.

“Cotton practiced what I think of as anti-PR. She didn’t pitch reporters. In fact, quite the opposite. What Cotton understood, and what most PR people don’t, is the value of mystery. She treated you (the media) like something that needs to be scraped off her shoe. This captures your (the media’s) attention. She really, honestly doesn’t want to have anything to do with you. You’re not worthy. She’s a queen bee, and you’re just some loser. What happens then is that reporters start competing to win Apple’s affection. They write glowing reviews.”

Katie Cotton knew that regardless of industry sector, only a couple of reporters are the thought-leaders. In the tech sector, those reporters are Walt Mossberg and David Pogue. Cotton catered to them, and treated all other reporters like crap. It worked.

As someone who has spent most of my working life in some facet of journalism, I fully agree with Katie Cotton’s savvy thinking.

The best way to get great coverage is to pretend that you don’t want any of that coverage. Be secretive. Be mysterious. Talk less. Never send out press releases and other tactics from the 1940s.  Make people curious. Be alluring about your news. And, stop pitching ’cause it does not result in coverage. For some reason, far too many PR people … especially agencies … cannot comprehend that.

Lastly, for a good read that trashes the current PR profession, read “PR teeters on a ludicrous lie they tell their clients,” by Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post.

10 Comments

  1. After spending 20+ years working in PR, I totally agree with your position, David.

    But the real problem: Most PR people/agencies are paid for process and effort, and not results. I can still recall seeing the invoice an agency sent to a client. They billed the client for every phone pitch…whether the pitch resulted in a story or not…at a rate of $1,250 per call. Seriously.

  2. After spending 20+ years working in PR, I totally agree with your position, David.

    But the real problem: Most PR people/agencies are paid for process and effort, and not results. I can still recall seeing the invoice an agency sent to a client. They billed the client for every phone pitch…whether the pitch resulted in a story or not…at a rate of $1,250 per call. Seriously.

  3. Bob,

    You have defined the essence of PR. It is process oriented. Or, repetitive and rubber stamp in its approach. One-size-fits-all, regardless of client needs or wishes.

    I have seldom seen critical analysis applied to the practice of PR although it’s a more intellectual methodology to achieve results.

    Thanks for your comment.

    David

  4. Bob,

    You have defined the essence of PR. It is process oriented. Or, repetitive and rubber stamp in its approach. One-size-fits-all, regardless of client needs or wishes.

    I have seldom seen critical analysis applied to the practice of PR although it’s a more intellectual methodology to achieve results.

    Thanks for your comment.

    David

  5. While I agree with many of the points being made here, especially that a strategic approach to media relations always trumps the “throw spaghetti at the wall and hope something sticks approach”, companies that wield the clout of an Apple are far and few between. What has worked for Katie Cotton and Apple will not work for most organizations. The PR folk who give more thought to what they’re putting in their coffee than to what they’re putting in their media pitches give the entire lot a bad name. The fact remains that PR pros continue to be a primary source for stories that journalists are just too strapped to discover on their own.

    1. Thanks, Jim. You made a good point. But the vast majority of PR people – from my perspective – just throw spaghetti at the walls in the form of news releases indiscriminately blasted out on those services designed for the lazy in PR.

  6. While I agree with many of the points being made here, especially that a strategic approach to media relations always trumps the “throw spaghetti at the wall and hope something sticks approach”, companies that wield the clout of an Apple are far and few between. What has worked for Katie Cotton and Apple will not work for most organizations. The PR folk who give more thought to what they’re putting in their coffee than to what they’re putting in their media pitches give the entire lot a bad name. The fact remains that PR pros continue to be a primary source for stories that journalists are just too strapped to discover on their own.

    1. Thanks, Jim. You made a good point. But the vast majority of PR people – from my perspective – just throw spaghetti at the walls in the form of news releases indiscriminately blasted out on those services designed for the lazy in PR.

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