Media Relations Pitching Pitfalls that Kill Relationships

Media relations pitching is challenging to say the least. Editors are busy people. Writers and journalists are often on the run, facing tight deadlines and email boxes that absolutely never get read down to zero.

When pitching a potential story, getting an editor to open your email is already a challenge, albeit one that can be overcome with a good subject line and some follow-up phone calls. But believe it or not, that’s the easy part.

The real challenge is convincing an editor that your pitch is one worth reading and, more importantly, the story angle you’re pitching is one worthy of publication. When your message is in competition with the hundreds of other pitches that flood a journalist’s email box every day, navigating the waters of media relations pitching is no easy task.
Successful relationship building starts with a single pitch. For best results, double check to ensure you’re avoiding these egregious errors each and every time you’re emailing an editor in an effort to earn their attention.

“To Whom it May Concern” leaves no one concerned

Remember that sea of emails I mentioned above? Well, your messages are likely to drown if you think a generic greeting is enough. “Dear Journalist,” “Hi Editor,” or “Hi There, Friend!” are all opening lines I saw during my time as an editor (yes, that last one is real); I’d roll my eyes each and every time I saw them. Nothing says “I don’t care about you. I’m mass producing emails in a desperate attempt to get someone to respond” like an impersonal greeting. Don’t do it. Avoid the practice whenever possible – and when you’re pitching a specific editor, it’s always possible.

If you can’t be bothered to take the extra time to be certain an email you send contains the name of an editor, why would they give your pitch a second look? It may go without saying, but ensuring you spell an editor’s name correctly and properly type the name of the publication goes a long way toward crafting a message that feels personal and worthy of a response.

You seem cool, but will readers care?

Have you ever had a date, or been to a dinner party with someone who just wouldn’t stop talking about their own accomplishments and life? It’s the worst. Even if those accomplishments are noteworthy – like if they climbed Mt Kilimanjaro barefoot – no one likes a bragger.

Making everything all about you evokes envy in those who are far too addicted to shoes to ever accomplish such feats. We all have to brag a little; however, for a media pitch, talking only about yourself, your company, and your brand simply isn’t going to fly.

An editor has one question on their mind: “Will my readers care about this?” The job of a pitch is to convince them that readers want to hear this story.

When selling a major personal accomplishment – one from a thought leader or a business – make sure you relate it to some larger social issue or current event. Every story has to have a newsworthy spin.

Make the pitch about something journalists are likely to care about. If you do that, they may not even mind if you brag a little in the process.

Don’t be the talk of the watercooler

If you’re trying to get a specific publication to tell your story, it’s OK to email multiple editors if you don’t get a response. In fact, that may be the only way to move things forward. However, emailing different contacts from the same editorial team on the same day isn’t going to help your cause. Not only do you risk two editors wanting to write your story when only one can, but you also risk your pitch becoming office gossip.

Editorial staffs share pitches with each other, and if two get the same pitch, that may be enough to bury your story completely.
As a personal anecdote, one time I received a pitch on an “exclusive story written specifically for [publication name].” Long story short, our sister publication in the office next door received the same pitch – and with one conversation, this potential menu option went from made-to-order cuisine to looking more like fast food. To avoid potential confusion, I abandoned the story and so did my colleague. It happens every day.

Unless you sign their check, they are not on your staff

This one is for vendors and in-house media relations teams: Don’t treat editors like they’re on your marketing staff! Unless you’re paying them for an advertorial, they do not exist to publish the language of your pitch or parrot your branding. This, by the way, is one of the biggest reasons you might want to consider working with a media relations agency such as Amendola Communications rather than trying to do it yourself.

While messaging is extremely important for any company to have, most journalists can do without it. Writers like to stick to the facts. If your pitch is loaded with buzzwords and messaging unique to your brand, it’s more likely to be ignored.

Every editor expects some “marketing speak” to make its way into pitches, but not at the expense of newsworthy content. The trick is to insert key messaging into a pitch alongside useful, interesting information.

But perhaps the worst sin of all happens after a pitch has earned a published article. Erroneously, some demanding media relations novices – particularly those who are on a company’s staff, as opposed to an outside agency – will email journalists asking for a litany of changes.

From my experience as an editor, these changes often include the insertion of obvious marketing language and patented buzzwords. If other editors are anything like me, these requests will almost always be met with righteous refusal.

No one likes having their story ripped apart. It’s worth saying again: Unless the editor in question also happens to be a copywriter you have on staff (which would be weird), bite the bullet and treat them as autonomous beings that are free to write their stories as they see fit.

Asking editors to fix errors is fine, but anything beyond that starts to infringe upon their ability to work freely. And once you cross that line, there may be nothing you can do to get them read your pitch again until you mend that relationship.

Of all the “don’ts” on this list, this one is the most important because it goes beyond a single pitch and speaks to effective relationship building. In the end, that’s what media relations is all about if you want the opportunities to continue long into the future.

Make it a win-win

All too often, pitches fail because the person doing the pitching is only thinking about themselves and what they want out of the encounter. That’s no way to build a relationship.
If you make sure writers and editor feels like you’re working with them, rather than talking at them, you’ll be much more likely to get your media relations pitches read – and your stories placed.

The Problem with Your Content is You (and Other Content Marketing Truths)

Here’s a valuable lesson for anyone involved in content marketing. Recently, I was chatting with a small group of guests at a party. Then, the other partygoers gracefully exited the conversation—and suddenly, I was trapped. I looked right. I looked left. But my efforts were futile. I was officially stuck in a never-ending conversation. Yes, I had entered the dreaded Party Vortex, which is similar to the Polar Vortex but much less cold and much more dangerous.

But the real problem, and what made the circumstances so precarious, is that the never-ending conversation wasn’t a conversation at all. It was a monologue without audience participation. It was a soliloquy but far less articulate. It was all about my new acquaintance, who would most certainly not make the cut to be called a friend. As he continued to talk at me for 20 minutes, which felt like 20 hours, I smiled and nodded but secretly plotted my escape. Yet, despite my best Party Ninja skills, there was no way.

Spoiler alert: I survived this party trauma and lived to tell the tale. But sadly, this blog is not about party etiquette. It’s about content marketing because my Party Vortex nightmare is undeniably similar to the experience that potential customers might be having with your content right now.

While content marketing missteps are many and frequent, the biggest, most overarching mistake is that your content is all about you. It’s all about your company and your solutions. It’s all about your technology saving the world. This is the sort of content that not so subtly shouts “buy this.” After all, isn’t that your end goal?

However, touting the features and functionality of your newest product under the guise of a white paper often fails to make an impact—especially as healthcare professionals becomes savvier to the idea that they’re being sold to everyday. It falls short because it doesn’t take readers, your potential customers, into account. It doesn’t address what readers really want to know and what will compel them to take action. It leaves readers hanging, and then what happens?

Rather than completing a “contact us form” on your website to learn more, they’re lost to you. They may have simply decided that it’s not the right time to buy or that your company isn’t the right partner. They may have even—gasp—moved on to one of your competitors.

From company-focused to customer-focused
When developing a content marketing strategy and crafting each piece of content to support that plan, it’s critical to keep your future customers top-of-mind. Remember that every decision-maker or influencer that engages with your content could be your newest client, smartest super user, or most reliable reference.

How can you better connect with your audience? It’s simple but shockingly hard to do. Write what they want to hear about, rather than writing what you want to say. Write what they are hungry to learn about, rather than what you’re desperate to teach them. It’s a small change in perspective that makes a big difference. And while that may seem obvious, it’s not abundantly clear to many marketing and PR professionals—unless they’re just doing it wrong.

Effective, customer-focused content prompts an “aha moment,” by sharing new ideas or even the same old ideas in a new way. This matters because encouraging readers to think differently is the first step to being seen as a thought leader in their minds and then as the ideal strategic partner.

These new perspectives aren’t necessarily earth-shattering but they draw readers in. Customer-focused content addresses the problem you’re solving, not just the solution.
It also doesn’t oversimplify the solution by presenting painless and perfect success stories of IT solutions that were seamlessly implemented and quickly gained adoption by all end users. Further, it provides insights on process improvements, change management, and other tactics that readers can put into action, aside from just buying your technology.

Real-world tips and lessons learned are valuable takeaways that readers appreciate much more than a bulleted list of your product’s bells and whistles.

Your new customer-focused content will not only satisfy readers but also help turn more potential customers into actual ones. Even more importantly, we know that your new, improved content will ensure that you’re invited back to the party. And isn’t being invited back to the party the ultimate goal of any marketing?

Taking A Measure of PR Measurement

So there you are, listening to the PR agencies you’ve brought in to pitch your business. Everything is going swimmingly, and you think you’ve found your top candidate. Then you do it – ask the one question that strikes fear into the heart of nearly every PR professional: what sort of PR measurement tools will you use to measure success?

At that point the air gets thick, and suddenly the only sound in what was once a room filled with lively discussion is the steady whirring of the HVAC system in the background.

It’s not that PR people are afraid to be measured on their accomplishments. It’s just that they’ve been down this road enough times to know that’s not really the question that’s being asked. The actual question is more along the lines of “How will you prove your campaign was solely responsible for improving our sales?” That goes double if it’s the VP of Sales who asked the question.

While it would be awesome if you could do it, tying PR to sales isn’t really a fair measure of the effectiveness of the campaign. That’s not just me saying that.

A few weeks ago I attended a webinar led by PR measurement guru Katie Delahaye Paine where she discussed this topic. The analogy she used was a PR campaign to sell cars. If the campaign succeeds in driving 100 people to the showroom but no cars are sold, would you say the campaign failed? Doubtful.

There could be all kinds of reasons the cars weren’t sold. Maybe the showroom never opened. Maybe the salespeople were rude or incompetent. Maybe prospects went for a test drive and discovered the interior noise level was somewhere between “WWII-era Sherman tank” and “jet engine.” Maybe everyone wanted a yellow car and it didn’t come in yellow. You get the idea.

Whatever the reason, it’s not because the PR campaign didn’t do its job. The people came. They just didn’t like what they found once they got there.

The stakes go up with HIT

When you’re talking about health IT (HIT) products or services it gets even more difficult to attribute a sale directly to the PR campaign. First of all, the average HIT offering costs many times more than a car. Would you buy a car based on what you read in a press release, or a byline article, or even a white paper?

Highly unlikely. Once you became aware of the car you’d probably want to research it on the Internet – see what professional reviewers say as well as people who already own that vehicle. You’d want to compare it to other models. You’d want to kick the tires (even though that’s completely pointless) and take it for a test drive. Cars cost too much money, and most of us keep them for too long, to just purchase one based on the PR campaign.

So why would anyone purchase an expensive HIT product or service their business depends on, and that they’ll probably have to live with for a few years, based solely on a PR campaign?

The answer, quite frankly, is they wouldn’t. Most things in HIT are considered purchases that require many exposures and steps before the decision is made. The PR campaign will be useful in creating awareness, and a good content program will help walk the prospect through the decision-making process.

But at the end of that cycle, which could take several months or even a year or two, it will be very difficult to suss out exactly how much PR contributed to the sales that do happen. Not to mention virtually impossible to determine how many sales didn’t occur due to some issue that had nothing to do with the quality or effectiveness of the PR campaign.

There is an exception, at least for online sales. Google Analytics does have a pretty sophisticated way of tracking the lifecycle of a sale. Rather than simply relying on the last click, the analytics can associate all the activities of individual users together to provide a history of all their clicks, including their entry point off a PR campaign. That, however, takes some pretty sophisticated work performed by outside specialists. Given that purchasing HIT products and services is a team sport, you have to determine whether it’s worth the time and effort to attribute those sales to PR.

Oh, and as far as ad equivalencies go, don’t bother. Calculating the cost of purchasing the same space versus getting it “free” from PR pretty much went out with parachute pants and giant boom boxes.

What you can measure

Ok, if that doesn’t work for measuring PR, what does?

One good measure is web traffic. The measurement can be overall web traffic, and/or spikes that occur around a PR campaign event such as a press release going out or content appearing in a media outlet or blog.

Measuring spikes in traffic is akin to the so-called “flush test” back in the early days of TV. Executives judged the popularity of Milton Berle’s program by the noticeable drop in water levels when the show went to commercial. Not exactly precise, but it does provide some indication your materials are causing prospects to take a positive action.

Another measure is downloads of your materials. These generally break into two categories – the materials that can be freely downloaded, and gated content that requires visitors to give you their name and email address in order to complete the download.

Free downloads are good for gauging general interest among those considered “suspects,” i.e., the casual consumers of your materials. Those willing to go through the requirements to obtain the gated materials are your more serious prospects.

Many organizations like to measure “share of voice” within their markets. They want to see how much of the conversation around a given topic they own versus their competitors.

A simple form of this measurement is volume, as in how many press releases did we put out compared to our competitors? You can also break comparisons down around earned media (interviews, byline articles, product reviews, or anything that requires some effort on the part of the media outlet) and positive-negative-neutral coverage.

The latter generally isn’t a good measure in HIT because the coverage in general will almost always be positive. HIT media outlets are generally looking to inform their audiences about ideas, products, and services they can use, not tear them apart like the political media. In some rare instances, however, positive-negative-neutral can be relevant.

There are others as well. The key is to start by determining what is important to help your organization drive the activities that lead to sales, and then measure the success of those activities. For example, if you know that securing 50 sales at the end of the year requires 2,500 prospects to be deep in the sales funnel (downloading gated content, speaking with salespeople, etc.), and getting 2,500 prospects means you need 15,000 suspects downloading free content out of a total of 100,000 visitors to your website, you have a pretty good idea of how to measure success.

If you do all the other steps but miss the mark on the 50 sales, you’ll also know you either need to adjust your upstream figures, or you have a problem in closing the sale. Either way, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what your next steps should be.

Measure to inform
One of my other favorite things Katie Paine says is to only measure what you’re willing to change. There is no point in measuring the value of wearing pants if you will never not wear pants.

To make PR measurement work, you must understand the actions you’re trying to drive and be willing to change the program if it isn’t driving those actions. Once everyone understands the goals, and PR’s role in achieving them, you’ll know how to measure success.

Facts Tell But Stories Sell

“Story telling is the oldest form of teaching,” Matt Cavallo declared when we met on May 23. I couldn’t agree more. Great story telling has always intrigued me. Maybe that’s why I’m in PR. I have always believed that behind every organization is a zealous individual with an epic story waiting to be shared. It’s usually the CEO or founder, though not always.

Matt is a passionate patient advocate who dedicates his life to the fight against multiple sclerosis. He has been named among the top 10 Social HealthMakers by WCG and his blog was selected as one of Healthline’s top multiple sclerosis picks in 2015. His story of being diagnosed and overcoming the physical and emotional challenges associated with having a chronic disease can be read in his memoir, The Dog Story: A Journey into a New Life with Multiple Sclerosis.

What started as a simple half-hour meet-and-greet with Amendola Communications agency staff turned into a 90-minute conversation. Who has that kind of time, you ask? Well, Matt knew how to keep our attention: he had us laughing one moment and fighting back tears the next. It’s a skill few people have but many aspire to. This ability to connect comes in really handy during media interviews at large trade shows (such as HIMSS) where our PR clients (health IT vendors) get to pitch their product or solution to editors who decide on the spot whether they care enough to write about them…or not.

GetWellNetwork® founder and CEO Michael O’Neil was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 28. While the medical outcome was excellent, the patient experience was challenging. After four cycles of chemotherapy, he started GetWellNetwork to help hospitals improve performance and outcomes through patient engagement. Michael and his team work tirelessly to ensure the voice of the patient is heard. Today, more than 4.6 million patients use GetWellNetwork technology to engage in their healthcare. Take a minute to watch Michael tell his story in this short video.

Growing up in a family of doctors, ClearDATA CEO Darin Brannan got a firsthand look at the challenges healthcare practitioners face in treating patients using paper and outdated technology. It made him painfully aware of the number of people who die each day as a result of medical errors long before it became national news.

Despite the availability of electronic health records and other technologies that were supposed to solve the problem, reports show that more than 1,000 people still die each day due to medical errors. At the center of this seeming disconnect is a lack of cohesiveness among advanced information technologies. Darin believes that, “Healthcare is less of a science problem, it’s more of an information problem.”

In 2011, he co-founded ClearDATA to apply his cloud computing expertise to healthcare in order to remove the technical obstacles inhibiting patient safety and costing lives. Today, ClearDATA is recognized by organizations such as CB Insights as a leading healthcare information security services company, with $54 million in funding and a customer portfolio that includes some of the largest healthcare providers in the nation.

Dave Bennett, EVP, Orion Health, is passionate about precision medicine. He often tells the story about his son, Carter, who has cystic fibrosis (CF). Here is how he tells it.

Carter’s story

About a decade ago, my oldest son, Carter, was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.

Like most kids with CF, Carter had a host of physical problems, like lung infections due to mucous build-up and thrive issues due to pancreas blockage. In eighth grade his lungs needed a thorough cleaning, so he was hospitalized and homebound for three consecutive weeks with a PICC line.

Five years ago, Vertex Pharmaceuticals released a drug designed to address Carter’s specific genetic variation of CF, one that only four percent of patients have.

But when I told Carter’s doctor about it, he said it wouldn’t help Carter because he didn’t have that genetic variation.

Once I pressed the doctor to review 60 pages of Carter’s data, however, the doctor soon reversed his position.

“This is a game changer,” he said.

Now let’s be clear: Carter’s doctor is a great doctor. But he didn’t have the tools to help him analyze that 60 pages of data and connect my son to a promising new drug therapy that went on to stabilize his lung function, end his annual sinus surgeries, eliminate his regular bronchial scopes, made his ED visits a thing of the past, and allowed him to flourish into a six-foot-two-inch, 225-pound captain of his high-school football team. Today, Carter is a thriving college student, our payers don’t have to pay for all the procedures mentioned above anymore, and his mom and I don’t worry about him one bit.

That is the promise of precision medicine exemplified. But in the future, rather than rely on a highly interested advocate—like a parent who’s passionate about precision medicine—to provide that cognitive support, payers and providers will be able to rely on technology that synthesizes and analyzes the data (e.g., those 60 pages Carter’s doctor couldn’t effortlessly process) and utilize it in the right context at the right time.

“This is my mission,” Dave tells journalists. “I want to help doctors and patients in making decisions about what will help them. To do this work, you really need focus at the mission level, because it’s going to change healthcare for the better and make a difference in people’s lives.”