Over the course of my career, I’ve participated in dozens of ‘meet the press’ events where marketers gather to find out what makes the news reporters and editors in their market tick. The ultimate goal of these events is to increase the chances of a reporter actually paying attention to a marketing press release or email. But in almost every case, I watched as the eyes of eager marketing professionals glazed over from the boredom that comes with listening to editors describe the grueling pace of their workdays and what will happen to your press release if, God forbid, you are found guilty of engaging in one of their little pet peeves.
Although the world of journalism has changed a lot in recent years, there are still a handful of real news reporters out there working the technology trade beats who have neither the time nor the interest in marketing fluff and I’m going to share with you the secrets to getting their attention. Put simply, if you know the elements of a good story and can craft your pitch in a way that highlights those elements then you will stand a much higher chance of getting the media coverage you desire.
Element # 1: Headlines & Imagery
A great headline and a great photo (or graphic) is the first step in getting a serious newshound to fall out of their chair reaching for the telephone to call you back. There was a time (believe it or not) when online magazines also went to print each week. When I worked for Federal Computer Week during the heyday of its existence, it was turning out 72-page broadsheet print editions every week. There was a lot of content coming out of that newsroom and it was tough to get on the front page. But I learned quickly (from watching my mentor, legendary reporter Bob Brewin) that I could dominate a page, or better yet get on the front page, with even a mediocre story as long as I had a compelling headline and better art work than the other reporters.
Don’t let this simple reality go to waste the next time you pitch a news reporter. Even in today’s world of online-only content and abbreviated social media posts, a great headline and cool imagery can mean the difference between no or little coverage and occupying the lead story position. Editors have to make these decisions multiple times per day to keep their sites looking fresh, relevant and click-worthy. Don’t leave it up to the reporter. Do this work for them, especially if you’re dealing with a new journalist who hasn’t yet discovered the fine art of selling their stories to their editors. Trust me, as an editor who has hired many journalists right out of college, it takes time for them to learn how to pitch their stories internally. Give them a jump start with a compelling headline and a killer image and you’ll increase your chances of seeing your content in a story.
Element # 2: News Hooks & Exclusivity
Even today, when so much of the content served to readers of B2B publications has been sponsored or otherwise paid for, guess what still drives the newsrooms of bonafide media organizations? You got it, news that only they have.
It’s an open secret that nobody in journalism, especially B2B trade journalism, ever talks about, but reporters and editors are competitive, jealous creatures. Beating the competition to news stories or landing an exclusive interview really matters in these newsrooms. They won’t admit it, but even when two publications break the same mundane executive retirement story you can be assured that the editors and reporters are checking the time stamp on the competition’s story and reading it to see if the other guy landed an interview.
Don’t believe me? How else can you explain a story labeled “Breaking News” that is actually about somebody retiring from the government? Everybody retires. But B2B editors will compete over almost anything.
You should always conduct an analysis of which publication will provide you the best opportunity to engage with your target audience and then pitch the key reporters an exclusive story opportunity that leverages a recent, ongoing or approaching news event. Exclusivity, combined with a solid news hook, will have reporters and editors ringing your phone on command like Pavlov’s dogs.
So what’s a news hook, you ask? Aside from the obvious (like, something terrible happened on the Internet today and our product could have prevented it), you need to know what’s happening on Capitol Hill, key dates of legislation and other policy initiatives, deadlines for agencies to show compliance with some policy or law, or a pending contract worth billions of dollars. You have to know what serious news reporters are following and you have to be able to pitch them something that either nobody has reported yet or will advance significantly a story they recently broke. There’s no short cut — you have to know this stuff.
Element # 3: Real People With Real Expertise
One of the main reasons I’ve been so successful as a technology news reporter during the last 20 years, is not only that I was able to cultivate sources in the highest levels of government and industry (although, trust me, that doesn’t hurt) — but whenever possible I put real people in my news stories talking about technical things in a very non-technical, accessible manner.
Granted, a lot of technology news today in the B2B press reads like the specification sheet that comes with a new PC purchase. But while it’s important to be able to communicate technical material, the bottom line for the editors and reporters is that they want to quote people who have titles and expertise that are clearly relevant to the topic. Don’t offer them interviews with your director of business development or North America sales, especially if that person’s entire career has been spent in business development and sales.
Why do I say that? It’s almost impossible for BD, sales and marketing executives to speak about an issue in a way that doesn’t sound self-serving. Their performance is measured in how well they promote their company, its products, services and brand. And the language they use is hard wired to achieve those goals. It is not the language that serious news reporters are going to put into their stories (and it’s even less likely that a good editor will allow it to get through).
So take an inventory of the subject matter experts your company has on staff and create a cheat sheet for what trending topics each could address. Perhaps more important, make a note of all former government officials you have on staff. They can speak about government decisions with the kind of authority that serious news journalists seek. You’ll find that once you break into a reporter’s contact list they will come back to you for insight and analysis on a regular basis. Granted, this is not as easy today as it was, for example, when I was a reporter at Computerworld. Our editors would send stories back for additional reporting if we didn’t have at least three sources of on-the-record commentary. Those standards are long gone in trade journalism today, so understand that you are vying for the attention of reporters who are not under the same pressure that their counterparts were just a few years ago. Still, if you can succeed it’s decent visibility for your company’s brand.
But if you want to hit a home run, then you need to be able to offer the crown jewels of the B2B journalism world — the decision maker interview. Back in the day when the technology being purchased by government agencies actually had users, we called government employees end users. Today, the actual applications and systems are such commodities that end users have almost become irrelevant to the stories that are served to readers (which is sad, because those are the people actually using the technology to do the work of government). Instead, reporters and editors want interviews with the all-powerful government “decision maker.” Most often, that means the CIO, the CSO, a program manager or some other strategic thinker many layers removed from the people doing the work. Whatever your opinion is of this, it is the reality and as a marketing professional you must plan for it.
Government officials will not openly endorse a commercial product, service or company (remember what happened when Kellyanne Conway auditioned to be Ivanka’s shoe salesperson?). So how do you involve them in your story pitches?
The most successful marketing efforts I’ve witnessed in this regard were able to provide leads to government officials who could talk about an agency’s technology challenges and how they overcame those challenges. Even when they were not willing to discuss particular tools or brands used, they were still willing to talk about the class of product they deployed or tested. And this is the kind of government commentary that serves the purpose of industry marketers and will get your pitches on the radar screen of most B2B reporters covering the government today. I’ve seen a handful of companies that were able to work out these agreements in advance of pitching the stories to reporters. But in most cases, the savvy marketer simply provided the background context and contact information for the government official and allowed the reporter to dig up the information that was relevant to the original story pitch.
So, develop those relationships with officials in government and try to include them in your pitches whenever possible.
The next time you attend a government marketing conference and editors tell you how NOT to pitch them stories or how you should spend your personal time at happy hours cultivating a close, personal and trusted relationship with the editors of the publications you are targeting, remember this: It’s all still fish wrap the day after (those of you old enough to remember newspapers will get that reference). You have to get into the stories when you have the chance because the opportunities are few and the impact is often fleeting. Don’t waste your time on tactics that don’t work. When you pitch your next story, make sure it has the three essential elements that all good stories share. Over time, you will see better results.