Reporting from the Other Side: a PR Pro Gets Pitched

by Charles Epstein

Photo by Jose Francisco Morales on Unsplash

Sometimes it’s eye opening seeing how the other half lives — or, in this particular case, how the other half “pitches.” As a veteran PR practitioner I’ve seen many things change over the years, from how one engages reporters (put that cell phone down!) to suddenly needing to be everywhere at once (Twitter! Instagram! Pinterest!) and an equally intense need to avoid several places at all cost (no comment). One thing, however, has remained constant: the importance of a “killer” pitch (aka, editorial query).

On Twitter the dreaded “ratio” refers to tweets where the negative responses far outnumber the retweets and likes; in PR, the dreaded ratio is the 8:1 relationship of PR people to journalists. With more media outlets hemorrhaging reporters or shuttering, the ratio is getting more unfavorable as we find ourselves competing for the attention of a dwindling number of hearts, minds and eyeballs that determine whether or not the pitch gets play.

Of all the things we do, writing pitches is the thing I enjoy most. It’s the closest thing to sport: what can you do to outmaneuver the competition, break free of the pack, grab the reporter’s attention and score an article or column inches for your client. One of the differences between pitching and sports is that re the former, you can’t be effective if you’re limited to only a handful of go-to moves. When you pitch you need to use the full arsenal: provocative, counter-intuitive, humorous, teasing, cryptic, short, long…often in some combination (of course if it’s a slant on something in the news or pegged to an interesting new study or survey, you don’t have to reach too far into the bag — you can rely on your fastball). But I’ll make a confession: there are times I’ve written what I’m convinced is the tightest, most on-point, couldn’t be better timed or turned pitch, only to send it out and…nothing. Barely a ripple. Of course I hasten to mention that this is not by any stretch my standard experience — trust me, seriously — but it has happened. And you can never be completely sure why.

Back to the “other half” that I mentioned at the beginning of this. When I’m not working my day job, I contribute a monthly column to WorldatWork (and their publication, Workspan). It’s called NSFW and it takes a humorous approach to various aspects of HR specifically and work generally. Sometimes I probably take my column more seriously than it warrants, but I do like to get out every so often to do something like reporting to get a first hand idea of what people are thinking and, more importantly doing. Typically this means attending a trade show as a reporter in order to meet and speak with exhibitors, attendees, as well as with other reporters or analysts. Now, the problem is that once I register as a member of the media, I will be barraged by imploring emails from flacks (like me) looking to grab my attention. On the positive side, I get to see — and experience — what it’s like to be on the receiving end of imploring pitches from persistent, highly annoying flacks (like me).

As you’d expect, many, if not the majority, were immediately dismiss-able. Either the topic didn’t “land” or the pitch itself was uninspired, meandering, confusing, misleading, pedantic, badly written, opened with “Hi!” or, as in several cases, insulting to the intelligence (pitches that opened with “Hi,” for instance). Some, however, were really good! Bear in mind that we’re talking about a health technology trade show for a business-to-business audience, so the pitches are not what you’d see coming from, say, CES or ComicCon — artificial intelligence is a fascinating, some would say, exciting topic, but to most people outside the industry, a company bringing machine learning to diabetes treatment is not something to get the pulse racing (unless you have diabetes, of course). Here’s a brief, unscientific sampling of the good and not so good, beginning with several subject headers, then the body of several pitches. (Note: I’ve scrubbed the trade show name and all company references — first because I don’t want to make this about that particular show as that’s not at all the point, second, I didn’t think it fair for clumsy, counter-productive media relations to reflect on the company on the receiving end.)

Photo by Matthew Fournier on Unsplash

First, let’s take a look at several subject lines:

Subject: Hi from (Company Name Here)

This is the pr equivalent of getting booed off the Apollo stage moments after setting foot on it. I’ve already established how off-putting “hi” is at any stage of an email — at least here I was saved from opening it and then getting the dreaded “hi,” which would have caused even more simmering rage. (Note: many begin their email with Hi Charles, vs. simply Hi. The former is perfectly acceptable.)

Subject: (Trade show name here) Exclusive!

Ok, not exactly original, but it came from a brand name PR outfit and it seemed that they had me on a privileged list of media people made privy to this exciting development…it turned out to be a generic announcement and an invitation to swing by the booth. It’s a terrible feeling to think you’re special, only to realize that you’ve been mislead (I am referring narrowly to this scenario, as I’d be lying if I said I haven’t experienced this very thing in other contexts).

Subject: We’re Brand New at (Name of Tradeshow) 2019

Amid all the boastful noise, I found this to be endearingly straight-forward and intriguingly modest. As an experienced attendee (on both the media and exhibitor side), my first instinct was to offer assurance — “yeah, the show is huge and overwhelming, the key is to pace yourself and stay hydrated.” When I opened it, I wasn’t disappointed, as often happens when you come across an interesting subject line: the tone was “chill” and inviting: I was given flexible options to meet and/or talk before, during or after the show.

Photo by Victor Freitas on Unsplash

Here are several pitches that caught my attention, for better or worse:

Email:

Charles,

I wanted to take a moment to share with you some brief highlights and recent areas of focus from a few of the innovative companies that will be in attendance. Please let me know if you’d be interested in meeting with executives from any of the below companies during the event or speaking via phone afterwards. I’m also happy to send over fact sheets, recent white papers, or other collateral at your request. Thanks very much, looking forward to connecting!

Comment: The email contained intro grafs and bullet points on four separate companies. Four! It felt like I was on line at an all-you-can-eat buffet, only it’s an abundance of information vs. an abundance of mediocre food…quantity doesn’t improve quality.

Email:

Charles –

Artificial intelligence is transforming the healthcare industry — it is creating opportunities that we never thought possible and opening up the realm of possibilities beyond human capabilities. Below please find multiple ways that AI has transformed healthcare as we know it.

Note to self: do not be such a pedantic ass when pitching.. Chances are the reporter has covered the topic and knows the basics — you’re pitching a story, not teeing up a TED talk. And don’t make it sound like they’re supposed to hear Ride of the Valkyries as the backdrop — it’s not as impressive as you think, it’s ridiculous.

Email:

Charles,

Antimicrobial overprescribing is leading to enormous issues nationwide, with two million Americans infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria annually, and 23,000 dying as a result. Now, health IT leaders AcmeCare and WellGeneric are increasing visibility within providers’ and pharmacists’ EHR workflows to improve antimicrobial therapy monitoring and overprescribing.

Note to self: people will pay more attention when you write in your native tongue, in this case, English.

Email:

Hi Charles,

(Company X) made a show announcement today (see below), and has another one planned for Friday. Although our CEO Bob Smith’s schedule is almost full, we might be able to do a briefing before the show. Are you interested?

Note to self: don’t make the reporter feel like you’re re-gifting your pitch. Right out of the gate you’re telling me you might –might — able to squeeze me in. Am I interested? No, not really, I’m not.

Email:

Hi Charles,

(Name of Company) is a brand new exhibitor at (Name of Trade show), so I wanted to take a moment to introduce us to you before the show.

I would love to meet with you to review our products, share some exciting success stories with you, and get you all the details about how texting and messaging are impacting the Health Care Industry.

Comment: This was the body of the email with the subject line “We’re Brand New at (Name of Trade show) 2019.” It turns out it came from the company CEO — whether or not it was done with the help of PR counsel I don’t know, but it made for a particular effective pitch, not least because it came (seemingly) directly from the CEO. This is not to diminish pitches from or privilege company execs over PR professionals acting on their behalf…but it did get my attention (now, if the email was actually written by a PR rep and the idea was to have it come from the CEO, kudos, well played!).

The hands down winner combined an immediately effective subject line with an equally effective pitch:

Subject: Party with (Name of Company) in Orlando

They had me at Party.

Charles Epstein is President and founder of BackBone, Inc., a public relations and marketing firm specializing in technology, healthcare and workforce management.

Tech, Workforce and Healthcare PR, marketing communications, bus development.

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