February 13, 2004

How to Pitch Stories to High-Tech Press: Three Critical Tips

SUMMARY: Sam Whitmore, Editor of Sam Whitmore's Media Survey, has interviewed all of the top tech journalists to find out how they like to be pitched - and what to avoid.

In our exclusive interview, Whitmore reveals his three best tips, including how to copywrite email subject lines so reporters will open and read your mail instead of deleting it.
Sam Whitmore, Editor of Sam Whitmore's Media Survey, spends his days cultivating relationships with tech reporters -- discovering, among other things, what they write about and how they like to be pitched.

We asked Whitmore for his top three tips for PR pros who pitch technology media.

Tip #1. Targeted email subject lines

Too many PR people still send generic press releases, blanketed to an entire media list. Don't do it.

"Most journalists really resent getting a generic pitch. It's just insulting. You really need to reflect some understanding of a specific publication's readership," Whitmore says.

A good way to show you understand is right in the subject line of an email. For example, when pitching Whitmore himself, a good subject line would read: "Paid content is changing the shape of tech media." It shows you know his audience (tech media pros) and almost obliges him to read it.

"I would have to open that, because that's who I serve," he says. "Most journalists, whether they think of it consciously or not, are sort of filters/translators of a broad body of info, that they then swivel around and convey to their readership."

Keep the subject line to 50 characters, and give it some thought.

"The subject line is the headline," Whitmore says. He feels strongly about the fact that most PR people write the subject line as an afterthought: "It's a tragedy," he says. "Make sure the subject line has the same care as a headline in an article."

Tip #2. Give reporters the tools to pitch your story

"People who pitch stories tend to forget that the reporters and editors on other end of the phone are on the same boat," Whitmore says. "They have to turn around and pitch the story to their senior editors, and the senior editors have to look at the available space and decide if the story is worth running."

So don't assume that once you've sold the story idea to the reporter, your job is done. You must equip the reporter with the value of the story and its key messages. Here's how:

Step a. Where's the pain?

To succeed, you need to understand the pain that the readers are going through. Is a particular technology not being deployed often enough? What pain could be made to go away if the technology was used as it was meant to be?

Step b. Frame the story for the reporter

Explain in detail: The article will ease this kind of pain for these kinds of readers, and that's why they would read the article.

Step c. Imagine what the boss will say

What are the questions the boss will ask the reporter? Even if you think you've sold the reporter on the story, they may back down in the face of detailed questions from a senior editor. Supply the reporter with answers to questions the senior editor might ask and you have a better chance of seeing your story run.

These questions might include:
-Why will our readers care?
-What will they take away after reading this story?
-What problems will it solve?
-How will it change the way they think about something?
-Why does this have to be written right now?

Tip #3. Case studies, case studies, case studies

Getting a tech company customer on the record who can say, "I've evaluated this thing, I've used it, and this is how much money we're saving or making," gives you a big step up when it comes to PR.

"That is the secret, because no matter how well connected your PR people, how many personal relationships they have, it doesn't mean a damn thing if you can't come across with specifics. Once you've done that the rest is easy," says Whitmore.

This means three things:

a. If your client has a reference account -- a customer willing to go on the record -- make sure to let journalists know exactly what the customer can discuss and the results they're willing to share. Then you've got "a slam dunk," Whitmore says.

b. If you don't know whether your client's customer is willing to talk, *don't* pitch the story.

There are few things more frustrating for a reporter than getting excited about a story, selling it to an editor, and then having it fall through because the end-user won't share results.

Worse, you lose all credibility as a source for that journalist.

c. If your client can't come through with reference accounts, understand that you may only get coverage in mediocre media.

"A brave PR person will stand up and say, I can't pitch the publications you want," Whitmore says.

Of course, the solution to this problem -- for tech companies to confront prospects early on in the sales cycle and get them to agree to talk on the record about the product -- lies beyond the PR folks' realm, in the lap of the VP of Sales or the CEO.

The best you can do, in the absence of reference accounts, is to avoid antagonizing your relationships with journalists. Save your best relationships for story pitches that you know will come through.

Whitmore's Web site:

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