In the U.S., we have found ourselves in an unprecedented situation: a pandemic combined with a national economic shutdown and widespread social unrest. Many businesses and non-profits have repeatedly asked about the timing of any type of public relations efforts.
- Is now the right time to announce a product launch?
- Should we try to connect our message to COVID-19?
- Can we break through with our message given what’s happening in the world?
- Are reporters/producers looking or eager for stories that aren’t COVID-19 related?
- Will we be seen as tactless if we try to get our message out now?
Compounding these questions is the state of the media itself. While the news industry has been experiencing financial challenges for decades, COVID-19 has had a swift and devastating impact on the Fourth Estate at the exact time Americans stuck at home are rediscovering the importance of good journalism.
According to The New York Times, furloughs and layoffs have impacted nearly 40,000 journalists since the pandemic began in the U.S. Those who aren’t furloughed or laid off are working remotely, doing more with less, and are harder to reach than ever. What I’ve heard personally from reporters and editors at major daily metropolitan newspapers, news desks and producers of broadcast news and journalists at a range of trade media is their inboxes are inundated with hundreds of pitches, nearly all including COVID-19 in the subject line.
So how do you break through? Patient persistence.
In times normal and otherwise, it is essential to have a compelling and relevant story to tell. We advise our clients to work backward from the reader/viewer/listener perspective when evaluating the newsworthiness of any message. Absent your brand, would a generic story like yours be of interest or value to the intended audience? If it is promotional, only about your brand or is out-of-touch with the state of the world, stop right there, toss your pitch into the garbage and, if I may be so bold, set fire to it. In the midst of a pandemic, you can’t afford to sound out of touch.
My advice is also the advice good journalists give to public relations professionals all the time: do your research. This is the time-consuming leg work that pays off; the work often overlooked or even ignored by those who “just want to get the message out.” Beats, for those who still have them, are less ridged than ever. That green energy beat reporter from last week might be covering Capital Hill tomorrow. Look back at their recent work and make an informed decision as to whether their work indicates a reasonable wiliness to learn about your story.
If you feel you have a newsworthy story, and if you believe the journalist you want to contact might be interested, email away and then follow-up afterward. But assume your email is just to get on their radar. They won’t read your pitch if it is longer than 100 words or has an attachment. Bullet points can help. In times like these, getting on the phone with a reporter — assuming he or she will take your call — is the make-or-break moment of a pitch and is simultaneously nearly impossible.
I recently pitched a national story to an editor at major daily newspaper. Where I would normally follow up two or three times, I left two voicemails and emailed five times. He actually called me back, thanked me for being persistent and then asked me to “just tell [him] what the story is about.” He remembered seeing my email (just one?) but “didn’t have time to read it.” So, I gave him the 15-second elevator pitch. He liked it and ended up not only interviewing my sources but running a major feature article on the issue. Patient persistence.
COVID-19, and the economic fallout from it, will continue to have lingering effects all across the U.S. economy. Journalism is not immune from this, and this will continue to pose challenges to those engaging with the media. I advise patient persistence in getting your message out. A tenacious PR professional helps a lot, too.