The idea of cold calling a journalist to sell your clients’ story prompts even the most weathered PR-person’s palms to sweat. The premise of the PRCA’s popular ‘Selling to the Media’ course is to help alleviate some of that stress. Led by PR pro Steve Dunne, the session runs for a day and covers all bases from an overview of the media landscape, news timescales, phone etiquette and pre-pitch preparation.
I was fortunate enough to attend one of the sessions last week. Interestingly enough, I was the only attendee present that came from an agency background. Others represented in-house, press office, comms, and freelance; from sectors such as maritime, automotive and local government.
The content of the course was all about mindset. The widely-held view that journalists find PRs to be a nuisance isn’t completely unfounded. However, this then means that those new to the profession such as myself put them on a pedestal (and therefore dread making that all-important call). As Steve explained, PR is a crucial part of the ecosystem and, ultimately, we are helping each other do our jobs. At the end of the day, a PRs most valuable asset is their ‘little black book’ of journalist contacts. And as such, it’s vital that you do not waste their time – otherwise you’ll end up on their blacklist.
Steve also encouraged us to completely rethink how we define our job role – from ‘PR’, to that of a ‘dealer’ that sells stories to the media. With each pitch comes a series of ‘poker chips’ that can be dealt strategically throughout the call to best sell your story and offer the journalist a deal they don’t want to refuse.
However, sometimes even the most perfectly delivered pitch isn’t enough to seal that deal. Sometimes, there’s simply a more relevant or important story in the pipeline that trumps yours. As Steve said, “Do you know who died on the same day as Princess Diana? Mother Theresa.” Diana’s death famously eclipsed the latter’s in the media. The lesson here being that sometimes you will win, sometimes you will lose. Don’t be disheartened.
I asked Steve what prompted him to set up ‘Selling to the Media’ 14 years ago and he described the moment that he realised the necessity of the course. When serving as director for prominent PR agency Porter Novelli, Steve walked past an employee’s desk to see that she was in floods of tears. She produced a full page’s worth of contacts, and explained that she had been tasked with cold calling all of them with a pitch. Unfortunately, one journalist had made it very clear that her call was far from welcome. Steve realised that not only were his staff clearly not well versed in the importance of thinking strategically about who you should be contacting, they were also not trained in how to deliver the call. He took the list, and trimmed it down to just eight contacts.
Of course, that was 14 years ago, before the internet; and now smartphones have radically changed the way we consume content, and laid the foundations for the likes of HuffPost and BuzzFeed. Yet according to Steve, the core takeaways of the course has remained unchanged. Why? Because at the end of the day, the interaction between that of PR and journalist is a human one.
By Gemma Norris