If you’ve ever pitched a story to a journalist, you’ll know this to be true: Journalists can be absolutely brutal. The busiest casually toss out hundreds of press releases every month, and hang up on dozens of pitches, saying the story just isn’t right for them. The weeks and months of planning you’ve put into a campaign could be undone in a matter of minutes.
Journalists can be brutal. I know: I was a journalist myself.
The good news is that not everything gets tossed out. Over the course of my seven-year career as a reporter and editor, I consistently gravitated toward press releases and pitches that followed a few simple guidelines. I respectively offer up my top five.
#1: Jargon doesn’t make you look smart.
Does your company make a proxy appliance that enables extremely high efficiency across the entire load range? Or is it a monitoring application that provides automatic and non-intrusive discovery of VLAN, Q-in-Q, IP and Transmission Control/User Datagram Protocol streams? That’s very nice, but the average journalist doesn’t understand what that means. If they have to break out the dictionary, your press release is probably getting filed in the circular filing cabinet. If you’re having trouble simplifying your idea, explain it to a 5-year-old. That super-simple sentence needs to be in your press release somewhere.
#2: Press releases are like chairs. No one wants to sit in a one-legged chair.
Every press release is like a chair, and journalists like sturdy chairs. The first leg is the newness. Ask yourself: Why should this reporter write this story today? Instead of last week? Or next year? The second leg is the impact. Does your technology run rings around your top competitor? What makes your product interesting, new and different? The third leg is the facts. Use facts, and back them up with sources. Link to a recent, independent analyst report. Numbers are good. Explain them in a way normal people understand. And finally, the fourth leg is the trend. How does your story fit into the larger story of the month? If your technology helps people find jobs, remind journalists that there’s nearly double-digit unemployment. If your technology helps people, save electricity, remind journalists that this is a green story.
#3: Find one central idea, and stick to it.
What do you do? Boil it down to one sentence. You make software that saves big companies $1 million a year. You make a Web site that helps people find free stuff. You help students save money on textbooks. Good campaigns are organized around a simple idea. Introduce that idea early on, and keep pounding it home.
#4: Numbers are your friend.
If you have numbers, include them in your press release. Exact numbers are more precise than phrases like “hundreds of thousands” or “massive amounts.” Use caution when using percentages without context. Good: “Web traffic at FictionalWebsite.com jumped 23 percent in the fourth quarter.” Better: “FictionalWebsite.com pulled in 1,323,400 unique users in the fourth quarter. That’s about 23 percent higher than the same time period last year.” Journalists are stereotypically bad at math. If you mix different types of numbers in the same sentence, you’ll lose them. Bad: “Traffic at FictionalWebsite.com has increased by 10 times over the past year, while revenue has grown 93 percent.”
#5: Journalists are surfers at heart.
Journalists generally ride the same waves every day, and look for stories that help them surf better. So, for example, the Apple iPad has been a huge wave this past week. There are a lot of journalists riding that wave, and they’re hungry for content. Does your product or service help tell that story in a different way? Throw it in the wave, and watch how enthusiastic journalists are to cover it. Other big waves include web censorship, location-based privacy concerns, the rise of social gaming, etc. Watch those waves carefully – if you miss them, your competitors might swoop in and steal your thunder.
Above all, remember: Journalists are hungry for stories, and they’ll pick up narratives that are compelling. If your story keeps getting passed up, it’s time to rethink your strategy.