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An Insider’s Guide to Pitching Like a PR Pro

About Time Magazine

It’s no secret that the boundaries between off-site SEO (or ‘link building’, if you’re particularly old school) and PR are blurring. In fact, many would argue that the two are now so similar that they have become virtually the same thing.

Powerful links usually come from powerful publicity, and it’s crucial that any outreach team knows how to work the media to get the best results for their clients.

Publicity comes in many shapes and forms – from charity work and product launches to surveys and new data – and a crucial vehicle for creating powerful publicity is media relations.

I use the term ‘media’ broadly in this instance to refer to influencers, aka. the people who can help make or break an off-site campaign. Journalists, bloggers, editorial assistants, social media influencers and even other brands and businesses all come under the umbrella of influencers in one way or another, and at least one group of these people is always a crucial vehicle in any off-site campaign.

Search agency outreach teams are increasingly finding themselves running campaigns and strategies that wouldn’t look out of place in a PR agency, and media relations is now an important part of any off-site strategy.

That’s why a few weeks ago, in a cosy church crypt in Farringdon, we joined a whole host of London PR bods for About Time magazine’s ‘Pitch Perfect’ workshop, an event designed to give us a taste of what it’s like to sit on an editor’s side of the fence when being pitched to.

For clients, search teams, and even PRs, it can feel like there’s a secret to nailing media relations that everybody else knows but you.

What became apparent last night in London, in a room full of people eager to learn the secret straight from journalists themselves, was something you’ve probably known all along but never wanted to believe: influencing influencers is not an exact science.

Influencing influencers is a grafter’s job that takes time, patience and tact before you see the results you’re after.

But where to start?

A Generation Game: Everyone is Different

At the start of the evening we listened intently to the brilliant Angelica Malin, Editor-in-Chief at About Time magazine, tell us that face-to-face relationships with PRs are key for her. In short, she advocated:

  • Finding one person at a publication that you connect with on a personal level and meeting for coffee or lunch; they can be your route in to other relationships eventually
  • Building face-to-face relationships without immediate incentive/return
  • Being useful and helpful. Send press releases in the format they would appear if they were published, link to something similar they’ve done before in your pitch, and know and make clear the subsection you’re pitching for

This is all sound advice, but what was really clear from Angelica is that as a young editor, she values personal, real-life working relationships with PRs.

Fast-forward to a session from William Sitwell, Editor of Waitrose Magazine, and it was an entirely different story. William has worked as a journalist and editor for decades, and his point of view could not have been more different to Angelica’s.

Sure, he values relationships, but in the sense that he’s very close friends with the PRs he’s known for 10 years or more – and he doesn’t want them to pitch to him when they go out for dinner or coffee. In fact, he doesn’t want anybody to pitch to him. He wants his ideas to be his own, and he doesn’t often need or want your suggestions.

Press releases are thrown in the bin or moved to his junk folder, and PR samples and gifts are taken home by the editorial team without a second glance at who they’re from or what’s being promoted.

So, how can you influence an influencer like William, who doesn’t particularly want a relationship with you?

When Influencers Hate Being Influenced

Someone like William absolutely doesn’t want to have coffee with you – even worse, lunch – but perhaps if you’re working on a food client you could be useful and set up a lunch for someone he does want to meet with? A friend, partner, or colleague.

Even better, help him out when he’s under pressure from his boss to arrange a complimentary dinner for six people at the drop of a hat. Influencing influencers is hard graft, remember.

What About the ROI?

It can be difficult justifying this kind of expense as there’s no direct ROI. In fact, there might not be a link or single piece of coverage after six months or more of favour-pulling.

But then, out of the blue, someone like William, who you’ve been helping out for months in the background, gets in touch and needs a restaurant owner to interview. He knows your client is a restaurant owner, and he knows you’re usually willing to help out, so he calls you with the opportunity that results in an online feature all about your client with a followed link from his powerful online publication.

More journalists become intrigued by your client’s story, and the regional press as well as a few other titles and influential bloggers are interested in featuring your client in one way or another. Cue more coverage, and a couple more links. You jump on this and maximise the buzz, creating further opportunities and strategising along the way to ensure it all aligns with your goals.

All of a sudden, those couple of favours earlier in the year seem completely worth it, don’t they?

What Happens When It Doesn’t Work?

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course, and if that coverage never happens, you end up in a sticky situation.

Educating your internal teams, as well as your clients if you’re agency-side, on the value of spending time building these relationships is key however, whether it’s with bloggers, journalists, social media influencers or even their agents.

Selling-in your story is difficult, but the fact that 80% of sales are made on the 5th or 12th contact (according to Chris Donnelly who also spoke on the night) depicts exactly why it’s worth putting in the effort and building those crucial relationships from the start.

Finally, Know When to Listen; It Might Be Your Only Chance

So, we know building relationships is key, but when you eventually manage to snatch 15 minutes of an influencer’s time, whether that’s by phone, email or face-to-face, what do you need to get out of it?

Angelica of About Time magazine rightly suggested that this could be the only time you get to actually listen to the influencer, so don’t waste time pitching or reeling off your client list and marketing plans. Take your chance to learn about them; you might not get another one.

To make sure you maximise your chance of being useful to them somewhere down the line, consider asking some of the following questions:

  • How far ahead do you work on a story?
  • When do you go to print / when do your stories get published online?
  • Are you open to pitches for new story ideas or would you only like help working on the planned ones?
  • How do you like to receive information? Press release, NIB, PDF attachment, phone call or tweet?
  • How do you like images to be sent? Dropbox vs. We Transfer
  • Who is your target reader? Age? Location? Gender? Salary? Focus?
  • What are your most popular features on the site / in the paper? What are you looking to run more of?
  • What kind of information would you most like to receive? News? Press trips? Openings? Events?
  • Who is the best person to send information to?
  • What new articles are you working on?

So, we know influencing influencers if difficult, and we know it’s a long-term strategy. However, by building up a personal rapport with your contacts, knowing the different approaches favoured by each of them, and knowing how and when to pitch them your ideas, you can maximise your chances of securing those golden links that are so crucial to the success of any brand’s SEO strategy.

Spend time playing the PR game (and playing it right), and eventually you’ll win.

Written by Elissa Hudson, Senior Campaign Exec

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