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Talking to journalists: the end of the pushy PR pitch?

Welcome to ‘No Brainer presents…..’ where we invite people we work alongside or just think are worth hearing from to take the reigns of our blog and give us their insight into the world of PR and the media. This time we’ve turned to former BBC editor and now communications and presentation coach Scott Solder to give us his thoughts on the changing face of the good old pitch. Enjoy!


It’s no longer OK to be pushy!

Go onto LinkedIn – or any social media platform for that matter – and try this: write an outline of the services you provide, tell everyone in forceful and enthusiastic terms why they need to buy them from you and why none of your competitors are quite as good as you are, and see what happens. I’ll save you the bother right now. The odds are that unless you strike unusually lucky, you’ll get very little back. Maybe even nothing.

That’s because it’s no longer okay to be pushy. Social media has created a whole new grammar and etiquette. A whole new set of accepted behaviours. Nobody likes you if you’re in their face. People want dialogue and engagement – where all humans have an equal voice. And for the PR industry – that’s a big thing.

I’ve worked on both sides of the fence. I spent years running BBC news programmes. I was also Director of Programmes at the talk station, LBC. Shouty PRs ringing you up or sending endless, boldly typed press releases were part of our daily bread and butter. I guess the assumption was that among all the ‘noise’ out there, he or she who shouted loudest got the coverage. But now, everything has got a whole lot more subtle. There are more than fifty shades of grey in this game.

Relationships are important in a good pitch

Sure – it’s all about relationships. It always has been, if we’re honest. Humans work on trust, intuition and gut feeling when they decide – at an unconscious level – whether they ‘buy into’ someone or not.

But nowadays it’s about even more than that. When I do coaching and training workshops for people in sales, I tell them that it’s no longer about sales. Forget selling, I say, and think about buying. The same goes for PR.

You see, it’s not about you. It’s about them. Buyers, potential clients, prospects and contacts have a greater luxury of choice than ever before. And a pushy pitch is all about telling people what you can do for them – instead of considering what they might actually want.

Fantasy

I’m also an NLP Master Practitioner. NLP uses a number of ‘killer questions’ which are designed to access people’s innermost thoughts, motivators and drivers. They’re often used in therapy, coaching and interviewing. And they work just as well in PR. The list is too long for here, but one such question is ‘what do you want ideally?’

This is essential, because it forces people out of what they may think is possible – or impossible – and moves them into a realm of fantasy: what is it that they might actually want, if absolutely anything were possible?

Here’s why this is important: one of the greatest areas of conflict and confusion that I come across in my work is when people make assumptions about others. It happens all the time. And it’s rife with problems – because those assumptions are often wrong.

What happens if I assume that you can’t deliver something, based on a false or unfounded belief of what resources you have available? The answer is simple – I just don’t ask for it. Instead, I ask for what I think you can provide. And that’s limiting. Then the situation escalates.

In response, you start thinking along the lines of what I’ve just asked for, based on what you can do within the parameters that I’ve unknowingly set. And yet all along – you might have been able to offer me so much more.

Only the publishers – and by that I mean TV, radio, online and print – have a full and clear idea of what they’re able to do. They know how flexible their formats are, what kind of special coverage they are able to offer, which ‘normal’ formats they might be able to suspend for the right, one-off proposition.

A pitch from Esther

I’ll give you an example of how this was done brilliantly when I was running current affairs on The One Show. The legendary Esther Rantzen – she who launched the charity Childline back in 1986 – gave me a call to pitch something she thought I ‘might find interesting’. She was launching a new charity. It was called The Silver Line – and it was aimed at improving the lives of lonely senior citizens. She wanted us to cover the launch and she knew it was a good story.

I don’t know what she had in mind. Maybe she thought we could make a short film about it to coincide with the launch. Maybe she thought she might appear live on the sofa to talk about it. But instead of pushing her ideas onto me – she simply gave me as many details as she had at the time, asked me what I would like to do about the story, and how it might work well for our programme. That set me off thinking – and I scuttled off to brainstorm a whole batch of ideas with my team.

Barely a month later, we ran a film at 7pm announcing the results of a specially commissioned survey asking pensioners if they were lonely – but were keeping it from their families for fear of being a burden. We exposed an unknown taboo. We then interviewed on camera a number of the survey’s respondents  – and showed their families the footage of them admitting for the first time that living on their own was a daily challenge. Up until that moment, these grown-up offspring had been convinced that their Mums had been fine. It was a tearjerker for sure.

Huge coverage

It got even better. Our creative approach had secured agreement from people far more important than us that The One Show would be the central point for the whole BBC to announce the launch of the new charity. Esther appeared on the sofa straight after the film – and other news programmes across the Corporation picked up the story and ran with it straight away. The coverage was huge.

Asking journalists what they want, how what you are offering could help them, and what they might like to do to make a ‘big bang’ of their own taps into their own creativity. It gets them thinking about how to make a good story even better. It makes them feel as if it’s a collaboration, rather than a buyer/seller persuasion exercise. And it ends with a double victory. So next time you go out to pitch – stop for a moment and ask yourself this: never mind what you’ve got to tell them, what might you want to ask?

Scott Solder is a communications consultant, executive coach and corporate trainer and you can find him on Twitter @Scott_Solder

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