The other day, I received a phone call from the alumni office at my alma mater. I have received phone calls from the alumni office in the past asking me for donations (and have made donations), so I had no qualms about answering the phone and engaging with the associate on the other end. What I expected was a short introduction, followed by a pitch for me to donate and some explanation of where the money would be going.

What I received instead was a confusing, long-winded call that completely danced around questions of donations and involved several long moments of awkward pauses.  The associate seemed nervous or even short of breath at times, and asked me a series of questions about my experience in college and my career that did not seem relevant (e.g. do you remember what grade you received in x class?). After nearly 5 minutes of conversation, I was still unclear as to the purpose of the phone call and politely declined to contribute any money at that point in time.

After the call, I thought about things that the alumni relations associate could have done better to more successfully pique my interest. At that point, I realized that many of those same tips could be applied in my job, when pitching reporters on story topics that are of interest to my clients. Whether making that follow-up call or initiating contact with a reporter for the first time over the phone, there are a few valuable lessons that can help make your pitches more successful:

  • Do your homework, tailor your pitch: Many reporters list the same beats, but every reporter has a unique, specific editorial focus. Before making the call, do some homework and try to figure out exactly what those interests are. When you do finally get on the phone, try to tailor your pitch to their interests as much as you can. At the end of the day, you want to make it seem like you are doing the reporter a favor by feeding him or her content, rather than asking the reporter to write a story for you. The more a reporter feels that you are benefitting them, the more successful you will be. Fitting your pitch into the reporter’s editorial focus will help you do just that.
  • Get to the point: First-time pitchers will sometimes have trepidations about aggressively pitching stories from the top of the call, opting to “warm up” the reporter or use small talk beforehand. In writing, the equivalent of this would be “burying the lede.” If you know the reporter personally, this is fine, but in most cases you want to state the purpose of your call immediately after the reporter picks up. Many reporters are friendly and personal, but relatively few reporters are interested in casual small talk in the middle of the work day with someone they do not know.
  • Respect the reporter: At the end of the day, not every reporter will be interested in the story you are selling at that time. But that doesn’t mean that the reporter will not be interested in a story you have down the road at some point. For that reason, you should be respectful and listen to what he or she has to say. If a reporter says she or he is not interested at this time, you must respect the reporter’s wishes and stop selling the story. If a reporter asks you to send more information via email, make sure you do so immediately after getting off the phone. Building a good rapport with the reporter, even if it means a lost opportunity at one point in time, will bear fruit over the long term.

Cold calling reporters can be a bit intimidating, especially for professionals who are first diving into PR. But with some of these tips and a bit of practice, it is an easy skill to master. For more advice on mastering all communications and outreach in PR, keep following our blog and following us on Twitter at @RHStrategic. Tweet at us with the hashtag #RHetoricblog or leave a comment below. We would love to hear from you!

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