Media Relations: What We Can Learn from the Bassmasters

JoshBerkmanBy Josh Berkman, President, Piston Communications

I once worked for a boss who often boasted of his “methodology” for pitching media. It went like this: Write a press release, send it to 30 reporters, wear them down until they write a story, and don’t begin another pitch until you’ve squeezed every drop of juice out of the orange. Needless to say, we didn’t have a long working relationship. It was a soul-crushing approach. 

My style is different. I’ve always compared pitching media to fishing. You have to choose the right bait and gear, go to the right spot at the right time of day and begin casting your line. If there are no bites, change it up quickly. No matter how big “content marketing” gets (and I think it is much more than a passing fad), media hits will always reign supreme. In fact, there is no better content than earned media. So, the better you are at selecting your bait, gear and fishing spot for what you want to (or can) catch, the more enjoyable your fishing will be.   

And so it goes with the media pitch. The “Bassmaster” method dates back to my first day on the high school paper when the journalism advisor told us that we’d learn nothing more important than the six elements of news: timeliness, proximity, prominence, human interest, conflict and consequence.  Over the course of my PR career, I’ve noticed that the more of these elements that a pitch embodies, the better it does.

When I think about my greatest hits, they all have one thing in common: They embodied at least four of the main elements. In other words, the bait was tasty. There’s a science to selecting your bait and tackle, but first, it’s worth reviewing the six elements.

  1. Timeliness: Why now?
  2. Proximity: Local news is news to someone. Who is it?
  3. Human Interest: Can you tell this story at a backyard barbecue or cocktail party and expect that a crowd will gather around?
  4. Prominence: Anybody famous?
  5. Conflict: Man vs. man? Man vs nature? Man vs. himself?
  6. Consequence: Who’s life is about to change?

Once you’ve answered those questions, score your story against each element on a scale of 1 to 10. Next, grab a piece of graph paper. Draw a 10 by 10 matrix. On the horizontal line, you’ll be plotting the hard factors (the mean average of timeliness, proximity and consequence). The vertical axis represents the average of your soft factors (Human interest, prominence and conflict).  You’ll plot your story point in one of the four quadrants – the quadrant will be a good indicator as to where you should cast your line, if at all.

Quadrant 1: A story that falls in Quad 1 ranks above the line for soft factors, but below the line for hard news. Your best bet is to focus your energy on outlets that have no geographic bias, aren’t tied to the news-cycle and tend to deal with lighter fare. These include specialty publications, entertainment, sports and what we used to call “women’s” media. Keep in mind that the higher up the axis, the better play your story can get. Something closer to the center will be a tougher sell. There are too many good stories out there.

Quadrant 2: Where bad pitches go to die. Don’t waste your time or credibility pushing these stories. You’ve got nothing. If your client or boss won’t back off, it’s up to you to figure out how you’ll stay out of this zone. This is the Bermuda Triangle of PR professionals. Recognize when you’re in these waters and navigate your way out.  

Quadrant 3: Here, you’ve got some solid hard-news to pitch. Just be honest about how far you are on the axis and what got you there. Proximity? Go hyper-local. Timeliness? Do this today, not tomorrow. Consequence? Does this matter to a lot of people or a few? Who are the few? Does the story grade out well for all three? Enjoy the fun.

Quadrant 4: Once in a while, all the stars align. You’ve got diamonds and gold, and you’ll have your pick of outlets, so talk things over with your team. What are the goals? Who are your target audiences? Can you parse out bits and pieces to different media? Can you use an exclusive to leverage a cover or above-the-fold placement? These are good “dilemmas” to have.  

Very few PR professionals spend most of their time in Quad 4. The reality is that we mainly live in Quad 1 and spend some time in Quad 3, which is fine. There are perfectly good fish to be caught in these parts. What sets you apart from the pack is how well you know the lake and whether your technique and equipment are well-calibrated for the intended catch.

I’ll talk equipment and technique in future posts.         

 About the Author:Josh Berkman is founder & president of Piston Communications. He blogs at Where’s the Ink!