9 Surprise PR Tactics That Will Make You Irresistible to Reporters

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Tania Luna, co-author of the new book "Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected."

Attend any panel discussion featuring PR pros and journalists, and within five minutes of its commencement you’ll hear one of the journalists say, “I delete email pitches in batches of 20 with hardly a glance at the subject lines.”

Then comes the inevitable follow-up question from the audience: “So what would it take for you to open my email?”

And the answer: “Know my beat, read my articles, give me real news I can use.”

Silently, the PR pros in attendance grumble in unison: “But if you’re deleting everything without looking, then what difference would that make?”

Tania Luna, co-author with LeeAnn Renninger of the new book Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected, would encourage those silent grumblers to think beyond the journalist/PR pro dynamic and harness the elemental power of surprise to cut through the noise and make a connection.

“One of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of working in PR is building relationships with reporters,” says Luna, who will be the keynote presenter on day two of PR News’ Digital PR Conference, which will be held June 1-3 in Miami. “Luckily, things get a lot easier when you have the science of surprise on your side. When you pleasantly surprise people they think of you more often and are more interested in what you have to say.”

Here are nine tips for bonding with reporters from co-authors Luna and Renninger:

1. Jump over the expectation bar: Our brains are delighted when someone exceeds our expectations, disappointed when someone falls below the bar and unmoved when someone meets our expectations. Take the time to learn what each of your contacts expects (what topics do they prefer? what style? what format?) and find ways to exceed expectations at every point of contact (e.g., offer all necessary links before they have to ask; use bullet points so your pitch is easy to digest).

2. Under-promise, over-deliver: Here is a shortcut to exceeding expectations from author Tom Peters. Set expectations just an inch lower than you plan to deliver, then over-deliver every once in a while (e.g., promise you'll respond in 48 hours, then reply in just two). Pleasant surprises release dopamine in the brain, a neurochemical associated with excitement and interest.

3. Do a scriptease: So many of our interactions feel scripted and formal. Leave your script aside and connect with reporters the way you would with friends (respectful but playful and authentic). Authenticity builds trust but also triggers people's interest.

4. Give just because: Be helpful or encouraging for no particular reason (even when you aren't trying to place a story). Research shows that we think about random acts of kindness longer than we contemplate explained kind behavior (and random kindness makes us happier).

5. Bury a cookie: Find ways to tuck small delights into your interactions. Can you sneak a joke into your conversation? A genuine compliment? A funny GIF into your email? In a study, researchers found that even a handwritten Post-it Note can be personal and unexpected enough to double response rates to a survey.

6. Build knowledge gaps: Spark curiosity by pitching your stories in a way that shows readers you know something they don't. Our fascination with mystery is the reason listicles work so well. (Just compare these two titles and see which one your brain likes more: "These 8 Subject Line Tweaks Will Get Everyone to Open Your Emails" vs. "How to Get People to Open Your Emails.")

7. Tell stories: Most of us are familiar with the power of story, but it helps to know why stories work as well as they do to remind us that we have to weave stories into our pitches. Because stories have mystery at their core (we want to know what will happen next), they trigger the P3 brain wave—this cognitive shift grabs our cognitive resources and forces us to pay attention.

8. Design experiences: Devise opportunities for your contacts to have an emotional, multi-sensory experience with your company or story (hint: the more senses you engage, the more memorable the experience will be).

9. Harness fortune cookie psychology: A handwritten thank-you note will trigger a burst of dopamine in the recipient, but the same card with the same message sent several times will soon fall flat. Take a tip from the fortune cookie and switch up how, when and why you reach out to say thank-you or offer a tip. In short: Exceed expectations, be genuine, be mysterious and delight often.

Tania Luna will be the keynote presenter on June 2 at PR News’ Digital PR Conference in Miami.

Follow Tania Luna: @Surprisology

Follow Steve Goldstein: @SGoldsteinAI