During years as a journalist, I received countless calls from PR pros trying to capitalize on a tragedy, pitching their executives as sources. During a PR career, staff often rushed excitedly into my office after disaster news broke with ideas about how to use tragedy as an opportunity to get those we represented into media stories.
In both situations, unless the executive or company had a direct connection to the calamity, my answer was some version of 'Forget about it.' Using a catastrophe as a news hook makes the PR pro and the executive source look callous and opportunistic.
I’m willing to bet, though, that many PR pros are thinking of ways to use the coronavirus disaster as a publicity vehicle.
Journalists are Your Friends
There are major problems with pitching coronavirus-related stories. Attempting to get publicity for a company by linking a story to the novel coronavirus can annoy journalists. And this is at a time when many of them are working from home, under adverse conditions. In addition, they are concentrating on true hard news stories.
There are enough legitimate coronavirus stories without engineered self-serving ones. This is not the time to pitch fluff stories in the hope that one might find a home. Pitching fluff is never a good idea. It’s a way to ensure that journalists will avoid your pitches.
Many journalists already have a low opinion and distrust of PR. Forcing a coronavirus connection only worsens our reputation.
There are, of course, legitimate stories associated with the coronavirus that deserve coverage. While national news outlets have plenty of hard news stories to cover, regional media outlets always are looking for a local angle. And occasionally, a local story can gain national attention.
For example, consider when Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, used the team plane to pick up 1.7 million face masks. This is a story deserving of national media attention and gratitude from an appreciative nation.
Stories like this fit both the hard news and human interest categories.
Reporters at national media outlets, however, do not have use for pitches such as, Joe or Jane X, VP of the XYZ Corp. or PR firm, has an opinion about coronavirus. Journalists don’t like stories like this in normal times.They especially will not like it now.
If you’re lucky, this pitch will result in a get-to-know-you meeting that does not result in coverage.
When you have a legitimate hard news or human interest story regarding coronavirus, pitch it to your local news outlet, as well as the proper national media assignment editor or TV producer. If you’re lucky, it might end up as a feature at the end of national TV newscasts.
But don’t promise those you represent that it will. Chances are it won’t. And you’ll end up being remembered as an individual who made an already tense situation for the journalist worse.
Journalists will remember those who pitch no-news, self-serving stories during the coronavirus epidemic, or during any tragedy. And not in a positive way.