Pitching Tips from D.C.’s Top Journalists: Emphasize People Not Policies

Keeping anonymous sources to a minimum, providing an unbiased view of the other side of a story and offering someone as a profile subject for what otherwise might be a dry story are some of the pitching tips veteran D.C. journalists Jackie Calmes, and Sam Stein shared with during a luncheon session of PR News’ Media Relations conference at the National Press Dec. 6.

“Anonymity is a struggle…and we’re seeing more anonymous sources than ever now,” said Calmes, White House editor at the L.A. Times.

“We’re in a highly competitive environment,” so the use of anonymous sources has risen, added Stein, the Daily Beast politics editor. “We’ve become too comfortable with anonymity…it would be better if we, as journalists, stopped” using anonymous sources. The rise in anonymously sourced stories has added to media’s suffering credibility, he added.

Wild West

One difficulty, said Calmes, is that there are no universal definitions for terms such as off the record, background and deep background. “Get a group of journalists together and they probably will have differences” on what those terms mean.

“With a PR person, I will push harder” than with other sources to attach a name to a story, “so people will know it’s not” my opinion in a story, Calmes added. On the other hand, she admitted, “In my 40 years in this job,” few PR pros have insisted on providing stories based on anonymous sources.

Stein advised the audience of PR pros to “be less worried about adding names to stories.” Items with names attached to them “help your pitch and the resulting story.”

Daily Distraction

Both Calmes and Stein admitted having issues with the state of D.C.-based journalism. The two agreed that it’s important for media to move beyond what Calmes called gossipy, “daily distraction” items to what Stein termed BBI, or Boring But Important, stories, such as in-depth reports on budget priorities, medical breakthroughs and the environment.

Unfortunately, the media in D.C. tends to cover mostly daily distraction items, both agreed, which squeezes out substantive stories, including many that PR pros pitch to reporters.

Should you have a BBI policy story that you’re trying to pitch, Stein says, emphasize a person whose life has changed as a result of a policy decision. “Dig a little deeper and find someone for us to profile…make [your pitch] about people not policy…that’s always more interesting,” he told attendees.

Calmes added that she's always trying to find the most interesting element in a BBI story. If a PR pro can supply that nugget during a pitch, she said, there's a better chance the story will get covered.

People Not Policy

One example that Stein shared was a story he wrote about sequestration. Instead of concentrating on the dry political elements of sequestration, he profiled a single mother whose daughter no longer would be able to attend the Head Start program, the federally funded education effort for lower-income families.

Calmes added that PR pros should emphasize why a pitch is interesting to a reporter’s audience. She and Stein agree that PR pros should tell reporters the most interesting facts about a story at the beginning of a pitch. Instead of pitching “another report,” Stein said, find “the most interesting fact in the report” and lead your pitch with that.

Calmes also said that she appreciates when a PR pro not only pitches one side of an argument, but also summarizes the countervailing argument.

Seth Arenstein is editor of PR News. Follow Seth: @skarenstein