When Not to Pitch a Story

Israel’s response to the terrorists attack by Hamas raised important questions for people in our business:

  • Is it bad judgment to continue pitching stories about fluff products like candies, alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, and other non-essential products, when all aspects of the media are covering the Israeli-Palestinian situation almost 24 hours daily?
  • Or should PR people follow the dictum “life goes on” and continue pitching as if everything is coming up roses?
  • Is it a waste of time to pitch a fluff story during a crisis?
  • Are there times when pitching a journalist should be avoided, and if so, for how long?

The answers to those questions should, in my opinion, be obvious:

  • Yes, it’s bad judgment to pitch “feel good” or fluff products pitches during the immediate aftermath of a major breaking news story.
  • While life does go on, the sensitivities of people being pitched must be taken into consideration. Do they have family living in the war zone? And, if so, are they preoccupied with their safety? Will they feel that you’re an uncaring person when pitching a story about why a #10 pencil is better than a #9 one when people are dying?
  • Yes, it's a waste of time to pitch a story in the first few days of any disaster, because the news budgets for “filler stories” will be drastically reduced. (And let’s be honest to ourselves. Very few stories PR people pitch are hard news stories that news outlets need to survive.)
  • Yes, there are times when pitching stories should be avoided, sometimes for an extended period.

Unlike PR pros who have worked as a journalist prior to entering the public relations business, and know when not to pitch a story, many PR staffers have never stepped inside a news room and certainly don’t know the workings of a newsroom during a major breaking news story.

What often happens is that reporters can be temporarily recruited from other assignments to help with the breaking news coverage. That’s what happened during my days as a journalist. Today, with reduced staffs at many news outlets the temporary reassigning of reporters is probably worse.

'Do Not Pitch' Times:

  • Of course, during the first few days when war breaks out that affects the U.S.
  • During the closing days of a presidential election and for a few days alter it.
  • During the first two days after a new Congress is seated.
  • The day prior to or after major religious holidays.
  • The day before or on a major holiday like Labor Day, July 4, New Year’s Eve, etc.
  • The day of the beginning of the Donald Trump trials.
  • Any major catastrophe that affects the U.S.

The above should be no-brainers for the great majority of PR people.

Exceptions to the Rule

However, there are exceptions, including the following:

  • Important financial news should always be disseminated, regardless of the situation.
  • Also, the deaths of prominent people.
  • And important new medical news.

During a major breaking story, news outlets often are looking to interview bona fide experts who can be interviewed. But just because an individual is a CEO of a major entity does not mean the individual is an expert on a situation. Only pitch if your client has the proper credentials.

Publicists who specialize in sports marketing accounts will probably also see the news budget allocated to sports coverage reduced during the do-not-pitch times listed above. But in addition, there are other times when it’s best for them to take a vacation, unless they are involved with the events listed below:

  • The World Series
  • The Super Bowl
  • The Olympic Games

Because of reduced news staffs and the increasing number of pubic relations people, it’s difficult enough to get your pitch read even in slow news times. But sending a pitch during a major breaking news story is certain to have it ignored.

If you’re not certain whether to pitch during a fast-breaking major news story, there’s a simple self-test: Put yourself in the place of a journalist and ask yourself if what you are considering reporting is important enough that it can’t wait a few days until things settle down. But you have to be honest. If your answer is “yes, it’s important,” pitch it. If your answer is that it’s not that important, your answer should be “no.”

And as every journalists knows, and honest PR people know, the overwhelming number of PR pitches fall into the “no” category.

Arthur Solomon was a journalist and SVP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller who worked in sports and other sectors. Contact him: [email protected]