Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Pitching the Press: passing the 'so what?' test

‘Surfer who rode e-commerce wave shares £70m.’ So runs one of the top business stories in The Times today. Others include EasyJet’s booking charges, a takeover bid for car dealer Lookers and the latest manufacturing figures. The stories have three things in common. They are ‘news’ in the obvious sense of being ‘new’, and they play to the interests of the general reader. And thirdly, they have nothing (save perhaps the consumer interests of EasyJet passengers) to do with corporate responsibility.

The latter is no surprise. CR professionals might think their companies’ efforts to implement, integrate and generally imbibe responsible business practices are fascinating. Unfortunately, most business editors do not. Bad news – corporate crises, product flops, management malfeasance, fat cats, depressing economic data (see above) – wins out every time. That’s just the way it is. Hence Sony’s online data breach makes it into the press, and not its mobile libraries in South Africa.

So, should CR execs and their PR teams just forget trying to sell in stories? Not quite yet, says Peter Stiff, a business reporter at The Times and panelist at Ethical Corporation’s current annual Responsible Business Summit. But do change your pitch, he advises. Cut the fluff and buzzwords. Provide some hard numbers. And, above all, spell out “at the get-go” what the business case is. Why are you doing this? What tangible difference does it make to your bottom line? These are the questions that reporters on busy business desks want to know. And make your answers sharp. As Stiffs puts it: “Frankly, I don’t have time to dig.”

Some topics are more likely to win the ear of an editor than others. As a general rule what works for the in-house magazine (pictures of smiling volunteers, CEOs planting trees etc) doesn’t work for newspapers. New technology or the discovery of “interesting, surprising” data, on the other hand – now, these might just cause an editor to lay aside his scepticism a moment and take a look. At least, so says Daniel Franklin, executive editor at The Economist and another Summit panelist. Other subjects on Franklin's potential ‘tick’ list include innovative partnerships with NGOs and “honest engagement” with the real life trade-offs faced by companies trying to become responsible.

Make it relevant, simple and interesting and your news story stands a chance. In that sense, the principles of pitching a CR initiative to a news desk aren't that far removed from selling it to the board. Remember: journalists are fickle, busy and intrinsically suspicious of ‘greenwash’. But they have another trait too: they’re terrified of being boring. As Franklin admits: “If you can make a good news story less boring, we’re much more likely to write about it.”

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. I was on a similar panel at last month's BCLC conference and several audience members asked me how they could "better" their CSR pitches. My advice to them, pretty similar to Peter's actually, was to make it make sense. Give us the relevance and why it matters to my journalistic focus and to their business objectives.

    Always good to know the journalistic community is sending out the same message around the globe!

    -Aman Singh