Insights on story pitching from the inside – Propeller’s editor panel at Advertising Week Europe

“Show us what went wrong and how you solved that. People will relate to that more in their own work than just success stories.”

This and other useful insights for PRs and comms managers came thick and fast at Propeller Group’s Catching The Spark: Conversations With Journalists panel held at Advertising Week Europe.

The panel, chaired by Propeller Director of Content Branwell Johnson, brought together Seb Joseph, Senior News Editor Digiday, Lara O’Reilly, Media & Advertising Editor at Insider and Omar Oakes, Editor, The Media Leader. These editors have worked at a variety of trade titles and newspapers over the years taking in Campaign, The Wall Street Journal, The Drum and Marketing Week.

The discussion kicked off with the panel explaining what they define as innovative when they are reviewing potential stories.

Seb said the best way of framing if a story is innovative from his perspective was whether the innovation “upends the status quo in some way or is helping marketers address a particular problem, for example the demise of third-party cookies or helping themselves measure the carbon footprint of their advertising.”

Lara added that any innovation that touches on how money, power or human relationships are shifting is intriguing to Insider while Omar pointed out: “Journalists can only tell parts of stories – there’s only so much we can put in a story. I am always thinking about how we write an innovation story within the bigger story of what is happening [at the macro-level]. He said: “We reach a very senior and informed audience. We’re not just going to jump on something because everyone else is writing about it.”

Approaches to developing stories

The panel said that they were interested in the stories of smaller companies and not just the tech giants and well-known business names – Omar commented that his approach was to make “lots of little bets and see what develops into something bigger.”

Insider has locations for stories about start-ups and VCs and likes to share pitch decks from successful funding rounds “which go gang busters” with readers.

Lara added that founders are interesting to interview because they can speak their minds and “are not shackled to corporate PR or beholden to shareholders.”

The editors also pointed out that they are receptive to PR and comms people suggesting when might be a good time to circle back to a previous story. Lara said that anniversaries are “not necessarily that interesting” but holding people to account is and she does note when a CEO, for instance, has indicated a time frame for future achievements and will come back and ask for an interview. Seb added: “We can’t be across everything so it’s good to be prompted.”

Building the relationship

Seb stressed that PR teams should take the time to research the kinds of stories that a specific journalist is interested in: “Take the time to understand the interests of that journalist and their kind of style. Don’t go to every journalist on the same team with the same pitch – tweak it a little to preferences of that journalist.”

Omar underlined the point about the ‘spray and pray’ approach to press releases and said: “I don’t want that email where the word ‘Omar’ is in a different font to the rest of the words.”

Seb added that a relationship built over three to four years yielded the best results and said: “When you’re talking to someone over Zoom or on the phone it’s more functional… the best stories that you get will be when you are out with a contact after a couple of beers.” He added: “Investing in that relationship helps me do a better job – we’d be fools not to consider that.”

The panel were keen to stress their dislike of the transactional relationships. Lara said: “I don’t have time for the ‘you give me something I give you something’ scenario. We’re all humans at the end of the day so let’s just treat each other like humans. I much prefer to have a nice chat and if it doesn’t mean anything that’s fine but relationship-building is still something that’s really important.”

How PRs and Comms Managers can sharpen their story pitching

  • Show your working – for an innovation story explain where it didn’t go right, why and how you learned from the experience, so it is relatable to the reader
  • Be clear why the readers of the target publication will be interested in the story. As Lara says: “What’s in this for me other than promoting your client?”
  • Be succinct with the pitch – detail can come afterwards
  • Build the relationship and tailor your pitches to the journalist
  • Journalists find business news is thin at the start of the year and over the summer, see what you can provide during these periods.