85-15 Rule for Pitch Prep — So You Can Draw Journalists into Longer Conversations

By Lauren Edwards

How do you promote your client without turning off journalists by promoting your client?

It’s a variation of “the chicken or the egg” conundrum. My best answer is what I call the 85-15 rule — more on that in a moment. This post offers four questions that will help you *go get* the right ingredients for drawing journalists into conversation, whether by email or phone.

These questions — asked of yourself and answered by you in advance — help you respond effectively when a reporter says, “Hmm. Maybe. But tell me: Why should my readers care?”

First of all, know that these answers won’t appear in your client’s messaging brief.

To many, it’s an unexpected truth that clients only give their PR agency about 15% of what they need to effectively write or speak on their behalf.

This means the PR team has to go get the other 85% from other sources.

It feels like it should be the other way around, that the client would give you 85%. But the opposite is true. Knowing this is Step 1!

Why wouldn’t they give you more? Because marketing teams rarely understand the subculture of journalism. That’s where you come in. PR’s role is to be an interpreter between those two far-apart worlds.

Here are four questions that help you get that 85%.

  1. Unknown/emerging/next — What questions haven’t been answered? Skim relevant articles by journalists you care about and look for places were they says things like:
  • a) “It remains to be seen whether …”
  • b) “No one knows yet if …”
  • c) “Experts disagree on …”
  • d) “Factors that could speed or slow the evolutions include …”
  • e) “No one has yet found a way to …”

This is a good little trick for *advancing* the story rather than saying what’s already being said. Look for:

  • What’s next?
  • What’s about to be found out?
  • What do people wish they knew?
  • What gets too little attention but affects a great many people?

Find out what journalists think is the “edge of the cliff,” the place where they can lean out but can’t take a step because there’s no info to be had.

That’s where journalists are looking.

2. Huge numbers of people Who is affected by the problems?

Look for huge numbers of people and also granular job titles (ex: applications architect, clinical trial manager, Java developer) or categories of people (ex: physicians, parents, online shoppers).

Sometimes it’s OK to be very general — “IT” or “CIO,” but being more specific improves your own understanding.

Avoid “users” and “consumers” – usually too generic, and sometimes also dehumanizing or off-putting.

You might also say things like “anyone with a cell phone” or “people with diabetes and other metabolic disorders,” a list of categories like “retailers, law firms and manufacturers.”

Be specific yet broad, all to create a vivid image of huge numbers of people affected — now, soon, eventually and increasingly in the future.

Show impact on readers or otherwise huge numbers of people. Get specific about who they are.

3. Approach’s difference — What makes your client’s approach different from that of others? Emphasis is on *approach*. You also must know what competitors are doing, so you can contrast your client as distinctive.

How is the way they attack the problem different from the way others do it? For example, so many companies are using AI, ML, etc. And data-cleaning, for example, is a thing now, with a lot of new companies diving in. So that’s not enough – those are just descriptions, not differentiators.

Why is your client  the *name of the team* (or poster child), so to speak, that is more likely to win the race to resolve the industry’s biggest problems? Why is this team ahead? In what way? Why does this matter?

Like in the soccer World Cup, think of formations (like 4-4-2 or 4-3-3), statistics, and the creativity and speed of the talent, that kind of thing — details that a sports writer would use to make informed guesses about possible winners. 

Think of your business story as a sports story. For top-tier business reporters, the dynamics are similar. (You’d be surprised by how many business reporters got their start as sports writers.)

4. Customers — If you aren’t allowed to name customers or say how many there are, at least say something that demonstrates their existence and relevance to a story.

This could include depicting specific problems in the fintech versus health-care industry, for example. Look for something relatable in the customer’s world, where a reader can say, “Hey, that’s me! I recognize that problem from my own life!”

Even just describing a scenario or type of company can help.

Best of all, name customers and say how many there are.

Or at least list vertical industries. This is part of looking for No. 2 above. For journalists, customers are “anecdotes and examples” or “real people” (not “case studies” — that’s industry jargon).

Journalists need anecdotes and examples, so say it that way: When talking with journalists, call case studies “anecdotes” or “examples.”

No. 3 is the hardest for a newcomer to a team. 

It often helps to Google “Gartner Magic Quadrant” and the names of similar competitors to your client (and your client, if included). Look for the way analysts delineate these companies into types, strengths and approaches.

Then Google those approaches. This will help you quickly get to the heart of things. 

These four “go-gets” are part of the 85% that clients rarely give you. Yet they are essential to a PR team’s success with journalists.

This “go-getting of 85%” from external sources lets you develop the one or two sentences that will catch a journalist’s attention or answer their question on the phone, “Why should I care?”

It puts the big picture in your head and helps you see the big “why it matters.” The right details tend to attach themselves as byproducts. 

Here are the four “go-gets” again, in shorter form:

  1. What’s still not well understood? What’s the gap/lag/obstacle? Where is the reporter’s “edge of the cliff”? Advance the trend; don’t recap it.
  2. Who are the *huge* numbers of people affected? Get both granular and big-picture depictions — sheer numbers, verticals, job titles and other categories of humans.
  3. How is our approach different from those elsewhere in the larger business ecosystem? Think Gartner Magic Quadrant categories and strengths — Google those terms. Show your client’s specialized expertise — *not its offerings*. Show why an article would be a disservice to readers if it lacked your client’s uncommon insight, counterintuitive advice and wisdom based on experience.
  4. Depict customers/anecdotes/examples. Names, numbers, scenarios or, at a minimum, “banks, hospitals and retail stores,” for example.

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Lauren Edwards is a former reporter for the Associated Press. She has been creating, customizing and delivering workshops for science and technology teams since 2000.

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