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Using social media to pitch your stories

So I’m giving a presentation in a couple of months in Washington, D.C., called “Achieving Authenticity and Publicity in the Twitter Age.” Sounds fancy, eh? Basically, what I hope to get across is this: Standing out and getting noticed on online social networks — and therefore getting publicity for your institution — doesn’t happen easily. It is, for want of a better term, a process. That process is long and involves talking, listening, interacting, being engaged and having staying power on various social platforms. And this process is important, because these are the online spaces where reporters and editors are now inhabiting — places like Twitter and Facebook have become the new public square.

So, here are a few pieces of advice for those wanting to use social media to gain publicity for your institution (or client) that will likely find their way into the presentation.

1. Educate yourself. Social media has made the world one big network, so in many ways it’s never been easier to connect with a journalist — and just as important, to see what they’re doing. Typically I like to pitch reporters with whom I already have a relationship, but I’m always looking to forge new ones. Obviously, relationship-building is not something that you can do with a snap of your fingers. So before I send a pitch to a writer or editor I don’t know particularly well, I’ll try to find out as much about them as I can. A good place to start is their bio page on their personal or media site. In many cases, those pages also have compilations of the writer’s last 10 or so stories, which can help you to zero in even more on what type of news they’re interested in.

Next, I put Google through its paces. Most likely the top hits coming back will be for the journalist’s Facebook and Twitter pages, maybe even their LinkedIn account. These are great ways to educate yourself on your target’s likes and dislikes — maybe they’re fans of the Boston Red Sox or Top Gear, enjoy gardening, ride their bike to work, or love mystery novels, soccer and country music. These are all possible entry points that can be keyed upon in a potential pitch.

Also: By scanning through a journalist’s work history on LinkedIn, I can quickly see if we might have and old colleague or two in common. I spent 15 years as a reporter and editor working for Gannett and Lee Enterprises newspapers, and a common colleague can serve as a great entry point to get noticed (as well as a good reminder to catch up with said colleague, because undoubtedly, it’s been too long). I did this once with a high-ranking editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education after learning he and I both worked for the same editor in Gannett at one time or another. It definitely got his attention and helped in my quest to land my pitch.

2. Interact. The tactics described above would be creepy and stalkerish if not for this part. Get in there, take advantage of the information you’ve just gained and the social-media access you have with journalists, and be an active part of the networked journalism society. Retweet journalists’ tweets. Reply to their tweets. Maybe even send a brief personal message to them on Facebook, complimenting them on a particular piece of recent work along with a friend request. That way, when you’ve got a story they might be interested in down the line, you’re not hitting them out of the blue, but as a Facebook friend and Twitter follower. Journalists will appreciate it, and you’ll find your pitch-to-placement ratio start to tighten, as well.

Then, when a journalist writes a story with one of your sources in it, tout it — and the journalist — loudly and proudly on those same social media channels. And then the cycle begins anew.

3. Monitor, monitor, monitor … and then pounce. Some of my successes using social media haven’t come from a classic “pitch” at all. I’ve just sat back and watched some of my favorite reporters on Twitter and ascertained what they were working on, then matched that information up with what sources on my campus I might be able to put in front of them.

An example: When news of the new Congressional reapportionment scenario came out in late 2010, I noticed on Twitter that a reporter CNN was assembling a story on the political ramifications of the new alignment … so I quickly let him know about a UNL political scientist who studies the effect reapportionment can have on the average voter. Within the hour, my source was in CNN.com’s main story. Besides hustle, the key element in that example — and all successful placements via social media — is that I was able to help the reporter, and wasn’t pitching the reporter. It’s the online equivalent of catching lightning in a bottle, but it can be done.

4. Be a real person. That is, manage your social media presence as a human being, not a brand or an institution. People connect and identify with people, not faceless monoliths. This is hard for some people, particularly those who are new to social media or who might not be of the share-everything generation that dominates most online platforms. But I’m convinced it’s absolutely essential to your long-term success. The most important thing is to stick with social media and spend time with it — you might not even realize it, but as you’re scanning and clicking and reading, you’re learning the subtle nuances between being a faceless link farm and an actual, living and breathing person with thoughts, opinions and feelings. Today’s social-media users are savvy — they can recognize a drive-by tweeter or Facebooker a mile away. So save everyone some time and energy, and just be you. Or an online facsimile of you, anyway.

There is, of course, a thin line between authenticity and noise in places like Twitter and Facebook. Staying on the right side of that line depends on what kind of audiences you’re working with and what kinds of social spaces you’re inhabiting online. If you’re trying to reach journalists, watch their online “mannerisms” and learn how to speak their language. It’s not as nebulous as it sounds, but developing this skill requires is one key thing: time.

5. Caution! OK. Just because you have a powerful new medium in which to connect with journalists and create publicity for your institution, and you’ve started to rack up some followers and notoriety among your social media circles, doesn’t mean you should regularly cold-tweet or Facebook-message journalists you don’t know to pimp your stories. Understand, too, that not all social-media platforms are the same — what may be appropriate for Twitter (more public and a little more informal) might not be cool on Facebook (more personal and one-to-one) or LinkedIn (all business and formal). Think twice before trying to fire off “traditional” press-release-based pitches to journalists on these platforms; it rarely works, and usually has a boomerang effect. In other words, use social media to connect and cultivate; use email (or — gasp — the phone!) to close the deal.

That’s the long and short of my presentation, anyway. I’m sure it’ll crystallize in the coming weeks. But for now, I’d be interested in hearing any thoughts on what I’ve missed and what else I might want to include. Don’t be shy.

One Response to “Using social media to pitch your stories”

  1. [...] talked a fair amount about why it’s essential to leverage social media in your institution’s national-news efforts. But I haven’t mentioned some of the best [...]