Entrepreneurs often ask me if publicists’ pitches really lead to stories. Journalists don’t like answering that. When we bite on a publicist’s suggestion, we feel like we aren’t doing our jobs -- that rather than hunting down a great yarn, we just ran with what fell in our laps. But the honest answer is: Yes, sometimes a pitch works. And I’ll tell you the background from one such story in this issue, so you can see how it happens.
Related: 5 Tips on Pitching to the Media
It began on February 1, when a publicist named Leila Belcher emailed our senior editor, Alexandra Zissu. Subject line: “Hi Alexandra -- How Project 7 Gum Rose from the Ashes.” (Side note: A marketer recently told me that he ran an experiment and found that customers opened his emails more often when he put their name in the subject. Did that make a difference here?) The pitch was one paragraph; it said that Project 7 founder Tyler Merrick had a “particularly interesting and inspiring story” of rebuilding his company after it went under.
The pitch didn’t offer much detail, but it did hit upon a theme -- problem-solving -- that we love to write about. And it offered growth numbers, so Zissu knew the rebound was legit. She dashed off a response: “Why did it fail, and how did he make it rise/what worked 2nd time around that didn’t work 1st time?” She was searching for three things. One, is there a compelling story? Two, is the entrepreneur open about his mistakes (which not everyone is, even if their publicists claim they are)? And three, did he learn something that our readers would find valuable?
Usually, publicists reply to these kinds of questions themselves. But this publicist forwarded a personal response from Merrick, her client, who explained in detail how he went wrong. (In brief: He sold mediocre products that he thought people would buy because a slice of sales went to charity. It didn’t work.) “Founders need to be more vulnerable and transparent about their failures and struggles,” he concluded.
This was a bull’s-eye in ways Merrick may not have realized. Many publicists will read a writer’s or an editor’s work before pitching so they can target those most likely to be interested in a particular story. In this case, there was no way to have known that at Entrepreneur, Zissu and I have had many conversations about how to cover social missions. She believes strongly in them. I worry that stories about them aren’t compelling -- just a ticker of good intentions, with no lessons for readers. Here, Merrick represented both sides: His company has a social mission but had to learn hard business truths.
She got Merrick on the phone. “He was the most transparent person I’ve talked to for Entrepreneur,” Zissu says. And that’s how the perfect mix came together: a pitch that targeted what a publication covers and what a specific editor is interested in, an entrepreneur who is comfortable opening up and a story that readers will benefit from. Sure, it wasn’t gumshoe reporting -- but no journalist will turn that one down.