Monday, February 1, 2010

PR’s Perfect Pitch – The 98 Percent Solution …

PR’s Perfect Pitch – The 98 Percent Solution …

… and Barnett’s Second Law of Pitching

By Adjunct Professor N.B. Barnett

Note: Before I wrote this, I carefully examined the pitch, reviewed the real story behind the pitch, examined one or two reporters’ complaints about the pitch and – like Solomon – came up with my decision on what (or who) was right, and what (or who) was wrong. While I’m not Solomon, I have been an expert witness in a couple of court cases along the way, and I think in this case my judgment is sound. However, you’re the reader – you be the judge.

One final note – not liking the new “convention” that uses a plural pronoun to avoid gender bias, I rotate freely between “he” and “she” when referring to the PR person and the reporters – the people involved in this little brouhaha. Their gender is irrelevant, but I’d risk being judged a sexist by some pettifogger if I didn’t tip my hat to “Political Correctness.” Now, on with the hanging!

What is “Perfect Pitch?” In music, it refers to the ability of someone to hear and reproduce musical notes perfectly, without an outside reference. In Public Relations, however, “Perfect Pitch” refers to a message-to-the-media that catches their attention, generates interest and motivates them to action … all in 25 words or less.

In Public Relations, the “Perfect Pitch” tells enough of the story to catch a reporter’s eye (or ear). It gets the reporter thinking and – after due thought – gets them calling or emailing the source of that pitch with a simple demand: “tell me more!” And the Perfect Pitch does that all in 25 words or less, no easy task.

The Perfect Pitch must be edgy – it must challenge a reporter to drop what he’s doing and actually THINK. The Perfect Pitch must reach the reporter in such a way that she’s got to do a V-8 head-slap and say, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

No single 25-word-or-less press pitch can tell the whole story – so, despite honesty and candor, no successful pitch can be entirely accurate or completely truthful – let alone non-controversial. In fact, the Perfect Pitch is almost always controversial – to succeed, it has to challenge conventional wisdom … or it will lie flat on the floor, gasping like a landed bass, flopping around and waiting to die slowly and painfully.

Recently, I came across a “Perfect Pitch” that succeeded in catching reporters eyes and ears – more important, it succeeded generated a whole series of scheduled press interviews for the successful PR pitchmeister’s client’s media tour.

However, this pitch also generated a bit of un-expected and un-welcome controversy, which proves both Barnett’s Second Law of Pitching and Barnett’s 98-Percent-Solution (with apologies to Arthur Conan Doyle).

Barnett’s Second Law of Pitching: No Pitch, no matter how otherwise Perfect, is so clear that it won’t completely (and negatively) confuse at least one reporter, editor or blogger.

In real-world terms, this usually means that a blogger – trying to make a name or generate some controversy-driven click-throughs – decides to nit-pick a pitch, trying to make it something that it’s not, then stirring the pot to turn a simple request-for-an-interview into an apparent (but not real) PR faux-pas.

Which leads us to Barnett’s 98-Percent Solution.

Barnett’s 98-Percent Solution: A pitch that’s not only comprehensible, but effective, when given to 98 percent of reporters, will nonetheless lead to a controversial (and often intentional) mis-understanding among 2 percent of those who receive the pitch.

Which begs the question – is 98 percent good enough?

The simple answer is “yes” – 98 percent IS good enough, but only IF you are a PR pitchmeister blessed with a client who understands that even the best pitch has its limitations. There is only so much you can do or say in 25 words or less – and any reporter who thinks that is the whole story is either under-trained and ill-experienced – or she’s looking to pick a nit … or a fight. In today’s new virtual, social media – where everybody who says he’s a journalist IS a journalist – there are a lot of provocateurs just looking to generate smoke and heat and thereby grab audiences’ attention. In a recent and excellent science fiction novel by John Varley, I read about future reporters called, generically, “drudges,” who look for ways to create controversy out of nothing much at all.

And that, apparently, is what happened to this 98-percent Perfect Pitch. Virtually every reporter and editor who heard the pitch knew that this was just a come-on – the real facts, and the real information, would come out in the interviews … and a dozen of them scheduled interviews on what was a rather dry and technical topic to all but true believers.

However, one or two nit-picking reporters decided that a single qualifying word was left out of the pitch (but not the interview), and therefore the pitchmeister – and, by extension, his client – were intentionally deceiving the media (even though no-one – not even the one or two complaining reporters – were deceived for even a single moment). It was one of those flash-and-burn stories that generated heat but no light – no-one was informed, no-one was deceived – but one PR person is now having to explain all this to his client, without sounding like someone not professional enough to take responsibility for her actions.

All this once again proves is that, in the Blues Brothers, John Belushi was indeed right: “It’s Not My Fault!”

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