Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Spring training: reporting day for PR pitchers

Last April, Todd Defren recommended five ways to improve undergraduate PR programs. Although his focus was on ways the industry could help, I took suggestion #4 to heart and developed a new exercise for my PR communication class--an experiment that took place yesterday.

I gave my students a list of local nonprofit and government agencies that do community work, everything from AIDS Athens and BikeAthens to Keep Athens Beautiful. They had one hour to do research on the client and develop a pitch for Athens Magazine (I'm just now noticing that we here in Athens have a tendency to put Athens in the title of everything.) Next, my class joined Dr. Janice Hume's magazine class, and the students paired up. The "PRs" had 3 minutes to give their pitches to the "reporters," then they rotated to the next reporter and gave their pitch again, and then a third time. Next, the reporters had to write up a few sentences about each of the three pitches they heard and decide which, if they could choose only one, they would pursue.
I did not grade the PR students on their pitches--the experience and the feedback from the reporters were valuable enough. Instead, I summarized the pros and cons mentioned by the reporters in their summaries, whether referring to the pitches as a whole or to an individual's story or presentation (not, of course, using names--my purpose was not to embarrass anyone but to show the PRs what the reporters were looking for).

I was incredibly impressed by Janice's students. Most of them took it very seriously and provided thoughtful feedback on what they liked and didn't like, both about the stories and the way they were pitched. I was also very proud of my students, many of whom were nervous going in, but who acted so confident and polished that the reporters didn't seem aware of their worries. This is not to say that they can't improve on their pitching skills. But they're off to a good start--in fact, 10 of the 13 students who participated were named by one of the 13 reporters as having given the pitch that they were most likely to follow up on (three were chosen twice), and all of the story ideas were noted by at least one reporter as having some merit (i.e., a photo essay or a short blurb if not an entire feature story).

My favorite part of this project was standing back and watching my students, leaning forward in their chairs in their enthusiasm to sell their stories, and Janice's students, sitting up straight and listening with a certain degree of skepticism but also some interest to each pitch. I haven't talked to Janice yet, but I feel sure that it must be beneficial for journalism students to evaluate what a good pitch is and what they can learn from a PR person.

Mr. Defren, I salute you. This was a great idea, and I'll be doing it from now until 2031 (longer than that if my daughter chooses a private university).

The pros and cons (duplications omitted) that I posted for my students on the class Web site:
Not terribly unique
Had more than one idea, not enough detail on each one
Fits a newspaper better than a magazine because of timeliness
Unclear what the actual story is
Would profile more than the one person mentioned in the pitch
Could have provided more details to spark interest, too vague
Rushed through the proposal
Newsworthy but not new
Not sold on the importance of the event
Not clear what the organization actually does
Give a better idea of why the story is important for the publication
Too national rather than local
Not sure the event caters to my readers
Good cause but not enough to make a full story
Topic was too broad, would need to be narrowed to a specific story idea
Should have included names of people associated with the event
Too much about the organization and not enough about the event
Would come up with my own ideas because based on compassion rather than facts
Timing (too late to get it in the next issue)

Suitable for the demographic of the readers
Professionally done
Seemed knowledgeable about their organizations
Clear and to the point
Very thorough
Kept my attention
Well spoken
Has a good local focus
Very interested in her subject
Immediately noted why it’s meaningful
Organized and clearly presented
Even suggested which section it could run in
Had the facts, never had to look at notes
Friendly, polite
Timing is good
Conversational, easy-going
Full of information, well researched
Pitched specifically to the publication with a spin for them

I am so heartened and - well, flattered(!) that you took that post seriously and took action. Great work! Glad the experiment seemed to go well.
It's not flattery-- it was a good idea so I ran with it. Got any others?!
Lemme think about it for a bit!
Feel free to ping me if I take too long (todd - at - shiftcomm.com)
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"More important than the curriculum is the question of the methods of teaching and the spirit in which the teaching is given" --Bertrand Russell

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