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Elephants vs Mosquitos: Which Approach to Media Outreach Gets Results

Beth Casteel   September 16, 2020  

A popular theory of evolution serves as a good analogy for approaches to media pitching, whether we are promoting scientific research or increasing awareness of a health issue.

In biology, organisms are classified according to the evolutionary “strategies” they use for reproduction and long-term survival of the species. Humans and elephants are known as “K-selected” organisms. Within these species, individuals have just a few offspring over their lifetime and devote substantial time and energy to raising and nurturing each baby.

On the other end of the spectrum are “r-selected” organisms such as sea turtles and mosquitos. These creatures lay vast numbers of eggs to produce numerous offspring and invest almost nothing in caring for them. This strategy counts on massive quantity to produce at least a few survivors to carry on the species generation after generation.

I often think of K- and r-strategies when pitching to the media. Either approach can be successful, but most often, we prefer a K-strategy, in which we thoughtfully nurture a customized pitch. This means taking time to think precisely about who we want to reach, to learn about specific reporters whom we can target, and to consider which particular aspect of our story will most interest them. We take time to learn about the reporters and to clearly understand their beats and their publications. We review bylined articles and plan an approach to the most relevant reporters, with a fresh angle that is most likely to intrigue them. While we may send out fewer pitches and queries with this K-strategy, we generally get more high-quality responses and build better relationships with journalists who come to know and trust us and are willing to keep opening our emails.

Just like in biology, our tactics do not always fall neatly into one category. Occasionally, variations on the r-strategy — sending out a single pitch to a long list of reporters — make sense. When we have strong, time-sensitive breaking news, it can work well to send a pitch to a broad but well-researched list. But too much reliance on the r-strategy is why journalists are often frustrated with public relations. Hundreds of mosquito-like pitches annoyingly fill up journalists’ in-boxes every day.

Media databases and distribution services make it tempting to simply cast out a pitch to larger numbers of journalists. It is quick and easy to identify dozens or even hundreds of reporters in your topic area and then blanket the state, region, or the entire world with a generic pitch. But these databases are far from perfect and inevitably identify innumerable reporters who will find the outreach irrelevant and irritating. They may even block the sender’s email, which means they may not be able to reach that reporter when they actually have a story that might be a good match.

Taking the time to thoughtfully nurture a pitch and selectively send it to reporters who will care about it is better than just letting loose a swarm of mosquitos.

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