Exclusives: To pitch or not to pitch?

Problem

You have a dynamite story that is so good you’re wondering if you should pitch it to your usual list of media contacts.  You think that you might get the most bang for your buck if you pitch it to only one key outlet, giving a single reporter an exclusive first crack at the story.  Will this be the most effective way to get your story to the public?

 

Strategy

In general, “exclusive” is the most overused and least useful term next to “off the record” in the communications business.  While necessary in certain circumstances, exclusives are usually not the most effective way to deliver your message to the widest audience.  Moreover, they can be very risky.  With only one outlet reporting on your story it is possible that your “dynamite story” may blow up in your face due to either bad reporting or poor placement in the newspaper.  Before deciding to pitch an exclusive be sure to take this into account.

 

Still, there is a time and place for exclusives.  Exclusively pitch your story to one outlet when you feel this is the only way the outlet will cover it or when you are trying to strengthen a relationship with a particular reporter.  Also remember that when attempting to place an op-ed, it is best to pitch it as an exclusive.  Otherwise, stick with your trusty media list and pitch your story to every reporter you know.

 

Know the exclusive pitfalls

Exclusives are a bad idea for a number of reasons.  Here are just a few of the reasons to avoid exclusives:

 

  • Exclusives won’t reach as wide an audience as your normal story pitch.  If you want your story to reach as many people as possible, an exclusive is not a good idea.  For stories in which you are directing the message, more coverage is almost always better than less coverage.
  • You can’t control the end product.  You can never be sure what a story will look like until you see it in print.  Sometimes reporters write bad stories or a fantastic story ends up buried on page B3 instead of highlighted on page A1.  The more reporters you have covering a story, the more likely you’ll get at least a couple good stories on the front page.
  • You can anger reporters at other outlets.  Relying on one reporter at one outlet may alienate reporters at other outlets.  In some cases, an outlet will deliberately ignore stories that first appeared in the competition.
  • It is easy to accidentally over commit an exclusive.  It’s easy to informally mention a story idea to a few different reporters before beginning to pitch the story in earnest.  If you accidentally do this, you may unwittingly blow your “exclusive” before you even know it.
  • Others may be working on the same story.  Although we often think our story ideas are unique it is not uncommon for two outlets or reporters to simultaneously investigate the same story.  Moreover, if you’re working in a coalition with several people in charge of pitching reporters you can never be sure that someone else isn’t pitching your “exclusive” to a second, third, or even fourth outlet.

Use exclusives for stories that wouldn’t appear in the media otherwise

Although exclusives are clearly problematic there are a few circumstances in which pitching an exclusive is your only choice.  For the most part exclusives are necessary for in depth investigative or feature stories.  NEVER PITCH A BREAKING NEWS STORY AS AN EXCLUSIVE.  As a general rule of thumb, an exclusive should always require at least two days of a reporter’s time.  Here are few examples of when you should consider giving a reporter an exclusive:

 

  • A story that requires a long trip.
  • An investigative report that could be published as a series instead of a single article.
    • Longer feature articles that might appear in your paper’s “Living” section or possibly the weekly magazine.

 

Finally, if you do decide to exclusively pitch one outlet, be sure to pick an outlet that others will likely follow.  In other words, choose large outlets that influence what smaller local outlets decide to run.  Any of the major national papers, such as the New York Times, Washington Post or L.A. Times, is a good target, as well as major regional dailies including the Oregonian or Seattle Times.  It is important to note that the Seattle Times might follow a story originally published in the New York Times, but may not follow stories that appear in comparable outlets such as the Seattle P-I or Oregonian.

 

Use exclusives to strengthen a relationship with a particular reporter

While exclusives can alienate reporters that don’t receive your story pitch, they can strengthen a relationship with the reporter to whom you do pitch.  Direct media competition has waned so much over the decades that readers rarely notice that one outlet had a “scoop,” but more reporters still like exclusives. Sometimes they’ll even tell you this.  Usually you can ignore a reporter’s cries for exclusives unless it is a story will require a substantial investment or a reporter with whom you want to build rapport for future purposes.

 

Use exclusives when pitching Op-Eds

The final occasion for providing an outlet with an exclusive is for an op-ed.  Op-eds should always be pitched as exclusives.  When pitching your op-ed, chose the outlet that will best reach your target audiences.  If an editorial page editor is slow to respond, give him or her a deadline for deciding whether to run the piece. Keep to your word, and if the deadline passes without a positive response from the editor try a different outlet.

 

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February 2004

 

This Media Tip is sponsored by The Mountaineers Foundation.