To pitch or not to pitch – tips on media relations during COVID-19

Written by Vicky Bramham on Monday 1st June 2020

Over the last few weeks, the media around the world has been flooded with coverage about COVID-19, indeed there has been little news on anything else. For those of us working in communications, it has posed the question whether now is the right time to be speaking to journalists and trying to place non COVID-19 stories in the media or whether this is insensitive, will potentially annoy our journalist contacts and not gain any traction.

Vicky Bramham, Managing Director at OPEN Health PR, speaks to freelance health journalist Jacqui Thornton to get her expert view on how best to approach media relations during this unprecedented time.

So Jacqui, how do you think the media environment has changed over the last few weeks?

My first job in journalism began in 1990; never in my 30-year career have I seen one story dominate the agenda in this way, and certainly never a health story. This has led to a division between journalists – the health news reporters, and some of the feature writers, are busier than ever before, while others, particularly freelance non health, have seen their workload decimated. There is a lot of anguish out there.

I’m one of the lucky ones, freelancing news and features for the BMJ, which has set up a special Coronavirus Hub collating all coverage. A consequence of the crisis is the decision by the BMJ to remove the paywall for these stories, to encourage sharing of knowledge, which has helped journalists to promote their stories on social media.

How has the disruption to journalists’ working lives changed in terms of how they look for and receive stories?

You would not believe the number of daily emails I am getting – but I have 10,500 unread ones, if that gives an indication. One national correspondent told me he is getting double the normal rate and is ‘snowed under.’

So – check how busy the person you are pitching to is – it’s easy to see on Muckrack. Victoria Lambert at the Telegraph says the appetite for Coronavirus stories from her editors is huge, so she is ‘up to her eyeballs’ with work and is not keen on being with being followed up over and over by PRs. She says it is very rare for her to miss an email with a story in it that she likes.

Conversely, as people are working from home – many alone – you may find that some of the non-Covid reporting freelancers are more receptive to a phone pitch than previously. You might be the only person they speak to that day.

In terms of looking for stories, personally I am finding a lot of leads on Twitter now – something I did not do before – because the level of intelligent debate within the health and care professions is high. People really want to highlight challenges and share good practice.

Is it worth trying to sell in a health story that is not related to COVID-19?

Yes, although it better be a good story. There’s much less space for other health stories but readers do want to hear about them. Some are bored stiff of Covid.

Just remember that in all the papers there is less space for other stories, so staff correspondents are fighting over fewer slots. That means so-so stories won’t get in. So genuinely exciting developments and strong stand-alone ideas are required.

A subject with solid peer review and published evidence on the usual popular topics of cancer – prevention, treatment and ideally cure- is still going to work. Strong abstracts from conferences too, with compelling Key Opinion Leader quotes providing third party context, will get traction.

Would you recommend delaying any media outreach if possible?

News is news – can you ever delay it? The pharmaceutical trade press are continuing to cover different subjects so you risk looking like you are selling in old news if you delay it and present to the dailies later.

Plus, journalists say the appetite for Covid-only stuff is waning so now is the time to pitch health news. But be wary of any pharmaceutical launches of costly medicines - there is not an appetite for anything that might be expensive for the NHS.

If something doesn’t get pick-up, then you can repackage it later as long as you have new data/case studies/strong KOL reaction. Real world data is increasingly liked.

For features it’s a little different. Lambert says If she had a great story now she would hold back as its time will come round again, when it will get a better show.

What kind of health stories could still get cut-through?

Good news! We all need a dose of positivity, particularly for beleaguered cohorts such as older men who have been hit by Covid. Just look at how prostate cancer stories are booming – such as these pieces on a ‘game-changing’ prostogram which avoids the need for rectal examinations, screening could save 8000 lives and how prostate cancer deaths are predicted to be down this year.

The big subjects are still being reported when the evidence is strong, and it can help if there is a covid ‘line’ though be careful not to shoehorn one in. Preventative health as ever is popular and empowers readers as it gives them something to ‘do’ actively, such as the news that fibre has a role in reducing not only bowel, but breast cancer too.

Can you give any more examples of recent non-COVID 19 health stories that have had traction? Why do you think they managed to get coverage?

I read a great news story on migraine which combined an interesting research development, which was relevant to readership, with good patient case studies demonstrating a genuine patient need.

A positive piece about fast track radiotherapy for breast cancer, based on a study of 4000 women and published in the Lancet made a great piece in the Mail. Again, it concentrates on the benefits for women, as the high dose treatment is as effective in five days as the standard 21 days of the lower dose.

Are there any tips you can give to people wanting to place a story?

Use trusted freelancers – they are your way in when news and feature desks are overwhelmed. But find out how they like to be approached so you do not annoy them – Twitter, WhatsApp, email or phone – it’s all very individual. If they don’t reply twice, drop it.

If you are reliant on email to communicate with them, make your subject line count. It has to stand out now more than ever.

Target women’s magazines with patient-led features. Monthly magazines with 3 month lead times are not wanting to be writing about coronavirus in September.

Use the quiet time to media train your spokespeople and KOLs – virtual training works well – so they are pitch perfect when they eventually speak to journalists.

Finally, is there any other advice?

Look to the future. What are the British innovations in the pharmaceutical world that will help the NHS and the economy long term?

The crisis has brought to the fore that pharmaceutical employees are key workers, playing a vital role. That is a great news story. PRs should be collating all the examples of new ways or working, collaboration and the speed of change in the UK which ultimately will benefit us all, as vaccine/diagnostic/treatment development will never be the same again.


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