The PIO Pitch Slam

"Pitching a story is part art, part science, part intuition — and a lot of luck," Lisa Rossi told the more than 40 attendees at "PIO Pitch Slam: Packaging, Delivering ... and Placing the Story," one of the workshops held during ScienceWriters 2008 in October at Palo Alto. Rossi, director, of communications and external relations for the Microbicide Trials Network at the University of Pittsburgh, co-organized the session with Karen Kreeger, senior science communications manger at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. The workshop featured tips for public information officers who pitch to newspapers, magazines and electronic media.

 

"Pitching a story is part art, part science, part intuition — and a lot of luck," Lisa Rossi told the more than 40 attendees at "PIO Pitch Slam: Packaging, Delivering ... and Placing the Story," one of the workshops held during ScienceWriters 2008 in October at Palo Alto. Rossi, director, of communications and external relations for the Microbicide Trials Network at the University of Pittsburgh, co-organized the session with Karen Kreeger, senior science communications manger at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. The workshop featured tips for public information officers who pitch to newspapers, magazines and electronic media.

Beyond luck, a powerful e-mail subject line is crucial, according to the panelists. Pinpoint the news. For example, "Joining forces against cancer" is too vague for Erika Check Hayden, a senior reporter for Nature. However, "Higher urinary levels of commonly used chemical, BPA, linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes" makes an impact.

"Get right to the point in a press release," advises Betsy Mason, science editor for wired.com. "Anecdotes or cute ledes... take too long." A "first" isn't an automatic selling point for Ron Winslow, deputy science and health editor and senior medical writer for The Wall Street Journal. For breaking news, he prefers a heads-up several days before the story breaks. However, medical and science stories must now compete for front-page space with economics and presidential politics. Instead, pitch to "Currents" (Section A) or the well-read Health blog, which runs eight to nine features per day.

The workshop also gave PIOs a chance to pitch stories to panelists. Their diverse story ideas elicited valuable tips for any PIO. Among them:

  • Identify what's unique or significant. Dawn Levy, a science writer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, couldn't draw interest in covering their Jaguar, newly designated as the fastest supercomputer. Panelists wanted specifics about added benefits of its capabilities, how Jaguar is an actual leap to a new performance level, or why it's impressive. So Levy offered, "If everyone in the US did 10 calculations per second, it would take 10 days to cover what this machine does in one minute." Editors and audience reacted approvingly.
  • Cite an obscure journal. Nicole Moore, a science writer at the University of Michigan, hit a home run by describing the institution's research on slow-moving river and ocean currents as an alternative energy source. Now being tested on the Detroit River, the Vivace Project will be described in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Offshore Mechanics and Arctic Engineering. A new technology/new energy topic appealed to all the editors. "It would be fun to put that journal name in the piece," Winslow added.
  • Present an unambiguous story idea. San Francisco freelancer Janet Basu proposed a contrast between two accomplished Stanford ecologists. Paul Ehrlich is famous, influential and alert to news pegs. Harold Mooney, little-known despite his well-respected theories, doesn't seek publicity. "Why do my readers want to know about them?" Winslow wondered. Mason quipped, "It would be better if they were shouting at each other." Hayden, although unsure why Basu presented the contrast, "might consider profiling Mooney as an unsung hero" instead.

It's important to build relationships with editors. Be well-prepared to answer their questions. All three panelists appreciate multi-media suggestions, and being offered an exclusive. "When one of your researchers is doing something so distinctive that you tell friends, 'You won't believe what I heard today,' that's the story I want," Winslow said.

Carol Milano, an independent journalist in Brooklyn NY, has written for The Scientist, ASCO News, Yale Medicine, AAAS career publications and elsewhere.

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