The Evolution of a Pitch: 43North, New York Times, and Katie Couric

By Katie Krawczyk

Often times, clients will want a media or public relations strategy because they know having a story written about their organization or effort will gain them traction – that is to say, if the story favorably hits on their key message points. Yet rarely is it understood how media relations actually works. When a positive story is written, its immediate and lasting impact is immeasurable – particularly in the digital age where stories now live forever instead of being thrown out in yesterday’s trash. Media relations should be viewed as an important piece to your marketing and communications efforts, not the sole driver. This is for two primary reasons:

  1. Earned media coverage is never a guarantee, even when the reporter is interested (unlike paid media placement, i.e. advertising); and
  2. You never know when earned media coverage will hit – it could take days or years after the initial pitch to a reporter or outlet is sent.

As a result, keeping realistic expectations for your public relations strategy is essential for maintaining sanity and clarity.

If you live in or are from Buffalo, you’ve probably heard that Katie Couric was in town in early January spotlighting the city’s renaissance through immigrant and refugee-owned West Side Bazaar, downtown’s Canalside, and 43North – the world’s largest business idea competition.

Earned coverage has the ability to snowball in ways that are immeasurable to your brand or effort.

19 IDEAS has been a part of 43North’s PR team, alongside Martin | Davison Public Relations, since before the competition had a name in 2013. Throughout 2014 and 2015, it has been our job to tell the 43North story: the world’s largest business idea competition unlike any other business plan competition of its kind, including prominent backing from Governor Cuomo as part of his Buffalo Billion initiative; how a business idea competition is helping to ignite Buffalo’s economic revitalization vis-à-vis the local startup community; and how a Rust Belt city is competing on a world stage for the attention of some of the best and brightest startups.

It’s an exciting story to tell, but while we, as Buffalonians, might feel 43North’s story has a lot of merit, it was not always a slam-dunk from the perspective of national reporters. In the competition’s inaugural year, our pitches were met with a certain level of skepticism. This was the case with the New York Times business desk. Knowing first impressions are paramount, I carefully scrutinized the placement of every word of my initial e-mail – from the subject to the opening line and every line thereafter.

Buffalo-NY-43North-John-Gavigan-Katie-Couric-19-IDEAS-Public-Relations-Nancy-Parisi (1)
43North Executive Director John Gavigan with Katie Couric. Photo by Nancy J. Parisi

As a quick aside, once you know you have the right reporter or editor and you’ve honed what you feel is the right pitch that will grab their attention, the only thing to do is see if and how they respond. In some lucky instances, you may get a response right away, be it yes or no. If you’ve gotten your “yes” on the first go, you struck gold and good on ya – reward yourself with that piece of chocolate or after work cocktail. If it’s a “no” or they don’t respond at all, that’s okay – the key is follow-up with useful information (emphasis being on useful). Reporters are looking for the next story – something that hasn’t been told before that will resonate with their readers – which is why understanding reporter beats are key to a PR rep’s success – or taking a current story but adding a new twist to it.

Back to the New York Times. In May 2014, the first phase of 43North’s inaugural year, my pitch to the business editor was positively responded to, but I was told, “I’d like to learn more about who the finalists will be come October.” I diligently followed up with this editor periodically throughout the stages of the competition: when we narrowed down the field to the semifinalists, then to the finalists, and of course once the winners were announced. The end of the competition came and went without placement in the Times.

Come 2015, the second year of the competition, and now our pitch is slightly different: no longer can we talk about the competition as a shiny, brand new thing. We now focus on the competition’s impact on the local community and its success rate of attracting quality startups and entrepreneurs to Buffalo. One year from my initial pitch, I reached back out to the Times. That editor, I discovered, retired a few months earlier. After some research, I sent a fresh pitch to the Times’ small business and enterprise reporter Stacy Cowley. Several correspondences transpired throughout the summer, and by September, I had confirmation she was pitching her editor on coming to Buffalo in October to cover the competition.

Fast-forward – Stacy spent five days in Buffalo and putting together a nearly full-page spread in the Times’ business section. Added on top of that was a digital photo gallery, with photos taken by Times photographer Brendan Bannon. The piece generated upwards of 50,000 views online plus the 1 million print copies in circulation during the week, not to mention the tens of thousands of impressions from social media views and shares.

I elaborate on this story to make the greater point about how the dividends of earned media coverage will pay it forward in both direct and indirect ways. Case in point: about seven weeks later after the New York Times piece hit, we received notice that Yahoo contacted 43North to be featured in a new series (“Rebuilding America”) hosted by Katie Couric that examines the revival of six U.S. cities. Buffalo was chosen as the first of those cities, and 43North was chosen as one of a few key initiatives to showcase that revival. We learned that Katie and her team saw the press 43North received in both USA Today and the New York Times back in November, which helped solidify their interest in the competition as a driver for change for the region.

As I said in my opening, earned media coverage is never a guarantee. Some PR reps might have given up after the first few failed attempts at the New York Times. The key is persistence but in ways that offer the reporter opportunities to learn more about your story that will have meaning and/or impact to their readers. That persistence needs to be honed by succinct yet compelling storytelling. If successful, your earned coverage has the ability to snowball in ways that are immeasurable to your brand or effort.

Katie Krawczyk is the co-founder, president and communications director for 19 IDEAS, an integrated marketing and communications agency headquartered in Buffalo, New York. 

All photos shown in this post are by Nancy J. Parisi.

%d bloggers like this: