Promoting Your Lights On Afterschool Event to the Media: Pitch Calls

In this modern age of email, tweets, Facebook posts, text messages and more, one of the most effective tools for getting mainstream media to cover your Lights On Afterschool event is a product of the late 19th century: the telephone.

About a week before your event, be sure to let reporters or producers know the big day is coming up by sending them a media alert—preferably by email, but if that’s not workable, by fax or regular old U.S. mail. (Here are instructions and a sample alert.) Then, two or three days before the event, send it again, incorporating any updates to the list of participants or other changes in the program.

After you’ve sent the media advisory letting journalists know that your event is coming up, it’s crucial that you follow up, and the best way to do that is by telephone. It’s easy to do, and probably won’t take more than 45 minutes to an hour.

Making the Pitch
Before you pick up the phone, work out a “pitch,” something that explains who you are, why you’re calling, and what you’re hoping they’ll do. You might say, for example:

I’m Joyce Friedlander, and I’m with the Mission Hills Afterschool Program. I’m calling to follow up on a media alert I sent you by email yesterday about our annual Lights On Afterschool rally, this coming Thursday afternoon at Mission Hills Elementary. It’s part of a nationwide celebration of the important service that afterschool programs perform for families, schools and communities, and we’re going to have the mayor, two school board members, and around 300 parents, kids, afterschool providers, teachers, business leaders and others there.

Our afterschool ballet folklorico group is going to perform, there’ll be a tour of the program, and we’ll hear from the mayor and the school board members, as well as a number of the kids who will talk about the importance of afterschool in their lives.

As I said, Lights On Afterschool is a nationwide day of rallies, and the sponsoring organization, the Afterschool Alliance, expects about 7,500 events like ours—most of them that day—and more than a million participants across the nation. And one reason it’s so important is that afterschool programs here and across the country are facing huge funding challenges, as a result of tight budgets and the recession.

I sent a media alert about it with all the details. I’m hoping you can cover the rally, and I wanted to see if you plan to attend, and if there’s anything we can do to help with a story.

You might want to write out some bullet points to help you remember the pitch. Once you’ve got it together, you’re ready to start dialing! Call the same reporters or producers who received the media alert, including the news assignment desks at the various outlets. If you don’t have phone numbers already, just look up the main switchboard numbers online or in a phone book, and then ask for the individual reporter or ask who produces segments relating to education, children, families or community news.

The best time to call is usually the morning, because in the afternoon, journalists are often on deadline. Often, you’ll end up leaving a message on voice mail, and if that happens, go ahead and deliver a brief version of your pitch, adding your phone number and email address so the reporter can reply. If you don’t hear back, go ahead and make a second call later that day or the following day.

When you get a journalist on the phone, deliver your pitch and then be ready to answer any questions. And remember, as reporters, editors and producers decide to cover the event or not, they’ll ask themselves, “Is this news?” and “Is this going to interest my readers, listeners or viewers?” So be upbeat as you talk about the event, be ready to explain issues such as funding challenges programs face, stress any high-profile speakers (such as elected officials or local celebrities), and emphasize that students will be an active part of the event, offering good visuals for a photographer or camera crew. And be sure you have parent/guardian permission for media to use images of students who will be at the event.

Of course, be sure to keep track of the responses. They might ask you to send the media alert again. They might say they’ve got another story they’re working on and don’t know if they’ll cover your event. They might say they plan to come, or that they don’t plan to cover it. Keep track of it all, and follow up as needed.

And remember that whether this is the first time you’ve talked to this journalist or the 10th, and whether she or he comes or not, you’re building a relationship—one that could result in your program being included in a story down the road, even if the outlet doesn’t cover your Lights On event this year.

Finally, depending on how long your list of media is, you may find that it helps to take a break or two, to keep your pitch fresh. Make a few calls, then stop for a few minutes and recharge your batteries. You want your voice to convey energy, so if you start to feel like you’re flagging, take a break! Here’s another trick: Stand up while you talk on the phone. It’ll get more energy into your voice.

When you’ve gone through your list, you should have a pretty good idea which reporters are planning to come. And you’ll have made Alexander Graham Bell very proud!

Good luck!

This story originally appeared in the Afterschool Advocate (Vol. 13, Issue 10).

Click here to read the rest of this issue.