Smile and Dial

Smile and dial gets a bad rep. I rarely hear the term used positively. You should know by now that I’m against annoying journalists, whether through PR spam or telemarkety phone pitches. If you’ve got a good story to pitch, and you need to score some coverage fast, the phone is the only way to go.

“But wait…” you say, “Don’t journalists prefer phone as their #1 method of contact?” Yes, journalists want to be pitched by email more than 80% of the time. Well of course they do. Most journalists view PR people as telemarketers, and the rest are lying. It’s much easier to click delete than reject somebody in person.

Most media relations pros assume working the phones isn’t worth the effort. There’s a reason you get those calls during dinner – the phone works better than email. Here are some tips for making the most of working the phones:

Smile – before you pick up the phone, smile. Look in the mirror and smile ear-to-ear. Studies have shown when you smile, people can hear it in your voice. Nobody wants to listen to somebody droning on like a robot.

Stand and Deliver – when you give a presentation, do you slouch in your chair? No, you stand up, make eye contact and use good body language. To communicate more effectively over the phone, pretend you’re presenting to the person in-person.

Embrace Rejection – in sales, some jest that it takes three “nos” to get one “yes.” I don’t suggest that you try to pitch the same story to a journalist three times, but you should prepare to hear a lot of “nos” before you get a journalist that’s interested. The more you do it, the easier rejection gets. Turn it into a game – see how long you can make it through your pitch before you get the know. You might be surprised by how many yeses you get.

Script It – don’t sound scripted, but you should have a script. Don’t wing your pitches, practice them. Seriously, have you practiced your pitches before? I know very few PR people that do. Practice makes perfect (or close to it).

Warm Up – because you need to practice your pitches, warm up with people in your office. Call a friend and pitch them. Then, when you start calling real media, start with the outlet on your list least-likely to write about it. Work your way up from there. Once you start to hit your stride, go for the gold and call the most important outlet.

Learn From Every Conversation – gather intelligence on every call. If you get rejected, learn why. Ask the journalist, what would it take to get a “yes” from you? What could I have done better? Is there anything I could do to make this type of story more appealing? Let them know you don’t want to waste their time again in the future – most will help.

CRM – to the last point, don’t rely on your memory. Have a contact management system that everyone on your team has access too (if that’s not supported in your organization, do it yourself). I personally like Basecamp’s Highrise. Highrise helps you keep notes on all your conversations, lets you schedule follow up tasks, manage your Opportunities, and even forward emails to have notes entered automatically (killer feature). The more you know about the people you pitch, the better you will be able to truly match stories to outlets.

The Law of Averages – the more calls you make, the more likely you will find interested journalists. Your conversion ratio will also improve overtime, as you get better at communicating your stories over the phone, but also overcoming objections and working around gatekeepers.

Pre-Call Plan – before you pick up the phone, do your legwork. Know what the journalist has written about. Know the average length of his/her stories, the frequency of articles or posts, the balance of quotes to text, and any other consistencies that could help you better tailor your pitch. You have a much better chance if you can not only communicate what you want a journalist to write about, but how you see the story fitting into the editorial strategy and what information you can provide to keep the story objective and balanced.

Overcoming Objections – keep a list on a piece of paper, in Evernote or on your whiteboard of all the objections you hear when you pitch. Figure out a great response to each – and tailor this to each pitch. If a journalist says, “I don’t write about X”, maybe you want to respond with “I apologize, who should I talk to?” Of course, if the objection is legitimate, cross them off your list and NEVER pitch that topic again.

Working Around Gatekeepers – I have mixed feelings about this, but journalists have a lot of filters – because most PR people abuse journalists. If you have a legitimate story to pitch, and you are 100% sure you are calling the right contact, you need to be able to work around gatekeepers. I’ve always found the best approach is to be specific about your call. Sometimes honesty is your best policy. If you don’t get transferred, ask to leave a personal voicemail for the recipient. If you don’t get a call back, try again one more time tomorrow and then move on (take the hint).

Learn From Others – who are some of the best communicators you know? Do you know any good salespeople? See if you can listen to them making some calls. How do they deliver their pitch? How do they handle objections and rejection? What triggers do they look for before moving in for the close? How do they track their process and plan their work? All of this information can be applied to media relations. Give it a shot, what do you have to lose?

Know the Buy Signals – if the person on the other end of the phone talks to you for more than 10 seconds, that’s a buy signal. If they ask you a question or want clarification on the call, that’s a buy signal. If you leave a message and they call you back, that’s a buy signal. A buy signal shows interest and purchase intent. In media relations, if you see any of this behavior, you have a chance.

Close the Deal – if you pick up on a buy signal, go in for the close. “When would be a good time for you to talk with our expert on this?” or “What additional information do you need from us to consider this?”

Sales Training – do you feel a little uncomfortable smiling and dialing? Want to boost your success rate? Take some sales training. The principles taught in a professional sales course can be applied to media relations.

Just for Fun – here’s an extreme example of working the phones. While this fictional sale from Boilerroom isn’t exactly what I’m advising for your media relations approach, it is a good illustration of preparing for the call, practicing the script, overcoming objections and closing the deal. Don’t lie to people, but know your stuff, prepare and practice and you’ll do well.

Bonus Tip – if you work the phones everyday in your job. Invest in very accurate lead lists, segment those lists for each pitch, and consider using an auto dialer (software that dials the phone for you). A lot of people will hate this suggestion, but it’s a huge time saver. While it might normally take a day to make 80 calls, a dialer would help a caller complete the list in a few hours.

What do you think? Should PR professionals still pitch on the phone? Have you had more success landing press via email or phone? If you’re a journalist, do you even answer your phone anymore? What approach has been most successful for you when working the phones?

About Jeremy Porter 214 Articles
Jeremy Porter has been passionate about the intersection of public relations and journalism since studying both Public Relations and Journalism at Utica College of Syracuse University in the late 90s. Porter launched Journalistics in 2009 to share his ideas and insights around both professions and how trends and developments in modern day marketing, communications, and technology impact those working in these fields. Porter also values the traditions and history of both professions and regularly shares his perspective in these areas - and related topics geared toward the next generation of journalism and public relations professionals.


  1. Excellent advice, Jeremy! As much as PR / media relations pros hate to think they are in the sales biz, this just proves it. We are selling others on the story we are pitching. I always refer to it as “dialing for dollars.” 🙂

  2. This is a poorly written article. Grammatical errors and typos throughout the piece. Please review before posting.

    • Thanks for being my editor. I found three blatant errors – sorry for the sloppiness.

      I don’t know if I would go so far as to call it poorly written – then again, I didn’t. Please send me a link to your blog so I can get some pointers.

  3. Great tips – thanks Jeremy. I’m advising all the newbies at my agency to take a look!

    One additional tip I’ve found useful is to STOP talking. Sometimes if PRs have scripted things out they feel the need to blurt out their full opening gambit and keep on talking afterwards lest they be cut short before delivering the full story. Generally this just annoys journos who can’t get a word in edgeways and forget what you said in the first place!

    • I think entrepreneurs are often in a better position to get journalists interested. If you are well-informed and have a timely, relevant topic to talk about, you should have luck.

      I think you’ll often have more luck picking up the phone and talking to journalists about what you’re doing. Event if they’re not interested, you’ll learn valuable information through the process that will help you improve your success on future pitches.

      Other things that help: having really strong user growth in a short period of time, being able to name drop well-known founders, customers, partners or investors, or being able to talk about revenue growth. At least in B2B, this is what journalists want to hear. If you’ve created “the next Pinterest,” you’ll probably get hung up on.

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