PLANNING YOUR PR CALENDAR 2021 – WHEN TO PITCH TO MEDIA

If you’re planning your PR calendar for 2021, I have a bit of bad news for you… you might be up to six months too late. Sorry to be a party pooper, but I don’t make the rules. The media does.

I’m always really keen to labour the point that PR isn’t a quick win but, instead, something that you have to invest time into. There are those wonderful moments when a story just happens to land with the right journalist at the right time, or when you suddenly go viral and get more press coverage than you bargained for. But, unfortunately for us long-serving PR pros, we know all too well that these occasions are few and far between.

Don’t get me wrong, there is so much that you can do to put yourself in the best possible position to land coverage – from seeking the right journalists to nailing your email pitch (don’t forget we’ve got plenty of how to guides and top tips over on Pocket Sized PR to help with this!) – but PR is about relationships, timing, and sometimes a bit of good old luck. However, setting out your strategy in advance is a sure-fire way to increase your chances so, as many businesses and brands work on their PR calendars for 2021, I thought I’d give a quick insight into something I get asked about often: long lead and short lead media.

Regardless of the industry you’re working in, understanding the difference between these and what they mean for you is crucial. Yes, in some sectors they’re even more important than others, but timing is everything in PR and there’s no point in coming up with a brilliant campaign or amazing product idea, if you totally miss your chance to get it covered. When I worked in Stella McCartney’s press office, we were always working 2-3 seasons ahead, which can mess with your mind a little, but it trained me well in remembering that your current priority won’t be a journalist’s.

In simple terms… ‘Short Lead’ refers to media that’s working with a shorter lead time (obvious, I know), so around 6-8 weeks. This means from you pitching, to it featuring and landing with your customers, you need to allow that amount of time when planning your PR calendar. This usually applies to weekly magazines, as well as TV and radio shows. However, the rise of digital channels and their importance to media brands, does also mean that in many cases – especially daily newspapers and online media like HuffPost – you might be looking at less than a week’s lead time.

Long lead’ is exactly what you think it is… the complete opposite to the above; longer lead production times like your favourite glossy magazines. This can be anything from 3-6 months, the latter for some of the most popular titles! And don’t forget that their issues come out a month ahead too. So, if I was at Stella McCartney pitching for the September issue of Vogue, I’d have to remember it hits the newsstands in August and then allow myself six months prior to that to pitch. It sounds crazy, but a lot goes into planning the page layouts and features in glossies, so you start to understand just why they’re working so far ahead.  

So, putting it into perspective, when Christmas was your only focus last month, some journalists were already working on this summer’s must-have products!

I know that it makes things a little complicated, but once you start to plan your PR calendar, it gives you a guide for what to pitch and when. It’s worth noting that Covid has thrown things up in the air a little bit and, like us all, journalists know better than to anticipate what the world will look like in a few weeks’ time, let alone six months, so you may find there’s a bit more flexibility than usual. Plus, the acceleration of digital media and its prevalence definitely means there are more opportunities to feature online – especially for last-minute gift guides – so don’t worry if you think you’ve missed a deadline or didn’t make the cut the first time around.

To help you out I thought it would be useful to look at some of the key times that you might pitch specific products, services or ideas because if you came back this week thinking it was the right time to pitch January detox products, you’ll probably already have realised you were a few weeks too late!

New Year’s Resolutions – start pitching for long leads the September before, and then short leads in November and December. Always be wary, however, that just like the summer months journalists tend to have some much-needed time off at Christmas so get your pitch in before the middle of the month.

Valentine’s Day gifts and ideas – don’t leave these until 1 February although, like I said, you might land a couple of ‘last minute gift ideas’ placements. September and October will be key for long lead titles, and December and the first week or so of January for short lead.

Mother’s Day – pitch your gifts and experiences to long lead media in October/start of November and then, for short lead January and into February.

Father’s Day – February and March will be the time to get your Father’s Day content pitched to long lead press, and then April for short lead. When you’re planning, just take note of when Easter falls as this can shift your deadlines slightly.

Halloween – you’ll feel a bit strange pitching Halloween fun just as spring’s in full bloom but May is when to start looking at long lead titles, and then towards the end of August and into September for short lead.

Christmas – you may have heard brands talk about ‘Christmas in July’ as this is when they pitch to the main titles. As with everything, you want to get in early for short leads too, so October is perfect; but don’t be disheartened if you miss the first round, as you can go for later gift guides and last minute ones too.

So, as you can see, understanding what you’re pitching and to who is crucial when creating your PR calendar. Reading this might have fried your brain but just create your calendar (here’s a great marketing plan template if you need it), plot when your product, service or campaign is aimed at, and then just work backwards. Simples. This month, you want to be looking at your summer events, festivals, products and services for long lead press and Mother’s Day for short lead.

Easy peasy, right?

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