Improve PR pitches with the GUESS test

Corporate PR is, broadly speaking, about influencing people to change behaviours in a way that suits your clients’ business, mostly through earned media.

But before that, the job is to convince a journalist to invest the scarcest of all resources - their time and attention - on you. 

Your client’s brand, your company brand, and your personal brand - in the eyes of that journalist - depends on you giving them the best possible story. So it’s important to make sure your pitch is the best it can be.

The GUESS test is a simple mnemonic test you can apply to a PR pitch, based on five behavioural science principles;

Grabbing: we pay attention to things that stand out
Urgent: we act when something is time-bound
Easy: we are more likely to act when things are made easy
Story:  we tend not to act when we have to think
Social: we are influenced by what our peers are thinking and doing 

Unpacking these one by one; 

1. Grabbing: pay attention
People are not going to act unless they notice you. Getting attention is the first challenge, and this is hard, especially if you’re an unknown quantity. 

Like a Purple Cow (ref. Seth Godin) we tend to notice a ‘man bites dog’ story, a twist on the familiar. Alternatively, the ‘oh that’s typical’ reaction can be just as effective. 

Rule of thumb: a story should defy expectations, provide further evidence to support a major story or stereotype, or offer something completely new.

2. Urgent: time bound scarcity 
We value scarcity and prioritise actions that require quick decisions, whether that’s buying in a sale, running for a train, making decisions under pressure. 

Applied to a pitch, this means putting a time limit on it. This could be a on an offer of exclusivity, or a natural time window framed by a ‘media moment’ such as financial results or a conference. And while less relevant in today’s largely-digital ‘anytime’ news cycles, editorial cycles are also important - especially regarding features. 

3. Easy: path of least resistance
We’re more likely to act when we know what to do: humans go with the flow and take paths of least resistance. 

Make it easy to say yes. Aim for brevity and clarity: don’t be ambiguous. I see media relations as story brokerage; where you facilitate a conversation between client and journalist. Prepare both sides well, get out of the way, be available afterwards if needed.

This means giving the journalist the same (if not more) service as the client - pictures, logistics, diary holds, deadlines, briefings, be contactable, send links.  

4. Story: don’t make me think
We are more likely to act when things feel familiar, and require more encouragement to venture into unknown territory. Keep it simple.

This means anchoring stories in the journalists’ world. Help them see how it relates to an existing story. Make clear how your story links to a person, theme or business they’ve written about before - how you’re adding something new. It means avoiding jargon and acronyms. 

And if the pitch needs two or three paragraphs to contextualise it’s probably getting too complicated: if the backstory doesn’t exist, focus on making that understandable first. 

5. Social: we are influenced by our networks.
As social animals, our behaviours are influenced by our networks: whether that’s our peers, or our followers/ audience. We are more likely to act when we think our networks will care. 

In the case of the journalist, this is about understanding the journalist’s audience, and making sure the story is relevant. When PR people don’t do this and put out ‘spray and pray’ press releases in an email merge it shows. 

Corollary to this is reciprocation: we’re more likely to respond when we can see someone has made an effort for us. Show them you care by personalise the pitch by showing why you think it works for their audience.

Finally, of course, none of this is bulletproof. Nor is this about making a magic PR purse out of a sow’s ear of a story - it’s simply about presenting the story as best you can: attempts to dress up a story with clickbaity keywords or false exclusives will likely fall flat. After all, journalists have highly developed bullshit filters.

And sometimes you’ll judge it wrong as you won’t be tuned in to that journalist’s world as you could be. Sometimes others just have better stories. But running the GUESS test over any story should help you to refine it before you hit send, or identify a hole in your story that may trigger a new idea. 

Matt Phillips