The Fix: Connor Mitchell

In this episode of The Fix, Jordan Greenaway sits down with Connor Mitchell, freelance PR professional, to talk all things pitching and media relations.

In this episode of The Fix by Profile, Jordan Greenaway chats with PR expert Connor Mitchell about the key to successful pitching, why he chose to go freelance and what separates the wheat from the chaff in the industry.

Jordan and Connor Mitchell break down what good media relations look like, particularly from the perspective of B2B communications, Connor's speciality. Plus how to catch the eye of major journalists to produce the biggest wins for clients.

They also talk through Connor’s career, touching on why he decided against pursuing journalism and the differences between working in an agency and as a freelancer.

Topics discussed

In this episode of the podcast, we discuss the following topics:

  • How to start your career in PR and communications

  • What makes a career in PR enjoyable

  • Journalism vs. PR

  • How to put together a media engagement plan for a new client

  • How to write a successful media pitch

  • The 3 biggest mistakes you can make when pitching to a journalist

  • Building long-term relationships with journalists

  • Working for an agency vs. freelance


Jordan (J): Welcome to the latest episode of The Fix from Profile.

Today I'm joined by a very good and very old friend, Connor Mitchell. Connor is a freelance PR pro, and he has made a name for himself as one of the industry's best coverage getters, especially in tech.

In fact, it's not an exaggeration to say that he is now the go-to PR specialist, for B2B technology agencies and brands who want to build a carefully curated profile in the UK, but also increasingly in the US and internationally. Connor, thank you for joining me!

Connor (C): Thank you very much, Jordan. And for the kind introduction.

J: So look, we're going to go into the tips and the tricks of the trade over the course of the interview. But I would love to hear how you first got started. Of course, I know the story, we've known each other for a while. But how did you pick PR? How did you find it originally? Just talk me through your journey a little bit.

C: Indeed. So, look, I studied politics and Spanish at university and I always loved the idea and the power of communication, be it obviously in English or in Spanish, and just that the effect that communication had in various forms: the ability to influence outcomes, the ability to move markets, the ability to just cultivate a great speech, whatever that may be.

And so initially, I wanted to go down the political route, applied for various political jobs, various MPs – didn't take. And then, you know, went traveling for a bit with my friends, was on the verge of getting a job with my local MP, hinged everything on that, it didn't pay off. Came back and I was like, right, going to have to get a job, going to have to grind this out.

And I always knew something kind of politics, the media, public affairs, something in that sphere. Those are the areas that interested me. I always loved writing, so it was just a case of looking at those industries, trying to understand them a bit more in depth. And PR was the one that really interested me – media relations in particular, as I later found out.

So I just started applying to company after company. And then, as we both know, ended up working in, I think what can best be described as a scrappy start-up, working with CEOs and high-net-worth’s on their personal profile.

Always individuals worth in excess of 30 million. The CEO of Australia's largest renewable energy company, CEO of Metro Bank, John Mills himself – JML, one of the largest producers of consumer goods in the UK and a big political donor and then just, they might have a particular set of outcomes they wanted, they might have a particular objective they had in mind. And it was very much focused on the individual themselves. A big part of that was working on the referendum campaign, six months out of university. Quite a baptism of fire in that respect. And, my word, that was just an intense experience, that first year and a half in PR.

But I was very much hooked and it was really media relations that I got especially excited by, working with these individuals and just being able to advise really senior people, business leaders, who are coming to a 20-year-old, fresh out of university, asking their advice on how they approach certain things, and that was exciting, that was really exciting. And then from there, transitioned into the tech space. That was where I see things going, and its importance and its role. And working with large B2B tech companies across continents, coordinating their media and their approach to various, different kind of macroeconomic scenarios which they were faced with. And then from there, the chap who was the CEO of that company, Hotwire, then decided to found his own agency, called Tyto, and effectively headhunted me for said agency.

And then for kind of three and a half years, just prior to me going freelance, it was then – I think I started off as the youngest employee and the only media relations dedicated individual in that business.

And that was all remote, it was back in 2018. I always remembered on my first day it was like, oh so I just kind of, go, do I? And it was working with everything across the tech space really, purely in B2B. So, like start-ups, family run ventures, big, listed businesses who wanted to kind of break into the UK and Europe. And I was the media lead across the UK essentially. So, it was everything from upskilling junior team members, generating profile for CEOs, launching companies in new territories. And that was a fantastic experience, in every way really. And then from there, July 2021, that was when I decided to go freelance.

J: It sounds like you kind of stumbled into PR a bit. There's an alternative universe when you're doing something else. So, was there a moment during that kind of PR journey when you thought, oh, I like this, maybe I could actually enjoy this, waking up every day and doing this.

Do you have a kind of a moment when you think, actually I'm going to stick with this for a bit.

C: I wouldn't say it was so much a moment, but the referendum campaign really does stick out. That was, as political moments go in the last 20 years, 30 years, that was a major one, that really was a major one. And that was like the moment, I just thought, it wasn't a moment as to say, it was a period of time. I just thought, this is exciting. There's a lot going on here and you just feel like you're kind of right on the edge of the news agenda and everything that's happening, and it's fast paced and, it hit me.

J: And I know because we spent a couple of years together that that kind of period of time our work was quite media engagement heavy, pitching heavy. So when you moved to your next agency, which I think was Hotwire. Did you explore other aspects of PR and comms, or did you say, media is where it is, media's what I love?

C: Did I explore other aspects? I think I was ushered to explore and encouraged to explore other aspects.

I really didn't want to. The media was always what I loved. I think, in terms of the PR industry and the way agencies are structured and where I think people would be most effective and how I certainly felt as though I was most effective. I was always really good at media relations. I always was.

I was not an account man, I was not a new businessman, I wasn't a social media person. I just loved doing media relations, I really did. I thought there was a real craft to it, and I really didn't like the idea that in kind of more traditional agencies, you move up the ladder and it's, okay, you've now got to think about budgets for the next quarter, you've got to think about quarterly planning meetings, you have to think about account team structures, and I just didn't want to do any of that. I just wanted to do media relations. And I just thought, this isn't just something that you do for a few years and then you move on and you do other things.

I loved media relations and I never really understood why, seemingly in larger agencies, it seems to get allocated to the junior team members and then you just kind of shed it after a few years? I always loved media. It's still the most exciting part, in my opinion, the most exciting part of PR.

Like, prepping a CEO to go on the Today programme or on CNBC, or on Sky. There is a certain degree of power in that respect – I'm literally molding what they're going to say. It's going to be the CEO of a listed business, and they're kind of hanging on my advice on how they should approach a particular interview.

They've got thousands and thousands of employees, but they're hanging on what I say and how to craft a message and how to play something, and you do feel important. Media, it was always the part I was most excited by, I loved, I was good at, and I didn't want taken away from me.

J: Which kind of begs the question right? If you love media so much. Did you ever consider going to the other side, being a journalist, and if so, why? If not, why?

C: Yes, yes I did. The reason why not, as we all know, PR just pays better, it really is that cut and dry. I actually had a chap who was a very good friend of mine and was formally a journalist and has since entered PR himself.

He was a good friend of mine as well as a good journalist contact. And we kind of talked quite openly about – there could be a potential role as a business features writer. And then a combination of the money, and then at the time I think I was having conversations with my past boss, Brendan, he had a certain degree of influence. He said, you know, I feel as though you lose the control of the narrative, it's more like the daily grind of the news rather than the excitement behind it and the influence that you exert, and it was something at the time I was excited by, but I'm very glad I did not take that route.

J: I just want to take the time to demystify the media engagement and pitching process, because sometimes when I flick through a magazine or a newspaper with a friend, I'll say, oh that's definitely a pitch story. I can just tell, look at this pitch story.

And they go, how did you know that? How would you even get something into the newspaper or into a publication? I just want to get your – pull back the curtain for us. How does that process work? What are the elements? Before we get into what good media relations looks like, just talk us through that pitching process.

C: So I think, okay, so starting work with a new client, and I think you have to assess the assets that they're going to have at their disposal. Is it going to be solid thought leadership? Is it going to be a steady pipeline of news? And I'm looking at this through the lens of B2B tech, traditionally, but you can look at other customer facing businesses in a similar way.

So, are we going to have the thought leadership elements and the big opinions, and someone who's willing to stick their neck out above the parapet? Are we going to have a steady stream of news, funding, new appointments, entry into new markets, new customer acquisitions? Are we going to have a set of strong case studies that can showcase the work that they're doing?

So, to assess the assets, first of all. Then let's say for instance that process has gone well, you've started to package certain opinions together, you've started to get pictures together, you've started to compile the key company information, the key stats and figures, the key customer names they're working with.

Before you approach a piece of pitching activity, I think you have to think about four or five different key questions. The way I like to look at it: wider societal relevance. Why does what this company or individual have to say actually matter in the landscape today? Why now? Was this a trend that was five years ago? Was this a trend that is five years early? Why is now the right time to be talking about this? Why does it matter?

What does it mean for the future? Is this something that is just a here and now and/or 10 years ago, and that's the end of it? Does it actually have any implications as we go down the line?

What does it tell us about the past? Is it reflective of a previous trend and where are we going to go? Why would a journalist care? What is the actual reason that a journalist will care? You might have all these other ingredients, but if you kind of actually get stuck at this point, then you really have to be questioning, have I got the right materials? Are the right elements there? Once you've thought through that, are they the right person for the story? So those are the key questions I think you need to look at before you start a piece of pitching activity.

And then you need to look at the high-level outcomes. Are you trying to educate the market or a journalist or a space about something in particular? Are you trying to analyse a certain piece of news and put your own unique spin on it? Is it advisory? A macro trend is going in a particular direction, or a set of entrepreneurs are doing this, or is there a policy that a certain company needs to be thinking about?

And finally differentiating and kind of evaluating. Why is something particularly different to what has gone before? The media outlets you choose, the journalists you go after, the overall narrative you're looking to play out. All of these elements combined with that key company information, bringing it back to the opinions you have, the information and the space in which they operate. That's how you need to think about what you need, the questions before enacting it, and what you actually want to get out of it from a media coverage standpoint.

J: There's so much information that has to be consolidated and distilled. So at the end of that process, after you've kind of picked out the most relevant, timely interesting bits to a journalist, how do you package that up? What does that actually look like from a pitching perspective?

Are you sending them a novel? What are you doing there with that information?

C: So, I actually did a very short LinkedIn post on this, this morning. So, there's a few key elements that comprise a media pitch, and I think there is this view sometimes that the more information dense and rich something is, the more informed someone is going to be, and I couldn't disagree more with that if I tried.

So, a single media pitch should be very simple. A subject line is accessible, clear, and this is something that I think some PRs do struggle with, is it should be active, not passive. You want to be very clear what you are actually offering.

If it's just a generic, here's this person. Okay, what am I meant to do with that? You're giving the journalist too much leg room. You're not standing out in their inbox, in the subject line; the subject line is your key bit of real estate to actually maximise and catch their attention, to make it clear what you are offering.

A compelling opening gambit. Try and sum up what the company is. Say you're pitching a company, a CEO of a consumer bank. Let's use Monzo as an example. You wouldn't call that a next generation banking platform because that's just two esoteric, it can mean any old thing. Consumer bank with full serving 4 million UK customers. Perfect. You just summed it up in one. So that opening gambit needs to be compelling.

Company background is the next bit. When I work with agencies, it does really surprise me at times, how this bit, which to me is a crucial part of the pitch, is left out.

Again, this can be a slightly longer sentence. Say it's a listed business. Potentially, what's their market cap? How many employees do they have worldwide? What big customer names they work with? How many customers they work with?

And then for personal pitches, have they served in the Israeli equivalent of MI5 or something. And if you can say that, obviously, I don't know whether that's allowed to be public information, but put that in.

And then they're now the CEO of a cybersecurity company, and the lessons they learnt from that they went and applied to the way they built this cybersecurity technology and made it robust in this particular way to defend from these particular actors – that's really interesting, get it in there. And then finally, and this is the key bit: you have to bridge the gap between what journalists – not what journalists want to hear, because you're never going to know what a journalist explicitly wants to hear, but what their beat is, what their focus is on, and what the client wants to say.

And that's really, really key. And you have to think macro, you have to think geopolitical, you really have to go, okay, how do I marry the two of these elements together? So, that, in about as distilled a form as possible, is how I try to think about the perfect media pitch.

J: That's a great breakdown, or almost a tick list of how to write an impactful, effective and successful pitch. You work with agencies; you work and look at other pitches. If you could pick out one big mistake that other professionals in the industry make, if there was one big mistake, what would it be? What would you warn people against doing?

C: 80% of pitching is in the media list and is in the work you put into the media list. You might only need one or two journalists. It doesn't need to be that few – five, six – you don't need these big extensive lists that have been pulled from Roxhill, from Gorkana, from Cision. You don't need any of that. You know, you need to be highly laser focused on the people you're pitching.

You don't need some kind of, firing them out left, right, spray and pray. 80% of the work is in the media list. And if you invest the time in that, the actual 20%, the pitching will become far, far easier. I sometimes do see media lists and I look at them, I just go, this could be at least 60%, at least, probably more – like smaller, if you – I appreciate it's not a fun job, necessarily. But actually going on the publications, what do the journalists cover? How do they cover it? That's the knowledge, that's the insight.

And if you do that, you make the rest of the process far smoother. A couple of other quick things I'd say. I think curiosity is one of the most underrated skills in PR. Curiosity, and tenacity and determination, but curiosity in particular, because you could be someone fresh out of university – fine, you're not going to have a black book of contacts, you're not going to have all the knowledge about how to deal with this situation, how to approach this crisis, how to get this person, how to reframe this angle. But you have the ability to be – anyone could be curious, anyone.

And, I think just quickly on the point of mistakes, I feel as though junior PRs – junior PRs should not fear in any way making mistakes. All the people that are more senior than them, have no doubt made those mistakes tenfold. Mistakes are how you learn. Trial error, trial error. That's how you learn, rinse and repeat. Don't be afraid of making any mistakes.

And then I'll just say the final couple. As a PR, your job is to make a journalist’s job easier, in like every single way.

If a journalist says, I need 600 words by this time, that's it. If, you know, if you have to tell a client a little white lie about – it's due on Tuesday at 12:00pm but you say to them, oh, we actually need it back by Monday at 3:00pm, it makes sense to do that because you're probably going to have to review it yourself, give it a final read through and if you say Monday at 3:00pm, reality is the client might think they can push it, get it back to you Monday at 5:00pm but you're still before the deadline.

If a journalist tells you, this is the deadline, this is the word count, stick to it. There's a reason they've said that and that is how you build trust with them. You make it at all costs. You make sure you can get them what is agreed.

That's how you build trust with journalists. Deliver again and again and again and prioritise journalist relationships over pretty much all else.

J: If you're working with a client who is literally starting from scratch, not a well-known company, not a well-known CEO or exec. They've got an interesting story and there's a interesting spin you can put on it. Is it a process of building up with that client or can you just go straight to a slot that you know, for example? Oh, I've got a friend in the media, I can pitch them there. How does that process work?

Do you have to always start from the bottom, or can you go straight to the top?

C: This I always feel – this is where PRs, you really sort the wheat from the chaff, because anyone, not anyone, it's still bloody hard. There's real potential that a Cisco or a Coca-Cola, you could get the CEO on Sky. It wouldn't be a mountain to climb, but where PRs really show their worth is these companies.

So yeah, they might have an interesting story, but you have to really work. This process, first of all, in the absence and news, it's all about the opinion. It's all about thought leadership and potentially about the customers as well. So, they could have some great customers who could be willing to speak to media, but for this example, let's assume they don't, because that makes things slightly easier.

You might be able to name check them, but let's assume they're not willing to speak to media. So it's all about the opinion, it's all about the thought leadership. So I think the way you'd structure that is, quarterly thought leadership workshops with them, just needs to be an hour.

You don't need to try to extract tonnes of the CEO's time or the founder's time or what have you. Let's pick three topics that we're really going to go after this quarter and let's really try and extract a really strong and different opinion from the CEO on these topics. And then, opportunities when it comes to the news and capitalising on that, we can play on a case-by-case basis, but the thought leadership work upfront, that's really, really key. I think once a quarter is the minimum, you have to have that. Anything less, I just don't think it'll be possible. And then from there, you know, I've been working in the media, with the media for gone seven years now.

So yes, there are a few slots for me who I know for op-eds and interviews, I can get fairly quick wins with and they can still look impressive. But there are others where you're still going to have to really – I might have the relationship with that producer, but I go back, pitch them.

Okay, this is what we've got. Okay, yeah, it's not really working for us, alright, would kind of be interesting, let's perhaps revisit this, go back to the client rework on it. It's all about molding what they have to say to actually build the story. So develop the opinions, really take time to get that process right because that really, really matters. If you are a seasoned PR, go to the slots you know initially, try to build up some early momentum. Then try to go a little bit higher. This is almost like starting on your 2K and your 5K and your 10K and training for the marathon.

You say you want to hit 20 miles by this day. That's kind of your Sky, your CNBC. You need to build the rapport with those journalists over time. It's not necessarily just going to be a quick win, but try to really work with them about how can we make this work for you? How can we bridge that gap, between what the client wants to say, what the media landscape's saying and what you'd like to see? And that's how I'd structure it, so the longer-term relationships, the quick wins, really extract the thought leadership where you can. And you'd like to think that momentum can create momentum over time.

J: And how do you build a relationship with a journalist? Are you an advocate of coffees or lunches or phone calls? How do you actually build a relationship, and do they want to build a relationship? Is it just about actually just giving them the information that they want? Just talk me through that.

C: Do they want to build a relationship – that is a particularly interesting one.

I think you get quite a diverse range of answers if you ask various journalists that. So, I've got various longstanding relationships with various journalists, and I think the biggest thing I've learnt over time, and I think this is something where I really feel as though the PR industry still does struggle with.

Right, okay, we're going to sell this story, we're going to hit this really hard, we're going to be aggressive, we're going to hound journalists, we're going to really get this one over the line. By hook or by crook, we are going to get our story through the door. And that approach couldn't be any worse. It could not be any worse.

It is an interaction with the media, it is not transactional, it's not in any way transactional. It should be friendly, it should be conversational, it's the information gathering process. The way I like to build relationships, it stems of course from pitches. So initially, when you're approaching a journalist for the first time, really try to think, study what they do, study what they write about, study how they package their features, study how they put together their beats, study if they have a Twitter profile. Try to get a sense of who they are as a person, and then in the pitch, try to look through their lens as to how they're going to approach that, how they're going to see that pitch.

Okay, it's clear, I know what I'm offering. So, the first pitch is crucial, it really is crucial. I'm personally a big advocate for the phone. Again, got in a bit of a debate on LinkedIn about this with fellow PRs and fellow journalists. But personally, I am, and that's just based on my own historical experience.

So, my best and most trusted and longer-standing relationships have been built via the phone. And I think the reason why is because COVID in particular has really kind of exacerbated this distance between PRs and journalists. We're no longer working in offices. It's not always a case of you can meet up for a quick coffee or whatnot. The phone is still your main vehicle for actually speaking to a person. It's still human conversation. I think a lot of PRs do forget that there is a person on the other end of that email. You're not just firing it off in an automated way.

So, building a relationship with journalists, try to exercise some degree of emotional intelligence. If they're a broadcaster, don't go calling them while they're putting the program together.

I have called a producer on air; it does not go down well. Don't go doing that, that's just going to stress them out. Do not try and ever ram a story down a journalist's throat – ever, ever. Do not let, and I think this is the number one thing, do not let your problems as a PR trickle down to the journalist, it's not their problem.

You might have a hostile relationship with a client, it might be a bit dicey, you might be under pressure to deliver results. It doesn't matter, it's not their problem. Don't allow it to project onto them. You need to think empathetically and appropriately and use sound judgment in terms of your interactions and your engagement, and that's just really, really key.

J: Final question, Connor. I know that you have been freelance now for a year and a half/two years.

C: Just over that, yeah.

J: Why go freelance, how has it been and what tips would you give to someone going freelance?

C: Why go freelance? Okay, obviously there could be a range of reasons why people want to go freelance. My own experience, and the reason why I wanted to go freelance: I always wanted autonomy. I always liked the idea of being a captain of my own ship. I also personally like the idea of learning all the business mechanics that come with that. Sounds a bit boring, but I like the idea of how do I do a tax return, how do I track this, what's the importance of insurance?

That was just me. So, autonomy, autonomy was a massive, massive part of it. Being direct, and I feel like in the UK there's always a bit of a kind of beating around the bush when it comes to this sort of thing. I was financially motivated quite heavily, you know. Ultimately, it's business at the end of the day, you're here to make money. And I felt I could monetise my skills better, having developed them over the course of five and a half years when I made the leap. It really came down to, for me: autonomy and money were the massive things. And just that freedom, that was what it really, really was. I always wanted to do my own thing, so that was why I did it.

Tips for people going freelance: double down on your niche, that's the biggest one for me. Double down, don't try and be good, don't try and be okay at 10 or 15 different things. You need to be comfortable being alone. If you want to be a one-person band, you have to be comfortable with that. Despite working with tech companies, the irony is I'm a real technophobe, I'm terrible with laptops, sorting out something on Excel, can't do it. But no one else is going to do it. You know, I do have an IT guy who I go to every now and again, but things like that, you need to be comfortable being alone.

The market's a bit dry; you're going to have to be proactive and get it going, and cold approaches tapping up your network, pushing your services on social media. You have to be comfortable with that and that can be a lonely place to be potentially.

Diversify your portfolio. So the way I operate, I operate with various different agencies, all in typically B2B tech, but different niches.

And I play a different role in pretty much all those agencies. Yes, my skills are used for the same purpose, but I play a different role. So in smaller agencies I'm kind of like the de facto media lead, working with one in FinTech, one in VC. Another one, they work with start-ups and scale-ups and I'm just brought in through the top tier work, it's still a regular thing. But just the importance is, diversify your portfolio.

You insulate yourself from any turbulence, or you like to think that you will. And then, last couple of points. I'd say, simplicity. People trying to overcomplicate things with like CRMs and mailing lists and all this stuff.

Just keep it really, really simple. I have insurance. I have an app that effectively I track all my expenses on. I'm a sole trader, so rather than all the different admin points that come with going limited, obviously that depends on your scenario, but I personally am a sole trader.

There really isn't much admin involved. I think my business costs runs at – if you count my membership to a club I use for a workspace, like £200 a month or something. Something like that. Just keep it really, really simple.

And then, the final point I'd just say, and I know it's really hard. Don't just take anything, really don't just take anything. In difficult economic circumstances, it's hard. But if you start doing that, you set a precedent and then say you get that bit of money in and it isn't the kind of work you want to be doing, but you're like, okay, I'm kind of comfortable with this, then it's going to usher you in a particular direction.

So those are all my top tips. A final point on just how it's going: 2021 seemed like the year of the freelancer in like every sense, seemed like the freelance market was booming. 2022 was still a pretty good year. I think in tough economic times there is a bit of a tendency, or just a kind of an observation, that prospects potentially look at larger agencies and go, okay, big notice period, large retainer, is there going to be immediate value? There's time to onboard them, whereas someone like me, I can start next week.

2023 it's been a bit slower, but business is still coming in. Starting to actually do a bit more stuff direct to client which is exciting and makes a nice change, learn new set of skills. But I still love it.

J: And any aspects of the agency you miss?

C: I feel as though that silence, that pause, maybe is your answer. I think I just started to enjoy a great deal, operating as a team of one. I kind of always love doing that. I liked being able to speak to people, but I speak to people all the time, I speak to other agencies.

I get to be part of different agency teams and speak to my clients on a regular basis, and they invite me out for team drinks. And then I'm still kind of friends with some of them. It's a direct answer, but the too long didn't read version is no I don't, I love the way I've set things up.

I'm very fortunate that it's gone well. I know I'm very, very lucky. I really am grateful each day, really am, that I'm able to, because I know it's not easy, it's not an easy thing to do necessarily. And certain people don't have the luxury of being able to do that. And I'm just very grateful I'm able to do it.

J: Well that is a very optimistic high to end on! So thank you Connor, for joining us today.

C: Not at all. Thank you, Jordan, for having me.

J: You've been listening to The Fix, the podcast from Profile. And to find out more about our work, go to www.welcometoprofile.com

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