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7 top tips for pitching to journalists – from the perspective of an ex-journalist
Even the most seasoned PR practitioners scratch their heads over what to include in a media pitch.
This is more the case in the digital age. The role of the journalist has changed radically in the last decade. Indeed, the job bears few similarities to my role as business correspondent at The Sunday Telegraph in the late 1990s. Back then, the Internet was in its infancy. Social media was non-existent, and every single news story or feature had to be researched from scratch. Those that excelled had encyclopaedic contact books, formed relationships of trust with an extensive range of people from ‘spin doctors’ to CEOs and pretty much every other stakeholder you can think of.
As for the press release, it almost always went straight to the bin.
Fast forward and the world of journalism is vastly different. As I moved on to other national newspapers, I found myself with fewer opportunities to get out and meet my contacts. More desk-bound than before, and with 24-hour rolling news, I was under unprecedented pressure to write more content more quickly all the time.
The job didn’t finish there. I then uploaded my stories to the publication’s online version and promoted them via my own social media accounts.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved the job and fully uphold the role that journalists play as the invaluable ‘fourth estate’.
But now that I’ve moved to the so-called ‘dark side’ I know that if I’m to be successful pitching story and features ideas to journalists, I need to be creative in a way that will cut through the noise.
In some ways the PR’s role of pitching ideas to journalists has never been harder; there are fewer journalists having to do more. But in some ways, it is easier. Intrigued?
This blog will give you some tips about what to do – and what NOT to do – when pitching your ideas to journalists.
What is a media pitch?
A media pitch is your opportunity to grab the attention of the journalist. It must provide the outline details of the news story or feature article and explain briefly why it is of interest to the journalist’s readership.
Pitching is a critical skill for public relations professionals. A PR pitch is a short, personalised message that outlines the value of a story and explains why it should be published. It is usually 150 words long but can reach up to 400 words.
It is essential that the pitch is concise, engaging and timely.
Increasingly, journalists like to receive pitches by 1:1 email, though I feel that reaching out by telephone can add a more personal touch and give you a greater chance of success.
A phone call also alerts the journalist that the email is on its way, so, chances are, they will look out for it. In this respect, you’re already ahead of your PR rivals adopting the spray and pray approach hoping something will stick with someone. That is of very little value to you or your client. This approach is best left for only the journalists you know personally.
What should a good media pitch look like?
Writing a good media pitch is more complicated than it seems. But there are some essential tips to follow:
Subject line. This is the headline of your pitch, so it must pass the ‘so what’ test. For example, if you have a client expanding into larger premises, that may be the story. But a far better story would focus on how many new jobs will be created as a result of the move. It is the latter that will catch the journalist’s eye.
Concise. Think elevator pitch. You must get the main points of your story explained to the journalist or influencer as quickly as possible. According to a new Muck Rack survey about the state of journalism in 2021, 91% of journalists prefer pitches under 200 words.
Message. Of course, you want to promote your story so that the journalist picks it up, but before approaching them, do some research about what their interests are and how your story fits with these. You may be able to help the journalist build their personal brand, and that will help you stand out from the crowd. It will also make the journalist feel like she is getting something valuable from you, as well as doing you the favour of running the story to the benefit of you and your client. You can do this via multiple methods, ranging from checking their Twitter accounts to Googling them to find out what they’re interested in writing about.
Personalise. To some extent, this depends on the nature of the story. If you want to gain maximum publicity for a new study or piece of research, it may be that you want this to reach as broad an audience as possible. However, few journalists like to receive mass emails. If you have a niche story that will likely only appeal to a handful of publications, find out which journalist is likely to be most receptive and strike up a conversation with them. Some are happy to do this via Twitter, but the vast majority prefer to be contacted by 1:1 email.
Who should you send your media pitch to?
You should only send your media pitch to journalists who are likely to be interested in the story you are pitching. It will be frowned upon and may affect your reputation if you send a story about, for instance, restructuring at an engineering firm to a journalist who covers the retail industry. It’s no secret that success in media pitching comes down, primarily, to knowing which journalists are interested in your particular clients/industry niche and so on.
This may sound daunting but in the digital age it is remarkably easy to find out who is writing about what. If you already know which journalist you want to approach, a wealth of information about them will be available via a quick Google search. Or key in their name into the search section of the online publication they write for. This will bring up a list of their recent articles. Check their Twitter account and connect with them on LinkedIn, always including a personal message explaining why you would be a useful contact.
Check out their other social media accounts to get a sense of their personality, their interests, the conversations they’re engaging in.
How do journalists like to be contacted?
Here’s a great table from Muck Rack’s survey of the state of journalism in 2021 that will give you an excellent steer:
How to write a winning pitch
A winning pitch must, above everything else, communicate a cracking news story and it forms part of every PR practitioner’s strategic toolkit. It must be written in a newsy style, using correct grammar and doubled-checked for typos.
In the world of B2B PR different journalists look out for different things; but here’s a guide as to what may interest them:
It’s worth bearing in mind that journalists working on trade titles will be interested in different types of stories to those working on the nationals.
Trade journalists will be interested in the nuts and bolts of, say, a new product launch. They will likely want diagrams explaining the intricacies of how a piece of machinery or technology works. As they are writing for a knowledgeable audience, you will be expected to show that level of expertise in your pitch and press release. To increase your chances of success, make sure you have all the additional material to hand, and include it with the pitch.
Pitching to national newspaper journalists is entirely different. For sure, many national staffers are specialists in their fields, but you need to communicate your story stripping out the jargon, while retaining its unique features. It’s worth bearing in mind that ‘highbrow’ papers such as the Financial Times and The Times are written for an audience with a reading age of 12-14. This means the focus is on clear English. Adjectives are to be avoided. Always.
What to avoid
Sending irrelevant pitches
Following on from what we’ve said above, it is vital to avoid sending out pitches that are of no relevance to journalists. It will damage your reputation and could result in a journalist deleting all your future emails without opening them.
Sending pitches that don’t explain why the story is important
You many even consider explaining the relevance in your subject line.
Journalists get a daily barrage of PR releases and sorting through them is a daily ritual. If you want to make sure your pitch gets seen and written up, ensure there is a ‘why is this relevant’ angle.
Sending too many pitches at once
Once you’ve sent a pitch to a journalist, don’t try and send another one straight away. Overloading a journalist with several pitches in a day or even a few days can fracture a media/PR relationship.
Pitching a story that’s already been written
Check and double-check that your story really is new news. If it’s already been written by another journalist, in another publication then your relationship with your preferred journalist will be in tatters. You will have caused them deep embarrassment and it’s hard to recover from that. (Though not impossible for those with a good sense of humour.)
Once you have identified the story and stress-tested it among colleagues, it’s time to write the pitch.
The subject line is crucial. It must be short and snappy, while capturing the essence of the story.
Try, wherever possible, to personalise your email and address it to the journalist you want to reach. Make sure you know the publication and demonstrate this by saying you enjoyed the last story written. But keep this short.
You should then write a concise chatty paragraph summarising the story, explain why it is important and how it could benefit the readership.
You should always copy and paste the entire press release into the main body of the email to save journalists from having to click on an attachment.
The release must have an attention-grabbing headline, be dated and have the location.
Ensure that you include quotes from all the relevant parties and images of the speakers, plus captions. Be very careful to spell names and titles correctly.
Try to make the images as dynamic as possible, avoiding headshots of people in suits. Instead, invest in a professional photographer to come to your premises to take more of an ‘action’ shot. This show readers, very quickly, what your client is all about.
You may also be able to include a call to action, if your client is launching a white paper, for instance. A link to where they can read the full text would be useful for them and help drive traffic to your client’s website.
Ensure that you do keyword research ahead of writing a press release so that if it is published online, it will have greater visibility.
It is worth including helpful links to various pages on your client’s website – but beware of this tactic because if the link is deemed irrelevant by the reader, your reputation will also have taken a knock.
Be sure to include contact details and a boilerplate to give editors a quick-reference checklist about your client, its activities, size and most remarkable achievements.
Follow-ups. The vast majority of journalists are happy for a press release to be followed up, with most preferring a 1:1 email at least a week after the initial pitch.