Mastering email pitches: The key to effective stories for news media

Mastering email pitches: The key to effective stories for news media

June 1, 2024

Pitching potential stories to journalists is a very important, but hard task, for several reasons. PR professionals still have not mastered email pitches for news media to achieve good results. For instance, the Q1 Propel report in 2024 reviewed half a million pitches sent to journalists, and found that the recipients only responded to 3.4% of pitches on average, out of an average rate of 46% of pitch emails that were opened.

Content that journalists want

The press release still holds great value for journalists. Around 74% of US journos saying they like to receive press releases from PR professionals.

Other priory interests are original research reports containing trends, market data, etc.

Journos also want exclusive stories. This is why you should pitch to your most important journos first, so you can determine if they want exclusive information or whether they accept that your material can be sent to other media outlets as well, perhaps with an exclusive subset of an angle built in to the broad thrust of the pitch you send them.

Image, right: Cision State of the Media Report 2024 survey conducted in Jan-Feb 2024.

How to craft perfect email pitches to news media, according to journalists

Image, above right: Cision State of the Media Report 2024.

Use the inverted pyramid as a guide in writing press releases

The inverted pyramid concept, shown at right, is used by journalists for structuring information, especially in news reports. It has been used in writing for up to 150 years. This structure can be widely used in other kinds of texts, such as blogs, editorial columns and marketing fact sheets. It is a way to communicate the key information about a topic up front because allows the reader to decide whether to continue reading further or just focus on the key facts. Image, right: Wikipedia.

The inverted period structure involves short, punchy pieces that are straight information. The most important information is given first, and the items of less importance can be edited more tightly or even deleted to fit the available space, if necessary,

I think it is important to add “How much?” to the list, ie cost. Many stories are based on the cost of the matter being covered, especially business topics, such as when a project is over-budget, etc.

These days, various news stories start with a narrative, such as focusing on an experience of a person during an event or the impact of an event on an individual. Then the story angle leads on to a harder edge, such as a societal issue like climate change. Others start with a story. These make it difficult for SEO because a keyphrase is generally required in the first para. But that’s another story, so to speak. These types of stories may end with

Rather than fading away, a story may end with a strong punchline after the pyramid, which may form a conclusion or even a call to action. This is quite common in feature style articles. You need to suit your story angle to suit the medium.

AI offers huge opportunities for strong email pitches to news media

AI is creating a continuous stream of remarkable changes in business communication. Overall, AI can complement—not replace—human expertise. A human still needs to review and make the final decision. Although the human element remains the most fundamentally important element in communication strategy, AI is integrating in many ways to facilitate improvements in the quality and productivity of our work so we have more time for creativity. 

For instance, I use AI assistance to an extent in developing some good headlines for media pitches, press releases and web articles. I don’t use it every time – mainly when I am aiming for a more creative line or phrase to lead the piece of writing.

AI is helping communicators to improve the creativity of usually predictable media pitches to a new level. It is helping to personalize pitches to specific journalists, and it can make your time usage more productive. It is important for you to keep in mind what AI can contribute, and to coordinate your expertise with AI’s capability to do a significant amount of the basic work for you. Some of the potential for AI power to help you achieve more in your media relations work:

  • Use AI for building your media lists
  • Use AI to create media contact strategies
  • Use AI to automate much of the email pitch writing process.

In his Substack newsletter of 9 March 2023, the UK’s Stephen Waddington (‘Wadds’) outlines a great example of using AI tools for tasks when drafting a press release:

  • Task 1 – Extracting the key points from a report. on which the press release will be based
  • Task 2 – Developing the key points into the subsequent press release
  • Task 3 – Generating a series of draft headlines for the press release
  • Task 4 – Generating a media pitch
  • Task 5 – Creating a Q&A or talking points for interviews with journalists.

Wadds goes on to suggest the Microsoft Copilot and enterprise large language models such as ChatGPT, Claude and Gemini are good. But it’s a constantly changing sector, so you need to monitor changes in AI tools that best suit PR/communication purposes.

But be careful using AI!

Advice from experts:

  • AI can’t replace human judgment, expertise or experience, so don’t use AI capabilities complacently!
  • AI output commonly contains factual error, so you need to fact-check all the information in the pitches containing AI information. Sometimes AI wrongly answers simple questions quite confidently.
  • Some AI tools give standard responses in the text they generate to answer question, which makes it easy to identify. So don’t pass off AI generation as that of a human. If you haven’t mentioned AI input to journalists (who will think it is spam), your clients and management, you have an ethics problem. So proof read your AI text and improve its quality – because misinformation and deception are already an issue – and you need to maintain the trust of journalists in your media relations.
  • Google professionals have already stated the tool will prioritize high-quality content whatever the source, but AI currently lacks the expertise and value judgment necessary to make truly high-quality content. This is likely change in the future, but for now, you should ensure your AI content is edited and finished with human touch and intent.

How to lose favor in email pitches to news media

In addition to revealing what they want from PR professionals and the actions they appreciate, journalists also shed light on the behaviors they won’t tolerate. Given their overflowing inboxes, it is predictable that getting spammed with irrelevant pitches is highest on the list.

It’s hard to understand the mentality of these senders. Even I get daily emails pitching story proposals and other ‘website services.’ Fewer than 10% use my name. It’s usually something like “Hi,” or “Hey there,” or similar rubbish. Why do they bother? It’s no wonder this sort of “outreach” from presumably PR/comms leads to such a generally poor reputation of our profession with many journos…

Image, right: Cision State of the Media Report 2024.

Most reporters use media releases to merely provide a useful topic for an article, and they use some of the material in the ensuing story. Therefore, your content should be tailored for their target audiences. In addition, you should carefully fact-check all your PR material before sending it to journalists. Around 2/3 journalists would rather receive customized press releases, than one mass-audience release. If offered an exclusive, 3 out of 4 journalists say they were much more likely or somewhat more likely to cover a story.

Obviously, preferred times for receiving email pitches vary according to the type of media you are targeting. The Q2 2024 Propel Media Barometer study of 500k US pitches found that:

  • The most preferred time for receiving email pitches is morning.
  • Tuesday is the most popular day for sending pitches (33% of all pitches) – and also (33%) for journalists to open them.
  • Most journalist responses occurred on Thursdays, with 24% of all pitch opens occurring on this day.
  • Pitches with email subject lengths of 1-5 words gained most responses (4.7%), but subject lengths of 10-15 words were sent the most (37% of all pitches). 
  • Pitches with body lengths of 51-150 words were responded to the most (7.5%).
  • 59% of all pitch responses occurred within 4 hours of the pitch being received, and nearly 65% of pitches were responded to the same day it was sent (if it is going to be responded to at all).
  • Propel recommends PR pros to follow up after 1-2 days if they haven’t heard back from a journalist.

In their study, Propel recommends PR pros follow up after a day or two if they still haven’t heard back from a journalist.

Social media useful for developing email pitches to news media

Reporters use social media to develop story ideas and to monitor a topic when working on a story. When reporting on a company, 45% said they usually consult the company’s social media as part of their background checking, while 28% said “Sometimes”. A total of 62% said they track how many times their stories are shared on social media.

The most annoying thing for reporters was receiving pitches that are irrelevant to their ‘beat,’ while the other two main annoyances were receiving repeated pitches of the same story and receiving pitch emails that contained poor spelling and grammar.

Lessons for PR professionals

  • Take the time to develop a positive relationship with key reporters. This will lead to trust in your professionalism and most likely increase the acceptance of your material.
  • Make key reporters your priority for important material. Nurture them and respect their needs. You can distribute material to others after you have dealt with your key contacts.
  • Provide material that is newsworthy, factual, doesn’t exaggerate, has good spelling and grammar, and is delivered in time to meet deadlines.
  • Don’t expect a reporter to use only your material or angle. Most of the time they will use it as a starting point for the theme you have proposed to them. They may well talk with competitors and other third parties in the preparation of a story. This is to be expected, but if you have been on the level with the angle and content of your story, your pitch will still have a better chance than otherwise.

Further reading

You can read further on email pitching in my article, “Following up media pitches: strategies and tips.”

Photo by Krsto Jevtic on Unsplash.

Kim Harrison

Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. As he has progressed through his wide-ranging career, his roles have included corporate affairs management; PR consulting; authoring many articles, books and ebooks; running a university PR course; and business management. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.

Content Authenticity Statement. AI is not knowingly used in the writing or editing of any content, including images, in these newsletters, articles or ebooks. If AI-produced content is contained in any published form in future, this will be reported to readers.

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