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Persuasive email pitching to journalists

01 Jun, 2020 Media relations

When I talk with journalists many of them groan at the thought of some of the approaches they have received from PR people trying to pitch news angles. From experience, I recommend the following actions for best results:

Prepare for the pitch

  • Prepare and use “pitch points” – a one page cheat sheet with your relevant organizational or client facts, background and important features.
  • Have two or three different story ideas in mind if the first one doesn’t work.
  • Know extra things about your organization or your client if you are a consultant – human interest, quirky facts, anniversaries, etc. You can offer one or more of these if you feel the reporter wants more content.
  • Be willing to get additional information for the reporter.

The story being pitched must support specific organizational goals and objectives. No point in pitching just for the sake of gaining publicity. You need to be able to justify your work if someone senior asks you the strategic reason you are engaging in the effort.

Pitches are aimed at convincing a reporter to cover your product, service or event. Pitches involve contacting a selected reporter to ‘sell’ topical newsy material. Pitching a story directly to a reporter is probably the most effective way to get publicity.

Reporters prefer email pitches

An overwhelming number of reporters prefer to receive email pitches, as shown below in the State of Journalism 2019 Muck Rack survey of US (69%) and overseas journalists (31%). Some reporters will only accept pitches by email – because it is less intrusive than receiving countless phone calls.

You are supplying a professionally packaged information product that helps the journalist to do their job. You are not asking for a favor and should never beg.

Do your research

This is probably the most important point of all. Firstly, understand the topic you want to plug, so do your research on the topic. You need to find the story angle before you sell it to media. Media relations comprises 95% preparation and 5% execution.

Don’t be content to work with marketing hype that has been handed to you as background information. Insist on learning more about the topic. Ask questions so you get your mind around it. You might like to Google the topic to see what is being said on the internet.

Next, try to identify a relevant reporter. If you want to interest a print media reporter, read through back issues to find the byline of a reporter who writes on similar subjects to the one you are trying to plug. This is really important: Research finds reporters’ biggest motivator for interest was when you show some knowledge of their previous work.

With radio and television news rooms, the coverage is heavily dictated by the nature of the medium, ie TV requires visuals and radio requires sound such as a spokesperson. Therefore, most TV and radio reporters are generalists. And the person to contact for TV news and current affairs shows is the producer of each program, not any of the media personalities. Same with radio talkback shows.

Know what you want the reporter to do before you pitch.

Social media is an integral part of media relations now

Christina Davies in her Cision article of 15 August 2017 explains “Why Social Shares Are Key to Pitching Media.” She states:

“Social media is becoming a dictating force in all aspects of marketing and PR. It’s no longer just getting covered in a media outlet — it’s how far can that story be carried with social media. Does it evoke emotion that will lead people to comment, like or share?”

When journalists participating in the 2019 Muck Rack survey were asked if they consulted the company’s social media when reporting on that company, 26% said ‘always,’ 35% said ‘usually,’ and 29% said ‘sometimes.’ This means you need to check your website and social media channels to ensure they always provide consistent, current content.

Also in the same survey, journalists said they track how many times their stories are shared on social media on the following basis: ‘Yes’ 71% and ‘No’ 29%. Many media outlets track social media coverage of their reporters’ stories, so getting the coverage is becoming a more expected part of the reporters’ jobs.

What makes a story more shareable on social media?

Reporters in the Muck Rack 2019 survey said the elements of stories pitched to them by communicators, which they can use to make the stories more shareable on social media, are:

How you can create a story that is potentially shareable on social media

Cision’s Christina Davies recommends these steps:

  1. Check out Google Trends and see what people are talking about online. If you have expertise on a hot topic, pitch that story to the media and mention how it is trending on Google.
  2. Go to Twitter and search for trending stories and hashtags. Is your business related to anything on that list? If so, pitch away and mention that it’s trending on Twitter.
  3. Sign up for HARO to get regular emails from journalists looking for subject matter expertise. You can see from what they’re looking for what is potentially trending in the media.

Timing is crucial when contacting reporters

Find out the working hours of reporters and their deadlines so you can ensure your contact and supply of material caters to their needs.

Focus on the topic in the subject line

The subject line is the most important line in the whole email, so write it after you have written the body text and have your head around the subject. Make it short, less than 60 characters including spaces, and put the keywords up front – in the first 3-4 words, even if you need to use the passive voice. There is so much competition and clutter with emails these days that you need to hit the spot immediately or your chances are gone (with the delete button).

Avoid using subject lines that look like spam. Anything with repeated exclamation points, dollar signs or all caps isn’t likely to get past spam filters, much less a reporter.

Write a clear and concise email subject line. The subject line of too many email pitches is far too vague. Don’t say “Great story for your travel liftout,” because it gives no idea of the content. Many reporters will delete this type of pitch before reading any further.

As you are dealing directly with news media, you can use “new” safely in subject lines, eg “Medical technologist shows new way to …” and “New DNA-based approach to beating cancer.” “New survey on …” “New treatment for …” etc.

Other suitable angles include the timeliness of the item, the extent of human interest, how unusual it is, the impact, conflict, controversy, well-known person or expert involved, a solution to a problem, saves money or a smarter way.

In subject lines, avoid words like: exciting, fascinating, great, unique, value, exceptional, wonderful, fabulous, world-leading and free. Reporters associate these words with marketing hype, and they quickly delete the email.

Check your ‘From’ line as well. Ensure it clearly shows your name or your organization’s name. This helps recipients locate your email if they want to find it later.

Get straight to the point

Reporters work under deadline pressure. Don’t waste their time by starting with pleasantries such as “I hope you are well” or “How are you today.” And don’t start with, as some people do, “My name is …” The recipient can quite easily see your name at the sign off of the email or in the ‘From’ line. Your name is irrelevant up front.

Use conversational, personalized writing, but be direct. Use your first 2-3 sentences to say what you are pitching and why. What is the key point or angle you want to make? Say it up front so the recipient doesn’t have to waste time by reading through to the end of the email.

Avoid clichés like the plague!

Don’t use clichés in subject lines, headlines or lead paragraphs. And avoid hype and exaggeration. Avoid marketing hype altogether, as noted above.

Don’t attach a media release with the pitch

The pitch is the key thing to get the attention of the reporter. Most reporters don’t like opening media releases because (a) this can waste time, and (b) the file containing the release may have a virus. A safe way to lead the reporter to a release is to post a link in the body of the email.

If you wish, you can paste the headline and first 2-3 paragraphs of a release at the end of the email to show to the reporter the story angle you had in mind.

You can offer to email the reporter a media release when they express interest.

Give a clear call to action

  • Say WHAT you want, then WHY they should do it. “A new music group is coming to town. I thought it would make a great feature for the entertainment section.”
  • Not IF, but WHEN – “Are you available Wednesday or Thursday between 10 and noon?”
  • “I would like to talk to you about a new energy monitoring system that’s saving companies $5 billion a year ….”

They won’t buy if you don’t believe

  • Get excited about what you’re pitching – enthusiasm sells.
  • Be committed to the idea and why it’s right for this publication or news outlet.

Establish a connection

Writers love it when you mention how you came across their article, whether through a friend or via Twitter. Demonstrate you’re genuinely interested and share at least one authentic reason for working together. It will go a long way.

Don’t get pushy

If the journalist isn’t very interested, give in gracefully and go to another news outlet. Never try to get pushy. This attitude will rebound on you. Bugging media with a pitch that’s promotional or not news to them is likely to lead to a chilly reception the next time you call, regardless of that idea’s worth.

Offer an exclusive

A major news outlet expects at least a unique angle, if not exclusivity. Be smart. Manage your story and your relationships.

Give your full contact information in your email signature block

Use an email signature block with your full contact information, including your organization’s website URL so the journalist can do a bit of background checking before responding. If you seriously want a journalist to respond, always give your cell phone number in your sig block.

How to measure the results of your pitching efforts

Fractyl’s Domenica D’Ottavio wrote a good article in 2019 on the ways you can measure how well your pitching of stories to reporters has succeeded: “10 crucial metrics to measure your pitching efforts.”

Photo by Maxim Ilyahov on Unsplash.

About the author Kim Harrison

Kim Harrison loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in the eBooks available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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