Pitching news angles successfully to journalists is always one of the toughest PR tasks. There is no simple answer to handling these situations because you need to focus your approach specifically to the needs of each individual journalist to do well. It is a game of percentages – you need to use your professional judgment and prepare thoroughly to increase your chances of success.
Good timing is vital – because no journalist is interested in receiving material after their deadline. One of your tasks is to find out the best times to reach journalists. Each media outlet has its own deadline, depending on the frequency and timing of its publishing schedules. Asked in the Muck Rack 2019 survey when is the best time to send a pitch, the respondents replied as follows, with most saying they preferred to receive pitches in mornings:
If you don’t tailor your approach to the needs of the journalist, including the timing, you are likely to irritate them, as in Geoffrey Morrison’s Twitter comment below.
Below – a useful reminder from a journalist in a daily media outlet about following up media pitches:
In addition, pitching news angles to journalists is labor-intensive to do well because you need to check how relevant your content is to each individual journalist on your media contact list, and there are many media segments to consider. (Even if you use a contact database you need to carefully check to ensure their suggested list is up to date and relevant.)
Variables you need to consider include whether the journalist is from a traditional mainstream news outlet and/or a news website, and whether they include social media sharing within their role so that an image might be useful to send. Does their media outlet publish local, State or national news? Are they from an industry publication? Timing is especially important if the story angle being pitched could be connected to a trending story such as coronavirus (#COVID19).
Above image: Muck Rack State of Journalism report, 2019.
The best way to pitch to media is by email. An overwhelming number of journalists prefer receiving email pitches. For instance, the 2019 Muck Rack State of Journalism report found 93% of journalists in the survey liked to receive email pitches compared with 11% who liked phone contact, as shown in the above chart.
Therefore, simple logic would suggest sending all pitches by email. But feedback is vital. A journalist can all-too-easily just delete an email pitch, which leaves you in the dark about their reasons why. Also, it is much easier for them to delete an email than spend time arguing on the phone with you about the merits of your proposal.
In addition, you are usually pressured by your boss or client to give some progress reports on journalists’ responses. If you can get through by telephone you are more likely to gain useful feedback to report, and at least you can say you have spoken directly to the journalist.
The Muck Rack 2019 graph below suggests that around three quarters of journalists generally don’t mind you contacting them once to follow up on your pitch. (69% of the respondents were US-based and 31% overseas-based. Muck Rack didn’t state how many journalists participated in the survey, which means we don’t know how representative the sample of respondents was. Overall, their response to one follow-up was positive, and better than I would have expected. Nevertheless, don’t push your luck by chasing them up more than once. If you do, they will think you are a pest, and your follow-ups may have jeopardized future positive responses from them.
Above image: Muck Rack State of Journalism report, 2019.
Using the phone to pitch to a reporter enables direct feedback, but is effective only if:
This phone contact creates the opportunity to bounce the angle off the reporter and to fine-tune your material according to their feedback. You can even do a major rewrite to suit the interest of the journalist based on their comments, especially if they are in a mainstream media outlet.
Journalists are more positively motivated if you personalize the contact by checking that the story angle is relevant to their current work, as in the graph below. This ranked ahead of the merits of the material you are promoting. The takeaway is that you must do this labor-intensive checking to achieve best results.
In their blog of 27 February 2020, Muck Rack shared the details of 3 successful media pitches: “3 PR pitch examples that resulted in media coverage.” Well worth reading if you are looking for guidance on how to land media coverage from contacting a journalist about a story idea.
Above image: Muck Rack State of Journalism report, 2019.
If you need to find new media contacts, you can try journalist contact databases like Response Source, Journolink, and Help A Reporter Out (HARO). Here’s a step-by-step guide to using HARO if you are interested in checking it out. Also, you can pay a specialist media release distribution service like PR Newswire and ereleases to reach out to journalists. Such databases are valuable when you are preparing a national email distribution or phone contact list. But it is still highly advisable to try to make personal contact with the journalists in key outlets if you can (again, after doing your homework so you can demonstrate that you are familiar with their good work).
Another factor is that your approach to the reporter will affect their attitude towards any future contact you make with them – they are likely to respond well in future if you cooperate well with them now.
Ensure your existing contact and proposed angle are relevant and the news value you are pitching is strong enough to interest that reporter. The smart thing is to already maintain a good working relationship with a reporter who covers your industry. This can be easier said than done, but when you can, it is worthwhile. For instance, as CEO of a not-for-profit organization, I knew the chief reporter from the daily newspaper who specialized in that sector, so it was easy to reach them and get their response.
If you know who you want to reach, but don’t have the direct contact information, you can still call the news outlet main switchboard and ask for the office of the news editor or chief of staff. However, their PA takes all such calls and screens them as the first line of defense. Inevitably, the PA will only take a message; they won’t transfer your call to the reporter, or they will pretend the reporter is out or already on the phone – and so you are stuck. The best you can achieve is for the PA to give you the newsroom email address to enable you to do an email pitch via the news editor/CoS. Having established this contact, it is probably OK at that point to attach your media release and hope for the best.
You may be very lucky and find the PA is prepared to give you the reporter’s email address. If not, you can work out the individual’s email address once you have learnt their name by finding out the email contact info for other people within the organization and using the email address protocols to send an email to the reporter you want to reach.
Identifying and reaching the relevant reporter will greatly improve your chances of pitching success. So how do you find the right person to pitch your idea to?
Do your homework. If you are aiming at print media, read the publication you are interested in to find out the bylines of current journalists who may be relevant because they cover your topic. If bylines aren’t shown, do an online search of the media outlet’s website to identify journalists who cover topics similar to yours. You can also search via Google or LinkedIn for the media outlet and particular topics to see if you can find reporters’ names.
Same with TV and radio. Start by watching and listening to relevant programs to learn the names of relevant, current reporters.
Even if you have the journalist’s direct contact number, much of the time they will not answer calls. As we all know, newsroom staff numbers continue to be cut and their workload increased. Journalists usually have to write content suitable for their associated news website and social media as well as their traditional mainstream media channel. This creates greater workload pressure. Otherwise, they may be out of the office, already on the phone, or may not be answering calls while they are busy writing to meet a deadline.
One of the things I have learnt from hard experience is that few journalists will ever return a call unless they already know you and you have a constructive working relationship with them. Even then, the chances are they will not call back due to pressure of work, etc. If you are making a cold call and they don’t know you, they are even less likely to accept your call or use your material, and they certainly won’t want to spend time listening to you arguing with them to support your case.
This leaves little option but to use email. As noted above, the frustration for you is they can more easily ignore emails, or they check their inbox at a more convenient time, or they gain some time to to consider the news angle being pitched or research the topic before they respond to your email.
Many PR people will email a media release cold to the news editor or chief of staff, and will then call to see if their carefully prepared missive has been received, accepted and relayed to a reporter. This is an opportunity to quickly find out their response, and if it is negative, to pitch the angle elsewhere, especially if the story has been pitched as an ‘exclusive.’
The odds are that they will not act on your release – for a multitude of reasons – and usually they won’t discuss why, so calling to follow up will just antagonize them.
However, the pushback from many journalists is that they don’t want to be hassled by such follow-ups. Esther Schindler of the Internet Press Guild, says, “Nothing sets a writer or editor’s teeth on edge more than an eager young voice saying, “I’m calling to see if you got the press release we sent.” It is all too-common practice to have follow-up calls made by the most junior, inept, PR officers. But “when we’re in the middle of a tight deadline, the last thing we want is a phone call that contains no new or useful information whatsoever.” She says such calls harm the sender’s reputation.
The quandary is that unless we do speak to the reporter about the release in question, we won’t know what their attitude is, and the story might never get off the ground for reasons that we will never know about. If we know the reasons, we can try another angle or quickly rewrite the material to change to a more attractive focus the reporter is interested in. By making the contact, at least we can report to the client or boss about the facts of what happened. This means we remain under pressure to follow up, even if the reporter doesn’t like it.
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