Pitching the media is a bit of a gamble. There’s really no guarantee that a journalist is going to pick up on your story idea, no matter how great it is.
Think of all those emails you get in your inbox every day that are pitching some sort of new product or special deal. Some of those emails might contain really awesome offers. The problem is, we get so many that we’ve become desensitized to them. It’s kind of like that with members of the media, some of whom get dozens of emails every day from eager beaver PR people.
Over the years, I’ve had some great media pitching successes and some complete failures, too. What I’ve learned is that the key to success is finding that one reporter who is really going to value the story idea you’ve got to offer and then presenting it in a way that appeals to their specific interests. It’s so much more effective than churning out the same pitch or press release to a long and generic list of media contacts.
If you’re not familiar with the pitching process, it involves writing a short paragraph or two, in the form of an email, presenting your story idea (and why it’s newsworthy) to a single journalist. There is no set “style” for a media pitch other than it should be conversational in tone. It differs from a press release in that the latter presents more detailed information in the same style (Associated Press style) and form (inverted triangle with the most important facts appearing first) as it would appear in an actual news article, making it easier for news desks to utilize the information. Press releases are also sent to a list of targeted publications rather than a single journalist.
Those are the basics. Now, you may be asking, what’s the trick to getting the attention of a journalist when their inbox is already flooded? Here are some tactics I find useful in making my own media pitching less of a gamble and more of a real possibility:
- Build relationships with the media. If journalists get to know you and your abilities as a PR person, they are much more likely to open what you send them. I keep a mental list of journalists I’ve pitched successfully over the years and reach out to them first anytime I have a story idea that matches their interests. Nine times out of 10, they take the time to respond to me even if they don’t always bite on the idea I pitched them.
- Do your research. Say you have a business-focused story that you’d love to see placed in The New York Times. Don’t just go to your media database and pick the first business reporter you see. Use Google or The New York Times’s own database to uncover stories similar to the one you are pitching that have been published recently. The New York Times journalist who wrote those stories is the one to pitch.
- Be familiar with the work of the media you are targeting. “Most wanted” journalists and media outlets are those that have the greatest potential to influence your target audiences. If you are, say, a high-end restaurant, Bon Appetit would most certainly make the cut. Read what they are writing about so you know what types of story angles interest them. Also, members of the media really appreciate it when you can mention something they have written and make a connection between it and the idea you are pitching. It shows you’ve been doing your homework.
- Use an attention-grabbing subject line. If you’re sending an email to a reporter you don’t know, this is the single most important factor in terms of whether your email gets opened or not. The subject line needs to be short so they can read it in its entirety without opening the email. It should not sound salesy. I think about the person I am targeting and choose words related to my story that will have the greatest impact on them based on their interests.
- Tailor your pitch. Address the individual by name in the greeting of your email. Mention the name of their media outlet. Explain why this particular angle would be perfect for their specific newspaper, radio show, television program, etc. Let them know you wrote this correspondence specifically for them, and it’s not just another mass email.
- Make it short. This is the biggest challenge, for me, in writing a pitch. I want to include all the really great details about my idea to really impress them . . . but if it’s much longer than two short paragraphs I know their eyes are just going to glaze over. What I do is write my first draft and then go over it again and again to shorten it, refine it, and make it stronger. Remember you are only trying to capture their interest. You don’t need to tell them the whole story.
- Use boldface text. This is another technique to help overcome short attention spans. In the body of your email, mark key facts and important data points in bold so they stand out. Just don’t go overboard with it. Limit it to one or two brief phrases, maximum.
- Tell them why they should care. Why should a particular journalist use your idea? Is it an indicator of an emerging national trend? Does it uncover a critical need their readers should know about? Is it something entirely new and unique? Spell it out in your pitch.
- Use past media coverage to your advantage. This is particularly useful when you’re working to get national coverage. If you have a great locally published feature or news clip that’s already been done on your story, include a link to it in your national pitch. If the media can see another, non-competing media outlet found it important enough to cover, they are more likely to give the idea a second glance themselves.
- Employ newsjacking techniques. Stay on top of breaking news stories and national trends related to your industry or client base. Jump on board by providing a unique local angle in the form of a pitch. For example, when the Haiti earthquake tragedy occurred in 2010 and many children were separated from their parents, some news networks made it seem as if they were immediately available for adoption. This was not the case. We were able to generate a great deal of press coverage for the Maine Children’s Home by offering one of its adoption specialists up as an expert source who could discuss the situation in Haiti as it related to international adoption and the first priority of working to reunite these children with their families.
- Always follow up. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve sent out what I think is a very strong pitch and have gotten nothing back but radio silence. Then I follow up with another email or phone call, and everything changes. Sometimes a journalist never saw the first email. Many other times, they did see it and were interested but it moved to the back of their minds as other deadlines began piling up. All that was needed to move the idea to the forefront was that little extra push.
When it comes to media relations tactics, I prefer pitching select journalists to issuing press releases en masse. The payoffs are usually a lot bigger. Nearly every major feature story our agency has landed over the last decade or so has been the result of an individualized pitch. Having a press release on hand to support the content of your pitch is handy, though, since it will provide much of the background information a journalist needs if they decide to pursue your idea. If you want to maximize your public relations ROI, I encourage you to include media pitching among the PR tactics you already employ. If you’re interested in additional guidelines on how to write a strong pitch, check out www.badpitchblog.com. As its name suggests, the blog calls out bad pitches, but it also offers helpful tips related to pitch writing, technique and timing. Another great resource is www.michaelsmartpr.com. Michael offers online training on pitching the media, and his website offers some great articles on pitching, as well.