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How to pitch to a journalist

By Jon Brown

Pitching to a journalist can be daunting for any young PR professional, and there’s likely a couple of seasoned managers and senior managers for who it still conjures a few moments of doubt.

Given that 99% of a PRO's job is to build relationships with the press, it might sound strange that “selling in” a story can be so nerve wracking - the first few months of short replies and quick hang-ups can soon make a dent in even the most confident of people.

We have ex-journalist on the team who we question regularly about the best ways to pitch a story and why sometimes we draw a blank - and they respond to explain the frustration felt by journalists when they receive a pitch that isn't even close to being relevant, or is blatantly selling a product thinly disguised as 'news'.

If you're struggling to write to the media, click here to read our eBook.

With Digital PR and the proliferation of online news that has reduced advertising revenue, stretched budgets and seen once bustling newsrooms fall silent numbers, journalists today are as time poor and pressured to produce stories - written, visual and audio - than they’ve ever been.

Not to mention the need to constantly update the website, manage multiple social media accounts and live blog breaking news.

There is also a hard truth that that some PROs are just terrible at pitching stories. If you a journalist ignore your email, start with a generic “Hi there” or just get their name wrong – yes, unfortunately that does happen. 

What these small errors show is that the person trying to sell the story hasn't done their research, which is a sure fire way to end up with your email pitch in the bin or the phone call ending quickly.

But pitching stories doesn’t have to be stressful and leave you feeling like you need a stiff drink if you just follow a few rules.

 

Send your story to the right journalist

Journalists will become frustrated when you call them with a story that isn't relevant to their readers. Just think back to the last time you got a call from someone trying to sell you something you didn’t need.

You felt like the person on the end of the phone had just wasted your time, right?

Same thing goes for trying to pitch a journalist a story which isn’t relevant. No matter how friendly and polite you are on the phone, they’re not going to suddenly change their mind and run an irrelevant story. More likely is that they’ll just ignore you the next time you call or your name drops into their inbox.

Take the time to find journalists that are writing about the areas your client or business works in, read their features and news stories. Are they different journalists? Are you pitching news or thought leadership? By targeting the right story to the right journalists you will greatly increase your chances of success.

You HAVE to read the publications that you're pitching to. Take 15/20 minutes each morning or afternoon and read your core media titles.

 

Understand what makes a story

The fact your client or business just got a new member of the board might be huge for them, but outside the four walls of that organisation no-else will really care, especially a journalist. OK, if you're Microsoft, Amazon, SpaceX (or any household brand) then this might not be a good example, but  the point is that your job as a PRO is being able to filter out these non-news stories and find the real stories that generate headlines. 

If you’re not sure whether something is a story or not, consider the following:

  • Who is it relevant to/for?
  • Why is it interesting?
  • Is there a human interest angle?
  • Are you adding anything new to what is already out there?

The Five Ws (Who, What, When, Where, Why) are just as relevant now as they ever were and can act as a good acid test for a story.

Research the journalists you are pitching to and see if they’ve recently written about what you’re pitching. If they have then the chances are that they won’t write about the same thing again for a while, so you might need to change tack.

Can you offer them a new angle or insight into a topic? This might give you a better chance.

Taking the time to get your story solid and then tailoring your pitch will put you in a much better position than taking half a story, blasting it out indiscriminately and expecting the journalist to fill in the gaps.

 

Give the journalist everything they need

You’ve phoned a journalist, everything has gone well and you’ve followed up with an email with the correct information. 

But you've not included the name of the spokesperson. Worst yet, you've not provided a quote or comment from anyone. Or you reference images and have forgot to attach them.

It's easily done, but remember that journalists are time pressured and if the best way to build strong relationships is to give them everything they need right from the off.

Double check before hitting 'send' that you have included what is necessary to be able to get your story live quickly and remember, journalists don't just tell stories with words. If you have images at the correct resolution and profile for online or print, and optimised for social, or videos, audio files or anything else that can make your story stand out - include it.

Editors are increasingly favouring stories pitched with videos so including that is a good way to make you stand out.

By following these steps pitching to the media shouldn't leave you reaching for the gin bottle every time you have to do it. 

Nothing is guaranteed, but whether you're just starting out or have years of experience, what will bring success is the relevance of your story. If you target your content correctly you'll increase your chances of getting that all important coverage and make yourself a valuable resource to your target media.

If you’re trying to get in front of the press and want some more advice, just download our guide to writing for the media!

How to write for the media