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How to pitch a story to a journalist

By Mike Davies

Pitching to a journalist can be daunting for any new PR person; 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 PR's job is to build relationships with the press, it might sound strange that “selling in” a story can be so nerve wracking.

But after years of short replies and quick hang-ups you can understand the trepidation.

As an ex-journo I can understand some of the frustration felt by my former colleagues.

Online news has meant declining ad revenue, stretching budgets and falling newsroom numbers, meaning today journalists 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 news online, manage multiple social media accounts and live blog breaking news.

Then there is the truth that some PR people are just terrible at pitching stories and drive stressed journalists mad trying to sell-in story ideas that aren’t relevant - or aren't even stories.

There are even a couple out there who can’t by bothered to learn the name of the journalist they’re sending these non-stories to.

If you want to make a journalist ignore your email just start it with “Hi there” or just get their name wrong – yes, that does happen (on a side note to my fellow PRs if you could stop doing this that would be great).

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

Send your story to the right journalist

If you want to understand why some journalists sound so frustrated when you call them with a story 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 salesperson had just wasted your time, right?

Same thing goes for trying to pitch a journalist a story which isn’t relevant to them – they’re not going to suddenly change their mind because you call them incessantly and, more likely, they’ll just ignore you the next time your name drops into their inbox.

It doesn’t take much effort to find journalists who are writing about the areas your client works in and by targeting the right story to the right journalists you greatly increase your chances of success.

If you're not sure were to start with this research, try Google.

Understand what makes a story

Let’s be honest, the fact your client just got a new floor installed might be huge for them but outside their four walls no-else will really care, especially a journalist (ok, this might be an extreme example, but you get the idea).

Being able to filter out these non-issues and find real stories to generate some headlines is job one in the PR world.

If you’re not sure if something is a story or not, just consider a couple of things:

  • Is it relevant?
  • Is it interesting?
  • Is there any human interest that could make it more interesting?
  • Are you adding anything new to what is already out there?

Oh, and are you including all the relevant information like the 5 Ws? (Who, What, When, Where, Why – just because you wanted to know).

Again, understanding the journalists you are pitching to can make it easier to figure out if what you have is going to work. If they’ve recently written about what you’re pitching, chances are they won’t write about the same thing again for a while.

If you can offer them a new angle or fill a hole in a previous report you might stand 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 and expecting the journalist to fill in the gaps.

Give the journalist everything they need

So, you’ve phoned a journalist, everything has gone well and you’ve emailed your story to them.

But your story is missing the name of a spokesperson, or a quote, or you haven’t bothered to include any images.

Do you think the journalist has the time to contact you and chase up the things you’ve missed – no.

Before you send anything to any journalist make sure you are including everything they need to be able to get your story live without having to come back to you for any clarification or follow ups.

Remember, journalists today don't just tell stories with words. If you have images (hi res for online and print and optimised for social), videos, audio files or anything else that can make your story stand out - send it.

As a side note, editors are increasingly favouring stories pitched with videos so including that is a good way to make you stand out.

And that’s it. Pitching to a journalist is not rocket science and it doesn’t have to leave you reaching for the gin bottle every time you have to do it.

By following these simple tips you can 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 here.