Pitching To Journalists: A Useful Guide For The Budding PR Professional

by Browser Media Ltd

A handy list of dos and don’ts, and advice on PR etiquette for those looking to get their pitches noticed.

For those just starting out in the PR world, pitching your story to a host of fully-fledged and well-connected journalists can be a daunting prospect. Even if you’ve already got some PR experience under your belt, with so many plates spinning, it’s easy to forget the small things, but these are the things that could make the difference between your story being published or scrapped.

That’s why we’ve compiled a handy list of dos and don’ts when it comes to pitching to journalists and bloggers so that you can give your stories the best chance of PR success.

Do… Your Research!

It seems an obvious place to start, but you’d be surprised how many PR professionals skip this important step.

On The Journalist Or Blogger:

Before you pick up the phone or start typing, make sure you have the following information:

  • Who you are pitching to (getting the journalist’s name wrong is a sure fire way to having your pitch sent straight to the ‘Bin’ and your future pitches filed under ‘Junk’)
  • What publication/s they write for and when these go to print
  • What industry they write about
  • How they prefer to be contacted: telephone call or email

On The Piece You’re Pitching:

It’s equally as important to make sure you know the piece you’re pitching inside out. That way, should the journalist request further details, you’ll be well equipped to provide an informed and confident answer.

Not doing your research makes you look slapdash, and only interested in your own agenda. Knowing a bit about the journalist’s previous work, topics of interest, and whether your piece is a good fit for their audience shows that you have taken the time to research, demonstrating professionalism and respect for both the journalist and the client you are pitching for.

Sending a piece of content that’s way off the mark is a waste of their time as well as yours, blotting your copy for any future pitches which could well be an ideal fit.

Do… Get Straight To The Point

Avoid the usual familiarities when sending corporate emails…

‘I trust you are well?’

‘I hope you had a great weekend?’

‘I wonder if you can help me?’

‘Happy Friday!’

Although these may seem like a polite way to start an interaction, journalists’ time is precious, so get straight to the point, outlining the story in the subject line, introducing your piece, and using bullet points to highlight the key selling points. That way the journalist can quickly access the information they need to decide whether or not your story is useful to them.

The same goes for phone calls, too. It’s much better to jump straight in and put your cards on the table so you can both move on with your day if things don’t work out.

Do… Be Helpful

As a PR professional, your job is to make it as easy as possible for journalists to use your piece.

Make sure your correct contact details are in your email footer and that you are actually available on these numbers. If your pitch is successful but you miss the call, you might not get a second chance.

Whilst being helpful is key, it’s also crucial to be polite and respectful in the face of rejection. You never know when your paths will cross again…

Avoid Attachments

Imagine if every email you receive contained several high-res images and attachments? Not only would it take ages to wade through, you’d quickly find yourself running out of inbox space and, most importantly, it’s also a security concern. For that reason, it’s best to hold fire on attaching weighty documents until the reporter has confirmed their interest in the story.

Instead, include all important information in the body of your email (would you open a mystery attachment when you knew nothing about its contents?), and provide links to any larger files or images via cloud-based storage solutions. Alternatively, you could include low-res examples of any imagery, and state that high-resolution images can be provided on request.

That’ll give you an opportunity to keep the channels of communication open (handy if there’s something you’ve forgotten to mention in your initial pitch!) and you can begin to establish a rapport with your contact.

Do… Follow Up On Your Email

Journalists have to sift through a huge number of pitches on a daily basis, so it’s important to follow up on your email to bring your content back up to the top of the pile – however, don’t over do it.

It’s okay to send one follow up email, or direct message via social media, two at an absolute push. Any more than this and the journalist is likely to find you a nuisance and ignore your attempts altogether. If you still don’t get a response, it’s better to cut your losses and move on to other options.

Do… Offer Exclusivity

Offering ‘exclusive’ coverage to a reporter can certainly give your story selling power… that is, as long as it’s a strong enough piece. This can be a tension point when working on behalf of a client, as a client’s idea of a breaking news story may be very different to that of a wider audience. Journalists can easily suss when you’re trying to flog them a weak story by dressing it up in the guise of an ‘exclusive’. Therefore, it’s important to manage expectations on both sides, and ensure you only use exclusivity as leverage when it is justified.

While you must only pitch your story to one contact in order for it to be truthfully ‘exclusive’, this doesn’t mean you have to put all of your eggs in one basket; if your first offer is rejected, you can offer it up to another journalist. However, when taking this approach, you must ensure that the story has a suitable shelf life and remains fresh each time you pitch it. There’s also a risk that, while the story may still be topical, the second journalist may realise they didn’t get first refusal, and will therefore be less willing to take a cast off that someone has already deemed un-newsworthy.

As with any other industry, journalists conduct their own competitor research, and closely monitor each other’s news coverage. Therefore, they may well spot when a competitor has been offered an exclusive story first, and this could negatively affect any rapport you have established with them. This is also another reason to always be honest about the exclusivity of your story. Imagine if instead of staggering your approach, you promised sole coverage to several outlets simultaneously, and each of those outlets decides to use your ‘exclusive’ piece; you will have destroyed any relationship you had with those reporters, causing colossal reputational damage.

Don’t… Harass Disinterested Journalists

Isn’t it annoying when you ask to be removed from a mailing list, but continue to receive spammy, promotional material from the same brand? This is exactly how journalists feel when they continue to get irrelevant pitches even though they’ve explained before that it’s just not the right fit.

To avoid making this mistake, keep a log of journalists and bloggers, recording your interactions, who you’ve contacted and when, and any useful information about the journalist and their audience. You’ll soon start to build up an invaluable reference tool.

Before sending a story out, consult your log, that way you won’t waste time sending to non-starters and you’ll also avoid annoying journalists by not clogging up their inboxes with irrelevant pitches – everyone’s a winner.

Don’t… Copy And Paste The Same Email Pitches

Forwarding the same bland and generic email template to a list of journalists might seem like a time-efficient and systematic way of killing several birds with one stone, but it’s not going to grab anyone’s attention or show any consideration for your work.

Use the research you have conducted and recorded in your log to tailor each email to the recipient. Of course, there may be some phrases and sentences that can be used in multiple emails, and that’s fine, but a personalised approach overall will definitely be more effective.

Don’t… Exaggerate Or Oversell

Be sure to demonstrate belief and enthusiasm in your story’s sale-ability, but don’t over egg the pudding.

Steer clear of clichés and hyperbolic subject lines, and avoid littering email with marketing jargon and empty buzzwords; journalists can see straight through it and it’s simply more copy for them to have to read before they reach the story itself.

URGENT!… Sort Of

Including action words such as ‘URGENT’, ‘BREAKING NEWS’, or ‘TIME SENSITIVE’ in the subject line can prompt the journalist to open your pitch, but overusing these phrases is likely to just irritate people, and ruin your chances of getting noticed when you do actually have a pressing story.

On the other hand, phrases such as ‘EXCLUSIVE’ and ‘EMBARGOED’ (when truly applicable!) are useful as they provide journalists with legitimate information about the piece.  

Don’t… Forget To Proofread Before Sending

If your pitch is plagued with typos and spelling mistakes, what’s to say the story itself isn’t full of holes?

Don’t…  Be Afraid To Ask Questions

Showing a professional interest in reporters and their work will demonstrate sincerity and show you mean business. I highlight the word professional here as it’s important to stay on topic; reporters probably already have plenty of friends, taking up their time to chat about the weather and what they’re up to at the weekend is pointless and disrespectful of their time.

Building a rapport is vital, but get to understand the kinds of stories they need, the markets they are currently pitching to, and features they have in the pipeline.This will give you a far richer insight into what pitches are likely to result in success.

Get to know your reporters’ deadlines too and, if applicable, their forward features. That means you’ll be able to hit them with a story on the right day, at the right time, just when they need it most.

Handy Summary

Be realistic, and don’t be disheartened if you suffer a few knockbacks along the way. Even with a faultless PR strategy, you’re not going to have a 100 per cent success rate with your pitches, but you can certainly give them vastly improved odds of victory and learn why things didn’t work so you can improve your outreach strategy moving forward.

So to recap, here’s a run-down of the main takeaways to get you pitching like a pro:

  • Research your journalist/ blogger’s niche and audience, (or consult your handy journalist log!) to ensure your topic is going to be of use
  • Get straight to the point and explain why you think this post is relevant to that audience
  • Be helpful – reporters are far more likely to want to work with you if you can help make their job easier in some way
  • Keep an outreach log of reporters and their topic areas, follow ups, and any other useful information you pick up
  • As a rule, email pitches are the best way to go as they are less disruptive to the journalist’s day
  • Open the doors of communication and gain useful information that will improve your strategy
  • Always proofread, checking for typos and spelling mistakes.