I used to work in newsrooms, fielding dozens of emails from PR people every day. Now, I’m the one pitching stories on behalf of nonprofits eager to break through — and I use every lesson I ever learned when I was on the other side of the fence.
I want to help you do the same.
Here are the four easiest ways to mess up a pitch and end up in the trash folder:
- Way too long
- Not newsworthy/not relevant/not relevant to the reporter
- Unclear/uninteresting offer
- Unable to deliver on what’s promised in the pitch
Pretty simple stuff, right? That’s because bad pitches are easy. The four keys to a good pitch take a little more explaining.
1. Know why your story is newsworthy
If it isn’t new, it isn’t news.
Why is your story, your expert, your issue something a reporter or producer should care about? Why is this the moment people need to hear about it?
You must be able to articulate this in one sentence before you even pick up the phone or write your pitch. To be newsworthy, you need to make some or all of these elements elements explicit, unavoidable, irresistible:
- New information — something a reporter hasn’t heard about yet.
- An expert — someone with unique and valuable insight into the subject.
- A report — new findings the reporter can apply to their work.
- A hook — something happening right now in the real world that makes what you have especially relevant.
2. Know who you’re pitching
Journalists are people, too. More to the point: journalists are extremely busy people with a thousand demands on their attention. So if you want your pitch to break through, you need to know your target. Help the reporter connect the dots between what you have and how they can use it.
When you craft your pitch email to a specific reporter:
- Reference: Point out a previous piece they’ve written and identify how your story or your expert can provide additional insight.
- Relate: Mention an angle or an issue they’ve covered and how your organization or issue can enhance that angle/issue coverage.
- Relationship: If it’s not clear whether they’ve covered your issue, ask them if they’re following it and offer to talk/connect them with an expert so they can establish a solid foundation.
When a reporter or producer sees you’re familiar with their work or with the issue that they cover, they’re more likely to respond. If you pitch a reporter on an environment story when they cover automobile markets, they’ll be less likely to trust you. In some cases the distinction is small (environment vs. energy), but it matters to them. When in doubt, check their Twitter accounts and recent bylines to make sure you’ve got the right person.
(Check our M+R’s Twitter Media Lists of reporters in 14 progressive beats.)
3. Know when to stop
Again, the “reporters are busy” thing applies: Tell them quickly what you are offering and why they should care. Even if you have an extremely complex issue, save the novel-like pitches for a follow-up email when a reporter shows interest.
Your initial pitch should be no more than five sentences/150 words. I’m going to repeat that a few times because it’s the toughest (and worst) habit to break. This is what 150 words looks like:
– – – – –
Your initial pitch should be no more than five sentences/150 words. If a reporter is interested, they will let you know and then you can give them more info. At this point, out of our 150 goal we’ve already used up 43 words.
Keep it simple and direct to avoid exceeding five sentences/150 words. Don’t add every bit of detail and supporting information. If and when the reporter replies, you can follow up with all of that additional background. But for your initial pitch, stick to no more than five sentences/150 words. Sometimes you can do less! Brevity is the soul of wit, after all, and at this point we are already at 115 words.
Once again, because it’s worth repeating: Your initial pitch should be no more than five sentences/150 words.
If a reporter is interested, they will let you know and then you can give them.
– – – – –
In those 150 words, you should include a few links to relevant articles, reports, or videos if applicable. The first sentence should tell them why what you’re offering is important and it should ask them point blank if they want to speak with someone, see a report, etc.
- Subject line: Make it present-tense, action-oriented. If the president or any relevant political figures are involved, consider including that in the subject line. Try to answer the WHY in the subject line (Why should they care? What are you offering?). Or test out putting a direct ask in the subject line (e.g. “Polar bear experts in town this Tuesday – interested in meeting for coffee?” or “EPA budget hearing tomorrow – planning to cover?”)
- Pitch: No more than 150 words**
- Get on the phone: Always offer to hop on the phone to discuss
**Rules are meant to be broken and there are some instances where 150 words won’t work, but in most cases you’re better off keeping it short and to the point.
4. Know what else to try
Persistence pays off. If you don’t hear anything from an initial pitch, it doesn’t necessarily mean the reporter isn’t interested. Often, they’ll need additional reminders.
I’m not suggesting you John Cusack outside their office window with a boombox over your head. But following-up with a few more emails and phone calls is not pesky — it’s necessary. If you get them on the phone and they express interest, make sure to follow-up immediately and continue to check-in.
And sometimes, you’ll find you’re barking up the wrong tree, or up the right tree at the wrong time, or in fact this particular tree is maybe more interested in cats than dogs. (Also, sometimes your metaphors get away from you.) The point is, if you get in touch but the reporter isn’t interested in your current pitch, all is not lost.
- Get-to-know-you: Ask them what they are working on to determine which aspect of what you have could be relevant to them. Learn about their interests and goals, and think about how they connect to your issue. Cultivating a relationship can be valuable later when their beat and your issue align. Reminding reporters of your organization creates brand awareness so when the issue does rise to their consciousness they immediately associate you with that issue and reach out.
- Exclusives: You can also consider offering an exclusive when you have good information.
- Briefings: Or see if they’d be interested in an informational interview with no obligation that they write something.
The thread that runs through all this is that as you write your pitch, you should consider yourself in partnership with reporters.
Realize that not only must they sift through a lot of information, they are also often required to cover several stories per day. Figuring out whether something is worth their time is your job at least as much as it is theirs. Don’t take it personally if they don’t use your ideas, or never call you back, or block you on Twitter (okay maybe that last one is personal). Your job is to spread the word about the good work your organization is doing – to tell stories that often aren’t covered in our current news climate.
These are interesting times for PR pros and for reporters, but there’s an opportunity for some truly excellent journalism, and your organization can — and should — be a part of it!