November 6, 2014
How to Pitch to Journalists: A 3-Step Guide
So – you want to get the word out there about your products or business. A piece in a National newspaper would be nice, right? But how do you go about getting it?
Recently, I spoke at The Gunpowder Guide to Getting Noticed, an event put on by new business experts, Gunpowder Consulting. While I tackled how savvy digital marketing strategies could help you get found online, the fabulous Carol Lewis (@CarolLewis101), a commissioning editor at The Times, gave some insight into what catches her eye – and how to give yourself the best chance of being featured in her pages.
Here are some takeaways:
Step 1: How and When to Pitch to Journalists
Of course, each publication will be different. Dailies, Weeklies and Monthlies all work to different schedules – and your approach to a national newspaper must be different than it would be to a specialist industry magazine (which is what I edited for five years, before joining Reload). But many things remain constant.
- Know who you’re pitching at. It sounds basic, but there’s nothing that will make a journalist reach for the ‘Delete’ icon faster than you messing this one up. It always amazed me the number of times people would tell me their story idea was perfect for [inset competitor’s title here]. Likewise, Carol spoke of emails landing in her [Times] inbox that were pitching pieces for The Telegraph, or The Independent. From here, your chances of being featured are approximately zero.
- Don’t send blanket emails or press releases. As with the above advice, make sure you’re personalising your pitch to each newspaper/magazine as well as the specific section you’d like to be featured in, and even the specific journalist that writes or edits that section. Think too about the sorts of angles those journalists or titles like to take on their stories – and modify your approach accordingly. For example, a Scottish newspaper might be interested in a property company’s plans for a new development in Scotland, while The Times Business pages might be more interested in broad themes, such as how that company has used apprentice schemes to boost youth employment.
- Understand your target publication and your perfect “slot” on their pages. Most papers and magazines will have main ‘features’, as well as regular sections or columns. These regular sections can often be the most difficult to fill as they require continual recycling and reinvention of the same themes. Potentially, this gives you a better chance of successfully pitching to be featured in one of these slots.
- Be aware of the deadlines people work to. As already mentioned, it will be different for each publication. Monthlies may have a series of different deadlines over two-three weeks for different sections. Weeklies may be over a series of days, while Dailies will be over a series of hours. According to Carol, the first deadline of the day at The Times is at 11am, when each of the commissioning editors will pitch their ideas to their section editors. The section editors then take their preferred stories to the editor, and a ‘plan’ for the next day’s paper is mapped out. Another meeting happens between 3pm-4pm, when any changes are made – for example, a business story might get ‘promoted’ to the news pages, so that slot now needs filling in the business section. The first edition of the paper goes to press at around 9pm. So the time between the 3pm meeting and 9pm is a frenzy of activity.
- Know when it’s best to catch people. Some journalists will want you to approach them with ideas well in advance. Some will simply need a quick quote to fill the blank space that’s still on their pages 20 minutes before their deadline. According to Carol, a fruitful time of day can be between 6pm-7pm, when journalists are scratching around for a quote or case study to finish off their piece. So it’s a great time to keep an eye on Twitter for call-outs from journalists in need!
Step 2: What Journalists Need and How to Catch Their Eye
When journalists are on a deadline, the person that makes their life easiest is likely to be the person they’ll feature. These are some of the things that should put you ahead of the crowd:
- Be easy to contact and quick to respond to journalists. Again, it sounds basic. But if you’ve sent a press release or email to a journalist, make it unbelievably easy for them to contact you. Repeat your phone number in the body of the email, even if it’s in your email signature. And/or make sure your contact details are prominent on your website. And if someone does get in touch with you, be quick to respond. The opportunity might not come up again.
- Have imagery and supporting details available. Most publications will want to run a picture of you / your business / your logo to support their story. Have print-quality images available – and make this clear in your approach to a journalist. It could be what swings things in your favour.
- Think about your subject line and pitch. Carol’s inbox apparently has around 20,000 unread emails in it, with a new one arriving every minute. If you want to have any chance of catching a journalist’s eye, you will need to have a snappy subject line for your email. If possible, try to sum up your story – or at least tease it – in that one line. For example, “First Banking App for Google Glass Launches”, or “How Cloud-Based Accounting Helped Grow my Business – A Case Study”. Stats and numbers can also be very attention-grabbing. Similarly, the ‘pitch’ you include in your email should be short, sharp and to the point. Why is your story interesting? What are the key facts? Start with the most important points first and work backwards from there. Rinse and repeat this theory for any press releases you might attach.
- Know where journalists go for their last-minute quote requests. As with previous advice, know where and when journalists will be looking for quotes and case studies. Follow journalists and titles you want to target on Twitter, and check regularly for shout-outs for information. Also check out places like www.sourcebottle.com, and www.helpareporter.com (also known as HARO, which stands for Help a Reporter Out), both portals which bring journalists and sources together. Alternatively, #journorequest (and similar) on Twitter can be a rich source of opportunities to get involved in stories.
Step 3: Increase Your Chances of Success
There are a million and one reasons why your piece might not get picked up. If a major news story has broken, the papers and magazines will dedicate pages and pages of coverage to it – and drop everything else that would otherwise have been featured. (It’s why politicians get accused of trying to “bury bad news” on days where something catastrophic or scandalous is making the front page of every paper.) But bear these things in mind:
- Be prepared to re-jig and re-pitch your story. What is junk mail for one paper / magazine / journalist could be gold dust for another. Just because The Times won’t feature your story, don’t assume another publication won’t be interested. Many titles have an ‘agenda’ of sorts, so something that’s not right for them could be perfect for someone else. It’s often just a case of trial, error and persistence.
- Don’t forget Local papers. It’s a hideous generalisation here… But on the whole, local newspapers are often desperate for stories. Especially ones that have relevance to their local ‘patch’. With smaller staff numbers and freelance budgets than the Nationals, they rely much more on things that come their way. As with previous advice, anything you can do to make it easy for them increases your chances of getting some coverage.
- Try to build relationships. National newspaper journalists may be nigh on impossible to get in touch with, let alone build a relationship with. But when it comes to specialist titles, there’s a lot to be said for getting yourself known and liked. Whether you take a reporter out for lunch every few months, or prove that you can be a reliable source of useful information, the fact you are ‘on their radar’ will mean they’re more likely to call you when they need to fill a space on their pages, or put a quote in their story.
- Keep the faith… Some days, a journalist won’t even have time to eat, let alone look at their emails. In which case, your amazing story won’t even register, much less be considered. It can be complete and utter luck what does or doesn’t catch their eye. So you have to be persistent. And – sorry to say it – lucky.
- Understand your target publication and why your story will appeal to their readers.
- Know who you’re targeting and tailor your pitches specifically to them.
- Know where (and when) journalists go to look for quotes and case studies.
- Have supporting imagery available – and make this clear in your pitch.
- Summarise your story in a short, snappy subject line.
- Try to build relationships directly with journalists. And most of all, be persistent!
Let us know any other great tips you have for pitching to journalists. And any success stories you’ve had along the way!