How to get reporters to tell your story
Updated: Apr 12
Reporters get hundreds of media pitches every day. But what is it that puts one PR pitch above another? Who gets the journalists to open their email, and which emails get tossed into the trash?
It can come down to the minutiae of a subject line or the preview text -- the reporter might not even open the email before deciding. Is it a reporter you know well enough to stick an emoji in, or are you being left unread by a stranger?
Mind Meld PR Founder Jonathon Narvey sat down with Daily Hive Editor-in-chief Farhan Mohamed, to find out how to pitch to journalists. What PR strategies and tactics work? You’re about to find out..
Here’s a recap of #7 of the Mind Meld PR vlog series, with extra insight on getting reporters to tell your story.
Subject line: The split second decision a reporter makes
“The tough thing is that in a lot of cases, the email doesn't even get opened up.
“Let’s start with your name - are you someone that I know? How do you get on someone's radar? Try social media - follow someone, see something that's interesting over time, and then start engaging with them, and that’ll give you that name recognition right away.
“Then look at your subject line. If it's something like ‘press release’ or ‘release’, or just something that makes me think that you haven't put thought into, then I’ll just glance over it. At the same time, if you put a 20-word subject line, I don't even want to open that. It just tells me there's too much information.
“Finally you've got your preview description, which has so much potential. I'm looking at some emails, and the name and the subject line aren’t eye catching - but when I look at the preview text I think, “wow, that's actually really interesting, I need to open that”.”
First impressions count. The psychology behind whether or not an email is opened is more complex than we think - but think of it like a headline, or how you introduce yourself. The details you provide in those first few moments will influence your audience’s perception as they read the article, or through your conversation.
Consider a tweet. You now have a maximum of 280 characters to capture someone’s attention. There isn’t any concrete evidence that our attention span is shrinking - instead, we’re just becoming more selective.
When an editor has a certain amount of time in the day for emails, they’re forced to be selective about where their time goes. A great story is what captures someone’s attention, a combination of a captivating narrative. Get to the point, and make your media pitch.
When is it okay to use an emoji in your subject line?
“Here's my secret: sometimes I'll put emojis, or I'll do the triangle brackets and then the three, like a heart, and that's just how I send something. It depends on the relationship you have.
“If it's someone that I don't know personally and I've never talked to
them, that's probably not the best way to go. But if it’s someone that you've spoken to before, maybe you've gone out for lunch or for coffee, or you've been to an event or sat on a panel with them, then you can get personal.
That's the point where I get to, where I might not even say hi and make it formal, I won't put a salutation and I'll just cut straight to it.”
The rules of texting translate well to a media pitch - how does your language based on who you’re texting? You might be inclined to avoid emojis all together, and opt for a professional approach, but inserting some fun may be what breaks up someone’s mundane day -- and get you your win.
Consider the age group and outlet the reporter belongs to. Young professionals find emojis fun, and use them to make things more approachable, whereas older professionals find them more inappropriate and ingenuine.
How to newsjack: if you’re going to be topical, plan in advance
“Sometimes it works, a lot of the time it doesn't. I see this primarily around tax time - all of a sudden these accountant and financial institution pitches come out of nowhere, and you know that in every spring you're gonna get inundated with pitches for help with your taxes.
“My problem is, knowing that this is coming, why not have that discussion in January or November and thinking about what it could look like? Otherwise, we've already done our planning, we already know what we're gonna write about and so at that point it's too late.
“It's hard to predict from a culture standpoint what's going to become popular - but know that while you're pitching something, so many others are pitching the same subject line. If something is really borderline and you're really stretching it try to make it make sense, just stop, because I've already discounted you and I know then in my mind that you're gonna send me stuff that I probably don't want to read, and the next time you email me…”
You don’t wait till December 24th to buy your Christmas presents, so don’t wait until then to pitch your holiday-themed stories either - shops are sold out and you’re going to get stuck buying socks.
Developing a content calendar is the easiest way to combat this problem. If you know one to two months in advance what ideas you have, pitch the reporters in advance too. Keep a list of holidays and anniversaries you can capitalize on. Not only will you beat the competition, but you’ll build a good reputation with the outlet for being on top of things.
How do you decide the focus of a pitch?
“What is important to the person you're pitching to? Know that not everyone is looking for the same thing. If you’re looking at a business publication vs. a lifestyle publication you have to put yourself outside the shoes of your own organization and think about what is interesting to them (The target of your public relations outreach).
“Then take yourself out of that, and say, if nobody knew and nobody understood anything about this, would the pitch make any sense? And if not, what is the thing that's going to hook them?
“Put yourself in the shoes of the general public and ask, what's in it for me? When any of our writers and editors are looking at things, they're thinking -- what is going to have the greatest impact on the greatest number of people?
“There are so many things I would love to cover and so many great things that are happening, but when it becomes overly technical, it's not for us. If I can't understand it, other people can't understand it, therefore it's not something we're gonna want to pick up.”
What’s the purpose of your story? If you’re introducing a new idea to an audience, keep it simple and informative. If you’re giving them more content related to their interest, what’s new but still relevant? Write what your audience would want to hear, not what you want to say.
Find your hook, and keep it at the forefront. The most interesting part of your story needs to be part of your pitch, not your conclusion. It’s not an essay.
When a follow-up works, and why it might fail
“In some cases, if we're not interested in something, we might just glance over it, put it in the trash, not respond, and that just might be it. If a follow-up comes, that might just be missed as well - that's just the gravity of the job.
Sometimes a follow-up works - there's been times where I get a follow-up and I didn't even see it in my inbox to begin with.
“In some cases the pitch could be perfect, the story could be perfect, everything could be perfect - but on the flip side we might just be understaffed that day, or that week. So it’s a great story, but we just don’t have time for it. There might be other things that are taking precedence, and especially in a time of crisis like right now, that’s what will take precedence.”
The average person receives over 100 emails a day, and for a reporter, the numbers only go up. A gentle nudge could go a long way, or it could get lost. But the last thing you want to do is call, Farhan notes. In a world of emails and texts, a phone call with a stranger may be an unwelcome interruption. Calling or pitching to a journalist during a crisis is even more of a challenge.
When do you accept that it’s over then? You’ve sent your pitch to a journalist, you’ve followed up, but you can’t control what’s happening on the other end. End up nagging a reporter and you might turn them off forever.
Who should you pitch to: the reporter or the editor?
“If a reporter’s got something, they’re going to pitch it to their editor and it’ll be up to them. If you go straight to the editor and they say yes, they’re basically assigning it to happen.
“The editor is probably getting pitched way more than the reporter, but targeting the right person is always the way to go. If someone has covered something similar before, target them, but at the same time you can try and go to the editor.
“I still get tons of pitches because people know that if I say yes to something, then it’s probably going to happen. But to get me on something is not the easiest thing either. In that case it’ll probably depend on the outlet, and their process.”
If an editor assigns a story, there’s pressure from above. If you pitch to a journalist, it’s totally their call and it could take longer. There are two factors here: topic and time. Is there a reporter that has covered your topic before, and when does your story need to be published? If it’s an urgent piece, going straight to the editor might trump having a specific reporter in mind.
So your pitch was accepted -- but you’ve got changes. Is it worth sending feedback on to a reporter?
Adding links and images are pretty simple. If it’s a simple add-on, we’ll make that happen. We’re a digital outlet too so a link is easy to add in.
But asking to have a quote or text edits included? That means we have to go back, read the entire story to see where it makes sense, maybe alter some things, and then it becomes a problem from a time perspective.
How much time do we want to spend on something that’s already done?
We know our audience and our publication best, and so we’re doing what’s best. So unless it’s a real mess-up and something’s wrong, the chance of going back and adding things afterwards is not likely.
“You know your product best, but you might not know the best way to market it.”
Provide as much information as you can upfront with your media pitch, including images, quotes, digital assets and links. If there’s a price for something involved, be transparent and include it. The aim here is firstly, to give the reader all the information they would need relating to the story, and secondly, to avoid having to reach out to the reporter again later with extra edits.
Once a story has been published, you may not love the headline or the image - but it’s best to assume that the reporter knows the audience and outlet best, and refrain from ‘correcting’ them. A sacrifice here or there is worth maintaining your relationship.
Consider a recent successful story - what was it about the pitch that drew you in?
“Two approaches that work are to save time, and the other is exclusivity.
“I've just dealt one pitch that was really simple -- someone wanted to go public with an announcement but wanted to tell us first. So we had an exclusive, and any sort of exclusive is preferred because then we’re gonna beat everyone else to it. We’ve got something that no one else does.
“Another was a two-line email that said, ‘here’s something - are you interested? Here’s a link’. I love those because you get straight to it, you don’t have to put much thought into it. It’s the easiest thing because if I’m not interested then I’m saving your time and my time, and I’ll just say no. If we are interested then I’ll ask for more information, and look for a reporter to deal with it and work with you.”
An announcement or piece of information is most successful when it’s brand new on the scene - each iteration of that is a repetition. If you can give a journalist the opportunity to be the original source, you’ve won.
Keep your media pitch short and sweet, and dangle your hook enough so the reporter wants more.
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