How to Pitch to Journalists: Top Ten Tips

How to Pitch to Journalists: Top Ten Tips

 Old Bakelit phone

From time to time, chief executives fight to keep their company name out of the news.  For most businesses though, the battle is rather different, and it is the struggle to get their name heard which preoccupies them.  The good news is that journalists and business owners need each other, but that doesn’t mean that it is all plain sailing.  In fact, as I’ve been finding out, there are some pretty major booby traps to avoid.  I’ve been in touch with several writers and editors in my network, all of whom are great supporters of entrepreneurs.  Some agreed to be quoted, some preferred to remain anonymous.  I wanted to know their best tips, and their pet hates. Here are ten things that I discovered…

10)  Make It Interesting.  Matt Thomas, editor and head of content at Smarta says;  “Make it interesting – for me not you. Of course you find your business interesting; it’s your baby and your passion. But put yourself in everyone else’s shoes, why do we care?”   

9) Be Polite.  Fleur Britten at the Sunday Times receives hundreds of approaches and urges a little humility from certain companies, saying “Some people approach with a huge sense of entitlement, saying ‘please let me know when you will be featuring…”.  On this point, it pays to be sensitive.  You might think it’s a great idea to mention that you’ve just been covered in a magazine’s closest competitor.  One editor I spoke to begs to differ.

8)  Choose Your Approach.  Mike Butcher, European editor of TechCrunch prefers approaches by email.  He just wishes people would get to the point, and have more of a ‘one sentence pitch’.  For brevity, Twitter might seem like a cunning way to attract attention.  Be careful though; Mike reckons it’s “mostly inappropriate” because it’s impossible to archive and “hard to ask proper questions”.  He stops short of ruling it out completely as a way to engage his attention, conceding that it “can lead to a conversation in another medium”.   Skype, the internet telephony service, is a possibility, but only if you have met in real life.  Bottom of the list is Facebook email, which ‘sucks’ when it comes to pitching a story.

7)  Be Brief.  Enterprise editor of the Daily and Sunday TelegraphRichard Tyler, lists one of his pet hates as a phone call asking “Do you have five minutes to chat?”.  Several of the journalists I contacted wish firms would be a little better at editing what they send.  Fleur at the Sunday Times sums it up best; “Pages and pages of press release and huge files is, I’m afraid, total overkill.”  Brevity, it seems, is important across all interactions, including face to face.  Even at events, one leading technology writer advises “Be human and polite, and keep it short”.

6)  Have a Decent Photo Ready.  Matt Thomas says “Don’t let me write a story and then tell me you’ve only got a low resolution image that looks like it’s been taken by a toddler, then keep me waiting for three weeks while you get some professional shots taken. Imagery is massively important. If you want good coverage, get professional shots of you, your business and your products. Pictures tell stories, stories sell papers.”  It’s not just photos of people which matter.  One writer, working for a national magazine, sees a glaring omission from many approaches “Some people pitch a product or visual idea without sending an image – obvious, but so often absent.”
Shredded paper in recycling bin

5)  Do Your Homework.  This really boils down to knowing about the person and title you are approaching.  What type of publication is it?  This is a great way to fall at the first hurdle, and one site editor complains about callers “mistakenly referring to our web-only product as a magazine, before attempting to pretend they meant our ‘online magazine’”.  Another editor confesses that he will “routinely ignore scattergun PRs, because most of the time it’s simply not targeted at me”. Several writers get the strong impression that the person pitching may never have read their publication.  As Hannah Prevett of Management Today admits, “We’re unlikely to be interested in covering a hip replacement convention”.  If you’re sending a PR into bat for you, Hannah urges them to do their homework too, adding “Don’t call me up and pitch an entrepreneur for a profile without knowing basic information like turnover, number of staff and basic start-up back-story.”

4)  Think Carefully About the Agency You Hire.  By and large, the writers I contacted saved some of their toughest remarks for PR agencies.  One magazine editor disapproved of the “slightly aggressive approach from one PR in particular. She’s the first to respond to any Response Source request, emails to recommend the same client every time, then calls and reels off a two-minute spiel without pausing for breath.”  Richard Tyler has “much more patience for company CEOs calling and even internal company PRs”.  I certainly didn’t get universally bad reviews of agencies though, and one editor preferred them to entrepreneurs “not really knowing the game”.

3)  Keep Your Promises.  This was a recurring theme.  Promises and offers to line up briefings, which don’t materialize, exclusives that end up elsewhere (“particularly in a competitor title”) and vanishing awards invitations are just some of the things which rub journalists up the wrong way.

2) Ask for Feedback.  Matt Thomas says “If I don’t cover a story, ask me why (politely) and what might work better in the future. That way you’ll not only get helpful insight but establish relationships. Once you’ve got the info, use it, and don’t just keep chucking out the irrelevant releases anyway”. 
Baptism Invitation, RSVP & Table Card
1)  Don’t Hassle, But Do Chase.  By some distance, the number one pet-hate listed by the writers I contacted is… People phoning them up, immediately after sending a press release.  For Richard Tyler, “I’m just following up that email I sent you (only 30 seconds ago)” is a sure-fire way to get off on the wrong foot.   This is a tricky one for entrepreneurs, because there is a fine line between following up, and being a nuisance.  Matt Thomas puts it like this; “Don’t hassle, but do chase. Journalists are busy and lazy.”  However interesting your announcements may be, don’t overdo it.  A national newspaper journalist confides; “A certain unmentionable brand sends a press release by post each and every week and I now just never open them”.  The same writer concludes “It’s fine to follow up once, but that should be it. I’m afraid if you don’t hear from a journalist, there’s probably a good reason.”

So there you have it.  Ten tips for pitching your business, given by the journalists themselves.  I’m hugely grateful to all of the people who gave me their input!

What have I missed?  Are you a writer who has a pet-hate I’ve not covered? Or a business owner who has discovered another gaffe worth avoiding? 

The final word goes to the eminently quotable, Fleur Britten who leaves us with this down-to-earth advice;

“The very best way to get through to a journalist is to build a personal relationship with them”.

Which reminds me, I must give Fleur a call.  Perhaps I should email her first…

Update (Feb 2012):  I’m amazed how many people have read this post and seem to find their way to it.  Hopefully it’s still useful!  Sharing it again recently, Lucy Tobin from the Evening Standard (a brilliant writer and author who I met last year) added this excellent tip;

Choose Your Timing: “Increasingly, newspapers and online publications work to rolling deadlines, but there are always some points in the day that are busier than others. Make sure you know when this crunch period is for whoever you’re trying to contact, and avoid it. In my job at the Evening Standard, for example, we go to press at midday, so any PRs calling between 11 and 12 often get short thrift from journos. You can even time emails well or badly: something received on deadline or when a reporter is away, say at a big industry event, is less likely to be picked up than something received during a quiet time”.

Thanks Lucy!

5 Replies to “How to Pitch to Journalists: Top Ten Tips”

  1. Great post dude.

    I think you should do a series like this on a whole number of topics, a kinda “Oli asks the experts” thing. You have the contacts for it for sure…!

  2. As an ex-trade journalist and now sales and marketing consultant I totally relate to the ‘don’t hassle but do chase’. As my PR friend Andrzej Bania once said: “the squeekiest door gets the most oil”.

    It is a fine line between helpful nudges and irritating pestering but anyone with decent emotional intelligence will know the difference.

    I was always pretty clear with PRs when I had got the message about the story they were pitching. As someone pitching a story – even be bold enough to ask if you are being irritating.

  3. Excellent information, thank you for this. Having been on both sides in the media world I can only agree with the points you (and Fleur) make. Nevertheless, for me your piece is still a good reminder, thought provoking and interesting from a UK journalist’s point of view.

  4. Oli, great post and enjoyed the read. Always find that selling in stories is a constant learning process and that’s why individuals will find their own style for selling in stories and working with journalists. Your guide provides a very comprehensive do’s and don’ts – thanks for sharing this.

  5. Great advice for PRs and entrepreneurs alike – thanks for sharing! Wholeheartedly agree with the points, although coming from a freelance PR and agency background I am disappointed to see the comment about agencies. Makes me determined to do all I can to help “newbies” aware of the “rules of engagement” – and your list is a great set of guidelines. Thanks again.

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