1. Learn how to write killer one-liners
Journalists think in headlines. So if you want to get their attention, you must too.
If you’re pitching a story, you should be able to summarise your idea in 6-10 words (the optimum length for an email subject header). It’s worth putting in the time to get this right, as not only can you can use this as an email subject header - you can also use it as the first line of your pitch (both for phone and email).
So how do you craft the perfect one-liner? Imagine you’re telling a friend or relative - one who knows absolutely nothing about your industry - about your story. Or - better still - imagine your story is being featured on a local radio/TV programme. How would the presenter summarise it 5-10 words? (I call it the eight second rule)
‘And coming up next…(FILL IN THE BLANKS)’
Doing this forces you drop the jargon and explain it in the simplest terms - which is exactly what you need to do to engage a busy journalist.
2. State the blinkin’ obvious
Labelling up pitches with ‘story idea’ or ‘feature’ in the email subject header, boosts your chances of getting an open.
If you’re geeky about this sort of thing (like me!), here’s more about getting people to open your emails.
3. Practise ‘deep’ reading
Many journalists complain that PRs don’t read their publication (or watch their programme) before pitching. I disagree. Most PRs I deal with DO read publications before they pitch...they just don’t always do it in the right way.
Reading a publication is one thing; reading a publication you’re going to pitch to is something different entirely. It’s not about flicking through a magazine or newspaper to see if it covers a particular topic (which is what many PRs I deal with seem to do). It’s about taking apart a publication, and analysing its structure, content and audience in quite a lot of detail (hence the phrase ‘deep’ reading).
It may sound daunting, but like everything else in life, practice makes perfect. And if you’re organised in your approach, you can use ‘deep reading’ to get to grips with a new publication (or programme) in a matter of minutes.
Do this regularly and I guarantee you’ll save time and improve your pitching success rate.
4. Make a few phone calls every day
When I’m working as a commissioning editor, I see dozens of great ideas that don’t get coverage - every day. This is rarely down to a shortage of space (there’s always a ‘home’ for great ideas). Often it’s because the person pitching the story hasn’t taken the time to make a few crucial phone calls. Here are the three most common reasons great stories don’t get coverage:
- There isn’t enough time to turn the story around
- It’s been pitched to the wrong journalist/editor
- It’s got potential as a feature/comment article but has been pitched to a news desk
...all of which could easily be avoided by making a few phone calls. Yes, you might get passed around, fobbed off or come across the odd grouchy sounding journalist, but there’s definitely more to gain than lose. And the information you collect will be far more reliable and up-to-date than any paid-for journalist directory or database.
If you don’t like making these kind of phone calls, here’s a tip I picked up from one of my favourite books on productivity (it’s far more positive than it sounds - I promise!) Why People fail (The 16 Obstacles to Success And How You Can Overcome Them): make a commitment to do this for just ten minutes a day. Once you’ve got started, and had a bit of success, you’ll probably find you can keep going for longer. But even if you don’t, at least you’ve made some progress. Anyone can do anything for ten minutes...honest!
5. Stalk journalists on Twitter
While I’d love to say journalists are completely objective in the stories they choose to cover, that’s obviously not true. We all have different interests, preferences and experiences that mean certain stories will grab us more than others.
Where other journalists might be drawn to stories about legislation or financial mismanagement, I’m generally attracted to issue-based stories like this one on the detention of children in immigration detention centres or this one child and adolescent mental health. That doesn’t mean I won’t cover other kinds of stories (often I don’t have a choice) but I know there’s certain stories I’ll fight harder to get past my editors. And I know I’m not alone in this.
That’s why it’s worth investing time in ‘getting to know’ your target journalists on social media networking sites like Twitter. Making a Twitter list of key journalists in your ‘patch’ can be an effective way to get a feel for what kind of topics they’re keen to cover (and what they’re not). And the best thing is they need never know you’re stalking them; you can glean an awful lot from what they post about and the articles/blog posts they share.
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