A 'Pitching the Press with Email Guide' from a Sales Turned PR Guy
I dive into my experience working with PR and journalists. Here are just a few of the lessons learned.
Pitching a journalist in general is a tricky process. I’ve had the "pleasure" of pitching tech journalists, fashion journalists, science journalists and every other journalists you can think of.
It’s tough. What I thought was groundbreaking, wasn’t. What I thought was a story, wasn’t.
But, you very quickly learn what works for journalists and what doesn’t. Sometimes you even get sassy feedback, which – if you suck it up and actually listen – is often actually quite useful.
Having spent time pitching a consumer tech startup to the UK media for over a year, I managed to have my name and quotes included in all major and minor newspapers as well as many online outlets. Please don’t mistake this as bragging. It was a long, hard fight, full of face-to-face meetings with editors from major publications and countless pitch emails sent.
And so, so many lessons learned.
I've condensed my key do's and don'ts for pitching journalists below, in the hope that my trials and tribulations help fast-track you to plenty of earned media coverage. Let's go.
Even though email seems a bit old and tired in the age of TikTok, it remains the number-one way that journalists prefer to be pitched. And why not? Provided that your email pitch has a solid press release headline, gives a quick recap of the most salient parts of your news, and links to all the relevant assets, it arms the journalist will everything they need to tell your story.
The trick is being concise.
Don't use 900 words when 100 will do.*
Here's how you can get to the point, really quickly:
- What is the story?
- Why would that particular publication's readers find it useful or interesting?
- Why are you pitching this journalist specifically?
Answer those questions in as straightforward a way as possible, link to any assets, and make yourself available for any follow-up questions to be in with the best shot of winning that feature.
*Actually, our research of nearly 16million email pitches shows that pitches with <100 words perform up to 4x better than those with 300 or more! Read more in How to Write the Best Email Pitch, Backed by Numbers ▸
That means images, contact details, promo videos, spec sheets, interview opportunities, a bio detailing what type of milk alternatives your CEO is allergic to – everything that could help them tell your story to their audience.
The best way to do this?
This is a great idea for at least four reasons:
- The journalist can access everything they need right then and there, without having to wait for you to respond to their query – quite literally a make-or-break factor when you take into account tight editorial deadlines
- It puts you in control of your media assets. Wrong logo on your promo pics? No problem, you can replace that file just one time and Bob's your father's brother
- You (and your team) will save ma-hoo-ssive amount of time since you only need to upload all your media assets once, rather than attach them again and again to individual emails. Which brings me to the next benefit…
- You'll get better deliverability on your emails, since they will no longer be weighed down by gigabytes of attachments
Basically, there is literally no reason not to link a media kit in your media pitch email. For a drill-down into what you can do with your media kit, what to put into it, and how others use theirs, have a scroll through our free Media Kit Guide ▸
When I first started, I pitched anyone that had ‘journalist’ in their title. No additional notes, no checking if they had covered anything remotely similar, just a full-on email blast. Yeah, you can guess how well that went.
After many, many fruitless attempts, I decided to stop banging my head against the wall and thought back to my sales training. I realised that if I wanted to write a media pitch that would resonate with journalists, I first had to research those writers and the publications they worked for, uncover and note down their editorial calendars, review any competitor coverage and so on. That's right, I had to work on my media relations.
Tedious and time consuming? Absolutely. I could send 1,000 cold emails in the time it took me to properly research just a handful of journalists. But of course, given how little coverage the previous 1,000 emails had generated, I had to come to terms with the simple fact that busy-ness does not equal productivity.
Seems obvious in hindsight, but I'm far from being alone here. Turns out, "not researching the media contact or their publication" is the #1 way that communications professionals shoot themselves in the foot, according to the 200 people we surveyed in July 2022. Here are the other Top 9 biggest PR pitching mistakes to avoid ▸
The king of all news is relevancy. What is happening today, in the world, your industry, your field or whatever is suitable to make your story relevant right now?
When you keep an eye on general trends, you will start to find opportunities for relevant outreach. This is something that I found plays a huge factor in securing coverage.
Once I understood the relevancy of the story I was pitching to those I was pitching it to, I could present it in context and with that, coverage started to pick up.
- What stories does this person/publication cover?
- What audience are they writing for?
Relevancy needs to be spelled out to the journalist, they need to clearly see it and if they have to question or guess the connection, you can forget about getting your story covered.
Recently, media relations seem to have taken a back seat, with people – junior execs in particular – just blasting out their press releases to every email in their database in the hopes of getting media coverage.
Press release distribution platforms have made it so easy to spend your marketing budget on ‘2,000,000 contacts in our database’ with ‘journalists from X, Y and Z’ that it is easy to assume that people will riot over your PR blast.
But volume does not equal coverage.
How are you supposed to tailor your pitch to a particular journalist and show how it is relevant to their audience if you're emailing 500 strangers at once? Slow down. Sometimes slow and steady really is the best way to go.
The best PR relies on you knowing the journalist. It takes time for sure, but the benefits outweigh the few minutes it takes to reply to their latest tweet and at the very least get your name on their radar.
Being on friendly terms with a journalist won't guarantee you coverage for every story, but it will certainly up your chances – and even the unsuccessful pitches can reap some benefits.
Some of the most valuable conversations I've had with journalists stemmed from pitches they were never going to cover. Why? Because they told me what I could do next time to make their lives easier. Even in the short time we spoke, I got a treasure trove of information:
- How to format and present my press release, specifically to them (information layout, links etc)
- What time of the day and days of the week I should send the press release so it fits to their writing schedule
- Stories that they want more of (and less of)
- How they like their data (raw or pre-filtered)
All that in the space of 10 minutes at a cafe in London. (I flew out too!)
That means you need start building relations.
Quite simply, don’t spend your time telling the journalist how incredible their work is or how spectacular that article they wrote five years ago was.
Journalists have a finely tuned BS detector, mostly because they deal with it every darn day, so starting an email with formulaic flattery will always sound alarm bells.
Trust me, there's nothing quite so underwhelming as reading a media pitch email from a complete stranger, addressed to some bastardisation of your name, professing to have "really loved your article on Our Strategic Framework for Engaging Stakeholders".
Reference old stories only if they are relevant to the topic of your story, and if you've taken the time to at least skim them. Otherwise, save on the virtual ink and simply don’t mention previous articles.
Time is vital for a journalist and if you get lucky enough to grab one's interest, don’t throw the opportunity out the window by not providing the right information.
That goes for all parts of your story and assets.
Data in particular is messy. If uninitiated, a raw spreadsheet file could look like some extreme sudoku puzzle (some journalists do prefer a raw spreadsheet over a visualized version though, so be prepared for this too). Always have the data available somewhere that the journalist can access and refer back to easily, preferably in different forms.
Another note here is that you cannot ask for introductions to other journalists. They have work, plenty of pitches to review – why would they spend their time doing this for someone they don't even know? Unless you have just discovered interstellar travel, that intro is not going to happen.
One follow-up email is fine. Five more of these and phone calls are not. From my sales background, this was a hard concept to grasp at first. This is media ‘buy-in’, therefore I was selling something and this is how it is done in the sales arena.
Not so in the PR world.
If a journalist replied to every pitch they received, their day would officially start at teatime.
Something else I also did which I had to stop was to send follow-up emails to contacts a week or two after the first email was sent. Media interest is based on the events today and foreseeable trends ahead so this was a completely amateur move. Remember relevancy.
Ok, so we've covered the key do's and don'ts, but if company comms were that easy, we'd all the rolling in dough.
There are several other basics you need to absolutely nail if you're going to get more coverage, save time on low-impact work, and be accountable to your CEO/clients.
Here are a few free guides to get you started:
- How to tell better brand stories (that journalists love)
- How to write a good press release (that'll get picked up by the media)
- Tactics for distributing your press release
Something I didn't cover in this post: influencers. So much of the modern media landscape takes place outside of conventional channels, with influencer marketing becoming a solid distribution channel in its own right.
Of course, the way you would approach influencers is very different to how you would speak with a journalist – so much so, in fact, that we've given influencer pitching its very own hands-on guide.
Updated July 2022