How to Pitch a Story: Part One

Whether you’re just starting out in PR, you’ll need to know how to pitch a story. With all the talk about off-topic pitches and “PR spammers” I’ve been seeing out there, I figured it would be timely to offer my suggestions for how to pitch a story. I’ve broken this advice into two posts, the first of which I’ll share today on preparation, followed by part two tomorrow on managing the pitch process.

For the critics out there, I don’t believe there is one right way to pitch a story, but there are a lot of wrong ways. I’ve put together this advice based on my own success and failure working with the media. I’ve found the greatest success using this approach, and it’s my hope that you too will find some helpful tips for preparing your next pitch.

Regardless of the approach you use, the only way to produce consistent placements for clients is to do your legwork. Pitching is a lot of hard work, but the better your preparation and persistence, the more success you will have.

The advice I share in the rest of this post is based on what I think works best. You may find that a different approach works better. If that’s the case, I invite you to share your suggestions for readers in the comments.

Where to Start: Know Your Story

Before you build your media list, write your release, craft your pitch or pick up the phone, you need to know your story inside and out. Interview everyone involved in the story and drill deep with questioning. Think like a journalist and ask your sources all the tough questions. Through this process, determine what is most newsworthy, compelling, and interesting about the story.

Outline your pitch and develop variations for the different types of outlets and media professionals you think might be interested in the story. Once you have your outline, work your way into the release and/or pitch materials. Keep your materials as brief as possible and get to the point. Journalists don’t have a lot of time these days, so you need to get your point across in the first few sentences of your pitch.

Take Aim with a Rifle, Not a Shotgun

The chances of your story appealing to all the media on your target list are slim to none. Start by developing a media list that captures all the possible outlets you might want to target with your story. Spend the extra effort to discover the best contact at each outlet, the one most likely to be receptive to your pitch. Read what the journalist writes about, read any pitching advice they’ve provided on their website(s), and get to know their style, pet peeves, and preferences. This is much easier than it sounds if you go through the process.

Once you’ve developed your comprehensive list, cut it in half. I personally grade each target on my list with a letter grade, based on which outlets reach the largest concentration of my target audiences (or are most likely to cover the story). Anyone with an “A” or “B” stays on the list, the rest of the contacts go on a supplemental list that I may or may not pitch, based on my success with the top targets.

Prioritization of media targets is the biggest time-saver you can use. Don’t waste your time blasting a pitch out to a large list, nobody will write about it. Before you begin pitching, you should know without a doubt the top 10 journalists are for the story you are pitching.

Test Your Pitch

Select the one journalist you think will be most receptive to your story. Even though journalists say they prefer email pitches, you need to pick up the phone for this one. Call the journalist and find a good time for you to chat for a couple of minutes. Once the timing is good, ask them if you can bounce a story idea off them to get their feedback. Be genuine with your request, and have questions planned out in advance.

For example, here’s how the exploratory conversation might go: “I’m working with a client that has developed a novel approach to doing XYZ. Based on your recent coverage of this issue, I was thinking you might be most interested in the X angle. Is this a compelling enough angle for this type of story? What would make this story more interesting for your readers? What do you not like about this pitch? What would you change if you were in my shoes?”

This approach will vary depending on what you’re pitching and who you’re talking with, but you should get a general idea of how this works. Most journalists get what makes a good story, and what doesn’t. You can learn from them, and you should.

Take any feedback you receive and tweak your pitch for the rest of your efforts. Lead with an email pitch one at a time, tailoring your pitch to each journalist – based on the knowledge you gained in the first step. When appropriate, offer them an exclusive or some element of the story you’re not offering to anyone else.

This is an important point, make it clear that you know who they compete against and that you are not pitching those other outlets until you determine their interest – because you would prefer to work with them. Then keep your word – don’t go behind their backs and do the same thing with the competitors, they’ll find out and you’ll lose all credibility.

Practice Good Follow Up

Chances are very good that your pitch will sit in their inbox (or spam filter) the first time you send it, without them ever noticing it. Most journalists get dozens of pitches a day. Unless you are responding to a direct request for sources, you should follow up in a day or so with another email. Keep the email to one sentence, hitting on the core message of your pitch and asking for their response. Almost all of my major placements have come from a round of follow-up (usually multiple rounds).

If you still don’t hear back from them in another day (or sooner if you’re on a tight deadline), give them a call. Don’t hesitate to say you’re working on a deadline and would like to determine their interest before pitching another outlet. Don’t just ask them “did you see my pitch?”, pitch them while you have them on the phone. Let them know you sent them a pitch about XYZ and wanted to talk about it with them, provided it’s a good time.

If you are still unable to connect with the journalist, move on and let it go. You gave them a chance at the story, and if they don’t respond, they probably aren’t interested. There are plenty of media outlets out there. If you don’t find immediate success with the first few, move on down your prioritized list.

Be Realistic

If you’re pitching a story about a new store opening or a new hire, don’t pitch The Wall Street Journal. On the other hand, if you’re buying a major competitor for $100M, it might be worth a call. Don’t tolerate clients that only care about being on Oprah. If they don’t have a strong enough story for the media outlet they want to be featured in, it’s your job to educate them early in the process.

This concludes How to Pitch a Story: Part One. I hope you will come back for How to Pitch a Story: Part Two tomorow, which will focus on managing the pitch process and closing out your pitch.

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