The end goal of pitching stories to the media is reaching the public. But to make it past the start line you need to deal with the middlemen — journalists and editors.
Thanks to a media downturn and the newsroom cuts it provoked, the remaining bastion of middlemen — and middle-women — is slowly but surely diminishing. At the same time, the number of startups emerging every year is increasing, with conservative estimates suggesting millions of companies launch each year. And with more startups fighting for their time in the limelight, comes more editorial inboxes overflowing with announcements.
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A recent survey from the University of Indiana suggests that the added pressure of omnipresent cuts, low wages and changing business models at leading publications is starting to take it’s toll. Only 23 percent of journalists surveyed stated they were very satisfied with their job, and nearly 60 percent stated they felt that journalism was heading in the wrong direction.
So, considering that increasingly jaded journalists receive up to 100 pitches each day, what media etiquette tips should you adhere to, if you want to keep on their good side, and improve your chances of coverage?
1. Start on the right foot.
The Twitter account @SmugJourno is a gold mine of gripes from respected journalists about their day-to-day dealings with startups and PR representatives.
Sending a pitch is like sending a job application, if you spell the recipient’s name wrong, make silly copy-editing mistakes, or make it too obvious that you have simply copy-and-pasted your message to various people, you are unlikely to get a response.
One of the most common issues is senders spelling journalists’ names wrong or addressing them in an overly familiar manner.
Jessica Twentyman tweets: “Dear PR, If we haven’t met before, I’m not *entirely* convinced it’s appropriate for you to start your email to me with, ‘Hey Lady!’ “
Alexandra Coghlan stated, “Just received a PR email: ‘Dear Alan…’ ”
Just like on your wedding day, during the throes of passion, or when meeting the Queen of England, using the correct name or title for someone you are addressing is essential. It’s not rocket science, look one centimeter above the subject line at the email address you want to send to, or if in doubt do a quick LinkedIn search.
2. Take time with your subject line.
It may be the only line you write they actually read, so make it good.
Many senders do not take the time to spell-check their pitches, while some don’t even check their subject lines. According to a survey by Greentarget 79 percent of journalists interviewed said that subject lines greatly affect whether they will open your email. Considering that journalists have a huge amount of content to trawl through, the subject line is as far as they may get.
A tweet by Tanya Andreasyan publicly shames the sender of the following subject line:
“UGENT: A first of its kind in Europe, two French banks team up…”
Regardless of how important or “ugent” you think your news is, you should always take the time to read over your emails more than once before you send them. If a journalist feels that you have hastily written your correspondence, they are unlikely to invest any time or energy into reading any further.
3. Write to each journalist individually.
Seventy percent of journalists state they spend less than one minute on each message they open, so you need to provide them with clear, concise information which caters to their beat — the sphere or industry which they write about.
Journalists tend to specialize in certain themes, and normally publish this information in their article bylines or on their LinkedIn profile. Don’t waste journalists’ time by pitching them stories about your fin-tech announcement if they mostly cover Apple and crowdfunding stories. Likewise, avoid sending general interest stories to journalists who specialize in niche topics, at best they will delete your message, at worst they will block your email address, or turn to social media to ridicule you. If you have the resources to do so, you could invest in Muck Rack, a tool which allows you to search for journalists based on the area in which they specialize.
Noah Pransky, an investigative journalist for WTSP-TV who specializes in politics and corruption tweeted: “Dear PR professionals: No, I – nor any of my colleagues in Fla – are interested in your Father’s Day pitches today. Sorry.”
However, while tools like Muck Rack are useful, don’t be tempted to send your message en masse to every journalist who covers your sphere. In the same way as it’s obvious when you receive a spam email — “Dear reader, I would like to notify you that you have won a huge cash prize, please send your bank details” — journalists can sniff out a spammy pitch with ease.
If you want a journalist to take the time to read and reply to your message, take the time to hand-pick a list of people who might be interested in your story, and then send a few extra minutes per email personalizing your message to that specific person. This includes using the correct name, and then possibly even mentioning why you think the story would be suitable for them, based on stories they have covered in the past.
4. Leave your ego at the door.
The world of business is filled with big characters, but remember, journalists don’t owe anyone coverage. Their responsibility is to their publication, and providing their readership with news which adds to the wider conversation. Just because you have hit one million users, or raised your first round of funding, don’t expect the journalist to be star-struck. Be sure to be polite and responsive at all times, and leave your ego at the door.
Journalists deal with founders, and CEOs all the time. So unless you are Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, don’t expect any special treatment. Always remember that there is a queue of other stories waiting behind yours if you manage to rub a journalist the wrong way.
If a journalist responds to your email, even if it is to decline the story, always be sure to respond with a polite message. If they have decided to pass, don’t argue with them, take it on the chin, thank them for their time and energy, and wish them a good day.
Elizabeth Bernstein tweets “Dear PR people: When I take time to politely decline a pitch it is a decision, not an invitation to debate. #BiggestPetPeeve”
5. Respond with alacrity.
If a journalist shows interest in your story, be flexible and remember that they are likely to be as busy — if not busier — than you. Answer any questions in a timely manner, or assign someone on your team to get back to them promptly. Leave a response more than 24 hours, and you will probably have missed your chance.
Andrew Ellson tweets: “Can anyone beat a 27-week wait for a PR to reply (casually) to an email???”
Remember that news is very time dependent, and the importance of your announcement is where it fits into the wider narrative. If a journalist reaches out to you, the chances are that he or she wants to write about your story soon, because it links well with other events in your industry or the wider world.
If a journalist offers you a phone-call, make time for it, or at least suggest a time the same day when you would be available. As stated before, don’t expect journalists to bend over backwards to get your opinion, if they can’t get yours the chances are that they will find someone else’s.
6. Give them what they want.
If a journalist or editor gets back to you with feedback, always take the time to thank them for their message, and then follow their directions to a T. If an editor asks you to bring in more data-points, or explain a certain area more clearly, it is for a reason. If you make the mistake of sending them something back which doesn’t meet their expectations, then don’t hold your breath for a response.
Make the process as simple as possible for them by highlighting the exact information they require, and sending links to back them up. Sending over multiple page PDFs or lengthy audio or video recordings, and expecting them to trawl through the information to find what they are looking for, is not going to make you any friends.
7. Don’t be annoying.
Journalists are busy, and struggle to deal with an intimidating amount of emails to respond to, plus actually doing their real job, writing. If you offer an exclusive story, it is good form to offer to follow up one time — normally 24- or 48-hours later — to make sure that the email has not simply gone unnoticed. Sending a follow-up email is standard practice, sending ten follow-up emails is verging on harassment. In your first email, state your intentions, and then stick to them.
That said, one way to really irritate a reporter or editor is to continue bothering them after they have agreed to cover your story. Don’t expect the journalist to cater to your needs. Unless it has been agreed before, the journalist is unlikely to send you a copy for review before it is published. Sending out every article for review would slow down the process to a snail’s pace.
Kurt Marko vents: “Dear PR people, school your contacts that NO, you don’t get to review my article before publication, esp. when I’m not quoting. #offensive”
8. Be patient.
Once you have contributed all of the information they need, and they have given you the green light that they will publish your story, then let them get on with it. Editorial calendars are very well organized months in advance, so don’t expect your story to go out the day after it is accepted.
If you haven’t heard anything a month after your last communication, it is ok to send a polite follow up requesting information about the publication date, but don’t be pushy, and only do it once.
When your article is published, don’t be pernickety. Try not to request too many changes or corrections, unless something is glaringly wrong and totally misrepresents your company and its aims and values. You are never going to be 100 percent happy with the end result, but don’t flood the journalist’s inbox with frantic messages because you don’t like the photo, or due to insignificant errors. This will reduce your chances of being covered in the future.
Follow these tips to make sure that you stay on the right side of the middlemen, and you won’t find your rushed efforts posted all over the internet on sites like @smugjourno. You have toiled for years creating a company, and getting yourself to the stage where you are ready to reach out to the media, so it is worth taking the extra time and effort to make sure you don’t stumble at the last hurdle.