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How to craft a winning media pitch in 2020

A guide to pitching journalists and getting media attention for your company or client

 

As a public relations professional, there’s no better feeling than seeing your company or client featured in a news story.

This is why pitching is a critical skill for public relations professionals. A PR pitch is a short personalized message that outlines the value of a story and explains why it should be published. It is usually 150 words long but can reach up to 400 words. PR pitches should be short, engaging and timely for the topic. 

There's a certain rush that comes when a story you pitched graces the pages of a magazine, appears online or lands a coveted TV spot. You’ve earned a media placement that will impact your company’s reputation, awareness of your brand — and even better — the bottom line.

But pitching isn’t easy. With fewer journalists (there are nearly 6 PR pros for every one journalist), faster news cycles and an unprecedented amount of media outlets, communicators need to get savvier and more strategic about how they tell stories.

No matter how you define PR, media relations remains a core part of the profession. If you’re responsible for pitching the media and building relationships with journalists on behalf of your clients or organization, this guide is for you.

Inside this pitching guide

    A look at the current media landscape

    In the State of PR 2019, 61% of PR pros said that finding and interacting with journalists is one of their biggest challenges. And in the State of Journalism 2019, 63% of journalists view their relationship with PR pros as mutually beneficial, but not quite a partnership (increased from 49% in 2018), while only 7% view it as a partnership.

    Why is there such a disparity between PR professionals and journalists?

    It’s no secret that PR pros can’t do their jobs effectively without journalists, and journalists rely on PR pros, too. 

    The relationship between communicators and journalists has a rocky history. Journalists are constantly bombarded by emails from PR professionals, some receiving between 20-30 cold pitches per day. Our monthly journalist Q&A series offers up a similar sentiment  — journalists are getting tons of pitches  — and most of them aren’t very good.

    Over the last decade, technology, society and culture have drastically changed not just the jobs journalists do, but how journalists do their jobs.

    What is a journalist anyway?

    Taking a step back, let’s define the role of a journalist

    The rise of digital-native media companies and a sizable longtail of niche outlets have made it harder to judge who's influential to your audience and difficult — if not at times impossible — to determine what publications act in a ‘journalistic manner.’ With so many outlets, it’s harder for PR pros to vet and determine who and where to pitch.

    A journalist is someone who writes articles, makes TV or radio content or covers events either in an objective way (yes, we know objective is a loaded word) or for the benefit of their audiences.

    Just a couple of decades ago, we didn’t have as many choices for how to produce, consume and distribute news: the public could subscribe to a print publication or choose between a few news stations each night.

    For reference, here’s how Muck Rack currently defines a journalist for verification on the platform:

    • Be a professional journalist: This means you are a full-time journalist, producer or freelancer (with current bylines) employed by a verified, recognized media outlet.
    • Be a freelancer: A freelancer must be working primarily as a  journalist to be included. This doesn’t include self-published work or writing for outlets that lack Muck Rack’s journalistic standards. 
    • Be a photo, video and multimedia journalist: Any full-time photo, video or multimedia journalist, including radio/television producers, who is employed by or freelancing for verified, recognized media outlets.

    But what about influencers?

    It’s not always so simple to define what makes someone a journalist — the lines are becoming increasingly blurred as new media platforms emerge. 

    The rise of the modern media landscape has brought about a new target for many public relations professionals: the influencer. As its name would imply, an influencer is an individual who has the power, or impact, over the purchasing decisions of a group of people who follow him or her.

    Although the definition of influencer has changed in recent years, it isn’t a new idea. In the past, celebrities of any craft — such as famous musicians or athletes — have earned a living as influencers through their paid endorsement of various products.

    But the boom in social media use over the last decade has led to a rise in a new type of influencer: the digital influencer.

    Unlike the traditional celebrity influencer of yore, digital influencers have earned their fame (and money) directly through the endorsement of products and services to their online audiences, rather than first catapulting into the spotlight through some other medium.

    This shift has made it much more difficult to truly identify the right influencer for a particular campaign, because measuring influencer impact is different for everyone. Plus, there isn’t just one type of influencer in 2020 — consider that brands now have the option to work with mega, macro, micro and nano influencers, as well. 

    Although there are clear and definitive differences between journalists and influencers, both can be effective in helping to tell your company or client’s story.

    It’s up to you as a PR professional to determine what your goals and objectives are, and target your media relations strategy accordingly.

    "I get roughly 300 emails a day. Most of the time, I read a subject line and that's it. There's just simply too many emails every day from publicists to be replying to each one. I can probably count on one hand the amount of general PR pitches I've responded to over the past few years. What they all have in common is they were targeted at BuzzFeed and me specifically. The publicist knew who I was, what kind of stories I write and was able to speak to this and why their pitch fit in line with that. They also know what BuzzFeed News is (hint: it's not the same as BuzzFeed!) and why their story was of interest to our readers. It's all obvious stuff, but you have to tailor your pitch like you would a cover letter for a job application."

    David Mack, deputy director for breaking news at BuzzFeed News

    No matter how much both the journalism and PR industries change, these two industries need one another, will continue to work together, and rely on one another for many decades to come.

    We PR pros have to be smarter, savvier and more strategic. Ready to do that? Read on.

    About Muck Rack

    Muck Rack’s mission is to enable organizations to communicate effectively by creating the best PR software platform.

    By the numbers: the perfect pitch + when to send it

    In order to engage with journalists in a mutually helpful way, you need to be sure that you’re contacting them on their preferred method of communication, and actually reaching them when they’re prepared to accept pitches.

    perfect_pitch

    Curious about the best time to send a pitch?

    Based on responses from the survey, the best time to pitch journalists in 2019 is between 6 a.m. and 11 a.m.

    Below is a breakdown of when reporters prefer to receive email pitches.

    • 25% of journalists prefer to be pitched between 6 a.m. to 9 a.m.
    • 40% of journalists prefer to be pitched between 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.
    • 18% of journalists prefer to be pitched between 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
    • 10% of journalists prefer to be pitched between 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. 
    • 4% of journalists prefer to be pitched between 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. 
    • 3% of journalists prefer to be pitched between 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. 

    But remember, every niche and every reporter operates a little differently. 

    In order to effectively engage with members of the media, you need to know who they are and what they prefer when it comes to pitching. 

    How not to pitch: a collection of the worst PR pitches of all time

    In Muck Rack’s Annual Journalist Survey, journalists cited lack of personalization as the #1 reason they immediately reject otherwise relevant pitches.

    For the past few years, we’ve been tracking what journalists think of the PR pitches they receive in their inboxes. Most of these gaffes could have been avoided if the PR pro sending the pitch had access to accurate information about journalists and spent a few extra minutes personalizing the pitch to them specifically.

    Here are a few of the most cringeworthy tweets from journalists we’ve collected.  

    See more bad PR pitches in our monthly series

    6 tips for crafting the perfect pitch

    There are many skills you need to work in public relations, but learning how to tell a well-researched, unique and concisely-worded story with your pitch will go a long way. 

    1. Do your homework! Research and personalization are key 

    Here’s the thing: Writing the perfect pitch won’t matter if you don’t think strategically about who you send it to. As we mentioned, a lack of personalization is the number one reason journalists reject pitches.

    A sports writer doesn’t want to write about an interior designer (unless they’re also a quarterback), and an investigative journalist probably won’t love a pitch about the 17 most popular items on Etsy. 

    Even if a random journalist does accept your pitch, it’s not going to do you any good to get your client mentioned in a publication that their target audience won’t care about. Here are a few more personalization tips:

    • Read each reporter’s previous articles thoroughly. Learn more about their point of view, writing style and how they communicate with their audience.
    • Put a personal twist on each email. Most people can see right through a generic copy and paste.
    • Include context on who you are. Add a brief description that tells the journalist why they should care about you.
    • Make sure your email is properly addressed. This should go without saying, but double and triple-check that you’re greeting the correct person — and that you spelled their name correctly. This detail is very important and easy to get right
    • Don’t send mass emails. This is a cardinal rule. Journalists will pass right by an email if they see a ton of other names on it. And BCC-ing isn’t an acceptable loophole. They can see that, too, and make the assumption that you didn’t put a lot of thought, time, or effort into who you reached out to. Journalists are constantly inundated with irrelevant and ridiculous pitches — remember that your ultimate goal with your pitch is to engage and establish (or continue) a relationship with the journalist you're sending a pitch to.
    • Tailor to the medium you’re pitching. Just like you personalize a pitch to a specific journalist, it’s also important to tailor your pitch by medium, as well. For example, pitching TV is quite different than pitching radio or even pitching podcasts. Consider what a reporter at each of these mediums might look for, and be sure to mention that in your outreach.

    2. Craft a story that’s both unique and timely

    If you want a writer to accept your pitch, it needs to intrigue them — and contain something that their usual readers will be interested in. 

    No one wants to read something that’s already been written about hundreds of times, nor do they want to read about a finding that came out years ago. If their readers won’t care, the journalist won’t either. 

    When you’re reading through their past work, make sure that they haven’t covered the topic you’re presenting to them, or at least not with the same angle. It also helps to include a quick sentence about why this information matters, not only in general but in the moment.

    3. Keep your pitch concise

    It shouldn’t come as a surprise that most journalists prefer pitches to be two to three paragraphs long or less.

    Specific recommendations for pitch word count are different depending on the type of pitch. If you’re sharing an asset (i.e., Amy did a study on honey and the immune system), the ideal pitch length is around 150 words. If you’re introducing a completely new idea, it can hover around 400 words.

    Either way, present a brief synopsis of your idea immediately, then you can go into further explanation if needed. As always, cut any and all fluff. Time is precious, as is an uncluttered inbox. 

    4. Create a compelling subject line

    Creating the perfect pitch based on the advice above will be a waste of time if your subject line is boring, confusing or overdone. 

    It needs to be something that intrigues the journalist enough to open the email.

    Here are two ways to do that:

    • Be upfront and clear about what the email is about. That means stating that it’s a pitch. It’ll be easy for them to quickly identify as they scroll through their inbox. Something along the lines of, “PITCH: [proposed title].”
    • Keep it short and cut out unnecessary adjectives. Get straight to the point. Think “PITCH: 7 Natural Remedies for Your Immune System” vs. “PITCH: 7 Incredibly Natural and Fun Remedies to Give You the Best Immune System Ever.” Go with the first.

    5. Proofread your pitch before hitting send

    One of the quickest ways to turn off a trained journalist is a poorly written pitch full of grammar mistakes and typos. Getting a client, colleague, or a close friend with a keen eye for detail to look over your work is an invaluable part of the pitch-writing process. 

    6. Don’t forget to follow up

    To follow up or not to follow up? This is a hotly-debated topic in the PR world.

    But here at Muck Rack, we follow the data, which shows that following up is an important best practice.

    In the State of Journalism, 73% of journalists say they are OK with receiving a follow up to a pitch they didn’t initially respond to. (Only 12% would prefer to not receive any type of follow up.) 

    Pro tip: Only follow up once. Any more than that, and you’re likely to annoy the journalist you’re pitching.

    Pitching do’s and don’ts

    Now that we’ve covered the pitching basics, here are some important do’s and don’ts. 

    DON’T send out a mass pitch. The days of sending out blanket emails are over, and this lazy approach will not garner the results you want. Journalists know when your pitch isn’t targeted to them, and you’ll quickly burn out your relationship before it even starts. 

    DO make a personal connection. Do your research, understand who the journalist is that you’re pitching, and use that knowledge to make a personal connection with the reporter in the pitch.

    DO keep your pitch short. Journalists are busy. They don’t have all day to spend in their inboxes reviewing long press releases or opening attachments.

    DON’T follow up right away (but DO follow up eventually). Respect a reporter’s time and right to decide if they are interested in covering the story or not. Give them a few days to review the pitch, and then follow up via email. If you don’t hear from them after a follow-up, assume they aren’t interested in what you’re offering at this time.

    DON’T call a reporter. We know the phone pitch is a highly-debated topic among PR pros. However, our recent survey found that 69% of journalists wish PR pros would stop calling them to pitch story ideas.

    DON’T pitch a reporter on Twitter (with some exceptions). Think of Twitter as a place to build relationships, but most of the time, it’s not a good idea to tweet your pitch directly to the journalist. Some exceptions include:

    • If a journalist asks for pitches through Twitter in their Twitter bio.
    • You have a strong relationship already, regularly chat on Twitter and know they are open to sharing story ideas on the platform.

    DO thank a reporter by sharing their story after it goes live. Your pitch was accepted and a story featuring your company or client was published. Be sure to thank the reporter you worked with, but better yet, share their story online! A share goes a long way, especially in a world where more and more reporters are being evaluated based on the success of their stories — 71% of journalists say they track how many times their stories are shared on social media.


    How to tailor your pitch for different media

    Your pitch will be different depending on the medium you’re pitching. A broadcast journalist is looking for a very different story than a print journalist or a podcaster.

    🎤 Podcasts

    According to Edison Research, 64% of Americans in 2018 have heard of podcasts and 44% have actually listened to a podcast, up 12 million people overall from 2017. Even further, the people who are tuning in are doing so on a regular basis. In that same report, Edison cited that 48 million listen to podcasts weekly.

    One of the most fundamental differences between your strategy for pitching traditional journalists versus podcasts comes very early on in the process: in the research phase. Unlike a traditional media outlet which will generally accept pitches and hold interviews with key stakeholders in stories they are crafting, some podcasts do not invite guest speakers to be on the show.

    There are many different podcast formats, and if the podcast you’re pitching doesn’t take guests, you’re wasting your time, so it’s important to find that information upfront. 

    Read our guide on pitching podcasts here.

    📺 TV

    While overall TV viewership is down from previous years due to the rise of online news, there’s still something very powerful about visually telling a story. TV is an effective way to reach potential audiences. According to Pew Research, 50% of Americans report getting their news from television.

    The most important difference may seem obvious, but it’s worth a deeper dive. When pitching TV, your story must be visual.

    Plus, you should be familiar with the show you’re pitching. Not only do TV news programs have different segments within a show, the shows themselves might be different. For example, a news station’s morning show may be lighter and allow for more fun feature segments than the station’s 6 p.m. evening news.

    Read our guide on pitching TV here.

    📻 Radio

    With 93% of the U.S. tuning in, radio is still one of the leading broadcast platforms for reach, topping both television and smartphone usage.

    And with an infinite number of programs dedicated to topics both large and small, radio can provide a great way for PR pros to gain access to different audiences.

    One of the biggest differences between radio and other broadcast media is on-air time allotment. Some radio shows may feature guests on the air anywhere from 15 minutes to a full hour, compared to the short timespan you often get on TV.

    Something important to think about here: your spokesperson (and their personality) matters. When you’re being interviewed live on the radio, there’s a lot less time to think about your message. Your spokesperson needs to be prepared to deliver their message on the fly.

    Read our guide on pitching radio here.

    📰 Magazines

    With over 7,000 consumer magazines circulated throughout the United States, there’s a lot of room for opportunity.

    Magazines have a language of their own. For example, you might hear PR pros and journalists alike use the phrase FOB or “Front-of-the-Book.” This includes many shorter sections that you might find in a magazine like the table of contents, masthead, letter from the editor and brief one-page topics. The FOB is very different than what you might find throughout the rest of the magazine — and likely even has its own editor to pitch.

    Another factor that makes pitching magazines unique is their publishing timeline. Magazines plan out much further in advance (think: at least three-four months) compared to other types of media, which are often more immediate.

    Read our guide on pitching magazines here.

    ✍️ Contributed content

    As newsroom staffs shrink and more audiences shift from print to digital, there’s increased space (literally) for all different types of content to exist. This creates a tremendous amount of opportunity for PR professionals to get their company and clients in the news via other tactics, including contributed content.

    Unlike an article written by a reporter about a person or company, contributed content is written directly by the person or company and submitted to a publication. Contributed articles are meant to offer insight and first-person perspective on relevant topics, and can be a great way to position a brand as a thought leader in the industry.

    Read our guide on pitching contributed content here.

    Pitching with Muck Rack

    Integrated within Muck Rack’s PR software, our Pitches feature lets you quickly and easily customize reporter outreach, track metrics related to those messages and organize your company’s relationship history with every journalist—all in one place.

    “Muck Rack’s in-platform personalized pitching is seamless -- just click and send a pitch!  This type of visibility is a gamechanger in the office -- understanding in real-time if and how a pitch is landing is super important. What subject lines work best? What content within a pitch resonates? If reporter John Smith always opens surveys, we make sure he’s on the list for future survey stories. This data is tremendously useful and helps us to understand if we need to pivot, giving us more information to inform our clients and establish best practices”

    Matt Szatkowski, KWT Global | Read the case study 

    Muck Rack is an exceptional tool for finding journalists based on location, outlet and topic of interest beyond their job title or beat. We like that we can easily dig into a journalist’s social media platforms to look at what they've covered, along with what’s of personal interest to them.”

    Tessa Byars, Patagonia | Read the case study 

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