How to Pitch a Story to a Reporter (Without Being Annoying)
Part of a PIO’s job is to pitch stories to reporters. Done well, it makes reporters aware of research findings they’ll be interested in, which can lead to good news stories — making all of the relevant parties happy. Done poorly, a story pitch is spam that clogs a reporter’s inbox and makes it likely he or she won’t read your email in the future. So here are some ideas on how to do it well. (Note to reporters: this post is at least as much for your sake as for the sake of PIOs.)
Do Your Homework
Make sure the reporter you’re contacting at least covers the topic you’re pitching. Just because a reporter writes for Scientific American doesn’t mean he or she covers every scientific issue, and nothing is a bigger waste of time — for you and the reporter — than pitching off-topic. For example, if a reporter mainly covers astronomy and astrophysics, he or she is not going to be interested in writing about new genetics research, no matter how good it is.
Figuring out a reporter’s beat isn’t always easy. Some reporters (I’m looking at you, Charles Choi) seem to write about anything and everything. In those cases, I simply explain that I can't get a handle on their beat because it is so varied, and then ask them what sort of pitches they’d be interested in. Most of the time I don’t get a response. But sometimes reporters give me clear guidelines about what sort of research they want to know about. That’s enormously useful. They get decent leads from me, and I know I’m sending them things that they’ll at least find interesting (if not always story-worthy).
In fact, I usually ask reporters for guidance on what they’re interested in — but only after I've made clear that I have some understanding of their beat. For example, I might know they cover neuroscience, but neuroscience is a pretty big field. What are their particular areas of interest? That said, don't make it sound like you know nothing about what a reporter covers. That's a surefire way to get him or her to ignore you.
Keep It Short
Depending on what publication they work for, reporters and editors often get hundreds (or thousands) of unsolicited emails every day. No matter how good your intentions are, your pitch is one of those unsolicited emails. If you’re writing a reporter you’ve worked with before, he or she may open your email. If not, you’re probably out of luck. But to improve your odds, you need to have a short subject line that tells them why they should bother reading it. And, to hold their attention, keep your email SHORT.
My pitches almost always follow this formula:
- One sentence explaining what the work is and why it’s important (sometimes it will be two sentences, but I try to avoid that)
- Direct contact information for the researchers (so reporters don’t have to contact me again if they don’t want to)
- A link to additional information, such as a news release
- A link to the journal article itself, if available
- Links to supporting materials, such as images or video, if available
- A note to let them know I can provide a copy of the paper, etc., if the article is not open access
Quick rule of thumb: if you look at your email and wonder whether it’s short enough, it’s not short enough. (Note: don’t call reporters on the phone to make your pitch. This is intrusive, annoying and almost definitely a waste of their time and yours.)
Tailor your pitch. You may know that a reporter covers medical research, but you need to be aware of their focus within that field, and you should make clear how any new research is relevant to their specific beat.
I was talking to freelance reporter Frank Vinluan about this recently, and he summed it up pretty well: “A general circulation newspaper will be more interested in the patient/consumer impact. A business publication will focus on the commercial potential and how a technology fits into the context of existing technologies. A science [outlet] will emphasize a new technology’s underlying science. And so on. But too often, I get the same canned pitch that really doesn’t address what I’m looking for.”
Be Responsive, not Obstructive
If a reporter asks you for something, get it to them as quickly as possible. This could be a copy of the journal article, related images, a headshot of the researcher, etc. If they ask for something you can’t provide, tell them that as quickly as possible so they have time to figure out what other options might work.
By the same token, if they have general questions about the work, feel free to answer. To be clear: do NOT block their access to the researchers. And do NOT answer on behalf of the researchers. But if they want to know whether a finding is relevant to a specific research area, it’s fair to say yes or no — as long as you qualify it. When this comes up, I’ll say something like: “My understanding is that this [is relevant/is not relevant/whatever], but you really need to ask the researchers.”
I do this because sometimes the reporter just wants to get a very broad sense of the subject before calling the researcher. But always — ALWAYS — make sure the reporter has access to the researchers and knows that the researchers have the final word. If the researchers don’t want to talk to reporters, you shouldn’t be pitching their work in the first place.
This Pays Off
A good pitch takes some time and effort. But it’s worth it. Not only are you more likely to see the research covered in a news outlet, but you’re more likely to cultivate good working relationships with reporters. That means they’ll be more inclined to listen to what you have to say in the future.
I’ll quote Vinluan again here: “I can probably count on one hand the PR people whose email I will read immediately when I see the sender. They’re among the very few who have consistently made an effort to read what I’ve written and covered and craft their pitches accordingly. And just as important, they don’t spam me with stuff I could never use. Over the years, I’ve recognized that effort and when they do contact me I'm more than willing to hear them out.”
What more can a flack ask for?
Reporters, did I miss anything? PIOs, what do you think?