How to Pitch a Story to a Reporter (Without Being Annoying)

11 December 2012 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

Rule number one: make sure your pitches are on target. (Photo: tomek/stock.xchng)

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

This is what happens (metaphorically) to crappy pitches. (Photo: asolario/stock.xchng)

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.)

Be Relevant

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?


14 Responses to “How to Pitch a Story to a Reporter (Without Being Annoying)”

  1. Khalil A. Cassimally Reply | Permalink

    A very non-constructive comment:

    "Depending on what publication they work for, reporters and editors often get 100s or 1000s of unsolicited emails every day."

    KILL ME NOW!

  2. Jimmy Ryals Reply | Permalink

    This may be asking for another post (let's be honest: it is), but a lot of flacks work for organizations that require PIOs to act as barriers between researchers/faculty and reporters by arranging and/or sitting in on interviews. That's a real barrier to successful pitching (as you note). How would you suggest that PIOs in such positions nudge their institutions in a more open direction?

  3. Avery Palmer Reply | Permalink

    This is really good! One thing I would add though is I've found it is sometimes necessary and helpful to call the reporters. It IS annoying for them, but when you're done annoying them they can sometimes pay attention when they didn't have a chance to look at or respond to their emails. But all the rules you outlined would apply to phone calls too.

  4. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    I don't think it requires a separate post, because there's precious little you can do in that situation. I covered federal environmental and health policies for ~10 years as a reporter, and I know that PR folks for federal agencies will rarely (if ever) hand you over to a government researcher without supervision. This is incredibly frustrating and obstructive -- but it's not the fault of the PR folks, it's the fault of whatever bureaucrats write the rules they have to live by. For the most part, I tried to go around the PR folks anyway. And -- this may be the moral of the story -- I can't think of a single instance when I wrote a story as a result of a news release by one of those PR people. By the time they (or, more accurately, their agencies/departments) were ready to talk about it, I'd probably already written about it -- it was already old news.

  5. Frank Vinluan Reply | Permalink

    There's some interesting discussion going on on Jim Romenseko's blog about whether PR folk should sit in on interviews: http://jimromenesko.com/2012/12/11/when-pr-people-insist-on-monitoring-interviews/.

    I have have grown accustomed to "minders" sent by higher ups in a company or from within a government agency or even a university. I don't mind as long as the intrusion is minimal. Some years ago, I interviewed someone at a software company for a non-controversial story. I'm not sure who made this decision but the interview was monitored by a PR person. This person kept interjecting comments and suggesting answers, to the visible frustration of the interview subject who shut down because the flack was getting in the way. I understand that sometimes a PR person's presence can help out an interview subject who is inexperienced with dealing with the media. But that presence can go overboard as well. To Jimmy Ryals' point that some institutions employ flacks to be a barrier between researchers/faculty, I'd say that many reporters recognize that it's a fact of life. But the level of comfort that some scientists/researchers have in speaking with the media varies widely depending on the institution (and in universities, even within an academic department). Some are fine responding to a reporter's e-mail or phone call. Others prefer to work through the communications department. If the science/research/technology is special, that is the star of the story. I need their help explaining why. When a flack or an interview subject seems to be slipping away, I try to remind them of that to get things back on track.

  6. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    I pretty much only sit in on an interview if the researcher asks me to. This happens periodically, particularly if the researcher doesn't have much experience talking to reporters and is uncomfortable or intimidated by the prospect. For corporations or feds, I can understand why they might want a PR person in the room -- it means that they'll at least know what the researcher said (and what they might be able to expect). Similarly, the PR person may know of other people at the institution that might be able to field questions outside the scope of the person being interviewed (e.g., how a given research finding may relate to research performed by other scientists at the institution). But it becomes a problem, as Frank notes, when the PR person views himself or herself as the one being interviewed.

  7. Ruth Seeley Reply | Permalink

    Here's my take on PR/PIO folks sitting in on interviews (with comments from both journalists and PR people): http://nospinpr.com/2010/06/24/the-importance-of-sitting-in-on-interviews/

    I've dealt with some amazingly good reporters. I've also had the misfortune to deal with some absolute weasels - reporters who persisted in writing about a company without actually getting any information whatsoever from the company itself; reporters who, instead of quoting me when I was the spokesperson, attempted to rephrase and reframe every single thing I've said; reporters who couldn't manage to get the CEO's or the company's name right. I really think we need to make an effort to get past the myth of the good journalist/the bad PR person. It's not particularly helpful to anyone.

  8. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    There are good reporters and bad reporters. There are good PIOs (I like to think I'm one of them) and bad PIOs. I don't think I'm trying to perpetuate the good journo/bad flack concept -- I just don't think it's particularly helpful for me to insist on sitting in on every interview with a science writer. It's important to remember that this blog post (and this blog) focuses on science communication -- not all forms of communication. Also, it's worth noting that knowing the reporter is important. If you're dealing with someone who has a sketchy track record, you're going to handle things differently than if it's with a reporter who has a history of doing solid work.

  9. Ruth Seeley Reply | Permalink

    Oh Matt - sorry - didn't mean to imply you *were* trying to perpetuate that myth. All I was really trying to say in my post, I think, is that if you've gone to the effort of media training a client (or arranging for them to be media trained), evaluating their performance should be part of the follow up. Some people are naturally good at being interviewed and explaining things succinctly; others need a LOT of help. And the more complicated/technical the subject matter, the more important it is to consider your audience and explain things in terms they - and their readers/viewers - will understand.

  10. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    Completely agree that you need to evaluate the performance of folks you've trained. Nothing substitutes for a real interview, but we often run mock interviews, with the "interview" being conducted by someone who did *not* do the training. E.g., if I did the training, my colleague David might play the part of the reporter. Since almost everyone in my office is a former reporter, it works fairly well. We start off with easy questions and escalate until we're giving them, basically, the worst case scenario. It's useful.

  11. Jacquelyn Reply | Permalink

    Thanks for this! I've been seeing a lot of advice for scientists that they should approach journalists they trust, and I have wondered how to go about it. Would you say that this advice is pretty much the same for scientists as for POs? Should we do anything differently?

  12. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    I think the advice is consistent. If you are approaching a reporter that you have a relationship with (even an acquaintanceship, so to speak), that takes a lot of the pressure off. Odds are good that they'll hear you out, so you're off to a good start. That said, it's always good to offer a précis of the work (and why it's exciting) and ask if they want to follow up. Conversely, as a researcher, you can just ask: "Hey, is this news?" :) But, unless the reporter is a friend of long standing, don't tell them anything you wouldn't want to see in print.

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