Pitching the media without a PR background
At Dot Org, we spend a fair amount of time talking with the media, pitching story ideas for clients and responding to media inquiries. Although our team has quite a few years of experience among us, we have to continue to adapt to new media outlets, share information on social media and address the need to provide access to information quickly.
What happens, then, if your boss tells you to send out a news release to promote something for your company or nonprofit and you have little or no experience doing it? Media relations can be scary for many people either because of what they have seen on TV or because they have a bad past experience. For others, knowing where to start is a challenge.
I’m here to tell you that most reporters I’ve encountered in my career are really great to work with and building a relationship with them is a great asset to your company or nonprofit over the long term. Keep in mind, they are often juggling many stories at once, so the easier you can make their job, the more likely your story will run. Reporters also know that not everyone is a PR expert, so if they feel like you make an effort to send them good information and a good story idea, they are going to want to work with you.
Here are some simple steps to help you pitch stories to the media without PR training or a PR background.
Write your release as if it were going straight in the paper.
Journalists are VERY busy these days. And with news available 24/7, there is a constant push for them to finish stories and post content as soon as possible. So, when writing your release, make sure you write it in such a way that the reporter and/or editors can easily understand it and don’t have to spend much time editing it. In some cases (depending on the topic), a release will run almost verbatim if it is it is well-written, follows proper AP style* and follows the proper news release format**.
Read the publications you pitch to so you understand what they cover.
This may seem basic, but the key to effective communications is knowing your audience. So, why pitch a story to a publication that would have absolutely no interest in covering it? Subscribe to the publications you pitch to (electronically or even, yes, in paper form), so you know what they cover.
Pitch the right story to the right reporter
This takes a little homework to find the reporter to fit your story, but it is worth the time. Typically, you don’t want to pitch an arts story to a sports reporter, unless that athlete is an outstanding artist in his or her spare time. You also can lose credibility when you blast stories to everyone. Just remember to constantly update your list, as reporters change their beats often.
Tell reporters what you need them to know early
I am surprised by how many news releases have the most important information at the bottom. Make sure you put the most relevant information at the beginning of the release – the who, what, where, when and why.
Keep it short
Typically, news releases should be 400-500 words long – max. There are some instances when they may need to be longer, but most times, extra words aren’t necessary. The idea is to pitch the story and have follow-up conversations with the reporter to develop a story.
Write good quotes
If you are using a quote, make sure that the person being quoted doesn’t sound like a robot. I’ve read so many quotes that sound nothing like how a person would speak. Make sure the quote sounds like the person quoted is actually saying it. And read it aloud to be sure.
Keep the subject line short, but meaningful
Reporters are often reading releases on their phone. If your subject line is too long and the important information is at the end, you are missing a valuable opportunity to pitch your story. Typically, make the subject line 30 characters or less, so that a reporter can read the whole thing on mobile. Make sure you put relevant information in the beginning to capture their interest.
Write a different headline from your subject line
The subject line is meant to grab attention. The headline is to introduce the story. The headline is also generally a little longer and provides additional information that you may not be able to include in a subject line.
Embed the content in the email. Don’t include it as an attachment.
Since reporters read many of their emails on mobile, we don’t recommend attaching releases to an email. Instead, embed the copy in your email. While FitSmallBusiness.com’s template is great, you don’t want to center your copy on an email. So left justify everything so that it reads better in email.
Reporters don’t bite – at least not the ones I’ve worked with. Call them to follow up on a story if you haven’t heard from them in a reasonable time. They may not have seen your pitch email or just have been too busy to work on it. They will let you know if they will be able to cover it or not.
Effective media relations takes practice. Even after 25+ years in the communications business, I still have to work to improve my skills in this area. I learn from others who work with the media much more than I do and continue to ask questions. But the more I pitch, the more I learn and the more successful I am in landing stories.
Attracting media attention ultimately takes time. But if you can employ these basic skills, you are setting yourself up for a much better chance of success in getting the coverage you want.
* I suggest buying a copy of the AP style manual. It’s worth every penny.
** FitSmallBusiness.com has a great news release template. Check it out here: https://fitsmallbusiness.com/press-release-format-and-template
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Amy Wong, president, Dot Org Solutions
Amy believes the world is a better place because of the special work that nonprofits do for our communities for making them better places to live, work and raise families. And as president of Dot Org Solutions, she is a champion for small businesses for the role they play in creating jobs, delivering important products and services, and keeping the economy strong.