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Media relations demystified

Updated: Apr 27, 2021

You have a pitch ready and want to get media placements, but what's the best way to do that?

I recently had a colleague who works in marketing ask if I had time to "demystify media relations." She'd heard key terms and been told the same pithy lines about how to write a successful pitch, but still felt unprepared to send emails out on behalf of her own clients. So, we hopped on a Zoom call and did a Q&A to answer basic questions about the mechanics of media pitching.

Here's what we covered.

1. How do you decide who to contact?

Research the beat you're pitching to determine who's going on your media list because writing a good pitch is only half of the battle. If you don't research media contacts to determine who's most likely to care enough to write a story before you start emailing people, then you've wasted a lot of time.

For example, if you're offering an interview with a CEO of a company that provides financial planning services to small-business owners about economic ramifications caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, then look for outlets and people writing about that kind of thing. Maybe it's the local business magazine in the company's head quarters. If you send a pitch like that to a science reporter, you're doomed to get no reply or worse, a reputation as an ill-prepared PR person.

2. How do you find reporters' emails?

There's no fancy solution to this. If you find a reporter you want to pitch, see if their email is listed on the website of the outlet they write for. Also check their Twitter account bio. Good old stalking usually does the trick here.

Alternatively, you can pay for databases like Cision or MuckRack that provide contact information of thousands of reporters and media outlets including radio, broadcast, print and podcasts. They don't have everyone but they come pretty close. Note, these are pricey subscriptions so if you're freelancing, you might want to look into sharing an account with other freelancers in your network to help reduce the cost.

3. What do you say in a pitch email?

Media relations isn't formulaic. Yes, there are general tips to write good pitches, but each pitch should be tailored to the content of the pitch and who you're sending it to.

The best thing to do is get to the point and don't bury the lead. Give the who, what, where, when, why and how in the most concise and compelling way possible. That's it. Reporters are busy people and get thousands of emails a day, so you need to say what you need to say quickly and effectively. Make is as easy as possible for them to digest the information you provide. Always give your contact information so they can get in touch with you if they need to.

That said, remember that they're people. If you have a relationship with them, recognize that. Maybe write a short greeting and mention that you thought they might be interested in your pitch given their beat. At the end of the day, media relations is mostly about nurturing relationships with journalists covering your beat so do your best to make them your friend.

4. Are there any "don't moves?"

There are a few things to avoid doing. First, no typos and get their name right. I always customize pitch emails and address it to the person I'm emailing, which requires attention to detail to make sure I spell their name right.

Second, unless it's a must-have, don't send attachments! Include everything they need to know in the body of the email because chances are they won't take the time to open an attachment. If you're sending a pitch based off of a release, then write your email and say "I've included more information below," and paste the release below your signature line.

Third, be professional. This goes without saying, but your email should be written like a well-spoken professional rather than casual. Don't be stuffy but do be polished.

5. Should you follow up? How many times?

The answer to this question depends on the situation. I generally don't reach out to a contact after I've gotten no response. I work for a top academic medical center and just don't have time to follow-up with that many people and generally, at least one outlet runs a story. However, if it's an especially important story and no one has gotten back to me, I might send another email or just call the reporter to follow up directly.

If you're pitching to a smaller list of contacts, then you might consider follow-up on your email if you haven't heard back in 4-5 business days. Again, you can always pick up the phone and call. I especially recommend this if you're pitching to a broadcast news station. Send your pitch to specific reporters but also send it to the station's news desk and call the assignment desk to see that it was received and/or assigned by a producer.

6. Do you write an op-ed before you pitch it?

This is a pretty specific question, but it's a good one. An op-ed, which colloquially stands for opinion editorial, is written and submitted by a non-reporter, and does count as earned media unlike a bylined article which are purchased editorial pieces. Op-eds usually have a designated place in print outlets and give people a chance to contribute a piece presenting an argument or opinion about a specific topic. Many times, companies with a marketing/communications person or department, have op-eds ghost written for them and then submitted on their behalf. This is especially common in executive communications as a thought leadership tactic.

If you have an op-ed written that hasn't been published in another outlet, then sure, feel free to send to a reporter. However, I don't recommend writing a whole piece before you have confirmation that someone wants it. Otherwise, you've done a lot of work for nothing and you'll have to find a way to repurpose that content you spent time writing.

I will say, pitching an op-ed is a little different than any other media pitch. You'll need to convince the reporter it's a worthwhile topic and unique angle, and then briefly share the main talking points of the piece. Think of it as a bullet point list of the main points that will be included in the op-ed. Outline what the piece will cover to give them a better idea of what they have to work with. Follow the same who, what, where, why and how model to fill in the rest of your pitch.


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