Are my ideas resonating? How do I make an impact?
PR professionals are obsessed with these kinds of big questions. Whether it’s through traditional earned media, podcasts or video marketing, we are constantly searching for ways to share insights and tell the best possible stories on behalf of our clients. But as integral as strategy and tactics can be, it’s just as vital not to lose sight of the most basic building block underpinning our media outreach: the written pitch.
For today’s Insight, I’m going to discuss a recent online interaction that got me reflecting on my own pitching, as well as some important lessons for aspiring professionals in the field.
Bloomberg Business reporter Alexandra Semenova recently took to X (formerly Twitter) to gripe about a certain pet peeve she has: “love it when PR people preface their email pitches with “Story idea:,” she said, “like ok thank you for being my assignment editor.”
The Aug. 15 post made a bit of a splash, racking up more than 46,000 views and igniting an interesting back-and-forth with some of her followers who responded in the comments. One remorseful poster admitted to the faux pas and said that she was “reflecting on my sins hard now.” Another PR practitioner confessed that he had started using the offending prefix in his email subject lines several years back, after determining that alternative attempts to grab reporters’ attention were not having the desired effect. He believed this approach to be “more journalist-friendly” and asked Semenova to expound on what she preferred instead.
The question led Semenova to the ultimate point behind her post: “If it’s in my beat, timely, and straightforward, I’ll usually open it,” she said. “If something feels fluffy or like there’s an effort to bait me into opening it, I’ll probably delete it. TBH once I read ‘Story idea:’ or something along the lines, I’m not reading the rest.”
Semenova concluded: “Even if it’s just that, having to call it by name is gratuitous. It should hopefully be compelling enough that it doesn’t need that type of introduction.”
The obvious lesson here is hard to miss: it benefits no one to have a subject line of a pitch that dictates or condescends to a reporter. Journalists understand the dynamics at play during the pitching process, and the good news is that they often will consider a pitch that is cogent, insightful and direct. So, not only will adhering to this simple advice allow your pitch to resonate with its intended audience, but it’s also the first step in building a collaborative partnership that benefits the PR professional, the reporter and, ultimately, the client.
The best relationships I have with journalists are ones where both sides are proactively sharing information and opportunities to accommodate a need. However, it takes time and trust to build these kinds of bonds with our counterparts in the media. Keeping in mind the lessons from Semenova’s posts, here are some tips on how to leverage your pitches to put you on the right track.
Write like a journalist
Reporters are trained from the first day of J-school to write in the inverted pyramid. This structure of reporting simply prioritizes the most important elements of the story in the first paragraph, known as the lead. I was always taught that the most impactful leads will convey all the information that a reader needs to understand the story in 50 words or fewer. So be direct and to the point at the top of your pitch—you can always add additional context and details in the body as you go.
Whereas a reporter may have 500-800 words to write their story, our bandwidth—and a journalists’ attention—are more limited. I typically try to keep my pitches to three paragraphs and a max of 150 words (depending on the topic/industry). Like a news story, my pitches will often follow a three-layered pyramid structure of their own, including the three essential elements: the issue, the context and the offer.
Learn to be an expert
Our credibility with journalists rests in large part on our ability to communicate a sense of subject-matter authority on behalf of the client. This starts in the beginning stages of research and preparation and eventually translates into the pitch. Whether you’re executing a full-blown marketing campaign, conducting one-off outreach to reporters or maintaining regular media contacts, you want to be seen as a reliable resource, well versed in the issues, who knows how to deliver timely information and actionable insights. Always be curious and attentive in your media reconnaissance and your interactions with clients. Always ask the follow-up question, even if it may seem obvious. Take copious notes, and when it comes time to pitch, write with clarity, conviction and confidence.
Of course, not all journalists’ beats are the same, and pitching across various industries may require different language, style and approaches. For example, a pitch for a new luxury property listing in the Hamptons is bound to feel a whole lot different than one publicizing an attorney’s win on some arcane issue of intellectual property law. Lean on your preparation, and don’t be afraid to experiment with voice and tone. It’s also helpful to read widely in the area you’re pitching and observe how those reporters write to their audience. After all, journalists are far more likely to engage with pitches and writing that they can identify with.
All this brings us back to where we started: the dreaded subject line. Like the headline on a reporter’s article, this is often the most challenging part of the pitch—and the last one I will write. The subject should be a pithy distillation of the pitch as a whole, and like the body, you want it to get directly to the point. Don’t be pushy or abrasive, and avoid gimmicks. Instead, channel your inner Hemingway and harness the power of the short, declarative sentence. Pull out the most salient idea from your pitch, and try not to overthink it. Whatever you do, just don’t call it a story idea.