It was a simple premise. Put editors from four leading Washington, D.C.-based publications at a table and let them explain to PR pros what they're seeking from op-ed submissions. That's what the organizers of PR Summit DC did earlier today (July 19) at the National Press Club. It became clear quickly that while the editors had common requirements, each publication looks at submitted op-eds in a slightly different way. A major takeaway for PR media relations pros: Do your research about the publication you're targeting.
At Vox, senior editor Christopher Shea wants submissions of 1,000-1,500 words that are about "new ideas...something that we should be debating but aren't yet...ideas about things that will challenge the reader," such as genetic research and proportional voting.
Axios is looking for submissions "from experts...and academics" that feature "analytical insights...not advocacy positions," says editor Chris Russell. "We don't want a senator's piece about his bill, for example." While Axios wants submissions about "what's in the news, we also like to surprise people with new ideas," he says.
The Hill, says editor Chuck Jordan, wants 600-1,000 words on topics "that fit our style...are trendy...and exclusive to us." To determine hot topics, look at the publication's site for what's trending, he says.
For Jill Lawrence, commentary editor at the daily USA Today, "time is of the essence" in several respects. Submissions must be fresh news, she says. And a day or two can mean a submission will not make the cut at her paper. In addition, she wants a speedy pitch. "I don't need, 'Happy Friday' or 'Can I send you...?'" Just send the article, Lawrence and the others agreed.
USA Today has submission guidelines that Lawrence urged interested prospective writers and their media relations pros to read.
Get Ready and Wait
Not everything has to be written today to be fresh. Lawrence advocates crafting an op-ed right away should the writer have a unique take on an evergreen topic. "Write it and then wait for something in the news to happen" that makes it relevant; then pitch, she says.
What about contacting a publication weeks prior to an event to pitch the idea of a submission? For example, had you pitched USA Today, The Hill or Axios two weeks before the Trump-Putin summit, your author might have been told to stand by and be ready to submit something closer to or during the event.
Mistakes in your pitch can put a submission out of commission quickly, the editors agreed. For example, don't send a submission to USA Today that says it is for the NY Times. "I don't want it," Lawrence says. Jordan of The Hill notes he gets pitches that say Politico on them. He's a nice guy; he sends them back and asks the pitcher if they were meant for The Hill. And PR pros send pitches that say they need to run on Friday, "but we don't publish on Fridays."
The editors scoffed dismissively when an audience member asked about pitches containing misspelled words.
The group agreed the less formulaic the pitch, the better. "People slip into a PR voice when pitching...use a natural voice...be yourself as much as possible," Allen says.
And speaking of being natural, op-eds and pitches should be clearly written, devoid of jargon and bureaucrat-ese, Shea says. "The classic op-ed still works. Make your point strongly at the top [and] provide examples."
It makes almost no difference if a pitch comes from a PR pro or the author, the editors agreed, though if the author is an expert and the publication seeks expert opinions, it's best to have the email pitch come from the author, they say.
And "don't take it personally" if your submission is rejected, Lawrence says. The rejection rate for these publications is high. On the other hand, if you don't hear back in two to three days, send an email or call, the group agreed.
Should you ask editors for feedback on why your submission was rejected? You can, of course, but be prepared for "a blunt" assessment of your work, Lawrence says. While the group admits some editors will work with authors so they can re-submit an article, it's rare.
Seth Arenstein is editor of PR News. Follow him: @skarenstein