Social media has transformed many aspects of the public relations profession, but one thing hasn’t changed: PR pros still have to sell story ideas to journalists by writing pitches and press releases.
As a former reporter who now provides writing services to corporate PR departments and agencies, I’ve learned that crafting successful press materials often comes down to one question: How can I make the journalist’s job easier?
Today, reporters and editors are buried in a 24-hour avalanche of e-mail, blogs, tweets and status updates. They sift through this digital rubble every day in search of nuggets they can turn into compelling stories that will drive readership, Web traffic or audience tune-in. Making a journalist’s job easier not only increases your chances of getting your story placed, it can help you forge a lasting relationship with someone who can make your job easier.
With that in mind, here are some guidelines to keep in mind when writing press materials:
Do your homework: Journalists agree there are few things more irritating than receiving a pitch or press release for a story that their publication would never run. “It's frustrating to get queries from people who obviously have no idea what kind of content we publish,” says Karin Baker, deputy editor at online culture guide Flavorpill.
But it’s not enough just to familiarize yourself with the outlet you’re targeting. Research which individual writer or editor handles the subject you’re pitching, and tailor your message directly to him or her.
“There are an awful lot of lazy, form-letter e-mail pitches out there,” says Scott Collins, who writes about the television industry for the Los Angeles Times. “Many that I get are off-topic, and it's clear the sender has no idea who I am or what I cover. If you can find time to Google, say, your pet-sitter, you can find time to Google me.”
A little flattery never hurts either. Collins admits he’s impressed when a publicist’s pitch compliments a previous piece he’s written. But don’t get too chummy with a reporter you don’t know. “Some of the e-mails begin with greetings such as, ‘Hey, Scott! What's up? Hope you're having a good new year,’ as if the sender and I are old friends from back in the day. It's not a good way to start a relationship.”
Get your facts straight: This one seems obvious, but many journalists say they regularly receive materials riddled with inaccuracies, typos and spelling errors.
“It's always a little shocking when they can't even spell their client's name right,” says Baker. “I see press releases where the client's name is spelled two or even three different ways. Then again, I received a query recently where the writer spelled my name Karen, Karrie and Karie. He never once spelled it correctly.”
A sloppily written press release can undermine even a good story, because it can make the reader question the reliability of the facts. Conversely, well-written press materials reflect positively on the story, the client and the publicist. We’re not talking Shakespeare here—just clearly worded, factual copy that’s been triple-checked for errors.
Grab your reader’s attention—fast. Remember, you’re trying to make the reporter or editor’s job easier. So tell them exactly what’s interesting about your pitch and why it would make a great story for their readership. And do it quickly. Busy journalists have only a few seconds to scan an e-mail and decide whether it’s right for them.
“Make the headline or e-mail subject line crisp and clear,” says Todd Cunningham, news editor at entertainment and media news site TheWrap. “Editors are jaded, so make it amusing if you can, but don't be oblique or be a wise guy.”
Cunningham also warns against making headlines too generic (“Major Announcement from Acme”) or loading them up with industry jargon or tech babble (“ITECH Bows e-790 Lateral Bio-System”).
Most importantly, though, keep your pitch short: one page, at most. If you have additional background material on a company or product, send it as a separate press kit or include links to appropriate online sources.
One more way to make a journalist’s job easier? Suggest angles for a trend piece or feature that spotlights your client, recommends Baker. “Even though I might not use that idea, it can get my wheels turning.”
Andrew Hindes is president of The In-House Writer, a Los Angeles-based PR and marketing copywriting firm that specializes in creating press materials for companies in a broad range of industries. He can be reached at [email protected].