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How to win journalists and not make them hate you

by Leo Schwartz

Have you ever wanted to peer into a journalist’s inbox? Below is an exclusive sneak peek. This is what the average TechCrunch reporter receives in about ten minutes (It may be slightly staged.) The next time you get a snarky response to some innocent, well-intentioned pitch you send off, try to imagine what that journalist’s inbox looked like when they woke up in the morning.

An artist’s rendition of a journalist’s inbox by Leo Schwartz

Unfortunately, you can’t do anything about the fact that journalists get bombarded with pitches and that the whole pitching process is broken. That’s what we’re working on. What you can do is actually send them good pitches. They might not respond — in fact, most of the time they won’t. That’s the nature of the business. They’re still more likely to respond if you send them a well written, targeted pitch. Even if they don’t, there’s a good chance they’ve read it and will remember you in the future.

Now the million dollar question: How do I write a good pitch? Unfortunately, there’s no magic formula. Every journalist has different preferences. Some like all the details upfront, some like a 50-word blurb. Some like attachments included, some will close an email if there’s as much as a link. Those elements are largely out of your control, unless they’ve published their preferences online. What you can focus on is who you’re reaching out to and the substance of your pitch.

Targeting

Do your research. Journalists don’t necessarily have “beats” anymore, meaning they don’t exclusively cover a single topic like the old days. They’re quickly moving — they could be covering cryptocurrency one week and healthcare policy the next. Still, they appreciate when you’re actually familiar with their work. Even if they cover a variety of topics, they still probably have overarching themes or areas of interest.

Figure out what they’re interested in, and demonstrate why you think they’re relevant. Reference a past, as-recent-as-possible article with an ACTUAL connection to your story, if possible. This doesn’t mean “I saw in your Twitter handle that you’re an animal lover — our logo is an adorable dog!” They don’t want to know that you have the same unrelated interests — they want to get down to brass tacks. All they care about is getting good, targeted stories in their inboxes.

If you want to find some journalists who might be relevant to your company, check out our brand new tool Journalists You Should Follow (we probably should come up with a catchier name.)

Pitch length

Keep it short and sweet. We aim for sub-200 words. Introduce yourself, immediately state what the story is (journalists will scan your email quickly, so as they say, don’t bury the lede), explain why it’s timely, establish why it’s credible (include impressive numbers or someone affiliated who they would recognize, whether a team member, an advisor, or a funder.) We even bold essential information in our pitches to make sure journalists don’t miss it.

Include clear action items

Make it clear what you can offer them. This includes:

  • Team members available for interview
  • Data or surveys
  • Multimedia assets (screenshots, logos, headshots, videos)
  • A longer press release
  • Further angles you can explore

If you want to set up a press kit, you can use a tool like prkit.co. If you’re an Upbeat member, we’ll set up a media brief for you that you can edit and send out at any time to anyone you want.

Respond quickly

Journalists move quickly! If they’re interested and respond to you with a question, get them an answer ASAP. This doesn’t mean day of, this means within the hour or even sooner if possible. Journalists are on strict deadlines and have a tendency to move on from projects quickly. Have everything ready that you think they might ask. Set up a public Dropbox folder with media assets that you can easily share. Set up Calendly or an easy scheduling system with any relevant team members so that if the journalist is interested in setting up an interview, there’s no long back and forth.

Don’t be too cutesy

This isn’t a marketing campaign, so don’t include marketing language. Journalists don’t care about language like “groundbreaking.” They care about the details of the story. If they’re interested, it’s their job to create the narrative. You just provide them with the building blocks. You can include a little humor — journalists are people too. Here’s part of the original pitch Netflix sent to Harry McCracken (who, as he admitted, never responded to them):

At Upbeat, we handle the entire pitching process for you. Through your dashboard, we’ll build a media brief that has everything a journalist needs to write a story — background, contact info, social media links, previous coverage, multimedia, and scheduling. We’ll also use our software and expertise to handle the targeting, identifying the journalists we think are most likely to be interested in your story. Finally, we’ll actually write the pitch email and handle all of the outreach. All of that costs just $500.

Campaign of the Month

Moringa School is a career accelerator based in Kenya with an innovative approach to learning. Their classroom simulates a real working environment where students spend the majority of the day building projects and their portfolio instead of attending lectures. We have been talking with them for a long time about an effective first campaign that would be relevant to international audiences, not just local African publications.

Moringa School was recently chosen by the World Bank to bring their program to Pakistan. Although this also had a local focus, we were able to frame it as an international expansion, especially since they had recently announced other partnerships. We used the expansion to Pakistan as the “news” or timepeg, the validation by the World Bank as the credibility factor, and the unique learning methodology of Moringa School as the story background.

We pitched journalists covering issues of education in developing countries, as well as education innovation in general. Because we could focus on the international relevance of the learning model, we were able to expand our list to include journalists from all over the world. Ultimately, we were able to place a story in Quartz India that focused on both the local Pakistan program as well as Moringa School’s methodology.

Even if your story seems local, there are ways to make it have a broader scope. Once you establish the element of news — even if it is locally focused — you can then elaborate on secondary story angles: unique founder backgrounds, novel business models, groundbreaking approaches to an age-old problem, etc. If a journalist is interested in the secondary story angles (in this case, Moringa School’s teaching methodology), they can use the primary news angle as justification to write the story.

What We’re Working On

Journalists you should follow This is the tool I linked to above, and we’re really excited about it. On the backend of Upbeat, we’ve built one of the most comprehensive databases of journalists out there. We not only have their up-to-date contact info and publication affiliations, but we’re monitoring every article they write. From this data, we use machine learning to figure out what topics they’re actually interested in and what they’re likely to write about in the future. This is the basis for how we create pitch lists.

Unfortunately, this database is not public. We wanted a way to share some of our data with you though, which is why we built Journalists You Should Follow. All you have to do is fill out some basic information about your company Mad Libs-style, and we’ll crunch the info against our database to give you a list of five relevant journalists. We then give you the option to receive a weekly email with a summary of the articles they’ve written that week. The tool is completely free, and you don’t have to be a member to access it.

*Why? *As I wrote about in the pitching section, journalists appreciate when you actually know what they’re writing about. When you pitch them, it should be clear that you didn’t just find one related article they wrote a year ago. You should ideally know what they’ve been working on the past few months.

Furthermore, when they do write an article relevant to your company, you can react immediately and shoot over a quick note. You don’t have to pitch them your story and expect them to write about it — you can just say you enjoyed their article and give some background on yourself and your company. If you have additional info they might find useful in any follow-up articles, let them know. Ask them if they’d be open to grabbing coffee or talking on the phone. If it’s not transactional (i.e. write about my story now!) you’re much more likely to get a friendly response.

Journalists You Should Follow is still a work in progress, but we think it’s a great alternative to Twitter or Google Alerts, which can get pretty noisy. Check it out here, and let us know if you have any feedback!

Note: This was originally sent as our October 2017 newsletter. If you want to receive our monthly newsletter with PR tips and advice, you can *sign up here.*