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Holly Thatcher

Revealed: 9 things journalists wish PRs knew

21st Nov 2019 Digital PR 7 minutes to read

With extensive experience on both ends of the conversation, I know what it’s like to be both ignored by a journalist and inundated with useless press releases and waffle. Over the years it’s led to a feeling of “us vs them” on both sides, when the truth is, both journalists and PRs want similar things: to tell interesting stories that will engage their target audience.

Coming to a PR career as an ex-journalist, colleagues often assumed that securing media coverage would be a piece of cake thanks to my ‘little black book’ of press contacts. In truth, while it’s certainly helpful, simply having friends in high places is not the mark of a successful PR. I’ve built relationships with journalists I’ve never met simply by pitching them what they needed, at the right time, in the right way.

I’ve created a series of pitching tips based on my own experience, and that of journalists I’ve worked with, so grab yourself a cuppa and have a look through our top tips for approaching journalists.

1. Get to the point. Fast.

For the best chance of success, ensure your pitch is short and snappy. If you can’t tell the story in a nutshell in the first paragraph, the chances of a response are slim.

“Learn what a top line is and always provide the most interesting bits of the story at the top. If you catch me on a busy day, I’m not reading past the first paragraph. If it’s uninteresting, it’s going in the bin.”

– Bronwen, journalist for the Evening Standard

In the good old days of print journalism, sub-editors would cut down a reporter’s carefully crafted copy to make the story fit the space available, starting from the bottom and working upwards.

So the most important skill journalists have to learn is how to tell their story in the first three paragraphs – anything after that is embroidery.

Nowadays, with the majority of news consumed digitally, and fierce competition amongst publishers for web traffic, thirty seconds of engaged reader time is considered a win – so the same rules apply. In fact, there’s even more pressure for that first line to grab your attention.

2. Ditch the Saccharine

“Phrases like “it’s lovely to e-meet you” really bother me! Being overly friendly isn’t going to make me publish your press release.”

Bronte, Journalist for Wales Online

Or maybe this common email intro:

“Hi lovely” .. YOU’VE NEVER EVEN MET ME AND I AM HORRIBLE!” –

– Sian, Journalist for Bristol Live

Let’s face it – nobody really likes fake pleasantries.

There’s nothing wrong with being polite. After all, we’re British. But a sickly-sweet approach will earn you no favours whatsoever – journalists are REALLY only interested in the story on offer. End of.

3. Get the journalist’s name right

A no brainer, you might be thinking. Who would make THAT mistake?

Quite a few of us, apparently…

“The main one for me is PLEASE get my name right. I am not David. I am not Mr Sian. I am not Mr David. I know a lot of other journalists who have this same problem. If you get my name wrong, how can I trust anything else in the release?”

– Sian, Journalist for Bristol Live

4. Ensure your pitch is user-friendly

“Don’t offer spokespeople who then turn out to be unavailable. Do attach pics and include links to video.”

– Cormac, Journalist for Global Radio

Few things are more irritating to a journalist than being sent half of the detail they need to run a story. As a minimum, ensure you’ve included a couple of decent, high-res images with your pitch. If you can, include a video link too – many news outlets now insist on including video with every story they publish.

“Attaching photos in the original email, in the right format and size and none of the “photos available on request” stuff that just wastes time!”

– Olivia, Journalist for Somerset Live

5. Speed is everything

“The answer to ‘When do you need this by?’ Is always ‘As soon as is humanly possible’”

– Callum, Journalist for ITN

Great news – your pitch got a positive response! Ideally, it will already have contained everything the journalist needed to run the story (see point 4 above) but if they ask for more information, images, video, or anything else, be ready to come up with the goods fast.

Long gone are the days when journalists worked to a print deadline. Nowadays, it’s a race to get the news online to satisfy readers’ thirst for fresh content. Forget the pleasantries – if you want a journalist to be your best friend, don’t keep them waiting.

6. Make it personal

“Try to tailor the release to the organisation you’re sending it to  – we cover a wide region so love to get facts and stats for every county/city we cover.”

– Cormac, Journalist for Global Radio

We’re all guilty of doing a bit of copying and pasting from time to time. Unfortunately, journalists receive hundreds of press releases and pitches every week, so they can spot this a mile off. Sorry.

“We can usually see the first line of an email without opening it, so ‘Dear Name’ is a no-no. But ‘Hey Name’ is better…..more openable. Once opened, if it’s a template, I won’t even read it, but if it looks like a personal email I will.”

– Kam, Journalist for Sam FM

For the best chance of a favourable response, do your homework. Ensure your pitch is relevant to the journalist and publication you are sending it to and be prepared to explain why.

“I don’t like when PRs message you out of the blue and talk over-friendly like they know you. I much prefer if they said ‘Hi, I saw your story on – say – gifts for children and my client has created this toy that..etc etc.”

– Millie, Journalist for Bristol Live

7. Put the phone DOWN

“You don’t need to call us first to check that it’s OK to send an email – just send the damn email!”

– J, Journalist for Devon Live

Admittedly, this point does seem at odds with the one above, but journalists unanimously HATE receiving phone calls from PRs. There’s a good chance they are engrossed in writing, their editor is on their back, and you’ve just gone and interrupted their flow.

Send an email.

Every. Single. Time.

Oh, and also…

“A follow-up call/email to “check if you’ve received my email” hours after it was sent is very annoying.”

– Robin, Journalist for Bristol Live

8. Don’t try to fool the journalist

“I can’t stand press releases that try to dupe us. I’ve just had one saying that a new store is opening. Nothing in the press release reveals that it is just a reopening after refurbishment and having ‘closing down’ signs up over the last couple of weeks. The name hasn’t even changed.”

– Elise, Journalist for Somerset Live

Never attempt to mislead a journalist in order to make your pitch stand out in a journalist’s inbox, or to make your story sound a tiny bit more compelling than it actually is.

“Be upfront about how big a sample was in this ‘survey’ you conducted. It’s really annoying to get an interesting stat and then hear from you that the sample size was 20 people in your office.”

– Bronwen, Journalist for the Evening Standard

Appearing untrustworthy is the quickest way to ruin a relationship.

“Never ever ever use the subject line ‘BREAKING NEWS’ in an email. I genuinely saw this once and I was livid. We deal with genuine major life or death breaking news every day and your innovative new bubble bath does not make the grade, I’m afraid.”

– Joseph, Journalist for The Daily Mirror

9. Is it actually news?

“It all comes to down to ‘would you read it in your spare time?’ if the answer is no then neither will our readers, so why would we publish it?”

– Millie, Journalist for Bristol Live

There was a time when contacts were everything in PR. In the days of print news, having a good relationship with a journalist might earn you a few column inches here and there on a slow news day when they were struggling to fill a page.

Those days are, largely, gone.

Nowadays, journalists’ content is judged on two metrics – page views and engagement. That means, to be considered a successful story, a reader needs to a) click on your article and b) keep reading it for more than ten seconds.

So what does that mean for digital PR professionals?

It means you can be best friends with the journalist. You can send a well-written, personalised pitch and include lots of pretty pictures. But if the story isn’t really news – if it wouldn’t interest YOU as you’re scrolling through your newsfeed – then your chances of success aren’t high.

It means, more importantly, that a well-written pitch is no more than the tip of the iceberg. The real work goes on behind the scenes, in a well-crafted campaign designed with the needs of your audience in mind.

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Holly Thatcher

PR and Outreach Specialist

Mum of two boys and a furry feline, Holly enjoys her home life, especially if it comes with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. Also a history and period-drama geek, Holly is obsessed with shows such as The Crown, The Tudors, and Poldark. Her claim to fame is making coffee for a topless Aidan Turner on set (Aidan, if you’re reading this, call her!).

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