As newsrooms have gotten smaller and journalists are stretched thinner, the media environment we’re all working in is crowded. Couple this with a news cycle that is constantly running at high speed and landing a pitch can seem like the impossible dream.
But as tough as it is to attract journalists’ attention these days, excuses won’t get the job done. There are no easy answers. Too often, PR pros look for a magic bullet (“This new service does the research for us”), the latest trick (“Reporters always respond when I pitch on Wednesdays”), or even a new platform (“I only pitch via Twitter”) to quickly fix their media pitching woes. They never do.
Here’s the truth: To have sustained media relations success, your strategy and approach have to be rooted in the basics, informed by ingenuity, and underpinned by plain old hard work. Here are a few core principles to remember:
1. Be an avid media consumer. If you’re in this business, you should be a voracious and curious reader. If you’re not, become one.
Too many people in public relations don’t consume enough media regularly. Read more, watch more and listen more. Take in a diverse range of content—from feature to straight news to business reporting to science writing—so that you can better understand the different structures of storytelling, how expert sources are used in reporting, the nuances that exist between media types, and what tends to pique reporters’ interests.
2. Be helpful and know your story isn’t the most important thing. Successful PR pros quickly realized during the pandemic that their pitches had to connect to this shared global experience in order to land. They understood that their most important role had become to be a helpful resource to journalists who were spending 24 hours a day thinking and writing about the most consequential story in our lifetimes.
There’s a lesson here: No matter what news predominates, always be thinking of ways to be part of the solution for news outlets. Connect your content with current events in creative ways, such as identifying unintended impacts or pitching stories that are about bucking current trends rather than following them. If you can’t think of any way to do this, it is better to bide your time and wait out the cycle than fill beleaguered reporters’ inboxes with news they can’t use.
3. Be realistic about relationships. No inboxes are more crowded than journalist’s inboxes. Common sense confirms this: The number of journalists is down. The number of PR practitioners, in agencies and inhouse, is up.
The upshot is that we can no longer count on “relationships” to drive our pitching success. Just because you’ve worked with a reporter in the past doesn’t mean that reporter will always take your call or respond to your email, especially when hundreds of PR pros are thinking the exact same thing. Yes, you should try to cultivate relationships—in particular, if you are an industry specialist—but let go of the mindset that it’s all about who you know. Instead, seek out new reporters, outlets, angles and opportunities for your pitch.
4. Be resilient. While journalists have to contend with the overwhelming onslaught of emails from folks like us, we have to deal with the flipside: crickets.
Most of us know all too well the silence following an unsuccessful pitch. It can be daunting. However, don’t assume this means your story is dead. Reporters probably aren’t saying “no.” More likely, they didn’t even register your email.
Pitchers who have the most success recognize this and don’t get defeated or discouraged easily. Instead, they retool their approach, perhaps bringing additional data into the pitch or adjusting the angle to incorporate references to other pieces the journalist has published. Successful pitchers also will tweak their content to make it better suited for reporters covering entirely different beats, or transform their pitches into a contributed piece to published under a byline.
Success goes to those who don’t keep banging on the same closed door, but also don’t give up. Retool and refine your approach, then try all other entrances before walking away.
Media pitching is far more art than science, more about fundamentals than formula. These fundamentals include respecting the journalists you are pitching by reading, watching and listening to their work, putting yourself in their shoes to understand the stressors of their workday so you can be useful, and being aware there are thousands of PR pros talking to the same reporters.
That said, our job is to keep pressing forward by finding or creating new paths to, “Yes, I’m interested.” Not only is this the surer way to succeed, it’s also more interesting and—ultimately—more rewarding.
Ryan Witherell is a senior partner with Finn Partners and leads its FINN Southeast Corporate and Consumer Practice Group.