Cristal Steuer is the executive director of strategy & placement at TVP Communications, a national communications and leadership agency solely focused on higher education.
When you see a response from an editor or reporter at the top of your inbox, you may have several thoughts run through your head at once. But one thought looms larger than the rest as you open it. And there it is — a rejection. Unfortunately for public relations pros, this is not an uncommon response; there are so many pitches out there for increasingly limited spots. While we get used to rejection, we can reframe “Thanks, I’ll pass” to learn and grow in our field.
A rejection is a form of acceptance.
Getting a response from a reporter or editor is actually a form of acceptance. Well, kind of. It’s certainly better than no response and even if the message is a rejection, there’s value in that personal connection. If a journalist responds to you after a pitch, consider that as the beginning of your relationship with them rather than only a pass on your current pitch. Plus, sometimes their responses can offer helpful feedback both on specific pitches and in general. For example, maybe what you sent wasn’t a direct fit, but it was relevant enough for them to reply. If they know you are pitching timely stories that fit their beat or are pertinent to their audience, they are more likely to open your email in the future. Whatever the reason for the rejection, that message opens the door to building a professional relationship, which is essential for success.
Timing is everything.
Sometimes a rejection is all about timing. Maybe an editor just received a piece on a similar topic or they already spoke with an expert source. According to Muck Rack’s 2023 State of Journalism Report “bad timing” is the second highest reason why reporters turn down a pitch, right behind lack of personalization. Many times, we can save a pitch and tweak it with a new angle. For example, if you have a piece on a state banning abortion pills, you save the piece and revise as needed the next time there is a Roe v. Wade issue in the news. If you have an expert on the Supreme Court, you can get your expert source on a reporter’s radar for the next time SCOTUS hands down a decision.
We’ve all received a piece when there is just not enough time to edit and pitch. Sometimes you get lucky but more often than not, editors have their coverage for a particular event, holiday, or pending news lined up. Instead of sending out something that’s not in the best shape possible for acceptance or scrambling to meet an unrealistic timeline knowing the high likelihood that it’s already being covered, you can get that piece 90 percent to the finish line and save it for the next news hook. For example, when it was announced that Rihanna would headline the Super Bowl in September, I pitched an idea for a piece about how Black women do a lot of the advocacy for white people; while the editor felt the timing was off, she thought it would be a good piece, with a slightly different angle, to run right after the Super Bowl. The piece was drafted well before the big event, so then the writer only had to update with what happened during the performance.
Persistence is key.
If your hopes for national mainstream media don’t pan out, don’t give up! I can count on my hands the number of times I gave up on a pitch or a piece because rejection gives me an opportunity to get creative in finding something a home. There are likely a number of trade journals and associations in your field that you could consider. You could revise it for more of a local audience and share with local media outlets. Maybe it is something a client could use on their website, or maybe you could carve some sound bites or quotes out of a written piece and pitch it as commentary to reporters. And this last strategy works in reverse, too; if you ask your client for a couple of sentences to share with a journalist and they sent you a few paragraphs, you may be able to turn that into a written piece or op-ed.
Go local to get national.
In local media relations, there is still rejection but a lot less. Reporters in your backyard are looking for local and personalized stories. While you might get a rejection from national NPR, you can pitch your local affiliate, and many times those stories will get picked up by national NPR. And Local outlets can also be a great place for those just starting to engage with the media. If your sources aren’t ready for prime time, they’re going to be passed over for opportunities. Instead, try to get them some local interviews under their belt to help them prepare for national interviews. Actively engaging with local media also helps you maintain strong connections with the journalists serving your community. As newsrooms get shuffled around and reporters and editors make career changes, those relationships can grant access to different opportunities.
Even if you reframe it, rejection is tough and happens to the best of us in our field. So when it does start to get to you, vent to a colleague, take a quick walk outside, or treat yourself to coffee. Or better yet, create an email folder to fill with emails that highlight your successes instead of your rejections.