Journalists reveal what makes them open your email pitches

Having a hard time getting through to your target outlet? Consider these essential steps.

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You found great data, you crunched the numbers, visualised them, put it all together into an amazing press release, and hit “send” to your top-notch list of media contacts.

Crickets chirp and tumbleweed blows by your desk.

Stories fall flat sometimes, even good ones and the reason often is that the pitch didn’t get through to the right person—or didn’t even get opened.

Having a journalist actually get to the stage where they read your press release is no mean feat, especially when you consider that journalists receive on average 500 pitches a day.

Getting them to consume your email pitch in the face of many others is a nut many in PR are still trying to crack. With a view to getting the information straight from the horse’s mouth, our agency spoke to journalists who revealed what exactly makes them open a press release email:

1.      The subject line deserves time.

One journalist revealed that they dedicate between 5–10 minutes to scanning their inbox for stories. With 500 pitches to sift through, that means they will eyeball your pitch for about 1 second before they decide whether or not it’s something they want to pick up. It doesn’t have to be clickbait, but something newsworthy enough to pique their interest.

Simon Read, broadcaster and editor from the BBC, told Reboot Online: “If it’s an email the headline is crucial: If it just says PR pitch or press release attached, I don’t look any further. It must show in four or five words why it’s topical and deserves time.”

2.      The pitch is to the point.

“Most pitches are a waste of time”

That’s what one journalist told us. A journalist’s time is very precious, so the last thing you want to do is waste it. Not only does news move fast, but they must attempt to keep up with it, so they don’t have much time to find stories. Our journalist revealed that of the 500 or so emails he has in his inbox, he only read around four of them properly.

Yes, only four pitches got to the next stage.

The last thing you want to do if you make it through, is waste the journalist’s time and end up getting your email deleted. Our source mentioned that he ignores emails that “don’t get to the point straight away.” This means removing all the fluff and padding. Tell the journalist what the story is about in the very first sentence.

Don’t bother with attachments as this is only an extra step that a journalist has to take before they get the information they need, a step they may not bother to take. Include everything in the body of the email, or use a Dropbox link if you need to for things like visualization of data.

3.      It is relevant.

What made our journalist open those four emails out of the 500 they received that day?

“One was specifically on a subject I was writing about so [it was] used as supplementary information in the article.”

Before reaching out to a journalist, find out what sorts of stories interest them most. What have they written about recently? You should think like a journalist, and have their readers in the forefront of your mind when pitching content. What would they like to read about?

Another tip is to take a look at their Twitter feed for any media requests they may have put out there, and see if you or a client could help answer their request.

Also ensure you personalize the email to whomever you are writing. Templated or blanket emails are very easy to spot, and could turn a journalist off. In fact, our source noted that he distrusts emails that start with “Dear Sirs” or “Dear Sir/Madam.”

4.      It is timely.

Not only should you make sure your email pitch is relevant to that particular journalist, but make sure it is relevant to current news.

Never before have PR pros seen the news dominated so much by one subject than since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now more than ever it has become vital to ride the wave rather than fight against it. Make stories relevant by looking for patterns and themes in the news. Your story doesn’t need to be directly related to COVID-19, but anything to do with having to stay in, keeping things clean or working from home will work nicely, whereas other stories related to travel or even eating out will not work in the current media climate.

Another journalist we spoke to stated that they get their stories “from the news, either responding to other stories or events, or from speaking to people and hearing what’s going on.”

If they get their stories from reacting to current news, then so should you.

Being timely also means sending out a press release at the right time. If you are “newsjacking,” or capitalizing on trending stories that you or your client could comment on or add to, then you want to make sure the story gets sent out before it is old news.

Another thing to consider is when you email your pitch. We have found that early morning emails work well as journalists aren’t bogged down yet by their daily tasks and may be able to spare a moment to scan their inbox.

5.      It is nicely presented.

When you are rushing to get a pitch out, it can be tempting to throw everything onto a page and press send, but the journalists we spoke to mentioned that they don’t read press releases as “most are so badly presented, that [they] don’t bother.”

Presentation is something we have really homed in on at Reboot. Make sure you have bulleted your most salient and interesting points from the release at the top. Include the tables of data and don’t bog the pitch down with too much text.

The journalists we spoke to also mentioned they don’t like too much text in bold, or the use of emojis either.

6.      It includes everything a journalist needs for an article.

Sometimes PR pros are tempted to have an extremely pithy pitch, with what they think is a temptation to get into a conversation with a journalist: “Get in touch if you’d like to see the research/story/data.”

Rather than enticing, this is frustrating to journalists on tight deadlines for stories, and you risk them not bothering to use your story at all.

Try and limit the amount of contact they need to have with you by including everything they could need to cover your story within your email. You can include a link to a Dropbox containing any imagery they might need and importantly, but almost always neglected, include your methodology if your story is research heavy.

7.      It has solid sources.

Finally, your pitch will only hold water if you have based it on solid research and data. Journalists have revealed that they often won’t take survey-based pitches, especially if the sample size is below 1000.

It is always good to take data from reliable sources (Gov.uk statistics for example), but don’t forget that journalists are also checking these sources themselves for a story. Unless you have a fresh angle on official data, it will likely be already covered.

Your best bet is to get your hands on proprietary data only you are in possession of. Of course, this can be a survey, but what is even better is official data that no one else has. An example of a great source of primary data is the information you can get from Freedom of Information requests, a lengthy and cumbersome process, but worth it in the end if you get your hands on something juicy to use.

Journalists are always grateful for thoughtful pitches that are genuinely useful, not too promotional, and are ready to go.

Abby Chinery is creative director at Reboot. 

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