Media Insights: Interview With Melissa Daniels, Senior Reporter at Modern Retail
When securing coverage for clients, it’s important to understand which reporters to pitch to and how to effectively communicate with them. Continuing our media insights blog series, I caught up with Melissa Daniels from Modern Retail to discuss some best practices for PR professionals, from pitch style and subject lines to embargos and exclusives.
Melissa is a senior reporter at Modern Retail and has 15 years’ experience in various facets of the media industry, including print journalism, video production, social media management and more. In this conversation, Melissa lends her expertise to inform PR professionals on how to have impactful working relationships with journalists.
Tell me a little bit about your background and how you became a senior reporter at Modern Retail.
I’ve been working in media for about 15 years now, from internships and freelance work in college up to now. I have done a lot of different jobs: I’ve been an editor, reporter, social media manager, comms manager, freelance press agent, copy editor and video producer. My career has touched a lot of mediums and a lot of locations as well — not just digital newsrooms, but physical newsrooms. Some of my first jobs were in old school newsrooms where you could hear the printing press from the back. I really learned media from the basics of being a newspaper reporter.
I attended Syracuse University for my undergraduate, where I majored in newspaper journalism. That’s not even a major anymore, to give you a sense of how dramatically things have changed. While it’s very true that I’ve had many different experiences and roles in journalism and media, I think that’s just as much a reflection of the changing landscape as it is my own interest in staying current. When someone gives me an opportunity to do something I’ve never done before, it’s really hard for me to say no.
More recently, I spent the COVID-19 pandemic covering local news in Palm Springs, California. I was a business reporter at a time when the tourism market imploded in a very tourist-centric destination. That was a really fascinating and scary time to be in news, because there were so many unprecedented things happening that we had to cover. I also took that time to go back to school. I pursued a graduate degree in digital audience strategies, which helped me better understand social strategy and internal comms operations. I also used that time to explore being a social media manager, a comms manager and a freelancer while I was finishing up my degree.
I joined the Modern Retail team this summer. I was really drawn in by the opportunity to focus on a specific beat that affects so much of our daily lives – how we spend our hard-earning money. Plus I missed talking to founders, startup folks and investors, who tend to be passionate and interesting people. I missed following the money. I missed diving into macroeconomics and how that affects everyday people, as well as brands. I’m interested in the environment and sustainability, and I want to explore the intersection of commerce and the environment. I love hearing about the innovative things that brands are doing to cut down on waste.
How do you decide what to cover and when to cover it? What interests you most when you are looking for a story?
Every reporter is going to have a different answer to that question. You follow your nose. For me, I really like focusing on stories that reference sustainability and cutting down on waste, as well as stories about how people are spending their money. I’m less interested in NFT drops and metaverse launches than I am with a grocery store’s efforts to keep shoppers coming in as prices go up and discount stores become more attractive.
I am more interested in stories that affect the majority of consumers, rather than the cutting-edge niche. I’m not necessarily the reporter to pitch to about an NFT launch or niche AI marketing campaign. If it’s something that is going to affect how my mom shops, I’m more interested in covering that.
On the sustainability front, I’m really interested in the trial and error that brands and third-party providers are going through right now. I don’t think that’s something we’re even close to figuring out. Analyzing what’s working and what’s showing progress can lead to a really valuable story. I’m interested in looking at the data-driven ways that show waste reduction progress.
There seems to be some overlap between what various reporters at Modern Retail cover. How can PR professionals ensure they are pitching to the right reporter?
We all have reporter bios on the website, which can give you a little bit of insight into what folks are interested in covering. But we’re filing daily news stories for our daily newsletter, so we’re not really siloed in what we cover. The stories we cover are often based on the news tips we’re getting, the people that we’re talking to and what we’re hearing from sources.
I think everybody has their own interests as a reporter, and those interests are going to evolve over time. With any pitch, the worst thing someone can say is no. But our team is pretty small and tight knit, so we know what everyone is working on and interested in. If you pitch something for me that might not be a great fit, I may know someone on the team who is working on a related story.
Are there any retail stories or subjects, aside from metaverse or NFTs, that you’re sick of hearing about or don’t interest you that you get pitched a lot?
Some reporters are very averse to cold pitches. You will see in some Twitter bios, “No DM pitches.” I’m not one of those reporters. I’m perfectly fine with people reaching out to me on whatever channel they can. If they’re interested in having me talk to their company, the worst thing I’ll say is no. I try to respond quickly, even if it’s something I’m not going to follow up on.
When it comes to choosing which stories I will cover, I have to make sure they appeal to a broader audience in retail. I try to pick stories and topics that examine the “why” and the “how”, rather than the “what” of retail. I’m less interested in the specs of your new product launch than I am in the decision to launch it, the challenges and solutions you had to work through to produce it and what your marketing plan will be.
For example, I get a lot of really interesting pitches about furniture stories. It’s a space that I like to cover, but I’ll get pitches saying, “Hey, we’re launching this new chair. Do you want to write about it?” Pitches of that nature aren’t the right fit for me, as I’m not an influencer or someone who’s going to review your new product. If you can tell me about a new sustainable supplier you found, a way that you’re cutting costs or a way that you’re marketing it differently than you have any other product in your line, then that might be a conversation worth having.
Sometimes I have to remind PR folks that I’m not an extension of their marketing team. I say that with all the respect in the world. I went through a digital audience strategies master’s program that involved a ton of PR training and in-house perspective. But I can tell you that being treated as earned media isn’t a way to work collaboratively with journalists.
I do my job because I like to write every day, and because I want to publish stories that add context to these crazy times. I do my job to hopefully better educate people in retail and business about what they can do to make their workers and consumers more satisfied with their operations. That’s why I do this. I don’t do it to give people press.
On the PR side, we often have to balance being stuck in the middle of wanting to provide something interesting because we know it’s there and being limited to what the source is actually going to share. How would you recommend PR professionals handle that situation?
The story’s only going to be as interesting as a source allows it to be. I feel fairly confident in my track record as a reporter who does things very fairly and upfront. I’m not afraid to ask hard questions. I also am not trying to shock anybody or make anybody look like they don’t know what they’re doing. I’m interested in the best a source has to offer. As a reporter, I want to know why people should care. Don’t just tell me your company is innovative, but let’s look at the data and strategies that show that in your day to day operations. Those are the kind of details that can make for interesting stories.
Is there a specific criteria that you prefer your sources meet, or are you open to anyone offering a good story?
I’m pretty agnostic when it comes to a source’s title, especially if it’s something that someone worked on and is willing to share. If a company is willing to put a mid-level manager on the phone with a reporter because they spearheaded a cool project, I think that’s awesome.
I’m happy to speak with anyone from any level. That being said, when it comes to getting granular details on “the why” and “the how” of the story, it’s usually the C-suite folks who have that insight to share because they’re the ones who were in charge of a product or a rollout. They’re often the people that can share growth strategies or talk about what year-over-year percent growth looks like because they’re authorized internally to do so. I also like doing Q&As with C-suite folks because they often have interesting stories to tell about what they’ve been working on long term — which might not make it into a typical news story.
Every reporter seems to have different thoughts on how to approach pitching. Do you feel strongly about how a pitch subject line is formulated? Are there any practices that you particularly don’t like?
Personally, I like email pitches and I prefer that they go to my Modern Retail email. Just getting it in the right inbox is step one. As far as the subject line, the word “exclusive” will always get my attention. If you can offer me an exclusive on a story, put that in the subject line, as well as the brand’s name in the first couple of words.
Every day, I’m waking up to 50 or so fresh pitches, and I sort through all of them. I have an inbox-zero philosophy. Even if I don’t respond to each one, all of the pitches get filed into topical folders. The pitches that I’m most likely to respond to are ones that happen to relate to a story I’m already working on or when the agent pitching me has clearly identified that they’re familiar with my work. If you can tell me in the first paragraph of that email, “I saw you wrote about Gen Z’s use of buy-now pay-later, and I’ve got a story about Gen Z credit card use that might be interesting to you,” that is going to get me to read more of your email because I will realize that it isn’t just a blind pitch. That shows me that someone truly thinks that I’m going to be a good fit to tell their story.
PR professionals often send pitches that are too short. For example, if you’re going to give me a survey or a study pitch, it’s a good idea to throw some bullet points into the email so I can read what the survey is talking about. If the pitch is about a product announcement, attach a press release and a photo. When I get emails that are just three or four sentences without a signature or a phone number, it’s hard for me to make a connection. The more information I can see from the pitch, the more likely I am to get interested.
I’m curious about your thoughts on embargos. Some reporters prefer to have the exclusive or nothing at all, other than an FYI when the news is launched. Do you have any preferences when it comes to embargos?
Sometimes the issue with embargos is that no one wants to write the same story that everyone else is going to write the next day. It takes the wind out of your sails knowing that you’re getting pitched the same thing as every other reporter, and that the same CEO is going to do five different interviews at various outlets. That’s less exciting than having something that we know is exclusive for our readership. That being said, I am OK with an embargo when it’s something that can be exclusive to us or is something that is part of a larger story that I’m working on. It never hurts to send the embargoed pitch because the timing might work out if, for example, the embargo lifts on the 15th, but I’m planning a story about that topic for the 17th. It might work out well for me to get that interview and work it into the bigger story.
Sometimes we would prefer to do an exclusive when possible, but clients don’t always like that idea. How would you recommend we communicate the benefit of exclusives to those clients?
I think it might be helpful for those clients to know that an exclusive is just an exclusive for that moment. That’s just your entrance into the news cycle, and you never know what other press you’re going to get. Brands sometimes think an exclusive means only one outlet is going to write about them. I don’t think that’s true because if the news is big enough, other outlets will jump on it once it’s live. I certainly look out to see what news other reporters are covering, because even if I don’t write something on it that day, it might inform my coverage later on.
A good example of that is when Instacart announced “Big and Bulky” delivery. I didn’t have an exclusive, and no one pitched me on it — it was just something I saw in the news. But I was reading some other information about delivery that was interesting to me at the time. Based on this news, it seemed like Instacart had a pattern in going beyond groceries. I got some information from Instacart about their non-grocery delivery plans and rounded that out with some context of what’s happening in the delivery space. That’s an example of following up on news that’s not necessarily pitched to me. I think that could reassure clients that if their news is interesting enough, you can do an exclusive and other people will want to write about it eventually.
Do you have a favorite story that you’ve worked on, or any subject that you really enjoyed working on lately?
I’m really interested in writing about the ways companies are internally cutting down on waste. It’s important that we don’t solely put it on the consumer to reduce, reuse and recycle, and that we think about how institutions and systems can make those changes happen on a larger scale. I’m interested in hearing not just numbers but specifics from companies about what they’re doing in-house, a service that they’re launching or other strategies they’re using to cut waste from their current systems.
I’m also interested in writing about the intersection of retail and public policy – whether that’s federal legislation, state policies or regulations that are impacting businesses and their financial operations.
Thank you, Melissa, for taking the time to share your knowledge and media relations tips for PR professionals. Get in touch with us to learn how our media relations expertise can help your business reach its goals.