Thinking Like a Journalist: An Ex-Reporter’s Guide to Crafting Pitches That Land
We read their stories, follow them on Twitter and work alongside them nearly every day. But when it comes to pitching stories to reporters, public relations and marketing professionals often misunderstand our journalist friends.
As a former journalist myself, I’ve received more bad pitches in my inbox than I can remember — shameless promotion, pure fluff, egregious overhype and everything in between. The same goes for my Walker Sands colleagues who have also made the move from the newsroom to PR, and we’ve made it our mission to help our clients avoid committing the same mistakes.
Bad PR pitches do the exact opposite of their goal. Instead of sparking interest, they cause frustration for all parties involved. Annoyed reporters are baffled about why they keep getting more spam than substance, while disappointed CMOs are left wondering why they didn’t land on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.
Here is what usually goes wrong: Marketing executives are thinking like, well, marketers focused on the best way to promote and sell their products. Journalists, to put it simply, are not.
The pitches that resonate with reporters — and lead to top-tier coverage — are those crafted with the reporter, not the marketer, in mind. In other words, you have to think like a journalist.
Here are three ways adopting a reporter’s mindset can help improve your pitches:
1. Jargon. Fluff. Mumbo-jumbo. Whatever You Call It, It’s Getting in the Way
It’s a journalist’s job to cut through the fluff and explain complicated concepts in layman’s terms. In fact, most news stories are written at a middle school reading level.
Tech companies, on the other hand, like to describe their business and their products with grandiose superlatives and overly technical terms. That may work well in a sales deck or a pitch for investors, but it makes a reporter’s job more difficult by forcing them to sift through and decode tech lingo for their readers.
Your pitches can make life easier for reporters by providing substance rather than hot air, specifics over vagueness, evidence instead of hype — and, of course, keeping the tech-speak to a minimum.
2. What’s Important to You Isn’t Always “Newsworthy”
That new software update is big news for a company and its customers. It’s definitely big news for folks who spent more than a year working on the project, as well as the end-users who will reap its benefits. But it may not be actual “news” — at least not on its own.
Journalists are interested in stories that inform their readers about what’s going on in the world — and that creates a high bar for what’s news. Unless you’re Google or Microsoft, every announcement may not meet that standard, no matter how good your pitch is.
A more successful strategy involves positioning yourself to contribute to ongoing trends and discussion in the news cycle. For example, what does your software update show about the continued challenges of remote work? Or, how have you implemented new cybersecurity measures in the wake of high-profile hacks and data breaches?
Don’t get us wrong, there are times when your company news will hold on its own. But more often than not, successful pitches involve connecting your business to what’s already happening in the news.
3. Aligning With Journalistic Values
From holding the powerful accountable to acting independently, journalists have a distinct set of norms and values that guide their work. And it’s vital to understand those principles and how they apply to the stories they write. (The SPJ Code of Ethics is a good place to start.)
Yet too often, pitches appear oblivious or even in direct conflict with baseline journalistic norms, such as making assertions without proper evidence or attempting to dictate exactly what reporters write. Over time, that can degrade trust and sour a working relationship.
Instead of trying to control reporters, pitches should set you up to serve as a cooperative partner who helps reporters do their job — asking the hard questions, determining the validity of claims and verifying fact from fiction.
Pitching, like many aspects of PR, is a learning process. The relationship-building process takes time to understand how journalists think, what interests them and how you can best work together.
Granted, no one pitch format is a silver bullet; what works for one reporter isn’t necessarily going to work for another. But we’ve found that as clients move away from a marketer’s mindset, they become better at determining what separates a pitch that’s more likely to result in a story from one that’s destined for the trash folder.
Fortunately, Walker Sands has deep experience bridging the divide between our clients and journalists, with a long bench of seasoned ex-reporters who have worked on both sides. To us, thinking like a journalist comes naturally — and we’re happy to pass our expertise on to our clients.