PR Strategy: How to Pitch the Media Story Ideas on Behalf of Your Client

by Kaitlin Dilworth, Senior PR Strategist

Can you explain what “lead-time” means in terms of when to pitch the media?

Lead time describes the amount of time that a journalist has between starting a writing assignment to publishing the completed piece. Depending on the publication, lead times can range anywhere from a few hours to a few months. For instance, most national print magazines plan their issues four to six months in advance while online publications are able to post coverage within hours. It is important to stay on top of specific media outlets lead time in order to make your pitches relevant and ensure your client is a fit for the coverage they are working on. This means in the summer a PR strategist could be pitching “July 4th grilling” stories to online media, a “back to school” feature to major newspapers, and “holiday gift ideas” to top-tier print magazines – all at the same time.

How do you make your client relevant to a particular journalist or publication?

Start by doing some research on the media contact and see what topics they typically cover. You need to give them a reason why you are reaching out to them about a particular subject. Was it because you read an article of theirs that was relevant? Did you find a bio that lists what topics they write about? A simple Google search can tell you a lot about the journalist to help you determine if they would be an appropriate fit. Also feel free to point blank ask them: what are you working on? A PR strategist should be a resource to journalists, so make your clients available to them when they need an expert source to chime in on a story. Expert commentary is so important to journalism and helps support the credibility of your client. It’s a win-win.

Are there certain times of the year that are better for pitching one industry than another?

Absolutely! An outdoor grilling company can expect to see a lot more coverage in the summer than in the winter. However, going back to lead time, a PR strategist would pitch magazines their grilling client 4-5 months before the summer to have them included in those issues. Then during the spring and summer, the PR strategist will pitch online media outlets to generate more immediate coverage. During the winter the most you can hope for is to be included in a few holiday gift guides and then it’s time to start pitching for spring/summer coverage again. Also, it isn’t a good idea to reach out to media contacts on holidays when they are most likely on vacation. Sending emails around a holiday is a wasted pitch that will most likely be buried in their inbox and never read. Remember that journalists are people and no one wants to be bothered on their day off.

How do you ask the media if your client can contribute to their story?

I find it best to just be honest and direct. Reach out and offer your client up for expert commentary by being informative and straight to the point.

“Hi, I wanted to reach out because I am working with the CEO of a medical supplies company who has some incredible insight on where the healthcare industry is headed. I see that you cover innovations in the healthcare industry so I wanted to offer him up for expert commentary for any articles you have in the works. Let me know if I can send you more information about him and show you how he became one of the leading suppliers of medical equipment in the country.”

What are your tactics for getting your client positive coverage during a news crisis?

One company’s crisis can be another’s ticket to fame. Use an exciting news cycle as an opportunity to insert your client into the news as a positive authority. For example, United Airlines had a PR debacle earlier this year when a passenger was forced off of an airplane, we reached out to breaking news editors to have our CEO comment on how United Airlines is handling this crisis in the media. We were able to reach out and say,

“Are you covering the news about United Airlines that broke today? We have a crisis communication expert who can provide commentary on how United Airlines has handled themselves in response to the public backlash. Let me know if we can help!”

This pitch generated discussions with journalists covering the issue and enabled us to secure our CEO some great press while helping the journalists to complete their story. It’s all about maintaining that symbiotic relationship between PR pros and the media. This sort of coverage further establishes our CEO as an industry expert and ensures other journalists he can be used as a valuable source for future news cycles.

How quickly do you need to react to a news cycle that relates to your client’s industry?

The sooner the better! If you don’t jump on a timely news cycle someone else will. Recently, I had a journalist ask me if I had someone who could provide a quote for an article that they were working on. I called a client, crafted the quote, emailed the journalist back in under an hour and they had already gone with a quote from someone else. The journalist needed the quote to complete their story and whoever was able to provide what they needed the fastest was who published in their article. It is smart to keep a few pre-approved, evergreen responses at hand for when and if you need it.

What are some tips for crafting an email pitch that will get a response?

First, don’t disregard the subject line. A weak subject line can prevent your email from ever being opened in the first place. I like to put the media contact’s name in the subject line if I can. That shows that this is not a mass email and is intended specifically for this one person because of a specific reason.

Next, craft a strong opening line and get to the point right away. After your greeting jump right into the reason you are emailing them today. Including brand or company details further down in the email is fine but you have to be upfront and grab their attention in that first sentence. Compelling emails always present the value of your pitch right away. How will the journalist or their audience benefit from featuring your client? Will their knowledge-hungry audience learn new details on a topic that interests them? Where might your client share the article once it’s published? Get creative when thinking of value. Lastly, try to avoid using too many ALL CAPS or $!@ symbols, or even too many hyperlinks, as this can cause your email to be mistaken for spam.

Can you share some advice on how to form lasting relationships with media contacts?

Putting forth a little effort to form a real relationship can go a long way and will be memorable. Try following them on Instagram and Twitter and see what they like to post about. Take note of their hobbies and ask about them. You can see where they are from and maybe you have some connection that you can talk about there. Maybe you see that they posted about a brand that is relevant to your client or has nothing to do with your client and you are just a fan, let them know about it. Then if you can, invite them to meet for coffee and put a face to the name. Once they become more than media contact X and you become more than PR rep Y, and the whole game changes.

How has the focus on digital media changed traditional PR?

The focus on digital coverage has grown exponentially in just the past few years. Eight years ago a client’s primary goal was to secure coverage in traditional print magazines and newspapers. Clients wanted to go to the newsstand and physically see their name mentioned in print. Today, the magazine’s online affiliate is much more valuable because it is able to be shared on social media platforms and boosting it with SEO ensures it will live online forever.

A piece of digital coverage for a brand can be shared on social channels, posted to the brand’s blog, featured on their website, and pushed out via digital marketing efforts like Facebooking Advertising. This same piece of coverage can be tracked for effectiveness in many ways. Did it directly boost sales? Send traffic to the brand’s website? Secure more fans and likes across social channels? If dealing with a B2B company, how many leads did the piece generate? Luckily for B2C companies, consumers do most of their shopping online so having a link to buy directly in the article provides a much higher ROI than it used to.

Then, there is the power of today’s social media influencers. Popular social media influencers who have millions of followers have a huge impact on today’s consumer. A viral Instagram post is equivalent to what a celebrity endorsement used to be as far as establishing a brand’s popularity. But most of all what the digital age has brought to PR is the sheer speed and ability that a brand is able to connect directly to their target audience.

What is the most common question that you answer when discussing working with a client?

When can we expect to see coverage in ‘blank’ publication?”

I always get that question. People want to know if they are paying for media coverage when can they expect to see it. It is important to manage those expectations from the start of any PR campaign. It is normal to set media goals and target high-level media outlets but at the end of the day, a PR strategist can never 100% guarantee coverage in a particular magazine at a particular time. Public relations is all about guiding the conversation with the media to produce as much valuable coverage as possible.

Before we start that dialog there is honestly no way of knowing how the client will be received by the media and what type of coverage we can expect. Be clear with the client about lead-time and explain that quality coverage takes time. Remember that it is a process from crafting that first message, to finding the right fit, to collaborating with the journalist, to seeing the final product. I have found that clients are generally receptive when you just explain how the media operates and the steps that it takes to generate coverage. In our hyper-digital world someone is going to tell your brand’s narrative – don’t you want to take control and use PR to tell your own story?

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