Last December, I spoke to the editors of Tonic, VICE Media’s new health channel for Millennials. As I often do when interviewing journalists, I asked about being pitched the opportunity to talk to an expert. One of the editors offered a typical reply.
“I tend to get pitched a lot of experts, and it’s usually in the context of ‘So-and-so is a cancer expert if you ever need to talk to a cancer expert.’ It would be way more useful if they approach us with a new breakthrough this guy is involved with, or some cutting-edge example of the research that they’re furthering, or some specific angle that they know and maybe we don’t already know. That’s really helpful. But it’s rare that I file someone away and then revisit them two months later when I need somebody to talk to me about diabetes.”
Don’t just say your source is an expert, show why.
Journalists also prefer expert pitches that have a viable news hook, a reason and a way to incorporate the expert.
Don’t just pitch the chance to talk with them, show how they will add to a timely story.
But it isn’t that easy.
Consider this response I got a few years ago from an editor with a top consumer magazine — “We like to get to know the expert first, and get to know their expertise, and sort of plug them ourselves into the stories.” — which goes directly against what our Tonic editor said.
And this one — “A lot of our story ideas are generated in-house [or by freelancers]. So it’s better to just talk about what fields they can discuss.” — which goes directly against the notion that journalists prefer a news hook.
Other journalists are leery of expert pitches in general, especially ones from companies or PR agencies (unless you’re representing higher education or non-profits, in which case you’ll have an easier time of it). “I’d rather find experts on my own,” is a common response when asked about expert pitches.
Three strikes, right? So what’s the solution?
As with so many other aspects of PR, you’ll have the greatest success by establishing relationships with the key journalists in your speciality — you’re more likely to learn their preferences, and they’re more likely to pay attention to your pitches.
Here are a few other points to keep in mind:
1. Be on top of the news. If you’re using a news hook, be sure you make the pitch when the story is still hot, not a day or two later.
2. Be sure your expert is available. If your source doesn’t promptly return calls or is otherwise inaccessible, it will do a lot of damage to your credibility.
3. Disclose any conflicts of interest. Imagine a pitch that says, “John Doe is president of Americans for the Abolition of Safety Pins” and the journalist later discovers that the group is funded by the makers of Velcro. It’s far better to reveal those ties up front.
4. Be sure they have something to say. Experts need to be quotable. One freelance writer put it best: “The biggest problem I have is getting experts who can’t talk. They give me ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers and can’t seem to postulate an opinion. Sometimes it’s like pulling teeth. PR people should know that if they have someone who can’t talk, either do some media training, or don’t put them out there.”
5. Take advantage of time differences. Some journalists on the East Coast like to hear about sources in the Pacific time zone. That way, if a story breaks late in the day, they have a shot at reaching the expert during West Coast business hours.
There is no surefire way to pitch experts to a journalist, but if you show why they’re an expert, explain how they’ll contribute to a story, and only send them to journalists whose beats and preferences you know are a good match, chances are your expert will be appearing up and down and all around the news.