Pitching tips: 3 things you’ll never know about journalists just by reading their work

by | Apr 21, 2016 | Journalism, Pitching Tips, Public Relations

Sometimes, when I try to interview a journalist about their preferences for dealing with PR people, they boil it down to two simple pieces of advice—”Know what I cover and read my stories.” That, and maybe, “Send me an email.” Usually, it means they’re pressed for time, or maybe they’re just uncomfortable having the tables turned and being the ones answering questions for a change. And sure, if you want to pitch a journalist, you should know what they cover and you should read their stuff.

But if you really want to know how a journalist interacts with PR pros, reading their work only takes you so far. Here are three things about journalists you’ll never know unless you look behind the byline:

How wide is their funnel? Some journalists are “sifters.” They don’t mind sifting through a high volume of pitches or press releases, as long as the emails fall within their beats. Sometimes they explain the philosophy like this: “Don’t try to determine whether or not it’s a story. Send it to me, and I’ll decide.” Typically, they’re quick with the delete key, and may not get beyond the subject line, but they’re not particularly bothered by the torrent of email. On the other end of the scale are journalists who want PR pros to be highly selective. “I’d rather get one or two of your very best ideas a year than a new pitch every few weeks,” is how one journalist has put it. Most journalists seem to be closer to the latter than the former, but the point is that you can’t tell just by reading their work.

How do you pitch experts? Many journalists like expert pitches with a strong news hook. You pitch an expert when the story is hot and the writer or editor is likely to be on the lookout for sources. This is especially true with newspaper and wire reporters. Others look for experts that they can keep on file, or just want to know about organizations that can provide experts should the need arise. Or they may not be open to expert pitches at all—instead, they’ll identify experts on their own, and seek out a PR person if they need help with access. So seeing an expert quoted in a story doesn’t provide a clue about how they got there.

Are they PR friendly? Some journalists are more amenable to relations with PR pros than others. It doesn’t mean they’re pushovers, but they see PR as one of numerous legitimate channels for obtaining information. Then you get comments like the following (contained in an email I received years ago from the editor of a regional business paper): “Flacks are like viruses, who seek to hijack the editorial decision-making of editors and reporters to promote their clients and make big money, much like a virus hijacks a cell’s machinery to reproduce more viruses. Please just leave us alone.” It may turn out that this editor regards a few PR pros as benign, but again, you’ll never know just by reading the paper. (My own attitude is that this editor must lack confidence in his reporters’ critical-thinking skills if he thinks their work can be so easily hijacked. And it turns out that some staffers at the paper are receptive to PR.)

So how do you learn these things if you can’t pick them up just by reading a journalist’s stories? That’s where MediaMiser comes in—providing a deeper look at journalists’ information with out media monitoring and media list building services. But it’s also a strong argument for the importance of building long-term relationships with journalists. Then you can ask them yourself—and go on to look at their stories.

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Steve Beale
Stephen Beale is the editor of Bulldog Reporter’s Inside Health Media, a publication for PR people in health and medicine. He covers media news and interviews health journalists about their preferences for dealing with PR people. Based in the San Francisco area, he previously worked as a technology journalist.

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