Freelance writers provide an often-untapped opportunity to get coverage on websites and in a wide range of print media. But pitching them poses unique challenges—and based on my conversations with freelancers, this is a point that many PR pros seem to overlook.
Some freelancers operate as de facto staff writers—they have regular gigs with one or more outlets, and broad latitude to choose the topics they cover within a certain beat. They may have specialized expertise that positions them as the outlet’s go-to source in their field. But more commonly, they’re either pitching story ideas to editors, or getting assignments where they have little leeway to choose the subject matter. Often, it’s a mix of the two.
If the writer is pitching ideas, selling them on a story is only half the battle, because they have to turn around and pitch it to an editor. The same applies to some degree when pitching staff writers, but freelancers typically have a much steeper hill to climb.
For this reason, some freelancers like it when PR pros give them a total package, or at least the key elements they need to grab an editor’s attention: A compelling idea, experts or real people to interview, even a catchy headline. In most cases, the idea should be offered exclusively, since nothing will alienate a freelance more than learning that other writers are pitching that same idea to editors.
The trick, of course, is that this approach works only with some freelancers — others are loathe to accept pre-packaged ideas, and you can’t necessarily tell just by reading their work.
If the writer works on an editor’s assignment, your best bet may be to offer experts, but even here they may have limited sway over which sources get quoted in stories. More commonly, they’ll identify experts on their own, and their interaction with PR pros comes when they need help contacting those sources.
Regardless of how they get their work, freelancers typically cover a wider range of subject matter than staff writers, and it can be tough to predict which topics are likely to catch their interest. They may not have the luxury of working within narrowly defined beats, or they could be working in multiple areas that have little to do with each other. For example, the same freelancer who writes for parenting or travel publications could also be contributing to a B2B outlet in the trucking industry.
You should also recognize that a freelancer’s client mix and workload can change dramatically over time. Even the writer’s own website many not accurately reflect their current situation if they’re not keeping it up to date. Some freelancers have told me that it’s tougher these days to get magazine assignments, so they’re doing more corporate work. Or they may be on a long-term book project that consumes all their time.
All of these challenges are made easier if you think in terms of establishing long-term relationships. This applies to all journalists (see my previous column), but especially when you’re dealing with freelancers. Be prepared to do some research. Read their writing. Study their website. Learn their likes and dislikes. Approach them as individuals, not merely as names on a mailing list.
And rather than putting them on distribution list, introduce yourself, let them know what you have to offer, and ask how you can be of service. They’ll let you know what kinds of pitches or press releases they’re open to receiving, or at least may keep you in mind if they need help with a story.
The relationship may begin when the writer reaches out to you, and this is why responsiveness is so important. If you reply promptly to requests for experts or information, the writer is much more likely to go back to you when they need help in the future. Even if they’re writing for a relatively obscure outlet, or doing research in advance of pitching an editor, their next assignment could be for an A-list consumer magazine. The key is establishing yourself up front as a trusted and reliable resource.