One of the biggest complaints I hear from friends and clients in PR is that it’s almost impossible to get a response from this editor or that editor despite repeated attempts. I wish I could tell them that there was some secret technique to make sure their pitch will always strike a chord or a foolproof trick to guarantee that elusive editor returns their call, but unfortunately it’s never quite that simple. Looking at the problem from the other end of the spectrum, however, there are a number of surefire ways to virtually ensure an approach falls on deaf ears.
1. Use the cookie cutter approach
Being first and/or exclusive is of paramount importance for journalists, so anything that has clearly been blasted out to a lengthy media list automatically plummets in the interest stakes. Indeed, I know of at least one editor who reaches for the delete button on practically every email that begins ‘Dear Media Friend’.
It’s therefore crucial to personalize your approaches if you want to maximize your chances of getting a response. Identify your key target in each category and approach them individually with an email that is aimed squarely at them and their publication (see #2), then follow up with a phone call the next day when you can be relatively sure they will have had time to read and digest your pitch.
Stress the exclusivity of the opportunity within their competitive set (if appropriate) and the level of urgency to accept or decline. If a larger blast is required, be sure to use the mail merge function to personalize the recipient’s first name at the start of the email. Sure, it will soon become apparent that it’s a mass email as they read on, but it might just buy you an extra few seconds to grab their attention.
2. Don’t bother with research
Relevance is key for editors, and the very least they expect from a pitch—whether from PR professionals or freelance journalists—is that it’s appropriate for their publication. A sure way to be ignored then is to demonstrate little or no knowledge of that publication, its sections and its usual content.
Before you pitch, take the time to familiarize yourself with the publication you are aiming for: flick through the last few issues (or online equivalent) to gain an understanding of the kind of stories they typically include, and formulate some solid ideas as to where (and indeed if) your client might fit in.
If you don’t know who is responsible for each section of the publication, check the masthead; it won’t always be definitive but it should give you a fair idea of who is the most appropriate person to pitch to. And look for regular features or sub-sections to target within those publications, then tailor your pitch to those specifically where applicable. These are often gaps that editors are looking to lock in early for the coming issues.
3. Beat around the bush
More than most, editors’ inboxes tend to comprise a relentless deluge of emails, a large proportion of which are invariably press releases or PR pitches of some form or another. As such, you probably have just a few seconds to grab their attention and pique their interest before they lose patience and move onto the next one, which is why it’s essential you start your approaches with not only a bang but all the pertinent information too.
This is when it pays to think like a journalist and to make use of the 'inverted pyramid’, one of the first things that reporters are taught when learning to write a story. In a nutshell, it means all the crucial info – i.e. who, what, when, why, where and how – goes in the first couple of paragraphs so that the reader gets the gist even if they don’t read to the end. Further layers of detail can follow, but nailing that opening salvo is key to getting the essence of your message across.
4. Be the boy (or girl) who cried wolf
It might sound obvious, but consider whether you actually have a story to tell or news to impart before you send out that press release. It’s all well and good wanting to keep your client top of mind, but the more non-stories you send out, the less likely editors will be to pay attention to your emails in future when you’ve really got something significant to push.
That said, there are various ways of making even fairly banal announcements sound more interesting, such as finding a timely news peg on which to hang it or placing it within a larger trend. The more angles you can offer, the more likely you’ll be to strike a chord or fit in with an upcoming theme. But if you don’t think it’s newsworthy, chances are no editor will either.
5. Be a nuisance
Persistence can be a virtue, but it’s a fine line between tenacious and vexatious—something you should be aware of when following up on pitches. A little bit of patience, and an appreciation of the times when editors are on deadline and at their most stretched, can often reap greater rewards than pressing for an answer.
Unless it’s really, really urgent, try to keep communication to emails or calls within office hours. In my experience few things are less likely to ingratiate you to an editor than needlessly bothering them on personal time, especially calling or texting them on their mobile after-hours or on weekends. But if circumstances dictate that you do have to push for a firm answer urgently, be gracious and apologetic. As with everything else in life, charm goes a long, long way.
And if you avoid all these pitfalls and still don’t get a response? Well, maybe it’s not meant to be this time. Don’t worry, there are plenty more editors in the sea.
Paul Kay is the former managing editor of Hong Kong Tatler, former editor-in-chief of Time Out Hong Kong and founder of Perfect Ink Media. For information on Paul’s media communication training courses, email firstname.lastname@example.org.