You have products or a service to sell.
A shop, an event, a course you want to draw attention to. Or you’re a musician, artist, writer or other creative trying to grow your audience. Getting featured in the media can change everything.
So you’ve tried. You’ve sent out press releases. You’ve approached newspapers and magazines, even individual journalists. No one seems interested. Why? Let me tell you how it feels from the other side.
I’ve was a journalist for more than 30 years. I edited an influential monthly magazine in the UK, and the weekly magazine of one of the UK’s big Sunday newspapers. (You can see my journalism portfolio here.) And even 20 years ago, when I left my last full-time job to write freelance, the sheer volume of emails, letters and information that poured in was overwhelming.
Since then, most media outlets have endured round after round of staff cuts. And I’d imagine that the volume of emails and information has increased exponentially.
So you need to stand out. You need to get the tone and the idea right for that outlet and their readers or audience. Anything else is a waste of time. Even if you get it right, you must accept that on a heavy news day, or a day when the person you’ve approached just has a lot on their plate, your carefully crafted pitch will get lost. It’s all about getting the right idea to the right person at the right time, and that takes persistence, patience—and a little bit of luck.
Here are some basic guidelines that can help increase your chances of success.
Do something remarkable
Don’t follow the rules. Or do the expected thing. A band playing a local gig? Happens every day. A band playing a gig solely for deaf people? More interesting. Stress what is different about you and what you do. What is new and exciting.
Find a great angle. In fact, find more than one!
The same story can be presented in a hundred different ways. A local paper will look for something that connects to their specific area. National papers will be more interested in general trends. A trade magazine will want a different kind of story to a consumer title. And there are blogs and podcasts covering almost every strange niche and specialism you can imagine. Get creative. Find a new angle for everyone you approach. One that works for their audience.
Keep it short and to the point
Did I mention how busy editors and journalists are? Things they want to know: why should my specific readers care about this? Provide a strong, punchy angle or emotional hook. If it’s an event, when and where? If it’s a product, where can you buy it and how much?
Have an eye-catching subject line
‘Press release’, ‘pitch’ or ‘story idea’ is not a subject line. ‘Exhibition by local artist’ might be accurate, but it won’t grab attention. ‘First ever art show in 800-year-old Scottish castle’ is more likely to attract local media.
Do you have an interesting take on a current news story? Perhaps a politician has just fluffed a major speech—that’s a good time for, say, a hypnotherapist to explain how their services can help with a fear of public speaking. Or a painting has just sold at auction for record sums, and you put out a press release for your gallery/art show, saying that original art isn’t just for billionaires.
Make it personal
I don’t care where you were born, where you trained, any of those dry details. Readers want some sort of emotional connection, much more than the facts. Be human. Be real. Show some emotion. Connect.
Check twitter regularly
It’s a good way of keeping up with news trends when you have something to promote (see above). But it’s also worth monitoring #journorequests: a channel for journalists to request help on stories. If you’re what they’re looking for, get in quick as they’re often on deadline.
The fast-moving world of twitter is where journalists look for stories. Last December, I tweeted an angry comment about a sudden change in lockdown rules and how it had affected my elderly mum. It hit a nerve. Within 24 hours I was approached by several TV and radio outlets, and commissioned to write about it in the Times newspaper. I wasn’t intending this. I was just throwing a pity party, and wanted a bit of love from my friends. But it shows what the right tweet, at the right time, can do.
Don’t load emails with too many attachments and pictures
Over-worked office email systems will often block them. When sending in commissioned work to some newspapers, I don’t even attach my copy as a Word document, as the entire email often disappears. Include contact details for everyone involved. And link to a press pack on your site (with clear, uncluttered pictures). This shows a journalist or editor that it will be a straightforward story to do. And when you’re busy, easy and straightforward is everything.
Pitch to the right publication
This should be obvious and yet.. When I edited The Face magazine, freelance writers would regularly send in live reviews. Even though we didn’t have a review section. At The Observer magazine, we’d get pitched all kinds of stories that belonged in other parts of the newspaper—or in a different publication altogether.
Everywhere I’ve worked, a good quarter of the pitches sent in were completely inappropriate for our readership. Read the publication you’re pitching to. Try to work out who their readers are, the audience. Get clear on the sort of stories they cover and make sure your idea is suitable.
Pitch to the right section or slot in that publication
If you have a strong opinion or new insight into something currently in the news and are willing to write it up, you want the comment editor. If you have some interesting new data, or a news story idea, contact the newsdesk or an individual journalist who specialises in that area—and ask them to quote you in what they write.
Look at the regular slots in your goal publication. If they have regular formats they use in every issue—and almost every magazine does—how might you fit into that?
If you get feedback, act on it
The live reviews came to The Face so frequently that I wrote a template letter explaining why we didn’t use reviews. I also outlined the stories we were always looking for. It was astonishing how often the same people responded by sending in… yet more live reviews.
Pitch to the right person
Again, this should be obvious. Do some research. What section of the paper/magazine/show is a good fit for your work, or the story you’re pitching? Check social media or call up and find out who edits that section, and send your pitch to them. Vague ideas with requests to ‘please forward this to the right person if it’s not for you’? They’re deleted or go straight into the bin.
Follow media people on social media, see the sort of stories they cover. Comment if you like something they’ve done. Invite them to your gigs/openings/events.
Pitch at the right time
Which is always earlier than you think. Monthly publications commission stories months in advance. Even daily news bulletins often have their human-interest stories mapped out surprisingly far ahead. If you’re sending in ideas to a publication regularly, it’s also worth finding out when their busy times are: during press week on a monthly, for instance, most of the staff are working full out putting the issue together and won’t be checking emails. The week after, however, they’re actively looking for new ideas.
So if there’s any kind of celebrity angle, emphasise it!
If your pitch is ignored, don’t take it personally.
It doesn’t mean the editor is a monster, or your idea was a bad one. It just means they were busy, your proposal got lost in the deluge, the pages were already full, or it wasn’t what they were looking for that month/week/day. Even if your idea was terrible, it will be one of many that day, deleted and forgotten in seconds. There is no central database of people to avoid, no blacklist. Just improve on it and try again.
Keep at it
As an editor, I never minded people being persistent—not unless they turned rude or abusive. If someone kept popping into my in-box, it told me they had some grit and determination. So if I did commission them or decide to cover them, they’d definitely deliver.
It’s not always about you
Connect with a cause. Raise money for charity. Share your big mission, your why. Talk about the people you help with your service or portray in your art, not just about yourself. It’s always easier to promote something if it’s bigger than you. And people will connect with you more as a result.
Have a good story to tell
This is all about really owning what you do and having clear ways of describing it. Practice this. Make an emotional connection. Cut out the waffle and unnecessary details. If you want your story covered, it needs to be a good one!
Become an expert
Choose a niche and get really knowledgeable about it. Blog about it. Discuss it on social media. Podcast about it. Write a short e-book or launch a course about it. If you show up on the first page of Google in this niche, and you have interesting things to say, the media may well start approaching you.
Don’t dismiss podcasts
It’s often easier to guest on a podcast than to get into a newspaper or magazine. They’re great for communicating with your niche audience. And most journalists I know listen to a lot of podcasts, looking for ideas and experts they might use to build stories.
This takes time, energy and persistence. That’s why many people employ a PR to do it for them! But keep at it, and it’s perfectly possible to do it without help.