Back to Basics: the Dos and Don’ts of Contacting Journalists

I’m what’s affectionately known (hopefully) at Distilled as a ‘boomerang’. That is I worked here many moons ago as Head of PR and now in the immortal words of, well a million people in a million movies, “I’m back baby”.

One of the things I’ve learned over the years, working with smart people in hard-working teams is the tendency to try and run before you can walk. So, with the benefit of new experiences and hindsight, I’m gonna take you all back to the basics of PR and outreach (specifically contacting journalists) with a list of dos and don’ts.

Do

Be human

When you’re in ‘getting shit done’ mode it can be easy to turn into a mega methodical machine - ticking through that to-do list and hammering out hacks to make you as efficient as can be. But treat bloggers and journalists as a mass group at your peril. A little personalisation goes a long way. This applies to tone too. They’re just people at the end of the day - don’t bamboozle them with corporate speak, or worse, marketing jargon. They don’t want to ‘touch base’, they just want a blimmin’ good story!

Don't be mistaken for a robot in your emails.

Golden rule: Read your email out loud. How does it sound? If you wouldn’t say it (er, hello ‘kind regards’) then why write it?

Find the story

To continue in the same vein, for journalists content isn’t king, stories are. You can have the best graphic, game, quiz or visualisation in the world but if you can’t find a relevant hook or peg - journalists won’t be interested. Put the groundwork in and find a relevant way to pitch your piece. Is there a fitting (and well known) anniversary coming up? Can it be tied to something topical that’s already being reported on? Or perhaps you have an influencer you can use to make it more newsworthy? Whatever is it, find a way to hook your content to the news or prepare to be ignored.

Golden rule: This one’s quite simple really - read the news! The more you read, the more you know. Plus, using a news aggregator like Google News, you’ll be able to learn about the stories from different angles, allowing you to tailor your pitch to suit individual publications.

Write well

We all have pet peeves. What may seem pedantic to many will really piss off a few. For most writers this peeve is as obvious as it sounds; writing! If you email them with sloppy grammar and spelling, don’t expect to be taken seriously. We’re all guilty of making the odd typo or two but now is not the time. Take care with your pitch emails. Avoid evil cliches and jargon, be careful with capitalisation, proofread, proofread, proofread and - most importantly, make sure you get their name right.

Make sure your writing is bulletproof.

Golden rule: Even the biggest grammar pedants among us (oh hai!) make mistakes. Use an extension like Grammarly to be super confident you haven’t made any errors.

Don’t

Be a salesperson

You know when you go to a department store to buy something... You’re busy, you know where you need to be. You’re focused on getting to the right-hand corner of floor three, grabbing the thing and getting the hell out of there. Now picture this, you accidentally look the sales guy in the eye and he’s onto you. There’s no getting away now - you’re forced to listen to some scripted sales patter about some shit you’ll never want, or need. You die a little inside as you wonder how to politely tell him to ‘do one’.

And that’s how journalists feel when you try to convince them your content will work for them. If you’ve made a decent piece and found a decent angle all you need to do is present it to them alongside the facts. Don’t pepper your pitch with adjectives or tell them how great the content is. If it really is great, it’ll speak for itself - and journalists (they’re human, remember) are smart enough to make that judgement for themselves.

Golden rule: Do the work up front and the content will sell itself.

Over complicate

Just as it can be tempting to try to ‘sell’ your piece, it can be tempting to over complicate too. Made an irreverent game loosely hinged on politics? “Hey! Let’s peg it on the next election and write a press release on the pros and cons of each UK political party.” Hmm, or not. Why not peg it to the latest gaffe by whatever politician has most recently made an arse of themselves, and pitch it for what it is - a bit of lighthearted fun. Tell it how it is, it’s much easier for people to understand that way.

This applies to pitch emails too. Don’t write reams and reams of explanation - just send a brief synopsis and tell the journalists why you think it’s relevant to them and their publication.

Golden rule: If in doubt, KISS (keep it short and simple).

Pester

Journalists are inundated with calls and emails and their workloads are insane, so it’s fair to say the odd email or two may slip through the net. To this end, being chased by PRs is par for the course so they expect the odd follow up or two and it’s totally fine to check in and see if they’re interested. But there’s a line. Following up is fine but pestering is not cool. Not cool at all. If you’ve emailed and called a few times, give up the ghost, they’re not interested. Don’t demand feedback and don’t burn bridges. Maybe they’ll be interested next time.

Golden rule: Don’t assume just because a journalist covered your last piece, they’ll cover your next. Relevance is key. And if you make this assumption you’re at serious risk of pissing them off.

In conclusion

So there you have it, a back to basics guide that you’ll do well to remind yourself of. We’re all guilty of picking up the odd bad habit or two along the course of our careers but, if you start at the beginning, and get the fundamentals right, you’ll stand a much better chance of success.

Get blog posts via email