How to make your pitch perfect: Expert advice from reporters
To understand what it takes to score headlines, walk a mile in a reporter’s shoes. Every week, journalists get tons of emails and phone calls about special speakers, religious concerts, charitable events and volunteer opportunities. You’re not the only one pitching the biggest or best story. Everyone from Boy Scouts to 5K marathoners to Little Leaguers hopes for a headline.
Take it from a pro!
In August 2015, the Religion Newswriters Association honored reporters showing excellence in religion reporting. Four recipients shared tips to help make your pitch perfect:
Make your story stand out. Make the reporter want to write about it and the public want to read it.
Lilly Fowler, Second place, metropolitan newspapers
Make me understand why the information in your press release is relevant to my readers.
Jennifer Preyss, First place, small-sized newspapers (Cassels Award)
I always encourage pastors and others to let me know what’s going on, with the understanding I can’t always write about it.
Peter Smith, First place, metropolitan newspapers
What attracts me is a new idea of an innovative approach on a traditional narrative.
Kelsey Dallas, First place, mid-sized newspapers (Cornell Award)
Grab their attention
What’s the message? Catchy counts! Every ink-slinger wants your story to draw them in. They want imagination, new spins and a little pizzazz – beginning with the subject line.
A subject line can make or break your pitch. To perk up your first impression, personalize your story. Include the editor’s name or refer to something the writer produced. Connect a writer’s work and your story angle. Pull the writer in with an idea that expands his or her story and benefits you.
Getting to know you
Next on your list is writing a press release relevant to the reporter’s audience. Walk again in a reporter’s sneakers. What is their “beat?” How far is their geographical reach? What kind of stories do they like to write? What do their readers like to read?
“Before sending me PR pitches, consider me and my audience,” Preyss said.
All reporters have a modus operandi – a preference for emails or phone calls, people stories or institutional chitchat, research reports or trend-based articles, traditional report-and-write or Twitter.
For instance, Dallas needs a heads up a month out from your promotion or event. Give Fowler two weeks’ notice. Preyss may pull off story in a week or so if she has received an advance email.
When it comes to connecting, Preyss is “old school.” She prefers meeting face to face. She likes to receive her pitches a month out. Too many phone calls distract Dallas, so she requests emails only and 30 days’ notice. Fowler is up for receiving both phone calls and emails, but likes to have time to prepare for a story.
All three encourage persistence and follow-up.
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Scaling mountains of pitches
How do you get your church's news on the top of that pile?
- Connect the dots between church and community. Bring world news home. “I’m often getting story pitches about a church’s short-term mission trip,” Smith said. “We can’t cover all of them. But when the Ebola epidemic broke out …, we contacted a church with a long history of missions work in West Africa.”
- Make whatever you’re selling reporter friendly. Preyss likes articles with a “feature” element. Although she has written many stories on religious diversity and other “serious” stuff, she said a lighter approach “will often get more attention than harder news stories,” especially locally.
- Find a secondary angle. “Events are typically lame stories,” Preyss said. “It’s always better to find a secondary angle that will make me pay attention to the church itself.”
- Provide “the works”! “Present … a complete story idea and say who can be contacted,” said Pryess. “Help facilitate the story. You can even ask, ‘How can I help?’”
- “No comment” is a no-no. “When there is a crisis, too many people try to control the message by not communicating,” Fowler said. “The church can either make the situation better by being transparent or make the situation worse by withdrawing.”
- Stay in the loop. Public relations gurus are guessing media will hone in on trends in religion, religious diversity and research. Controversy, of course, always grabs attention. More than ever, the buzz will be about social influence on religious values. Reporters will look for ways national news affects local churches and how local churches may make national news. Visuals are essential.
- Remember: Press releases do not guarantee media coverage!
— Susan Passi-Klaus is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tenn.