Inside the Mind of a Journalist

Inside the Mind of a Journalist: Pitch Advice from Leading Washington, D.C., Media 

July 1, 2024

At the last month’s Ragan PR Daily Media Relations Conference, communications professionals from across the country gathered in Washington, D.C., for workshops, presentations and panel conversations to learn from each other and keep up with the latest media relations trends. 

While many of the sessions were valuable, I found the most insightful programming of the event to be two panel discussions and a pitch workshop with leading beltway journalists from The Hill, NPR, POLITICO, C-SPAN and PBS NewsHour. They shared their pet peeves, best practices and top preferences for working with media relations teams. Some of their remarks served as helpful reminders, while other pieces of advice provided insight into how the industry is changing. 

I’m sharing my biggest takeaways from the conference, so that more PR pros can avoid the spam box: 

1. Be specific: PR pros will often refrain from giving away the whole story in the pitch and instead will tease to vague “insights” that a spokesperson has to try and entice the journalist to accept an interview. There is a misconception that you need to leave the reader wanting more. However, reporters don’t have time to entertain pitches or take interviews that aren’t guaranteed to provide value to them. Thus, pitches are more successful when they are specific about the value a spokesperson can offer to the journalist. 

2. Avoid PR jargon: When we hear everyone around us using certain terminology on a regular basis, it can be easy to forget that PR jargon doesn’t always translate outside the industry. This came up a few times as a journalist pet peeve. One journalist even went  as far  to say, “If you use the term ‘thought leader’ in your pitch, it’s going straight to spam.” 

3. Use AI wisely: The journalists agreed that they could tell when a pitch was written by AI. While AI provides a useful tool for idea generation, it is important to personalize and humanize any pitches written with AI. It may be time consuming, but that time will pay off when used correctly.  

4. Understand email etiquette: If you are pitching multiple reporters from the same outlet, pitch them on the same email rather than sending separate emails. Reporters will often forward on pitches to relevant team members, and it saves them time when they can see the right people are on the “to” line.  

5. Subject lines matter: One reporter on the panel said that she scrolls through her inbox like a Twitter feed. It could be the best pitch ever written, but if it doesn’t have an attention-grabbing subject line, it may never get read. 

6. Phone pitching isn’t dead: In a post-COVID environment where reporters are more frequently away from their desks and newsroom phones, many PR pros have stopped prioritizing phone pitching. However, many of the reporters on the panel said they prefer text or phone pitches opposed to email. 

7. Follow up – within reason: Journalists are busy, and emails genuinely get lost in their inbox. If the pitch is good, reporters appreciate a follow up or even two.   

8. Read before you pitch: You should always familiarize yourself with a journalist’s coverage before you send a pitch. Referencing a reporter’s previous stories in your pitch is a well-known best practice. However, the reporters also said they loved hearing positive feedback on their coverage and perspectives on new angles, especially when it comes without a pitch. 

Many of these takeaways may seem obvious, but PR pros too often break these unspoken rules in the name of efficiency or “spray and pray” tactics. Casting a wide net is more often than not a waste of everyone’s time.  

That brings me to my final lesson of the conference which is well-known but often under-appreciated – and that is the value of building relationships. Every reporter is different and what works for one may not work for another. Some reporters prefer pitches exclusively on email, and others prefer to be texted. Some appreciate a subject line with a clever pun, while others want to get straight to business. After all, it is called media relations for a reason. 

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