The Dos and Don'ts of Pitching Journalists (Thanks for the Inspiration, Mashable!)

I could talk about pitching all day. I love game-behind-the-game strategy. Here are my rules.
Publish date:
September 16, 2013
pitching, PR, journalism, Mashable

Mashable just posted a terrific piece advising what the "do's and don'ts of pitching journalists" are on social media, and I'd like to add a few bits of advice as well. It's not related to social media -- but to pitching journalists in general. Take it or leave it, but I am sincerely telling you what has made the difference for me in writing a story or not writing a story about a product, person or even commissioning a piece. (Also, be sure to read this branding piece I wrote on how to get press. Lots more helpful tips and examples to be found in there.)

#1: Demonstrate how your story will DEMONSTRATE VALUE to the person you are pitching. (Not value to you.)

Imagine getting hundreds of emails every day, if not every hour. This is often the life of a reporter or an editor working in today's downsized but expectations-increased media world. It's not that the person you are pitching wouldn't love to get to know you and your story, but she is probably struggling just to make it through the day and her quotas. If you don't get to your point and how YOU can benefit who you are pitching, your email will almost definitely be ignored.

I get so many "Brand You've Never Heard of Opens New Store In NJ For the First Time!" type pitches that I not only delete but unsubscribe from, I feel sorry for whoever is handling the store's account. It's a bummer for the store involved who might actually have an interesting story that I could relate or would make a cool feature.

Here's an example of how that publicist or store owner could have made their pitch work for me.

Subject line: "Our new store is willing to offer a $250 makeover to one of your readers -- interested?"

Message: "Hi Mandy, our new store would love to offer one of your readers a new wardrobe valued at $250. All they have to do is tell us what their personal style means to them in one sentence. Does this sound like fun? We'd love to make it happen. You can reach me here: XXX-XXXX. Thank you!"

It's not something we normally do -- getting involved in giveaways, but we do it occasionally, and honestly, that sounds like it would be a fun thing for our readers. Did you see how short the message was? They know that I don't need to know every detail. They are just telling me what benefit it would offer my media outlet.

Or, whenever possible focus on something that is new and specific and outlandish or fascinating or controversial aspect of what you are offering for a media story.

Subject line: "We just started offering a new 'guaranteed to get you a second interview suit' for job seekers, or we give their money back!"

Message: "With so many people searching for jobs right now, our store is doing an experiment. If you show us that you have an upcoming job interview we will dress you in an outfit that we guarantee will get you a second interview, or your money back. I'm not pitching any other reporters because I thought you would be perfect to write about it. Does it interest? You can reach me here: XXX-XXXX. Thank you!"

Is what they are doing a gimmick? Absolutely. Does the media rely on gimmicks to function? Absolutely.

Notice also they are not double-pitching. You can't offer an exclusive story to several reporters -- only one. If the person doesn't get back to you, simply follow up later that day or the next day and say, "Hi there! I'm going to send this on to another reporter since I haven't heard back. Thank you for considering!" There. You've covered your bases and been transparent. You also aren't freaking out that you haven't received a reply. No reply IS a reply. It's a "no."

#2: Please keep it short, have one strong newsy angle and do the research for the reporter you are pitching making your case.

Think of it like telling your elevator speech to someone you are dating. Do you immediately tell your whole life story? No. You get them hooked with something that captures their attention. Keep your pitches under five sentences when possible. Or three paragraphs if your supporting evidence is all related to the same pitch, and it is clear what you are pitching. Until someone has expressed interest, you may appear desperate and your pitch also seems more stressful to read. My brain glazes over when I see very long pitch emails. It's like the sender is expecting me to suss out for them what I think is the main point of interest in what they are pitching.

Don't make me do your job. Figure one strong angle that demonstrates value to me, and then offer me that angle. A strong angle is not "Hey I've got this great new performer or new show I think would interest you." I'll give you an example from my own life. When I was launching my "News Whore" podcast, I was pitching my friend Jenny Hutt to be on her Sirius radio show. I had to find her angle. I had to follow my own damn advice.

So what did I do? I recognized that no one cares about me. But they do care about a story that may be newsy. And what is newsy about what I'm doing? Well the fact that I'm using "whore" in the title is pretty bizarre. It's traditionally considered a slur, right? So I realized that the fact that I'm trying to reclaim the word is what gave my story a news peg. Then I took the word "whore" and I plugged it into Google News to see what else was going on with the word so that I could use the "three's a trend" rule of trend reporting (and yes, it is an extremely lazy form of brunch journalism -- but it's also fairly accurate, so let's work with what is reality). Here's how I worded my pitch to Jenny, based on the info I found in Google News. (And keep in mind -- this technique can be used with anything. Say you are pitching a story on how you are a matchmaker who finally got married. Well, what's going on with your industry? Are there more matchmakers now than ever? Do more matchmakers' matches end in divorce? Is your chance for divorce higher based on some statistic related to your situation? Work with the research to cultivate a good pitch, rather than forcing the reporter or editor to thoroughly interview and research you to find a strong angle.)

Unless you are an A-lister or a very recent newsmaker, most editors are not going to do the work of scoping out the most interesting angle about you. They just don't have the time. It's not personal.

Here's the pitch I ended up sending Jenny after doing a little research on my angle:

Whore is very much in the news these days. Westboro Baptist Church just deemed Taylor Swift a "proud whore." Khloe Kardashian tweeted "I hate this whore" about her stepmother recently. Rachel Uchitel defends herself to RadarOnline saying "I'm not a whore nor am I a girl impressed by money or fame." And the National Enquirer's new issue has Beyonce calling Rihanna an "entitled whore." But why not take the word back? Whore means someone unscrupulous or engaging in a sex act for money. So, like, say: marriage or a Maxim photo shoot. I am proud to say I'm a whore. (Albeit a news whore, but a whore all the same.) I was talking to a friend the other day who told me she felt flattered after someone told her she looked like a "prostitute," and I also know men who tell me the reason they've never gone to a strip club is because they actually think the woman is in charge of the power dynamic there -- and that "whore" is in fact, a power word.

I'm also happy to talk about how I absolutely think women should not be afraid to use their sexuality in their success. I don't think they should have to by any means -- but I think it's actually unfeminist to say that a woman who does this then can't be taken seriously at all. I'm currently the deputy editor at and have done 20/20, Joy Behar, Dr. Drew, The Insider, Opie & Anthony, Good Day New York and many more.

As you can see -- also demonstrate credits if you have them. And your own personal Tumblr is absolutely a credit. This is why you don't have to wait to be "picked" (by a record label, lit agency or whatever industry you are in) before you have something of value to offer. You just need to create it yourself.

#3: Give us a headline that captures our attention.

Don't pitch: "I have a new book coming out about cupcakes, and I'm a feminist, and I think it could be interesting." Instead, make us really want that story. Give us the headline so we can see why people would want to read it.

xoJane uses first-person headlines quite often in our It Happened to Me stories, so let us know what you think the headline will be in the subject line.

For that cupcake example, perhaps: "I Only Truly Became a Feminist When I Started Baking Cupcakes." What? That sounds interesting. That plays on cognitive dissonance. That is following one of the most standard rules of capturing people's attention: Take one understandable almost normal thing (being a feminist) and tweak it in one strong way (you discovered this through something unexpected, like baking cupcakes). You see there aren't 18 ideas incorporated. The pitch isn't: "I'm a Feminist and I'm Getting Over My Divorce, Sometimes I Bake Cupcakes, and I'm Not Sure if I Want to Get Married Again, But I Think Baking Cupcakes is Making Me a Stronger Feminist." There's a bunch of ideas in there -- and so the salespitch gets muddied. Focus on one strong idea and have that be your main pitch. Showing commitment to one strong bold idea makes the idea much more compelling. Don't dump your entire notebook on someone. That reads like you don't know what the story is. Play with the different angles. Ask friends what they think the strongest pitch is, and then go with that.

I could go on and on about this topic, as I love talking about PR and media, but let's stick with these three pointers for starters. Thoughts? Questions? Objections?


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