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PR Pitching Q&A with Michael Smart and Dan Ovsey

PR Pitching Q&A with Michael Smart and Dan Ovsey

Marketwired’s recent webinar “PR Pitching for Smarties” generated a LOT of really good questions from attendees. So many, in fact, that we’ve split them up between yesterday’s Twitter chat (check out the conversation at #PR4Smarties) and this blog post. Webinar panelists and well-known PR pitching experts Michael Smart and Dan Ovsey have graciously agreed to answer four of them here.


Q. What advice do you have for following up on an unanswered pitch?

A. Depends on the original pitch. If you’re in that loathsome situation where you know it wasn’t that great of a pitch anyway and you’re only following up because your client or boss is making you (been there, feel for you), then it doesn’t really matter how you follow up because it won’t work. Best approach is to drop it – it’s not worth damaging your potential relationship.

On the other hand, if it’s a pitch that you KNOW is properly targeted and relevant to the reporter’s audience – that has a newsworthy angle – then you owe it to yourself and your client to make sure the reporter considers it. Start by re-sending the email and prefacing it with something like, “I know you’re super-busy – saw how you posted three items yesterday alone – and it must be insane how many emails you get. So I’m sending this along again in case if fell through the cracks.” Pro tip: delete the “fw:” that appears in the subject line – it’s a little thing, but that can come off as naggy/passive-aggressive.

Q. What writing style works best for news releases to generate optimal media pickup?

A. In a word: conversational. Many journalists and bloggers will say, “That sounds like a press release,” as a pejorative way to describe writing that’s stuffy and self-important. With the advent of social media, businesses are (finally) growing more and more comfortable writing like people actually talk. Remove jargon, cut down on acronyms and lengthy job titles, and give concrete examples of how your news impacts regular people. Even for B2B news.

Also, almost all of us are too wordy. We love our subject matter and we love our beautiful little sentences that we so lovingly craft. But we gotta hack away to hold attention in today’s time-starved environment. Run the word count on your first draft and commit to cutting at least 25 percent. You’ll be surprised at how you can do this almost every time without losing any meaning.


Q. Do you have any thoughts or advice on pitching national reporters in a targeted industry like healthcare while working for a smaller nonprofit with limited resources?

 A. Most industry-specific pitches to national media tend to fail when they’re too focused on a niche audience (e.g. physicians, manufacturers, consumers of rare or high-end goods, etc.). Pitches to national media (even those focused on a specific beat or industry) have to demonstrate that the story being proposed affects the mass audience to which these media cater. That means it has to not only appeal/matter to a large and diverse demographic, but also demonstrate to that demographic that there is a trend, pattern, cause for concern or solution to a problem to which they should pay attention. If the affected audience is too small or if the subject matter is too rooted in industry-specific issues, it’s not likely to resonate with national media. Here are three additional tips to help pitch niche stories to national outlets:

a) Create a headline/subject line that indicates widespread cause and effect. The cause is the catalyst to the news and the effect is the news itself. If you omit either one of these, your story becomes less compelling to national news media.

b) Identify early on in your pitch the affected audience and quantify it (e.g. one in five people who are affected by X, or do Y, etc.) to demonstrate that it’s worthy of national news. Don’t assume this is self-evident to the recipient.

c) Take the ‘show, don’t tell’ approach. Include an anecdote to bring your pitch to life. Journalists like to write about real people with real problems. Show them the real-world value of what you’re pitching (i.e. the tangible impact on people), rather than relying solely on numbers or facts to tell your story. This is particularly important when discussing a niche topic that may be unfamiliar to the person on the receiving end of your pitch.

Q: What is a manageable number of journalists to focus your pitches on?

A: The answer here will depend on three criteria: a) the newsworthiness of what you’re pitching; b) the pitching resources available to you; and the audience you’re trying to reach. If you’ve got a team of practitioners ready to hit email, phones, social media, etc. and you’ve got a great story that will have mass appeal, your top-tier list will likely be fairly extensive. Conversely, if you’re working solo and your pitch is industry-specific or not terribly compelling, you’ll likely want to limit your top-tier list to what is reasonable for you to manage effectively on your own – and to the media that are most likely going to show interest in the pitch.

I have always been a proponent of quality over quantity. It’s best to pitch a select few outlets/journalists to which you believe your story is well suited. Doing so gives you the opportunity to take your time and get to know and understand the journalist you’re pitching – what  he/she writes about, his/her reporting style, what he/she has written about recently, who his/her audience is, etc. – to ensure your pitch is timely and on target. Be sure to explain why you’ve chosen to pitch him or her and, most importantly, explain why his/her audience would care. You’re better off sending out five to 10 quality, tailored pitches to journalists who are influential to the audience you’re trying to reach, than to send generic pitches to hundreds of journalists with hopes that a handful – who may or may not be influential to your audience – might pick up the story.

About the Experts

Michael Smart is the media pitching coach PR pros turn to when they want to boost their positive media placements. He’s trained more than 6,000 communicators from agencies large and small, from Fortune 50 companies to regional non-profits. He shares lots of tricks, including suggestions for subject lines that get your emails opened, with people who sign up for his weekly media pitching tips emails.

Dan Ovsey is an Earned Media lead at Edelman’s Toronto office. A former reporter and editor, as well as an expert writer, communicator, media trainer and corporate storyteller, Dan helps brands and executives bring their stories to life and build their profiles through media coverage.

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