How to sell a story to a journalist or producer
Having made your story plan and decided which journalists/ producers you’re going to target, it’s time to make those first, nerve-wracking approaches.
Before you start sweating over your press release, it’s best to make a trial call to one of the journalists you want to sell your story to:
- Gauge their interest in your story and ask them what would make the story work for them.
- Let the journalist’s response guide you. Listen to what they have to say about your story.
- Don’t waste time on a dud story which no journalist will pick up.
Pitching your story
Beware relying on press releases. Journalists and producers are swamped with press releases. Pitching your story with a few phone calls to key journalists is much, much more effective than the scatter gun approach of emailing out a generic press release to hundreds of media outlets.
- Very rarely can you successfully pitch the same story to a whole swathe of journalists.
- Each pitch and each story needs to be tailored to each journalist.
- Too many PRs and charities rely too heavily on emails. Emails are easily dismissed, deleted and not read. Most journalists receive over 100 emails each day.
Find out more in the article, Press releases and writing skills. Have a look at what journalists said they wanted in this research “How can the PR industry communicate better?” – a survey of journalists conducted by Benchmark Research.
VAMU has also published a really useful guide for charities who want to know more about working the media. It’s called Clever Communications. It’s packed with articles by journalists who have written honestly about the kinds of stories they want from charities. Get a free copy of the book by just emailing your name and address to firstname.lastname@example.org
Timing is everything. Catch a journalist at a bad time and they’re likely to slam the phone down on you.
- National newspapers’ editorial meetings are usually at around 10.30am.
- On daily papers usually the worst time to ring is from 4pm onwards.
- Deadlines vary for different publications and programmes, so you’ll need to do your research.
- Content can be decided 3 to 4 months in advance for magazines.
- Make sure to contact forward planning desks well in advance (especially for features). For example in news, around 80% of each day’s content is pre-planned and in the newsgathering diary, 10% is dedicated to breaking news and 10% to investigative journalism.
- Don’t get offended. If the phone gets put down on you, don’t take it personally. It just means the journalist is frantically writing to meet a deadline or a reporter is editing their package for their next bulletin.
Journalists say that they can usually tell within the first 10 seconds of a call if they’re interested in hearing about your story or not. So you’ve got to sell your story fast:
- Sound confident and enthusiastic.
- Keep your pitch brief and simple. Think about what they’re going to want to hear, rather than what you want to tell them.
- Don’t mumble or speak too fast.
- Don’t over-complicate your story. Give them the bare minimum to get them interested. Don’t get bogged down in details.
- Find out what you can about the journalist before you call them. Read, listen to or watch their latest stories. Find out what their interests are. Let them know that you follow their work. Flattery gets you a long way.
- Be persistent (but not annoying). If they sound uninterested, ask if there’s a better time for you to call. Ask them what might make the story work for them.
- If they ask you to email them, do follow it up immediately with a personal message. Beware info@ email addresses; these often disappear into the ether unread. Never fax. Never send email attachments.
- Make sure you keep notes on all the journalists you speak to. It’s valuable information which will help you pitch future stories successfully.
Make friends & nurture your contacts
- A personal handwritten letter to a journalist always catches their attention.
- If there’s a particular journalist you want to befriend, ask if you can take them out for coffee and cake/ a drink/ lunch.
- If you’re helpful and return a journalist’s calls promptly they’ll add you to their contacts book. If you do them a favour, then they’ll owe you a favour.
- Give them your mobile phone number. Journalists always need good contacts that can help them before 9am, after 5pm or over the weekend.
- If a journalist does pick up your story, then send a card to say thank you. Tell them what a difference the story meant to your organisation or how many new volunteers were inspired to get in touch because of their story.
- Once you’ve made contact with a journalist, stay in touch with them. Keep them updated (but don’t inundate them with information).
- Use you contacts strategically. Don’t bombard them with any old story. Select stories carefully for them.
- If you offer a journalist an exclusive story, make sure it stays exclusive. Nothing annoys a journalist more than seeing a rival media outlet run their exclusive. They also hate it if you offer a colleague of theirs the same story.
- Journalists hate embargoes. Very few stories actually warrant having an embargo.
- Invite a journalist to get involved with your organisation. Ask them to come and take part in a volunteering activity. Tailor the activity to suit them.
- Make them laugh. One group that was campaigning to improve school dinners, delivered a journalist a school dinner every lunchtime for a week. The journalist loved it and now speaks to the campaign group frequently.
- Journalists love a campaign. Offer them a campaign idea which will get their viewers/ readers involved. Have a look at GMTV’s Britain on The Move volunteering campaign.
- Make your relationship personal. If you’ve invited them along to an event, make sure you meet them and look after them.
Have a look at Media UK’s guide to how NOT to handle a journalist.
See how Parentline Plus benefited from building a relationship with The Guardian Society section.
Set up a visit
If you want to get more information about a media outlet and what stories they want, then it’s worth trying to persuade them to let you go on a visit.
- National newspapers and broadcasters are unlikely to let you in but local media outlets are often very pleased to have visitors.
- Write to the editor or community reporter and ask if you can visit. Explain that you want to provide them with strong stories and want to service the outlet’s journalists with great local community stories. Explain that you want to find out more about how they operate and what they want.
If you do get in the doors, get as much insider info as you can. Find out:
- Who works on which sections of the paper/ programme?
- How do they like stories to be pitched to them?
- Who would be your best contact there?
- When do they have their editorial meetings?
- What issues and topics are they particularly interested in?
- Do they have charity partners? Do they take on campaigns?
Read the next article in this section…. Responding to journalists’ requests