There are articles and opinions all over our online spaces from fellow Digital PR professionals and content marketers trying to get inside the mind of the almighty journalist. In Digital PR, getting our copy past those journalist gatekeepers is the final test of our content writing, marketing, pitching, and research skills, which we hope results in a piece of hard-earned coverage.
As experienced Digital PR practitioners, we all know what has worked for us in the past, what has worked for our co-workers, and, of course, the notorious threads on Twitter giving the details on some massive outreach fails. Even the most experienced Digital PRs can sometimes get it wrong, as there are so many elements beyond our control that we may not ever even know about. While you’re toiling over the messaging in your outreach emails, the failure could be as simple as the journalist hasn’t clicked your email because she’s already got her assignments for the week, or perhaps doesn’t write on that topic anymore, or perhaps the news agenda on launch day gets overtaken by a breaking news event, or any number of reasons.
The journalists we’ve interviewed here were promised anonymity in exchange for honest responses, to really get down to the reasons why some pitches get pick-up and others don’t, in the hopes of peeking behind the curtain to learn a bit more about what journalists want from PRs.
What journalists want when they have less time to write
The journalists we spoke with were an Editor for the New York Times, a section editor at the Huffington Post, a freelancer for various UK national publications, a writer for Reach PLC titles and an editor for The Metro – they’re all saying the same thing: they have less time in the work day to write and they have to write more stories in less time.
Journalists everywhere are now doing the work of several people and the stress is higher than ever. The journalists who have been able to dodge redundancies are now more overworked and also feeling like they have no right to complain about it as they ‘should’ just feel glad they have a job at all.
A freelance journalist who writes for the UK nationals told me editors just completely stopped commissioning freelance articles for a good two months in early-mid 2020. Not only did that affect her but it also put more pressure onto the in-house journalists as they are the ones writing more when the freelance budgets are slashed.
Because there’s fewer story opportunities there’s also less time to do story research as well, so journalists told me they need quick-win stories. Without the time to do some deep-dive investigation into something, their time is more precious than ever. The editor from the Huffington Post said that because of the focus on the current event, research findings on other things not related to that are being left behind. That means as Digital PR professionals, we need to be presenting journalists with everything they need at once in order to be able to take the story and run with it quickly and not have to do any further research on the topic. Journalists don’t want to contact you for more information. Provide everything they need for your story at the start. Don’t make journalists chase you, because they probably won’t.
The need for embargoes was also mentioned by two of the journalists. They said especially in busy times, the need for some planning time to slot in our PR stories increases. If there’s no embargo and the journalist doesn’t have time to write it up that day, they’ll likely assume they’ve missed the opportunity and others have picked it up so it’s already dated information. When an embargo is used, that at least gives them a fair shot at being able to make time to write about a pitch they are interested in, versus missing the opportunity completely in the moment.
What journalists want when there’s one thing dominating the news
Several of the journalists said they are looking for a break for the current event topic that’s dominating the news, and that as individuals they’re quite exhausted of writing about the same thing. Many said they are looking for a lighter story at this point, and they think their readers are looking for stories about other topics again.
The New York Times editor said they’re more geared towards stories that are happening around us, and immediately then searching out for other things kind of beyond “that’’ topic. It’s not any less busy, she explained, but it’s far less enterprising. Journalists aren’t out searching for stories because there’s so much happening right around us, so that’s what they’re going to focus on. That was echoed by the editor from Huffington Post, who said she’s actually more likely to pick up a press release that’s pitched to her and to lean on PRs for information for story ideas in busy times when one topic is dominating the news.
What journalists want PRs to improve upon
When asked what Digital PR professionals could do to improve our press releases, the main responses from journalists were to get to the point faster in our press releases and, as we have heard so many times before, PRs have to get to know the journalist’s beat better and to get to know the target publication’s readers better, too. We still need to do more to make our pitches relevant to the journalist and their readers, and for that, we need to do our research.
There are so many resources out there that there’s really no excuse not to do that. Even if a Digital PR was tight on time and budget, simple things like reading your target websites every morning, even if it’s just scanning the home pages of three or four on rotation, will help you understand what types of articles get that top placement, which means they are more than likely very popular topics for that title’s readers.
You can also target the journalists you pitch to regularly by clicking on their byline and reading the past articles they’ve written recently. Compare those to the pitches you’ve been sending to them – are they in-line with their usual topics? Alternatively you can just do a site search to find out which journalists are writing about your client’s niche. If your client makes shoes and you’re targeting The Metro, fire up Google and type
That will bring up all the pages on The Metro that contain the word ‘shoes’.
What journalists do not want
While all the journalists we spoke with were very kind in their responses and recognised that most of us PRs are trying our best to be good at our jobs, some of the recommendations were a bit more, um, direct. Here are a few:
Please stop ringing me. I’ve got less time than normal and cold calls will be even less welcome than normal.
If my name is misspelled I’ll delete your pitch, I don’t care how interesting it is.
Stop sending me round robin emails. It’s obvious that they aren’t tailored to me or my publication. When I see three or four pitches from the same PR and all are irrelevant I notice.
What journalists want in the future
While it might seem like we all might never move on to other topics in the news and nothing will ever go back to normal, the comments from journalists have given us hope that ultimately the relationship between Digital PRs and journalists has essentially remained unchanged. Journalists are busy. PRs need to pitch relevant, newsworthy stories that get to the point. These aren’t exactly revelations to any Digital PR practitioner who has been around awhile. Do your research. Make meaningful connections with journalists. Get to know their beats, the stories they like, and endeavour to be the best Digital PR you can be. We won’t always get it right, but hopefully, most of the time we will give journalists what they want.
Amie Sparrow interviewed top-tier journalists from the UK and USA to ask questions first-hand about what journalists want from public relations professionals. The information in this article was originally shared in an August 2020 webinar presented by Amie Sparrow for JBH called “What Journalists Want: Post Lockdown Edition”.