PR for startups: How to pitch and maintain a relationship with the digital media
A few drafts and revisions later, you have in your hands a beautifully redacted piece to pitch to the media. Now all you have to do is to get it published.
If it were only as easy as it sounds.
The barrier to getting your article — however masterful it may be — published is a big and important one.
Simply (and rather innocently) put, it’s just sending out an email with an attachment. Easier said than done.
Consider the amount of emails you, as a CMO in a startup, receive a day. How many is that? 50? Maybe even 70?
Newsflash: Journalists and editors can receive over 100 emails a day. And probably loads more if they rank among the likes of top international media such as Forbes and the Wall Street Journal.
So how do you get your pitch noticed and article published?
Part of the key lies in the topic itself. In our previous post, we talked about how to create content that journalists want to publish.
But the work doesn’t end there.
Building and maintaining a relationship with the media and creating a good pitch is part of background work and foundation needed to support your content and as much time should be dedicated to these as it is to writing the piece.
In this post, we’ll discuss how to cut through the noise and create a good pitch that catches the attention of journalists. We’ll also detail some of the best approaches to build and maintain a relationship with the online media that have been tried and tested by us at Dear Content.
PR distribution services: Pros and cons
When you think about getting a message out to your community via the media, your first thought may be to hire a PR distribution service.
There are loads of such options available. And it’s what I would call a quick and dirty way to get your PR distributed — if that’s all you’re going for.
There have been many arguments made against the effectiveness of such tools. Their business model is based charging for the mass distribution of press releases. Even though they end up being published, viewership will be minimal as these articles often do not go through a journalist or editors’ editing (for various reasons).
Most, if not all of the time, they end up being published alongside the numerous other press releases who have arrived on the site through similar distribution services. It is rather unlikely that these articles are promoted by the media’s social media accounts. In other words, your reach will be low.
The first time you do it will probably give you a rush, especially if you see you’re getting links. And perhaps the second time too. But from then on, you are pretty much just getting links from the same domains repeatedly.
Where’s the SEO value in that?
But let’s forget SEO and link building for a minute.
Using a distribution service means there’s no direct contact with the media. That translates to losing the opportunity to establish a long-term relationship with the journalists that matter — the ones that really have the influence and authority to make sure your press release gets the coverage it deserves.
Our approach at Dear Content involves building a mutually beneficial and long-term correspondence with the media. And the first step to getting that done is to identify your product/journalist fit: understanding whose coverage you can best enhance with your expertise and whose focus is the most relevant for your industry, service, and/or product.
Building a media list
Before you even begin to collect journalists’ names and emails, you should first identify the sectors you are in.
Yes, sectors, because there is often more than one that your business is related to. This helps to pinpoint the media outlets through which you can get the most relevant coverage.
The start-up sector is already one that you definitely belong to. Other relevant industries could include technology, SaaS, financial services, logistics, etc. Note that some of these may overlap.
Next, you’ll want to begin collating contacts of journalists working for these media outlets that are most relevant to these sectors you’ve identified.
One way to do that would be to search for the keywords most relevant to your industry and go to the ‘news’ tab. From there, you have a list of media outlets that publish news regarding this topic.
Here’s an example of a search for ‘marketing automation’.
Voila! Immediately, you get three potential media outlets that you know cover your sector that you can reach out to.
Read through these articles to make sure their coverage is relevant to your company. Once you have determined which articles are relevant, you will want to obtain the contacts of the journalists who wrote them.
This is an extremely tedious but important step. As you search for the journalist’s contact, make sure to get his or her direct email, instead of a generic email such as email@example.com.
While you’re at it, prioritise those whose beats include your sector as your content would be more interesting to them than a general beat journalist.
You may want to consider having two separate contact lists: one dealing with press releases and another for opinion/exclusive pieces. Depending on the size of the publication, this may be one and the same person, or different. For example, a journalist whose beat is finance may or may not be in charge of reviewing finance-related opinion pieces.
Pro tip: You might also want to create different lists based on your objectives. Note that backlinks are hardly ever guaranteed. So if your objective is to obtain high-value backlinks from established media, conduct research beforehand to check if it offers follow backlinks. Rank them by domain authority and work your way down the list. But if your objective is to create brand awareness, rank them according to influence and reach (traffic).
Making that first contact
After building your list of contacts, we recommend getting in touch with these journalists. This could be as simple as sending out a quick email or hopping on a short phone call to introduce your company and its area of expertise. Note that this shouldn’t be a sales pitch but an offer to be a valuable resource for the journalist.
This is beneficial in four ways:
- It’s a way to confirm that you have the right name and contact details. Take the opportunity to verify his or her beat.
- Otherwise, he or she can probably give you the contact information of the person you should be reaching out to.
- You can find out more about the topics the journalist may be interested in receiving comments about and how you can help him or her achieve that.
- Last but not least, a personal touch always goes a long way!
PR or opinion piece
There is an ongoing debate among public relations professionals over the effectiveness of press releases. While we cannot vouch for the effectiveness and approach of others, we can share some of the strategies that have worked best for us.
These include press releases through which we have received numerous backlinks, mentions, and significant coverage. We also recognise that these results may be industry-dependent. But that aside, what we have found to be important is your willingness to facilitate the journalists’ work and provide the commentary and information necessary to do so.
With an introductory contact made, you’re ready to draft. But how do you decide whether to send out a press release or opinion piece?
At Dear Content, one of the first few questions we ask ourselves before making this decision are:
- Is what we want to communicate time-sensitive?
- Does the message what we want to communicate qualify as news?
- When was the last time we sent out a press release?
Press releases: Frequency matters
As a general rule of thumb, company news should be sent out as a press release since the idea is to get the information disseminated as far and wide as possible. And since press releases are distributed to more media, that’s way more coverage.
The downside to that is that there is no exclusivity (a big deal in the media industry) and it is not as personal. But more on this later.
It is easy to get drawn into the benefits of a press release. But the wider coverage it offers as opposed to exclusives doesn’t mean you should be running to the media with every single update or idea as not all novelties nor topics make for press release material.
For example, a particular industry pain point may be worth addressing. But if there has been little to no developments surrounding it lately, your comments on the matter may not be worth a press release as there simply may not be enough attention.
A product’s soft launch or the official start of beta testing may also be exciting to your company, but look at the big picture and consider whether it is newsworthy enough for the industry as a whole.
Sometimes, it may be better to shelve such news and wait for a bigger update. Sending out press releases too often will risk saturating the media and jeopardising the bond with the journalist you worked so hard to establish.
On that note, if you’re a start-up with an acquired reputation and are expecting to receive a new round of investment, you may want to consider laying low for a few months prior to making the announcement.
At Dear Content, our recommendation would be to aim for an absolute of one press release every quarter. An exception to this would be if an unanticipated event happened and it’s making headlines across the media and you wanted to lend a voice to this time-sensitive development.
That’s not to say that you should go months without making any contact with your journalist friends. And that’s where exclusive opinion pieces play a role.
Exclusive opinion pieces: Fostering that relationship
Exclusive pieces, as its name suggests, have very limited reach. What it gives you in exchange is a fantastic opportunity to build on your relationship with journalists.
As mentioned earlier, exclusivity is a valuable tool in news. Offering a well-written and opinionated piece to one media outlet is essentially giving them sole rights to publishing content that no one else has access to.
The content of your piece can range from many different topics and angles, but it should be directly related to the media’s focus. From our experience, these are the angles that have worked best for us:
- Reaction to another opinion piece that’s published on the site
- Reaction to a piece the journalist himself or herself wrote
- Reaction to a study by an established consultancy
- Reaction or opinion of a current topic that’s trending in the industry
Exclusivity aside, the contact you make with journalists when offering them these exclusives makes sure you are kept on top of their minds during the respite between one press release and the next.
How to send an email pitch for press releases
The first rule of the game: Never send out your pitch email (scheduled or otherwise) on the hour.
You know how marathon runners take off in a swarm at the start of the race and how hard it is to keep your focus on just one individual runner because they’re just all bunched together and look like bees escaping from their hive that’s just been attacked?
That’s pretty what your email will look like if you send it out at the start of the hour: lost in the crowd.
Perhaps people are just attracted by the lovely round zeros at the start of every hour, or perhaps they use a distribution service for which the default time is always xx:00.
Whatever it may be, you’ll want to avoid sending out your press release on the dot because of the deluge of other press releases that get sent at the same time.
Here’s a look at the torrent of press releases received at 9am.
So when, then, should be the best time to send out your email pitch? There have been countless studies done on this. And while there doesn’t seem to be a golden hour, the consensus is clear:
- Best window: between late morning (from 10am onwards) till early afternoon (around 1 or 2pm).
- Avoid: Mondays, Fridays, and definitely weekends
Pro tip: If you’re targeting media across different time zones, getting your press release sent within this slot may prove challenging because it may mean having to be awake or needing access to your computer at really odd hours.
At Dear Content, we use a mass mail service, YAMM, to schedule our email pitches. The service costs only $28/year (as of May 2019), which is a worthy price to pay for a good night’s sleep. There is a free version but it doesn’t offer the scheduling feature. While it may save you some hassle, one drawback is that it only allows you to schedule one campaign at a time This may not be the best option for you then if you’re scheduling two campaigns that are one hour apart (eg. one at CET and another at UTC).
Format of email
Let’s begin with your email subject, which should be short, concise, and encapsulate the main point of the piece being pitched. There’s no magic number as to how long email subject should be, and the debate on this is ongoing.
Some experts maintain six to ten words is prime, while others say more is also acceptable. Whatever the ideal, you want to avoid a subject so long it trails off with an ellipsis in their inbox view.
Do not underestimate the power of a well-crafted subject. 85% of journalists decide on whether they want to explore a pitch based on the email subject alone. Give as much thought into this as you do with crafting your press release.
Include a short summary of the piece in your email body. This means ideally nothing longer than two sentences, and directing them to the full version.
Given these tight restraints, refrain from too many formalities and get straight to the point.
Your email body is also where your press release should go. The idea is to facilitate a journalists’ job as much as possible, and while .pdf or .doc attachments may seem much neater and more professional, it still is one unnecessary barrier from accessing the contents of your press release.
Who to send press releases to
This is where all that strenuous research into journalists, their beats, and their contact details comes into play. Before pitching, it’s important to get a basic understanding of the hierarchy. A typical media outlet will have varying roles of editors and journalists.
- Editor: This is the person who assigns journalists stories to cover and has the final say over what gets covered and published.
- Journalist: If the journalist’s beat is relevant to your article, you may pitch to him or her directly. Even though editors are the ones who give the final nod, journalists themselves do have influence over their stories and can also pitch stories to editors.
Be on standby
The job is not done after you have sent out the press release. A journalist’s job is to dig deeper and verify where necessary.
If your company has a dedicated content writer who drafts the press releases and manages your relationship with the press, have him or her and the internal subject matter expert on standby throughout the day to respond to any follow-up queries from the press. This is especially important if your press release is time-sensitive.
Pro tip: The contact details of the subject matter expert quoted in the press release could also be included in the email for the journalist to get in touch with him/her directly instead of having to go through the content writer. But that may not be too favourable for certain companies.
For example, if you’re pitching media covering a predominantly English market and your subject matter expert’s first language isn’t English, you might prefer to have your content writer be the contact person with the press. That way, he or she can proofread any comments before passing them on to the journalist to avoid misinterpretations and misunderstandings.
How to pitch an exclusive opinion piece
When pitching an opinion piece, personalise your email not only to the media but also to the journalist or editor.
Explain why you’re offering to them, how it’s relevant to their coverage, and why you think they should publish it. If it’s a reaction piece to an opinion piece published on their site (be it by an external party or their own journalist), include a link to it.
To facilitate matters, attach a photo of the subject matter expert and clearly spell out his name and position in your company.
As mentioned earlier, exclusivity is gold in journalism, so make sure to state clearly that it is an exclusive. You will also want to give them a date before which they should inform you if they’re interested in publishing it. Otherwise, you risk waiting for a reply that might never come and its exclusivity means you’re unable to offer it to another media.
Be a little realistic and give them a deadline of at least two to three days. If there is no response from them after a day or two, you can send a gentle nudge. And if the radio silence continues, it is probably safe to assume that they are not interested.
Here are two templates you can use to pitch an opinion piece.
I’m writing to you from [company+link], the [company claim] to offer [media name] an exclusive opinion piece written by [company subject matter expert], titled [title of opinion piece].
The piece delves into [short one to two-sentence summary of piece].
We feel that this article could complement your extensive coverage of the current issues in [industry] and fit particularly well in [section where you think this fits].
Please find attached the article and a photo of [company subject matter expert].
We only request that you inform us by [date] if you’re keen on publishing it so as to know whether we may offer it to another media outlet.
Please do not hesitate to contact me should you have further queries.
I’m writing to offer [media name] an exclusive opinion piece that your readers could be interested in and is aligned with your editorial line.
[Title of article]: [One paragraph summary of the article’s main message]
[About us]: [Include here your company name, link and claim, and the author’s name, title, and short experience. If you have links to other articles published by this author, you may include them as well.]
— — Start of article — —
[Paste the entire article here in the email body so that they can read it immediately.]
— — End of article — — —
We only request that you inform us by [date] if you’re keen on publishing it so as to know whether we may offer it to another media outlet.
Case in point
On behalf of a client, we had been maintaining a close relationship with one of the most prestigious news publications in the logistics industry by offering exclusive pieces.
These efforts paid off recently when one of its journalists reached out to us to get comments from our client covering five different topics.
Thanks to having kept tabs on industry developments and good planning on our end, we already had a press release on one of the topics prepared and scheduled to be sent out the following week. To facilitate his work, we sent him the piece as an embargoed press release.
This helped him in two ways:
- He had more time than other media to edit the piece as he saw fit and to ask for follow-up comments.
- He was able to use the comments for other articles he was working on that had a strict deadline.
Such a spontaneous outreach is what you should be aiming for with your digital PR strategy. By fostering this valuable relationship, we were able to maintain this top-of-mind awareness with these journalists.
At least four mentions in as many news articles on their website and coverage in a printed publication that will make its way to international industry trade shows and events, as well as online dissemination to its readers and subscribers.
Maintaining a relationship
Offering exclusive opinion pieces is one way to go to build a relationship with a journalist and keep you on top of their minds. But that can be time-consuming and certain start-ups simply may not have that many resources to be constantly offering exclusives.
Another way to go about it would be to follow these journalists on social media — both from your corporate account and from your subject matter expert’s personal account (if any).
It is common for journalists to post general comments and their opinions industry news and trends, which provides great opportunities for you to chime in and provide your two cents worth, and perhaps even get a gentle debate going.
→ Need help with your digital PR strategy? Shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!🙂