The Anatomy of a Successful Pitch

The Anatomy of a Successful Pitch

Nothing fills me with existential dread like sitting down to write a media pitch.

Give me the sweet relief of an 800-word byline ghostwritten under a soul-crushing deadline. Bury me under the gigabyte of bone-dry peer-reviewed research I need to complete an immensely complex white paper. Let me spend eight hours hacking through a labyrinthine approval process just to get sign off on 400-word “new hire” press release.

Anything I do in the PR world is easier than convincing a stressed out and overworked journalist with a trigger finger on the junk file that my story is worth telling—and doing it in under 100 very concise and very compelling words.

Below are what I believe to be the essentials of a good pitch, broken out by its main components. Following this advice is not going to guarantee a media hit for your client, but it will dramatically increase your chances.

The Subject Line. It’s true that many—maybe even most—pitches live or die based on the subject line, but that doesn’t mean you should panic and resort to dumb gimmicks in a bid to win a journalist’s attention. Expending way too many precious words to support a style of writing—funny, hyperbolic or scare-quotes clever—you can’t pull off wastes everyone’s time.

Think of it this way: The subject line is your pitch reduced to its simplest form. For that reason, I prefer to write my subject lines last. Good pitch writing usually leaves a lot of tasty leftovers that just couldn’t be fit into the final revision; an interesting turn of phrase and a good word choice or two that didn’t make the cut can usually be repurposed into an effective Subject Line. If you feel you are really rusty, cut-and-paste your entire pitch, then slowly whittle it to its most essential elements.

The Opening Sentence. When I was a journalist, I was often surprised at the amount of “throat-clearing” in the pitches I received. I’m not a captive audience, dude! Into the trash you go!

If you have done your due diligence—carefully researching the outlets and reporters that would be a good fit for your story—you can avoid kicking off your story roughly 30 seconds after the newly formed Earth cooled.

Strategies will vary based on the story you are trying to tell, but I have had the most luck just telling the reporter what I want and why they should care: “Hey, [JOURNALIST], I’ve read your coverage on [TOPIC.] This [STORY] for [THESE REASONS] would be useful to your readers.”

If it sounds prosaic, that’s because it is. But by eliminating the throat-clearing, you can simply and honestly convey a.) your knowledge of the reporter; b.) your familiarity with how they have covered their beat; and c.) why your story is relevant to that coverage.

The Body. Most posts filed in the “pitching advice” genre emphasize the importance of brevity. And they’re right! Unfortunately, this can be taken to an extreme. A good pitch will offer a solid framework that the reporter can use to build the rest of the story. Use you pitch to cover the journalistic bases—who, what, when, where, why and how. Add relevant links to your pitch—to your sources’ LinkedIn profiles, evidence supporting your pitch idea and/or interesting industry trends, for example. Statistics relevant to a pitch help to ground it in reality. If you’re speaking about an end-user, be sure to provide specific numbers on the improvements they saw from using a solution. The more specifics, the better.

The Closer. A pitch should contain a clear call to action near the end, asking a reporter to specifically consider an interview or byline. A reporter may not be ready for this story right now, but politely ask them to keep you in mind for the future. Second, don’t be afraid to briefly offer to help a reporter with their coverage—now and into the future. Many opportunities arise from relationship-building that starts with a single pitch. Lastly, always thank a reporter for their time.

Final Advice

Almost as important as knowing how to write a good pitch is to know when you don’t have anything to pitch. Not everything a client does is a story or warrants legitimate coverage.

This is where client management comes into play. Capturing inbound interview requests—the sweet, sweet nectar of media relations—is a long and painstaking process of developing a trusted relationship mostly over electronic devices.

Pitching writing is both an art and science—which is part of the reason why creating them can be frustrating. Bad pitches are the kudzu of the public relations world, choking out good stories beneath an oppressive monoculture of bad faith and even worse writing. The problem is so pervasive that entire websites and Twitter feeds are dedicated to terrible pitches. However, devoting your energies to the right components of a pitch will ensure a greater level of success.

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