Beyond the Journal: The science of communication

Pitching protocols

26 Jun 2019
How, when and why to pitch stories to individual reporters.

By Ruth Francis

Sometimes news warrants a press release and to be broadcast far and wide. Other times it may be more appropriate to pitch an exclusive story to one reporter. In other instances, you may tip off a few big media outlets early to secure good coverage as well as sending a press release more broadly. Why and when do we take a more targeted approach and how to we develop a strong pitch? Finally, how do we handle being knocked back?

Working with one reporter to develop a detailed piece can definitely benefit your academics, because ideally you’ll target an outlet that attracts a desired audience. It can also allow breathing room for explanations or complexity. You can broaden the focus to give the bigger picture, beyond the scope of a more concise press release. If you have an interesting story without a news peg, offering an exclusive may be the only way to get it out because a press release needs that peg.

When deciding where to pitch your story, look at coverage of the area you’re promoting. See which outlets and reporters follow that field and which ones will best reach the audience you want to be aware of the research.

Work with the researchers to develop the key messages: what would you like a reader or viewer to take away from a piece? Then try to weave together a story rather than a broad idea or a series of facts; find a narrative and use that to hook the reporter. The detail can follow.

Think about what the journalist will need in order to tell the story you’re pitching. Additional resources can help, perhaps images or multimedia, or a patient who can talk about the benefit to them.

When sending a pitch by e-mail, I tend to write only two or three paragraphs, covering the essential information, but using the more narrative hook I’ve developed with the researchers. I mention in the e-mail that it’s an exclusive. I also ask that if it’s not of interest they let me know so I can move on to flag to someone else. If you don’t receive a response, I suggest following up with a phone call within a day or two of sending the e-mail, depending on the timeframe for the story.

When working on an exclusive basis, have a back-up plan in case the reporter is not interested or says they don’t have time right now. Do you want to wait for them to be available or is it time sensitive and if so, who are your second and third targets? Remember to tweak the pitch for new reporters as their interests and audience may be slightly different from the first.

Early Tip Offs:
There are times when an early tip off can work in your favour to improve chances of coverage in key outlets followed by a broader mail out of a press release. It’s best to explain that you are contacting them personally ahead of the release going out and that the researcher is available for interview under embargo. This works well for news that has obvious broad appeal for their audiences and can be a useful way to begin to build a relationship with reporters too.

I’d recommend selecting three outlets to contact, and reach out at least three days before you send a release widely, so they have time to compile the information they need.

Finally, remember that personalized pitching, especially exclusives, takes time and although the rewards are great, it can be a tough task to pursue this avenue. I like to make sure I have other, smaller tasks lined up on other projects so I feel a sense of achievement to help keep up momentum on the time-consuming task.

Ruth Francis is a communications expert with 20 years of experience working in academia and publishing, including Springer Nature, BioMed Central, Cancer Research UK and King's College London.