For 20 years before I became a traffic builder for web sites, I was a publicist handling household name consumer brands. I'm going to share a trade secret with you: press releases are a colossal waste of time.
I haven't sent out a traditional press release in the last 10 years. But I have placed stories about my clients in The Wall St. Journal, New York Times, ABC News, The Today Show, Good Morning America, and just about any other major media outlet on the planet.
Editors surely don't need me or any other publicist to write their stories. They need me to point them in the direction of a good story, succinctly give them the facts as I see them, the sources I know and then get out of the way so they can write their own stories. I do those things by writing pitch letters, damn good ones.
Here are some tips for writing letters that get read:
SAY WHY YOU ARE WRITING
Begin with your reason for writing, i.e. "I am writing to suggest a story about..." "I'd like to recommend an interview with..." Too many times, the reason for the letter is hidden several paragraphs into the letter. Editors are busy. If you don't give them an immediate reason to keep reading, your audience is over
EXPLAIN YOUR PREMISE IN NO MORE THAN TWO SENTENCES
Explain what makes your idea newsworthy. Why is this a good person to interview or a good story to cover? Describe your idea's relevance to current events... its connection to or beginning of a trend... its likelihood to interest a broad cross section of the audience.
How would you explain the story pitch to your friend if you were in the elevator on the way out? Would it take you a page and a half worth of words to make your point? Not if you wanted your friend to keep listening. Be equally kind to journalists.
EXPLAIN YOUR STORY IDEA IN ONE OR TWO PARAGRAPHS
Explain how the story would work, what it involves, what role you will play in assisting the reporter.
A journalist friend who told me he gets a three foot stack of snail mail and over 150 emails a day shared this story with me the other day. "Let me tell you about a letter that typifies the ones we journalists never finish reading. I got one the other day that started off by saying "I've been on the Joe Franklin Show, this show, that show, been talked about by so and so, I've also done this and that." The next line was "I'm not a status oriented person." There were about 8 more pages, but I didn't bother to read them. I just laughed, showed the letter around and threw it away."
TIMING CAN BE EVERYTHING
Timing is incredibly important. Your chances improve when you can say "This is a hot topic and I have a great source." Let's say you're an ophthalmologist and the President is going to have eye surgery. You stand a good chance of getting a phone call for your opinion if your email just arrived while the reporter is thinking of whom to call. Your pitch only stands to become a story if it is likely to make a lot of people stop and read or listen. I think of it as the "Hey Martha" factor -editors look for stories that make one say, "hey Martha, look at this!"
WATCH YOUR SUPERLATIVES
Don't make the company or person you are pitching sound hard to believe. S/he probably didn't do whatever you're writing about single-handedly. Describe her actual role. Be very careful with hype words like "first, only, greatest, biggest." Someone almost always did it before, also, as well or as big. Reporters are trained to look for conflict, lies, exaggerations.
LIST TOPICS THE PERSON CAN ADDRESS
Give the top three or four areas of expertise your client can address. Do it in bullet form.
GET IN ALL INTO 350 WORDS OR LESS
Mark Twain said "If I had more time I would have written less." Edit. Edit again. When you are done. Edit again.
Here's another tip. Once you get a reporter interested they will ask you for more information. And then you can give her mountains of background you've researched. Because another thing my reporter friend shared with me is this: most reporters hate to do research.
If your letter is going via e-mail, include a URL where a company fact sheet, management bios, relevant photos and other articles that have been written about the company can be found.
Reporters may deny this but I have found that few of them want to be the first to write about a subject. There's a definite pack mentality in play. Understanding it will increase your placements.
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