Pitching Media in the Digital Age: Journalists from Huffington Post & USA Today Weigh In

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Arin Greenwood of Huffington Post talks for a packed lunch crowd while Gwen Flanders of USA Today looks on.

The Independent Public Relations Alliance held a packed house lunchtime program in April called, “Secrets to Getting Ink in Traditional and Digital Media” with journalists from the Huffington Post and USA Today. There was plenty of practical advice on pitching that will ring true for PR pros.Gwen Flanders from USA Today covers breaking news. She said pitches should be succinct and to the point (include the 5Ws and the H – who, what, where, when, why, how) and that pitching multiple people in the newsroom is frowned upon. Arin Greenwood  from Huffington Post’s DC page said that pitching multiple people is fine for them, so there is some wiggle room on this point, based on the outlets  being targeted.

Both Flanders and Greenwood prefer pitches arrive via email. Faxes don’t make it onto news desks, so don’t fax anything unless requested. Both recommend including the topic in the subject line (no teasing or coy headlines, no beating around the bush).

It’s essential that PR pros check their work and avoid type-os if they want for a pitch to be taken seriously by journalists. Flanders noted one public relations firm in particular, is notorious for sending out terrible press releases loaded with errors – she ignores anything the firm sends out.

Researching who covers a topic on the outlet’s website, is critical to making a successful pitch. Thankfully, because of the internet, doing this footwork is easier now than its ever been. “It’s your credibility and you should check your work,” said Flanders. “Do your homework and find out who the right person is.”

It’s important to note the perspective of the outlet when putting together your pitch. USA Today is a national newspaper that wants unreported national trends and does not want stories that have already appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post or other competitors. They love exclusives. USA Today especially likes trends that are popping up here, there and everywhere, but have not quite bubbled to critical mass yet. The Huffington Post DC page where Greenwood works is focused on DC based stories, not national ones (although they are routinely pitched national ones).

Deadlines for editors and reporters are constant now in this space. “If I’m at work, I’m on deadline,” said Flanders. She observed that she has double the duties she used to have and edits twice the number of stories she did a few years ago.

The digital world also means story enhancements – graphs, videos, photos, slide shows and interactive elements are more important – so mention these elemental possibilities when pitching a story. Greenwood noted that trying to call journalists at the end of the day is almost always a bad idea – as they are tired, grumpy, and generally trying to get things wrapped up so they can get out of the office.

The digital and print worlds have been on a collision course for a long time. In addition to ratcheting up the deadline pressure to a feverish and never-ending hum, the online world is also opening up new avenues for readership. Flanders noted that USA Today has 1.3 million print readers each day, but has double that number of readers online for its website.

For Huffington Post, readership is a key factor in decision making about a story. “The ‘clicky-er’ it is, the more likely we will write it up,” says Greenwood. Having a DC angle with a story line that stands out is critical for Huffington Post’s D.C. page. Greenwood said, “If it’s saucy enough, we will go for it. The less work you can make me do to figure out if we want to do a story,  the better.”

When it comes to follow-ups, both journalists expressed frustration with public relations staffers who do multiple follow-ups that intrude on their limited time. “Follow up once, not four times,” said Greenwood. And don’t be pushy, advised Flanders.

“Twitter is one more place to look for good stories,” noted Greenwood, when asked by audience members about how they use social media for news gathering. Stories featuring real and living people still reign supreme, said Greenwood.  Flanders noted that her reporters watch Twitter for story ideas, and that attempting to drum up artificial hype in social media is also noticed  (but not in a positive way).

Greenwood said she appreciates the work public relations professionals do and that she wants to hear from them with relevant story pitches. She also reminded the audience that Huffington Post allows blog posts that focus on issues (don’t be overly self-promotional) and op-ed submissions.

PRSA-NCC member and IPRA founding member Ami Neiberger-Miller owns Steppingstone LLC, an independent public relations consultancy working with nonprofit and association clients, with a special focus on supporting organizations assisting trauma survivors. This post originally appeared on her blog.

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