Elite digital marketing

What do Journalists want? – The ultimate Digital PR guide to the inner workings of a Journalist

 

It’s one of those questions that everyone in the Digital PR industry is asking. Your digital PR campaign success hinges on you understanding the answer to that very question. It has hundreds of social media posts dedicated to it. It has thousands of blogs analysing it. It even has books dedicated to it. All trying to discover what it is journalists actually want?


Well, we came up with a revolutionary idea. We thought we’d ask them!


To ensure we gained a wide range of views, we reached out to some of our favourite journalists, from different genres spanning the full spectrum of the journalistic range from Tabloid, all the way to broadsheets.


We are privileged to be in a position where we have known many of them for years now. As entities, digital PR specialists and Journalists have a symbiotic relationship. As long as we maintain that delicate balance of a mutual beneficiary, the world will continue to be a better place. 

So we contacted the following people:

Simon Read (@simonnread ) - BBC Reporter and commentator on Finance. Also Works with Daily Mirror and The Sun. Personal Finance Editor at the Independent
Jane Hamilton (@JJhamilton) – Reporter and Columnist for The Sun
Katie Law - Deputy Literary Editor at The Evening Standard
Anna Tims (@anna_tims) - Consumer affairs journalist at The Guardian / Observer
Tomé Morrissy-Swan (@tmorrissyswan) – Journalist with The Telegraph

We would like to take this opportunity to thank all of the above for taking the time to answer our questions in such detail.

But what should we ask? Well, we reached out to our network on Twitter and LinkedIn and compiled a short list of questions that you all wanted answers for. 

 

  1. Where do you come up with your ideas for stories from? Do you ever look at email pitches?
     

  2. What makes you open a pitch over another?
     

  3. Is there a preferred time of day that you read email pitches?
     

  4. Do you ever read these at weekends or bank holidays?
     

  5. How far ahead do you plan your pieces to publish?
     

  6. What do you hate seeing in a pitch?
     

  7. Are you often asked to add a link on pieces you publish? What is your policy/opinion on this?

 

The first question was about the ideation, a logical first step. Where do journalists get their ideas from? After all, if we know that, we could tap into the very source of a story and help shape it right from its inception, ensuring a grateful journalist who will not hesitate to credit your client for supporting his/her task and enabling a much richer article to be produced.

 

“Where do you come up with your ideas for stories from? Do you ever look at email pitches?”

“Usually from the news, either responding to other stories or events or from speaking to people and hearing what's going on. [re email pitches] Sometimes. Most are so badly presented, that I don't bother. I'd reckon that possibly one in 20-30 stories I write might come from a PR pitch, maybe one a month" Says Simon Read from the BBC

Interestingly, Jane Hamilton from The Sun has a slightly different spin on things: 

“Yes I look at every pitch which I receive - but that could be hundreds a day so I simply don't have time to reply to the ones I can't use. I read very widely, look at sources in print, on TV and online and use tipsters as well to keep up to date and spark story ideas. “


Fascinating to hear that some Journalists “look at every pitch” they receive! 


Katie Law from The Standard says:

“Ideas for stories come from the news, from Twitter, from talking to friends sometimes, from publishers catalogues & schedules, and from email pitches from publishing publicists. I know a few of them well and they know exactly the kinds of things I will or won’t go for...”


Note the addition and specific mention of Twitter to the mix.

 

 

Now comes the turn of some of the broadsheets.

Anna Tims (The Guardian) says:

“I get most of my ideas from observing trends or significant issues in the emails readers write to my column. I occasionally use press releases for stats or extra material if they're relevant to a story I'm working on, but very rarely write a piece directly arising from them. Since they're sent to a range of journalists and the Observer is a weekly paper the newsworthiness would have passed.”

Note the fact that Anna rarely takes press releases as direct inspiration for a piece. A common theme with the high-brow publications is that they don’t like using releases due to the fact that they will be outreached to many other journalists. I.e exclusivity and quality over quantity preference is a recurring theme with these publications. 

However, even amongst the broadsheets, some do look at press releases for inspiration amongst other avenues. For example, Tomé Morrissy-Swan from The Telegraph says:

“All sorts of places. Reading the papers; talking to friends/family/acquaintances; social media; TV/Radio/News; PR and press releases.”

The next question is probably one of the most asked questions while also being one of the biggest mistakes I see people make every single day. 

 

“What makes you open a pitch over another?

Probably the best advice you are ever going to get is from Simon Read (BBC) who says: 

“If it's an email the headline is crucial. If it just says PR pitch or press release attached, I don't look any further.”

 

And now for the pièce de résistance. Brace yourself for this 18-carat diamond tip the size of your fist!

“It must show in four or five words why it's topical and deserves time (bearing in mind I get 400-500 emails a day, it means I'll probably give each heading two seconds before deciding whether to open it).”

Have you read that properly? Yes? Well, you should read it again:


“It must show in four or five words why it's topical and deserves time (bearing in mind I get 400-500 emails a day, it means I'll probably give each heading two seconds before deciding whether to open it).”

Simon explicitly states that you have ~2 seconds to catch his attention. Going by some of the examples I have in the image below, I would say that 99% of people still don’t just get this bit. I mean one of them (and apologies if its one of yours dear readers) says “Which wood is best?” Really?

  


 

Tomé Morrissy-Swan (The Telegraph) pitches in with another bit of great advice: 


“Knowing the person who emailed helps.”


These 6 words are where good Digital PR agencies excel over mediocre ones. Good agencies really understand this. They spend the time and extra energy nurturing these relationships. A professional relationship which ensures you recognise their requirements and topics that they specialise in with the full knowledge that you won’t send them “any old crap”.

Tomé goes on to say: 

“A subject head that is relevant to what I work on. Once opened, a brief hello before going straight to the point, rather than too many lines that aren't relevant.”

 

Another question we constantly see PR professionals have strong views on seems to be related to the best time to send out press releases. 


“Is there a preferred time of day that you read email pitches?”

Here is what our group of Journalists had to say:

Jane Hamilton (The Sun):  “Morning is best for pitches - between 8am and 10am ideally.”

Katie Law (Standard) agrees. “Usually crack through emails in the morning.”

 

In fact, every single journalist we spoke to agreed. AM is better. 



But…

 

“Do you ever read these at weekends or bank holidays?”

Contrary to popular belief, Jane Hamilton (The Sun) does! “Yes I read on Bank Hols and Weekends but I won't write them unless I'm working.”

On the other hand, Katie Law (Standard) does not: “I try not to read anything for work at weekends/holidays apart from newspapers for the news, and books for pleasure that I might happen also to be reviewing.”

Anna Tims (Guardian) agrees. “I don't read press releases at weekends.”

This was one of those questions that we could not get a clear answer on. Seems to be a completely personal choice and your miles may vary if you do decide to try sending things out over weekends. 


In our overall experience, only 35% of journalists admitted to checking in on press releases over the weekend but considering most  PR agencies would never dream to send anything out over the weekend, it may be something well be worth experimenting with.

Now, another great tool in the arsenal of regularly well performing agencies is knowing in advance about special dates. Knowing those and angling campaigns around them can greatly enhance your success rate when fighting for the attention of a journalist. But how far in advance should you contact them with your related PR?

 

“How far ahead do you plan your pieces to publish?

Jane Hamilton (The Sun) says: “It entirely depends - for my weekly columns, I can plan up to two months in advance if there are annual touchpoints (e.g. Easter, Mother's Day). For daily stories, I can write 'on the go' that day.”

Katie Law (Standard) says: “Usually 2 - 4 weeks but we try to be reactive and flexible too.”

Anna Tims (Guardian) agrees: “I work about a week ahead. Often two weeks.”

In fact, most responses we had were in the 1 – 3 week range, although 2 weeks seems to be the most popular time frame. 


Ok, so now we come to one of my favourite questions. Everyone should get these painted in huge letters on every wall. It’s amazing how predictable and obvious all of these are, yet I see these exact mistakes in almost every PR email I read. 

 

“What do you hate seeing in a pitch?”

Tomé Morrissy-Swan (Telegraph) says: 

“An overly matey approach if I don't know the person. An assumption that a story is perfect for me (particularly when it's not something I work on). An email that's too long - better to attach a press release and keep the email to the main points. Claims that aren't backed by reputable science or statistics. Misspelling my name (missing the accent is fine, but other variants are a bit annoying). Asking to update something I have already done with their product.” 


WOW. 


We all know the type of email he is referring to… but we are grateful for Tomé’s honest reply. We should all take note of this as it’s obviously an extremely important aspect of successful PR campaign. After all, irritating the Journalist by misspelling his/her name on the first email is not a good start!

But also note the other aspect. The statistics coming from reputable source is something we know that broadsheet publications are far more concerned about and that’s to be expected as they normally cover more serious topics. 

Katie Law (Standard) simply answers: “If it's not personally addressed to me, and if there are typos.” 

Jane Hamilton (The Sun) adds:

“Anything which is clearly not designed for my readership, anything way out of Sun readers' budgets or of no interest to them. When emails start 'Hey!’ or feature the words 'Happy Hump Day' (a running joke in journalism re: PRs), a pitch which I know has been used and run elsewhere but the PR doesn't reference it - it's not like we won't know. Be honest, always.”


Great insight and one sentence that stands out is: “anything way out of Sun readers' budgets or of no interest to them”. How well does your piece fit with the readership of the paper is clearly something that all Digital PR professionals should be considering. Most do not.
 
Simon Read (BBC) simply says:

“Most pitches are a waste of time. Unless they are targeted for my readers and are timely and topical, they will fail.”


And now we come to the goal of every Digital PR campaign. Links!

We asked:


“Are you often asked to add a link on pieces you publish? What is your policy/opinion on this?”

Expecting a barrage of hate we braced ourselves... only to be pleasantly surprised by some of the replies.

Jane Hamilton (The Sun) says: 
“Yes we are and we understand why but the decision to link is made by the online editor, not the journalists. Links impact our own SEO so are used sparingly. For example, we'd be more likely to link to a charity than to a brand page, especially if people can get instant help that way.”

Katie Law (Standard) says: “Yes we are and it depends on what the link is, generally it’s no problem to do so.”

Anna Tims (Guardian) agrees:

“I'm sometimes asked to add a link. The editor and the subs take a final decision on this, but usually we only link if the company/organisation is of use and relevance to readers, if it's the main subject of a story or if it's helped out with research or quotes in return for a link.”



Others have mentioned that they have a blanket policy of no links out which they could not do anything about even if they wanted to. 

 

And this is it for this roundup. I hope it has provided you with some useful insight direct from the people who will be reading your Digital PR campaigns. In this day and age there is just no excuse to sending out bland releases. Use your imagination but remain respectful and understanding of the journalist you communicate with. Afterall, they have a job to get on with just like you and are under enormous time pressure eminating from tight deadlines. Keep everything interesting, concise and get to the point without too much fluff. The tips above will help you save them lots of time and will no doubt, if implemented, improve your success rate considerably. 

 

Getting the communication with the Journalists right is crucial for gaining the kind of success we achieve for our clients daily:

 


 

 

 

Thanks again to all of the Journalists that contributed to this article. Your time is much appreciated.

 

Free Checklist:


Interesting Further Reading: Jane Hamilton on Linkedin.

 

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