Whether you're new to the public relations industry or you've been around for decades, you have likely heard this phrase from a client: “I want to be on the cover of [Insert name of big magazine here] next month!" or "I think we are worthy of a feature in the New York Times." Honestly, you can’t blame them. They founded their company because they are dreamers with enormous ideas and tons of ambition. But as their publicist, it’s part of your job to help them align with reality.
It’s lovely (and beneficial) to have gold-studded aspirations, but big features in top publications take time—and require thoughtful, strategic PR strategies to gain the attention of the right editors and writers. Though it can be frustrating to receive rejections and deal with disappointed clients, remember, the road is long and there is light at the end of the tunnel. Just ask these publicists who have landed inclusions in leading magazines and newspapers.
Here, they share their best tricks of the trade:
Do your homework.
When strategizing and planning your public relations campaign, the first—and most important—step is rolling up your sleeves and digging into research. And while, sure, pulling a list from a media database platform tailored to journalists covering your respective industry or topic is a great start to grow from, it’s only the first drop in a big bucket, says JJ Nelson, the director of brand communications for Bergmeyer.
“No matter how focused my media list is when mapping out journalists to pitch to, I always recommend a deep dive search. This means using keywords specific to the news I’m sharing to identify the most influential journalists covering this space at the moment,” he continues.
He says you’ll often find many of the journalists on your original list may have moved to another outlet, switched beats, or aren’t as relevant as they once were for the topic you’re looking to pitch. “Detailed research like this should continue throughout the first few weeks of your media outreach as well,” he continues. “You should update your media targets daily with detailed notes like dates of correspondence, personal relationships, likes/dislikes the journalists may have, past articles to reference when you connect, and so on.”
Get ingrained in the brand—and get creative.
One of the most frustrating aspects of managing a client's expectations is creating something out of nothing. They want a big feature in a top publication, but they, um, don’t have anything that’s exactly revolutionary, so what are you supposed to do? How do you make them stand out from the hundreds of pitches you know journalists receive? If your client doesn't have anything ‘big feature worthy,' you might need to work with them to come up with something that is, says April Margulies, the president and founder of Trust Relations Agency.
This begins by getting ingrained with the brand—and then upping the ante on your imagination. She recommends asking these questions to get your juice flowing:
- Are there events or activations the company could do to demonstrate its values?
- Are there innovative new products or offerings that would be newsworthy?
- Are there boundary-pushing marketing campaigns that would interest the press?
- Are there operational or business moves that might show the company's agility and unique ability to pivot quickly in the face of market changes?
“Sometimes what would make great news also makes great business sense, and if you come up with the next big idea for your client, you'll not only get them great press, but you'll also forge a lasting relationship,” she adds.
Remember, journalists are humans too.
Though your client may believe they are the biggest deal, part of your PR strategy should be reminding them journalists aren’t fast-typing robots. Like you, like your client, and everyone else, they are humans, and your approach should be tailored to meet their preferences and needs, Nelson reminds.
First and foremost, when working for a big feature in a top publication, each pitch should be individually curated every time you reach out. Then, a publicist needs to be mindful of follow-ups and touch-points. You’ll also likely be most successful if you target writers you have a relationship with already. “It seems juvenile to say, but if you want the respect of someone else, you need to show the same respect to them first,” Nelson continues. “Journalists get hundreds if not thousands of pitch emails each day and they often flag relevant subject line files to its respective story folder to revisit at a later date once they’ve shifted focus.”
If a journalist actually opens your email and reads your intro, you’ve already struck gold, he says. But don’t take advantage of the milestone by having no substance or thoughtfulness in your email. “Reference past articles that spoke to you or that tie into the pitch you’re bringing to the table,” he recommends. “Find commonalities with them in their personal life—without feeling creepy or inauthentic—and try to learn their communication styles if you’re able to get that much information ahead of time. In short: be thoughtful, sincere, and respective of their time.”
Have answers to FAQs lined up.
Or, as Andrea McKinnon, the owner of AMcK PR puts it: it is imperative to have all your proverbial pitch ducks in a row. “As exciting as it is to start pitching to prove yourself, it is so important to have your client's messages really, really clear and focused, with all the important selling or talking points at the ready,” she says. “The more familiar you are with your client, the more streamlined the conversation with the booker, producer, writer, or editor will be.”
Journalists are likely to ask for fact-checking details, high-resolution images, and access to experts, founders, and leaders for interviews. By having prompt responses to all of these inquiries ready to go, you won’t leave anyone hanging—and you’ll be more likely to score a big feature in a top publication.
Be strategic and straightforward in pitches.
In journalism, it’s important not to bury the lede. Readers want to know the story's purpose before they commit to reading the whole article, and writers often feel the same way when receiving a pitch. That’s why it’s essential to get to the point and grab the attention of the media professional with a concise subject line, says Sara Baker, the practice lead of earned media for Marina Maher Communications. To determine the most impactful approach, she suggests focusing on conveying your thesis in three lines or less.
“I often suggest keeping your pitches ‘above the fold’ in an email,” she continues. “If it’s too long and going below the ‘preview’ frame in Outlook, they aren’t likely to scroll much further.”
To go a step further, she also recommends optimizing search terms in pitches since today, more than ever, it’s all about the clicks. “Journalists often include relevant keywords in their stories to help with search engine optimization, which can lead to more clicks on their stories,” Baker explains. “A great way to help your pitch cut is to include relevant SEO keywords that journalists can use within their stories. Help them help you.”
Landing a big feature in a top publication for a client can take a lot of patience. Margulies says it’s a delicate dance that publicists must tiptoe that involves working closely with that perfect media contact for months, carefully, without ever being overbearing. Then, it's also about looking for that ideal window of opportunity.
“It's a little like matchmaking with two friends you know are perfect for each other, but who aren't ready for each other yet. One's just getting over a breakup, and the other is still a little too much of a wild child, but you see the potential and are ready to set them up the moment things change,” she shares. “If you know what a reporter is looking for that your client doesn't have yet, you can let them know the moment you have it. Similarly, if you know what a reporter is working on and are close enough to all of your clients' inner workings, you can insert them into articles when it makes sense—even if it's not a topic you're actively pitching.”
Kindness goes a long way.
Last but not least: in PR and in life, kindness goes a long way. “... If your pitch or idea is turned down, thank the other person for responding to your email and sharing feedback,” Sara Spiegel, the founder of With Sara PR says. “People remember gracious interactions, and you’d be surprised how many will make a note to reach out when the time is right.”