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Hey there, I’m Kate Bernyk and I’ve been working in communications and media relations for a little over 15 years now. Throughout my experience, I’ve seen that while most people would absolutely benefit from the media paying attention to the Very Cool Thing they are doing, those same people often feel super awkward, confused, or unequipped to do anything about it. The good news is, it’s really not that complicated to learn the basics of how to pitch your work to the press. The bad news is, much like creative work, it’s not always a sure thing that those pitches will result in positive stories about your work being published. You could invest a lot of time reaching out to journalists who you think might like to write about you, and still, it just might not happen. That sucks. But when it DOES work, press coverage can be a super helpful way to expand your reach and audience.
Over the years, I’ve worked to get executive profiles placed in major newspapers, managed a national campaign for a U.S. Supreme Court case, and ghostwritten countless op-eds for nonprofit CEOs, advocates, and even a couple celebrities. I also dabble in my own personal creative work, mostly writing personal essays about body acceptance, diet culture, and mental health. And I can tell you from experience, pitching your own work is WAY weirder than being paid to do it for other people. But I can also tell you firsthand: if you want to find ways to pitch a compelling story about your creative work to the press, you can do it. Read on to find out how.
— Kate Bernyk, Communications Strategist
The first question I ask when putting together a communications and media plan is: Who am I trying to talk to, and what do I want them to do?
It’s the hill I will die on. It’s the soapbox I will stand on forever. It’s the bee that lives in my bonnet. It’s all those other weird idioms I can’t think of. I’m truly obsessed with getting not just an answer to this question, but an answer that is as specific as possible.
I’ve sat in rooms with CEOs and elected officials, who are really really smart, and when I ask them who they want to reach, I often get this dreaded answer: “the general public.” Look, I know it’s really tempting to want to reach as many people as possible, but there’s just no such thing as the general public. There’s no one place everyone in the “general public” goes for news. So, it’s much easier and more effective to focus your energy on outlets that would actually reach the specific people you truly want to reach with your work.
As you consider the who and what, ask yourself:
After you’ve considered the above, the second part of the equation is deciding what it is you want your audience to DO once they’ve read all about you and your work. Is it to have them come to an upcoming show or performance? Is it to have them follow you on social media, or sign up for your newsletter? Is it to buy your art or music? Is it to pledge to your Kickstarter campaign? This is the “call to action,” or CTA, and every media plan needs one.
It’s important to note that the CTA is NOT the same thing as your pitch, or the story you are trying to tell. In some cases, you don’t even need to include the CTA in your pitch. Your story and what you are doing is the key to your pitch (more on this later). But if a reporter decides to cover your work, it’s helpful to be prepared for questions about what readers/viewers/listeners can do to stay engaged once they learn about you and your work. Having a plan for this at the outset ensures you aren’t scrambling to make one up on the fly later.
Once you’ve nailed down who you are trying to reach and what it is you want them to do, it’s time to figure out how you’re going to tell the story of who you are and what your creative work is all about. And, you’ll need to do this as succinctly as possible.
These questions can help you focus your story:
The first time I found myself pitching an essay about my own journey to body and fat acceptance, I got so stuck with why MY perspective mattered. There are so many incredible fat-positive writers out there, surely no one needs my perspective. But the reality is, it’s not just that my story is unique and different from those other writers I admire very much—it’s also that we just don’t hear enough from fat writers about being fat.
Your work matters to you, therefore it matters. Write down who you are and why this project matters, without worrying too much about editing. Take a look at your stream of consciousness and highlight the best bits. This is what you can use as a starting point for your pitch. But before you get to writing that, you need to know who you’re pitching.
Remember when I was super pushy about figuring out who you were talking to? This is where it matters most. Think about the person or people you are targeting with your project. Now think about where they get their news and other updates about the kind of work you’re doing.
One easy way to do this is to distill the kind of work you are doing into simple, topline search terms. Things like “queer comics” or “political art” or “sustainable clothing.” Search those terms in Google News, then click through the results. Take notice of what publications have covered these topics recently, and who in particular is writing about it. Notice the tone of the coverage. Are they reviewing the project or product, or are they incorporating it into a larger trend piece? Is the writing positive, or critical? Does it seem to be attracting the interest and engagement of their readers?
As you sleuth, keep track of the writers and publications that you think would be most interested in your work or project. I recommend a simple Google or Excel spreadsheet where you can list each writer, add their contact info as you find it, and put in notes on any interest or feedback you receive.
As you get started, be realistic about your pitching list. While you can certainly shoot your shot with CNN or The New York Times, more often than not, you might have a better chance at coverage somewhere a little smaller and more focused on your specific audience. A bigger audience doesn’t necessarily mean a better chance to get folks to engage with your call to action.
Depending on how many prospective writers you find, I’d say ~10 contacts is a decent ballpark to shoot for unless what you are doing is incredibly niche. Once you have your targeted media list, it’s time to track down their contact information. It’s important to do this in the most respectful and minimally creepy way possible, and see if they list a preferred way of being pitched. When you don’t have access to an expensive media contact database, there are other effective tricks to use, which can just take a bit of time.
A note about sliding into a reporter’s Twitter DMs: don’t do it. Unless their bio says “DMs open,” it’s typically not the best place to pitch, and most reporters are annoyed by it—which means they are definitely going to ignore you.
You’ve got your contact list, you’ve got your favorite little nuggets of your story. Now it’s time to get to pitching. Here are some things to keep in mind as you draft your pitch:
Keep the whole pitch to about three short paragraphs (like, no more than 2-3 short sentences per paragraph) or about 250 words total. The first paragraph should be about why you are reaching out to them, the second should be about your story and the work you think they might find interesting, and the third should be where they can find more background about you/your work and how to get in touch with you if they are interested.
Once you’ve got your pitch set, send it off! I recommend doing this midmorning on weekdays, the earlier in the week the better. You don’t want your email to get lost in the weekend email sauce (unless you are pitching a weekend editor, of course), and you generally want to avoid sending it when reporters aren’t looking at their emails, which is usually later in the day or in the evening.
Ah, the dreaded waiting. I can confirm that it is the worst. Did the reporter get your email? Did they read it? Are they ever going to respond? To be honest, you may never know and that’s the rub with cold pitching to reporters.
My general rule of thumb is that you can and should follow up once, about 5-7 days after your initial email. Respond to your original pitch so it’s still there in the body of the email, acknowledge that they are likely busy, and if it makes sense, add any additional information to your original pitch that might help. Maybe something new just happened in the work you are doing that would be particularly relevant—maybe you hit your Kickstarter goal, or maybe something in the news or trending on social is more relevant now.
It’s important not to be too heavy-handed about your follow-up. Just because a reporter doesn’t respond to your first pitch, doesn’t mean you can’t go back to them later about something else. It also doesn’t mean they won’t come back to you long after you’ve thought they ghosted you. Keep it light and professional, and back off if it seems like it’s just not going to work this time around.
If they DO respond, OMFG YAY CONGRATS. Well done. Make sure you’re speedy and comprehensive in your replies, and don’t be afraid to ask questions yourself. Find out what their deadline is and when they think the piece might run, and talk to them about the focus of the piece they are writing.
Sadly, not everything works out. Most pitches aren’t successful. Most of mine certainly aren’t. It wouldn’t be weird at all to send 10 pitches out and only get one response back. But that doesn’t mean you need to take your ball and go home. There’s a plethora of back-up options to get your story and your work out there that don’t require a journalist’s time and effort.
If you send out a bunch of pitches and no press bite, consider self-publishing a piece about your work, maybe at a place like Medium where you just create an account. Or write an op-ed or personal essay to pitch for publication in a digital or print outlet. Host an event with other creators and invite members of the media to join and gain access to your work and you in person—and get the chance to build a relationship with them offline. Start following your key reporters on Twitter, make a Tweetdeck column with their accounts, and share their work or engage in convo there to start to build a rapport. Pay attention to future calls for pitches (which is easier if you are following them!). And of course, try again after some time has passed or if there’s a new angle. Sometimes it’s just not a great time to pitch, maybe they were on vacation, buried under five other deadlines, etc, so you can spruce up your pitch and give it another shot in a few weeks or months.
I know it’s not easy to randomly email a stranger and ask them to not just hear about what you are doing, but care enough to spend precious professional time and resources to write about it. But here’s the thing: It’s their job to write about new and interesting topics. Don’t forget that reporters are people too, and this is what they do for a living. They get tons of these pitches every week or even every day—so don’t be embarrassed or feel weird about wanting to pitch your work.
Also, know that if you do your research and spend a little bit of time making your pitch uniquely you, you will have a leg up on most other people reaching out to these journalists. Most people don’t put that much time or thought into their pitches, and that’s why they usually aren’t that successful. Just remember: always define who you are trying to reach, stay true to your story, highlight the best thing about your work, and be succinct. You’ll be great.
Kate Bernyk is a senior communications strategist, writer, and birth control aficionado. Currently the communications director at Kickstarter, she has also served as the press director for the child welfare system in New Jersey, been senior communications director for the Center for Reproductive Rights, and managed communications strategy for the First Lady of New York City. Kate has published personal essays in outlets including Refinery29 and Allure. She lives in Brooklyn with a little brown dog and fat brown cat where she can be found watching every true crime documentary ever made.