Mar 16

ADVICE: How to Kidnap the Children of Almost Everyone in a Newsroom

That was the subject line of an email I wrote to Michael Smart, the presenter of a fantastic webinar on pitching story ideas to the news media. I was following his good advice about the importance of subject lines, and he wrote right back -- more on that later. But in doing so, Michael confirmed my theory about a subtle but significant change in the dynamics of newsrooms and email pitching you should know about.

When public relations people did their pitching by snail mail and followed up by phone, they were at a distinct technological disadvantage. Phone calls, of course, generally go to only one person. If that person declined to pursue the story, the PR person simply went on to someone else. The “decliner” went back to whatever he or she was doing and no one else in the newsroom was the wiser.

Online news changed pitching forever

Along comes email, with its power to send highly visible messages instantly to huge numbers of people. Journalists, generally resistant to being told what to think about anything, resented pitches blasted out to multiple people. They knew their colleagues and their competition had them too. Paralysis generally ensued.

Then things changed. Newsrooms developed an all-day appetite for online content. Standards changed. But more important than that were the layoffs and the layoff lists no one wanted to be on. Now when an email comes in to half the newsroom, the boss has it, and their boss, as well as colleagues wanting to appear engaged and valuable.

I noticed in my last several years in a newsroom before working at Idea Grove, a Dallas marketing firm, that after a decent email pitch came in I couldn’t count to 10 before my phone rang or an email was sent saying:

What are we doing about this?

Journalists’ biggest competition: Colleagues

In today’s newsrooms, “we” means you, and right now. That’s why email pitches sent out to multiple recipients work better now. A journalist’s competition isn’t just the other guys, it’s people in their own organization.

After the webinar, I wrote Michael to see what he thought of my theory. To increase my chances he would read my note, I made use of two of his lessons. One was to grab attention with the subject line. He had said jokingly that the best possible subject line would be “I have kidnapped your child.” He had also told us that the best subject lines are on the covers of women’s magazines displayed in supermarket checkout lines. Learn from those, he said, to use numbers and “How to.”

Michael wrote back, saying he also had seen better responses in the last couple of years to email pitches sent to more than one recipient and that my reasoning for why made sense. Then he confessed that of the 30 emails he’d gotten after the webinar, the first he’d opened was the one with the subject line, “How to kidnap the children of almost everyone in a newsroom.”

tags: public relations, Journalism, media relations

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Clay Zeigler


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