pr-for-business-

Since I’ve been writing for Forbes, Inc. and Entrepreneur Magazine, I’ve been getting pitches from all types of companies asking me to cover their launch, interview them, or help them in some way. I’ve received a few good ones, but – for the most part – they’re pretty bad.

And when I say bad… I mean horrible.

I don’t have any hard feelings against the people who send me bad pitches. If anything, I feel a little sorry for them. It’s not easy to know what works unless you’ve sat on both sides of the fence, because it’s often only when you receive those pitches that are either truly great or truly terrible that you realize what it is that people are likely to respond to.

To help you write the perfect pitch – with or without being recipient to one – here’s a little about what I’ve learned from being on the receiving end of 3,751 good, great, bad, and really bad PR pitches.

It’s Not About You

You might think you hold the key to the hottest story to hit the press since Felix Baumgartner skydived from space or since some celebrity gained three pounds (disclaimer: that’s a joke). But you know what?

99 times out of 100, you’ll be the only one that thinks so.

I’m not one to beat around the bush so I’m going to be brutally honest with you here…

…No one cares about who you are or what you do.

It’s harsh, but it’s true. Unless you already have a relationship with the person you’re pitching, you’re no more than an email to them.

So, with that said, I know what you’re thinking – what do they care about?

They care about what’s in it for them.

When I respond to a pitch, it’s because the person has offered me something that provides value to me. In most cases, this is a story that I can feature. Pitch me a story I can use, and demonstrate what value there is in that story (for me, that’s probably the interest it will gain and the traffic it will drive), and you’re taking on some of the leg work for me.

That said, we’re not all in the same boat, and we’re not all motivated by the same things. For example, most entrepreneurs are motivated by money. But if your budget’s tight, and you can offer something else of value to the person you’re pitching – publicity, for example, or an exchange of talents – then you might still be able to win them over.

Whatever you’re able to offer, the bottom line is this: stop thinking about what you want to get out of sending that email. Put yourself in your recipient’s shoes and figure out what’s in it for them.

Below is an example of a pitch I received recently. It’s short, succinct, and (reasonably) relevant. But I didn’t respond. Why? Because they failed to tell me how this news will help me. Put more succinctly, why the hell I should care?

sujan2

Include a Clear Call to Action

What do you want to result from your next PR pitch?

Don’t tell me. Write it in your email.

It’s all well and good to show off an awesome piece of content or a breaking news story, but when it comes down to it, if you don’t tell me what you want me to do, I probably won’t do it.

PR pitches are not a time for subtleties. Playing games is for kids – be an adult and be up-front about what you’re looking for. You’re going to gain more respect that way, and you’ll be more likely to get what you want.

Everyone wins.

Keep your Pitch Short

I’m a busy guy, and I’d be happy to be that most the people you’ll be pitching to are busy too. Even if they’re not that busy, they probably have something they’d rather be doing with their time than kicking back and reading a lengthy email.

Don’t fluff up your emails with too much flattery, and definitely don’t waste time telling the recipient your life story (see section one: no one cares who you are). Instead…

Get straight to the point.

There’s nothing wrong with flattery (in theory). If it’s genuine and concise, it can work in your favor (more on this later).

For now, know that it’s best to keep your words of praise to a single sentence. Two, max. Then move on to the shit that matters. Say what you’ve got to say. Just say it quickly.

Below is an example of a pitch that I feel a little bad criticizing. The author has clearly done their research and spent some time crafting the email. It’s certainly not a terrible pitch – it’s just too long to keep my interest.

A good chunk of the information isn’t entirely relevant or necessary (e.g. the client details), and the call to action is, frankly, weak.

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It’s not all bad news, though. Here’s an example of a pitch I was pretty impressed with. It included enough information to pique my interest, but was short and sweet enough to retain my attention. It also included a clear call to action.

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Don’t Say “Please”

We’ve always been told to mind our manners and remember our p’s and q’s, but this is one time you can forget to say please and be all the better for it.

In a PR pitch, the word “please” tends to come across as desperate or demanding. It’s almost like you’re begging them to use your story.

“Hi Mr. Journalist,

I’ve got this awesome data about PR pitches that I’m sure you’ll find fascinating.

Please could you feature it on your site?”

No.

Just no.

This is much better:

“Hi Mr. Journalist,

I’ve got this awesome data about PR pitches that I’m sure you’ll find fascinating.

It’d be great if you could take a quick look at it, and if it’s a good fit you’d be welcome to use it.”

This tells me what they want from me without making it sound like I’m their only hope. As a result, I’m far more likely to respond.

Know Who You’re Pitching

Amongst the worst of the worst pitches I’ve ever received are those that aren’t even relevant to me. Do I want to write about your interior design firm’s takeover? Heck no. I’ve got nothing against the industry, but seriously? Why me?

Unless you’re already familiar with the person you’re pitching, do your research.

You’ll have a far greater chance of success if you find the right person at the right publication to pitch.

Pitching a story about health to the Huffington Post? Don’t write to the site editor, and definitely don’t pitch it to the editor of entertainment or travel (they won’t care, and frankly, your lack of attention to detail will be embarrassing).

Pitch it to the editor of the health section.

Simple.

Always, Always, Use Their Name

If, as recommended above, you’ve done your research and know the exact person you should be pitching to, this should come naturally – nothing is more impersonal or says “automated email” more than a message addressed to “Hi,” “Hello,” or the worst offender of all, “Dear webmaster.”

Don’t address your recipient by name and don’t expect to get a response.

Oh, and make sure to use the right name…

sujan6

Build a relationship first

Want to know the best way to get me (and anyone else) to open (and read) your email? Don’t send a completely cold email – get to know me a little elsewhere first.

This might mean commenting on my blog, or contacting me over Twitter. Whatever it is, if you can get your name in front of me before you reach out by email, chances are I’m going to be much more responsive since I’ll (probably) recognize your name and know that I have some kind of relationship with you.

Of course, I don’t mean to say you can’t succeed with cold emails: the right story pitched to the right person in the right way can still work. If you have something truly useful to offer, people aren’t going to turn it down just because they don’t know who you are.

Sure, buttering us up won’t get you very far if you follow it up with a bad pitch for a bad (or irrelevant) story. But taking the time to get on our radar before you send that initial outreach email can dramatically up the chances that we’ll pay attention and, at the very least, give your email the time of day.

Bonus tip: Once you’ve got what you wanted, don’t cut off contact with me. Keep the lines of communication open and try to develop our relationship further. That way, the next time you have a story or content piece you think I’ll be interested in, I’ll happily listen to what you’ve got to say.

Follow Up (and Use Different Platforms)

If your first email didn’t get a response, try again. Maybe you caught me at a super-busy time. Perhaps your email went into my spam folder. Or maybe your subject line got overlooked.

With all these things in mind, if you’re really determined to get my attention, always follow up.

That said, if you’re going to send a second email, make sure to use a different subject line (something as simple as “Follow up” can work since it’s vague enough to make me wonder what the email’s about, without sounding spammy).

However, email doesn’t have to be your only point of contact. Social media is far less formal and may capture your prospect’s attention when they’re in a more relaxed and responsive state of mind.

That said…

Don’t be annoying! Two attempts at contact is fine, three is (in my opinion) the limit. Beyond that, you’re pushing your luck and you risk being blacklisted.

Oh, and whatever you do, don’t be tempted to pick up the phone.

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(Genuine) Flattery is Good

Everybody loves to be told nice things about themselves. If you found a blog post I wrote really enjoyable or really useful, don’t be afraid to say so – I love to hear it!

However, you need to be genuine. Insincerity is super easy to spot. If you’re not an avid reader of my blog, don’t pretend to be. Do not say how much you “loved my last blog post” if you didn’t read it and couldn’t even tell me what it was about.

If you did read it, and loved it, then tell me why – I’m far more likely to take you seriously if you can demonstrate you read something I wrote, rather than just claim you did.

It can be as simple as something like this:

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False flattery on the other hand is sneaky and slimy and won’t make me (or likely anyone) be more responsive to your emails.

So what do you do if you don’t follow me on Twitter or read my blog? Just be yourself! If you’ve done your research, you’ll know enough about me to understand what I’m likely to be interested in, so just say what you do know, rather than pretending to love something you’ve only just discovered thanks to Google.

Say:

“Hey Sujan,

I know you’ve written a lot about growth hacking recently so I thought this new data on SMB’s attitudes to growth hacking techniques would interest you.”

Not:

“Hey Sujan,

I’m a huge fan of your blog. I especially loved your latest piece on growth hacking. Take a look at this…”

The above might be true, but how do I know? Unless you can say why you loved my latest piece on growth hacking, I don’t know whether you’re genuinely interested in working with me, or you’re just sending out 50+ generic emails in the hope that one will stick.

In summary: flattery is great, but no flattery is better than false flattery.

Don’t Email Lots of People from the Same Publication

This is something I experience less often, but when it happens, it can be totally frustrating.

I get why it happens: by contacting multiple people at the same publication, you assume you’re increasing your odds of getting a “yes” from someone.

Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret – you’re not.

Send too many emails to the same group of respondents and two things are likely to happen:

  1. You’re going to make every recipient of your email feel like a number, rather than someone you’ve chosen to contact because their interests match yours’. Consequently, no one will respond. Think of it like this: you see the same person in a bar approach five different people, then they approach you. Do you feel flattered? Probably not…
  1. Even if you have the perfect story for that publication, by emailing lots of different people you’re removing the responsibility for any of them to do anything about it. The executive editor might assume the assistant editor will respond and so on. It’s no different than assuming that, because there are ten people in your office, you don’t need to wash the dishes because someone If everyone thinks like that (and they often do), the dishes never get done.

Just to clarify, don’t presume you can get around this by sending individual emails rather than sending the same email to multiple recipients. People talk. Especially if they all work out of the same office.

At the risk of repeating myself: you have the best chance of success by finding the one right person at the right publication to contact.

You can always follow up later by emailing a different contact from the same place, but be sure to reference your initial email and the name of its recipient.

Don’t Be Salesy

Salesy pitches are the type of bad pitches that really make me squirm. At best, they’re cheesy, fake, and very impersonal. At worst they’re downright creepy, like this:

“A friend in the agency space recommended I reach out to you about Zenefits (www.zenefits.com), and I would very much like to grab a few minutes of your time to discuss.”

Salesy language is for email newsletters and conversion copy. That said, even copy that’s well-crafted to sound “personal” still sounds seriously impersonal when included in a PR pitch.

This is the kind of stuff I’m alluding to:

“Hi Sujan,

We’re all getting pretty frustrated by how often Google changes its goal posts, and want to know how we can pre-anticipate their next move.

As a result, we did the research and put together this document…”

Note the excessive use of the word “we.” What about me? You’re targeting me, so talk to me, not at me. And don’t make assumptions about what I think – just because you are frustrated by Google, doesn’t mean we all are (and for the record, I’m not; I think it’s a good thing that Google is always fighting for quality).

This language might work in an email newsletter, in which you have to generalize. However when you’re emailing someone personally, this does not work. I’d go as far as to say that it’s one step away from sending a junk email.

It all comes back to knowing the person you’re contacting, personalizing your email, and making it relevant to them.

Try this instead:

“Hi Sujan,

I saw your post about Google’s recent algorithm updates, and I could tell that you get quite excited about these changes. Personally, I’m getting pretty frustrated with how they keep changing the goal posts, so I thought you might be interested in exploring an alternative point of view…”

This shows that you’ve paid attention to what I write and the opinions that I hold. Your views might not match mine, but it’s not a problem because you’ve admitted this and turned our differing opinions into a positive.

That’s what will get my attention.

Don’t Overlook Your Subject Lines

When you’ve spent ages crafting the perfect pitch, it can be tempting to rush writing the subject line.

That said, it can also be really easy to overthink it.

I understand that: get the subject line wrong and you may as well send a blank email because (there’s a chance) your email won’t ever get to see the light of day. However, writing a great subject line is actually pretty simple once you know what you’re doing.

You just need to offer just enough information to peak interest. Think:

“You’ll like this new marketing research” or “Response to your article on CRO for startups”

Not:

“I think you’ll like this”

You can improve both your open and response rates even further by:

  • Keeping your subject lines short (8 words or less is ideal)
  • Including time expectations
  • Ensuring not to be misleading

Bonus tip: Use a tool like Yesware or Sidekick to track whether your emails are actually being opened. If you’re not getting responses to your messages, a tracking tool will help you establish whether it’s your subject line or the content of the email itself that’s causing problems.

One Final Tip…

Before you send your next pitch (and, probably, every pitch you send after that), put yourself in your recipient’s shoes and read it back to yourself. This isn’t about proofreading (though please don’t send pitches with spelling or grammatical errors). This is about understanding how you would feel if you were to receive that pitch.

Heck, go one step further and swap out the recipient’s details for your own and actually send it to yourself. Wait ten or fifteen minutes before you open it. Then read it.

Be completely honest and ask yourself: if you received this pitch, would you respond? If the answer is no, you know what you have to do: start over.

I want to hear from you. Let me know what you’ve learned about crafting the perfect pitch (either by sending or receiving one) by leaving me a comment below:

Comments
  1. Sujan,

    Wow. That was simultaneously among the funniest and most useful collection of information I’ve seen all week. Mind you, it’s only Monday so who knows what the next few days may bring, but you’ve set the bar very high.

    Really, just great stuff! 😀

    1. Steve,

      Thanks! I’ve been subtly incorporating more humor into my blog posts and you’re the first person to notice 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed the post

      1. Thank you Sujan, that is definitely the best and most precise pitching guide I have ever read!
        Bookmarking this!

  2. Hey Sujan,
    If you’re looking at it from a return on investment standpoint, I’ve found it’s a far better use of your time to comment on a blog post, share a tweet, that sort of thing, prior to pitching, rather than trying to draft some perfect email that may never get read.

    Get on their radar first. Then there’s a much larger margin for error when you write your pitch. I always read emails from people if I recognize their name. Doesn’t everyone?

    Chris Huntley

    1. Chris,

      That’s a great point. Getting on someone’s radar before emailing them is definitely a prerequisite.

      1. Hey Chris,

        I think that’s what Sujan referenced under “Build a Relationship First”… right?

        Now, I think that’s a great tactic, yet what about at scale? There is something to be said about spraying and praying, especially when you’re starting on a ground zero endeavor like a a future focusing prediction app.

        1. Kostas, Doing this at scale is whole another beast. I’ll likely be writing another blog posts about the topic. Along with a post on building your brand from ground zero.

  3. Sujan,

    Your style of communication is so inspiring. I am not a good writer but when my colleagues talk about conversational emails / copy that talks to humans, I can only think of you!

    How did you come about this, is this how you talk to yourself and you just pen it down?

    Shikha

    1. Thanks Shikha. I actually record my blog posts on audio then transcribe them into text and edit from there.

  4. Hey Sujan,

    Great post, very helpful. I have ahead of me a lot of in-house PR work and I’ve been reading quite a bit about pitching stories to journalists and this post is one of the more helpful ones (more so than whole books I’ve read). I shall resort to it the next time my boss asks if I’ve called to inquire after an email 😉

    There is a question that I’m still missing the answer to and it is this; for publications or online news sites, is it ever better to send the pitch straight to the editor and let them delegate, or should you always send to a particular journalist?

    1. Johann, Thank you! You made my day comparing my blog post to a book 🙂

      To answer your question, always go with the more relevant person. From my experience If the journalist is passionate about the topic (you can tell if they’re written 3 or more articles) then reach out to the journalist. Editors (unless they’re new) don’t respond to cold pitches most of the time. Someone on the inside has to introduce you.

  5. This is super timely! Thanks Sujan! I appreciate the depths you dive on subjects like this. This was very insightful, and I think you can apply these principles when personal networking, connecting with investors, and creating partnerships.

  6. Hi Sujan,

    You nailed it! I’ve been on both sides of pitching (a journalist for 15 years, I’m now doing PR for health tech companies) and have experienced the good and the bad, both my own and others’. I thought I had the art form down, but your post made me realize I’ve still got a few things to learn. Which is pretty cool.

    One final thought. I’ve seen a lot of these types of posts by journalists and they tend to fall into the “Get it right, stupid!” camp. You shared some great advice without denigrating the whole PR profession. When I was a journalist I called people like me “flaks.” But at our best we can help journalists like you write the kind of stories you want to write, and that your readers want to read. So thanks for recognizing that and for making a sincere (and fun!) effort to help us help you. 🙂

    Todd

  7. What a great article! I couldn’t agree with you more. I currently sit on both sides of this pitching game and it’s amazing to see how many “bad” pitches there are – it really makes the good ones stand out! Thanks for sharing!

  8. Hey Sujan,

    I both receive and send a lot of pitches, so this article was both entertaining and useful.

    You don’t mention automation, and I think that’s intentional. A word of warning to those who are tempted by the speed of a mail-merge pitch: if you accidentally include a competing publication’s name instead of mine, as happens quite often, I’m putting you on my mental blacklist.

    “It’d be great if you could take a quick look at it, and if it’s a good fit you’d be welcome to use it.”

    That, right there, is exactly the sentiment I’ve been trying to put into words. Thanks for the inspiration!

    1. Ophelie, Thanks! I didn’t mention automation because most people do it wrong and I can write a whole another blog post about the topic 🙂

      You bring up a good point about not bringing up a competitor. I remember in my early days of sending pitches I made that mistake and lost a big opportunity because of it.

      1. I don’t mind terribly if they bring up a competitor in an authentic manner, but mistaking me for another publisher is the worst! Are they even paying attention when writing their email?

  9. Found you by accident while trying to educate myself on how to properly pitch myself and my company. I winced on a couple of examples, as that was the path I started to take….wont tell you which ones now 🙂

    Time to fine tune my message a bit I think 🙂

    Oh, first time reader, first time commenter here and this really did help me. Thanks

    jim

  10. Sujan,

    This is hands down the best and most actionable PR article I’ve read. Thanks for sharing this insight. I’ve shared this with our network of 600 entrepreneurs as well.

    Best,
    Alex

    Chief Strategy Officer
    Launch Academy

  11. Hey Sujan –
    As someone that has sent a ton of PR pitches to try and get out the word about our company, this is really some serious gold. I think we do a solid job in our outreach, but I definitely picked up a few nuggets here. Thanks.

  12. “…No one cares about who you are or what you do.”

    So, true.
    If it transforms their lives they care…
    regardless of who you are…
    if not you are wasting their time…

    If in the first category, they’ll ask who you are.
    If in the second they won’t care.

  13. Sujan,

    This is incredibly insightful and will help me greatly in the future with all emails, not only pitches. Your ideas of brevity, forwardness, and stepping into the shoes of the reader will stick with me for a long time.

    Best,
    Max Schoenfeld
    Arqlite SPC

  14. It is always a delight reading your post and I saved this one in my to-read list for some time now as Outreach and Pitches is something I love to read and talk about (search Omnicore Blogger Outreach).

    You’ve shared excellent examples and as someone who is in the receiving end, it carries a lot of weight and something I’ll keep in mind for my own projects.

    Cheers 🙂

  15. Sujan,
    Thanks a lot for this artice. You have saved me few mistakes already 🙂 For me, the most important were examples and your humor which just opened my eyes!

  16. That was a piece Sujan. What I’m just not sure is that this is your perception on all the e-mails you get, and is every of you like you?

    If I was receiving as many e-mails as you seem to get, I would probably feel more harassed than something else. Well in the end you’re probably not the only one to be in that case so it’s interesting to read though.

    Nevertheless I think that when you say “we don’t care about who you are” can be a bit too much and not especially a good advice. I believe that this could be related also to your past experiences, your culture or whatever else and cannot be taken as a general advice when someone is writing an e-mail.. or maybe I got you wrongly.

    Just as a remark, I think your post was just a bit too long even if it was easy to read 🙂

    (Btw, if you have any feedback to give on what we do @Swanest.com would love to hear it, but that’s not the purpose of this comment…)

  17. Thanks Sujan. I’m a freelance writer and artist and I always struggle with queries and pitches. This was one of the best I’ve ever read and gave me clarity on several levels. I’m especially relieved to see that the salesy language I hate writing is actually not necessary, so I can stop trying to insert it into my queries.

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