How to pitch news outlets to cover your action

Download this post as a printable PDF

To pitch a reporter or assignment editor about an action or event you’re planning is to call them up&#151typically after sending them a news release&#151and attempt to persuade them that they should come out (or send a reporter) and cover what you’re doing. A good pitch call is at least as important as sending a good news release. With a call, unlike a news release, you are creating a memory of a human-to-human interaction. It’s your opportunity to make a strong impression so that when the reporter or editor goes into their morning or afternoon meeting&#151where they’re deciding which stories to cover&#151they are more likely to advocate for covering your event.

Reporters and editors are busy people. They often sound as if they are unhappy that you reached them by phone, and sometimes you’ll be lucky to get a full minute of their time. An effective pitch call makes a strong impression within the first five seconds, and makes at least the start of a compelling case within ten seconds.

For comparison, here’s an example of an ineffective pitch call:

Hi. My name is [name]. I’m calling about an event that we’re organizing. The event will be here in Manhattan. We’ll be having a march. It’s part of Occupy Wall Street. Veterans will be joining the protest today.

The caller would be lucky to get to the veteran part&#151which is the news hook&#151without the reporter or editor yawning or interrupting. Now, here’s an example of an effective pitch call:

Hi, I’m [name], calling on behalf of ‘Veterans of the 99%’. Tomorrow, military veterans dressed in uniform will march in-step from the Vietnam Memorial in lower Manhattan to the Stock Exchange. Then they’ll join Occupy Wall Street &#151 where they’ll use a “people’s mic” to talk about why, as veterans, they are participants in the 99% movement. Did you receive our press release?

While the second pitch is actually slightly longer than the first, it is packed with words that command attention and stimulate the imagination. Everything in the pitch floods the mind with powerfully vivid images. The first example, on the other hand, is bland. There’s no indication of what the caller is even talking about until a few sentences in.

The effective example ends with a question: “Did you receive our press release?” The reporter or editor has to respond, and will typically do so in one of three ways: 1) Yes, 2) No, 3) Maybe/I don’t know. You can respond to their answers in the following ways:

  • Yes: Great. Will you be sending someone to cover it?
  • No or Maybe: I’ll resend it right away. What email or fax number shall I send it to?

No matter how they answer, you should close the call by making another brief, compelling pitch. You may want to try a pitch that speaks explicitly to production considerations, such as:

Veterans in uniform standing at attention in front of the Stock Exchange will be a powerful visual &#151 you’ll definitely want to send a photographer [if print media]. Will you be sending someone?

If the reporter or editor is non-committal, ask them if there is any additional information you can provide that would help them decide.



‘Veterans of the 99%’ in front of the New York Stock Exchange. 11/2/2011

Writing an effective news release has some things in common with making an effective pitch call. It’s important to stack the most exciting stuff at the top: the most exciting language possible to describe the most compelling people and to spotlight the most captivating visuals. In a news release though, it is also important to weave the issue more substantially into the story. The modern media tends to be disturbingly lazy, and sometimes they simply quote from&#151or even print whole sections of&#151news releases, rather than send a reporter. A good news release starts with the strongest news hooks (the stuff that really catches reporters’ or editors’ attention) but weaves in the campaign message (what you want to communicate about your issue), so that, ideally, any one sentence could stand strongly on its own if that were the only sentence a news outlet chose to print. Be sure to keep copies of releases about upcoming events onhand for journalists at your occupation’s info or press table.

A few more tips:

  • When to call: early and often. Send your first advisory to get your action on editors’ radar screens (and calendars) as early as possible. Make a first round of calls to accompany the advisory. Send it again a few days before and then again the morning of your action. Whenever possible, send the release and make follow-up calls first thing in the morning (7-8am) &#151 to hit morning meetings where assignments are often determined. Additionally, if you are organizing an event where you want a lot of people, then find out if your local papers, weeklies, etc. have a public community calendar where you can list your event to help build turnout.
  • Who to call: If you don’t already have a press list, see if you can “borrow” one from another local grassroots organization that does. If you can’t borrow a list, don’t worry, just look up all your local media outlets online or in the phone book, and start calling. The default is to call and ask for the assignment editor. However, pitching specific reporters can be more effective. So, it pays to familiarize yourself with the reporters from your local news outlets. Notice who covers what “beats” and start calling the reporters who you think will be interested in your story. If a reporter covers you once, call them next time around. Be sure to add to your list any reporters who visit your occupation site. Think of your press list as a dynamic document. Keep good notes, including links to past coverage.
  • Who should call: Ideally the folks who are doing the pitching are folks who can speak compellingly about the issue. Callers should be prepared to do an interview on the spot, should the opportunity arise. When possible, it’s good for the pitch caller to have a level of authority on the issue. In the example above, veterans participating in the event would be ideal folks to do the calling. However, someone making pitch calls is better than no one making pitch calls. And it’s important to train new people too. One thing you can do is assign calls to news outlets that are “lower stake” (typically smaller readership or audience) to new folks, so that they have the opportunity to make their first pitch calls without so much pressure. It’s always a good idea to practice role playing a few pitch calls &#151 to build confidence and to refine your pitch.

HIRING: half-time campaign media person to work on important whistle-blower issue

We’re looking for a smart, strategic, team-minded person to work with us as a half-time (approximately 20 hours per week) contractor on media and messaging for an important campaign. This is a temporary position, starting as soon as possible, with a likely end date in December. Location is flexible (within the United States).

Prior grassroots media and campaign experience required.

Please send a brief cover letter and concise resume (1-3 pages) with references to info[at]beyondthechoir[dot]org. Please write RESUME in the subject line.

We’re moving fast with this; the first wave of applicants will be considered next Monday, May 16th. Please send applications by Sunday, May 15th, 10pm ET.

A little more about what this position will entail on the flip…

The media campaigner will:

  • Think critically about the narrative of the campaign. (What story are we telling? What story is our opposition telling?)
  • Help build and maintain press lists &#151 and relationships with reporters and news outlets.
  • Engage reporters and news outlets about their coverage of the issue (encourage reporters to ask informed questions, etc.).
  • Help write and edit news releases and advisories.
  • Monitor and analyze news coverage related to the campaign.
  • Help with strategic engagement of blogs and online media.
  • Help coordinate spokespeople for media interviews, talk shows, etc.
  • Help create new media and messaging materials for local activists.

Compensation is competitive and will range in relation to level of experience.

Hooks & messages | grassroots communications tips pt.2

If you’re reaching out to the news media as part of your grassroots social justice campaign, it’s important to know the difference between your hook and your message.  Your news hook is whatever you use to get reporters to show up in the first place (e.g. hanging a banner on Mount Rushmore).  A campaign message is what you actually want to communicate to the public, through the filter of the news media (e.g. “America needs real leadership from President Obama on the issue of global warming.”).



Do I see Beyond the Choir co-founder Madeline Gardner up there?

Hooks and messages are rarely the same exact thing, and it is important to know the difference.  An attention-grabbing tactic (which is the hook) can all too easily become the entire story, without any reporting about why activists might go to such lengths.  More times than not this is what contemporary mainstream news coverage of protests and direct actions looks like.  I have helped to plan actions that were only covered as part of the traffic report because the news desks had decided that the only thing relevant to their audience about our action was the potential that we would disrupt the smooth flow of traffic!

The good news is that this kind of coverage is not inevitable.  Strategic, trained, disciplined activists can positively influence this process.  Here’s how it works.  You want news outlets to cover the issues, but it is generally very difficult to get them to do so (even though this is exactly what the media is supposed to do).  So you use creative tactics, perhaps even including direct action or nonviolent civil disobedience to attract media attention and communicate your message to a broader audience.  Unfortunately, that’s often what it takes to get the media’s attention.  The challenge then is that reporters are typically sent to cover the tactic itself, rather than the issue.  So it’s important to think through how you will use your creative action as a hook to get media attention, but then to bridge away from the tactic to talk about the issue (the message).

In today’s mainstream media environment even well intentioned reporters are usually not very informed about the issues raised by social justice campaigns.  The structure of the contemporary news media makes cost-effective, dumbed-down news production a more valued commodity than in-depth journalism.  Budgets for investigative journalism have withered and died in news companies across the country over the past 20 years.  So most journalists do not have the time to look into the issues they are covering beforehand.  As a result, they tend to ask uninformed questions that are beside the point.  They tend to fixate on obvious tactical considerations (e.g. “How do you go to the bathroom when you’re hanging that banner?”) rather than to ask about your reasons (e.g. “What solution to global warming would you like to see President Obama push for at the G8 summit?”).  While you shouldn’t try to dodge questions that are genuinely about the issues, you certainly don’t have to answer totally irrelevant questions.  Do your best to steer journalists in the direction of issue-oriented questions.  After all, informing the public is supposed to be journalists’ job.

This is what bridging is all about.  Bridging is acknowledging the question, bridging away from it, and communicating your message.  A great example is when a friend of mine locked herself on a “tripod” (a device made up of three metal poles set up like a tipi, tied together at the top, with a platform to sit on near the top)  to stop a proposed nuclear power plant.  A reporter asked her, “How do you go to the bathroom?”  Sure, her unconventional tactic is what got the media there in the first place, but she was not there to talk about her unconventional tactic – and she certainly was not there to talk about going to the bathroom!  Her response (paraphrased) : “The issue isn’t my waste.  We’re here to talk about nuclear waste, how it recklessly threatens our safety, and how we don’t need it.”

There you have it: the hook and the message.

How to pitch reporters | grassroots communications tips pt.1

Part one in a series.

To “pitch” a reporter or assignment editor on a news-worthy story is to call them up-typically after sending them a news release-and attempt to persuade them that they should come out (or send a reporter) and cover whatever you want them to cover (probably an upcoming event that you’re planning).  A good pitch call is at least as important as sending a good news release.  With a call, unlike a news release, you are creating a memory of a human-to-human interaction.  It’s your opportunity to make a strong impression so that when the reporter or editor goes into their morning or afternoon meeting-where they’re deciding which stories to cover-they are more likely to suggest covering your event.

Reporters and editors are busy people.  They typically sound as if they are unhappy that you reached them by phone, and you’re lucky to get a full minute of their time.  An effective pitch call makes a strong impression within the first five seconds, and makes at least the start of a compelling case within ten seconds.

For comparison, here’s an example of an ineffective pitch call:

Hi.  My name is [name].  I’m calling about an event that we’re organizing.  The event will be here in Manhattan.  We’ll be doing performance in the streets, protesting the Iraq War.  Iraq Veterans Against the War is organizing the event, along with their allies…

I would have been lucky to get that far without being interrupted.  Now, here’s an example of an effective pitch call:

Hi, I’m [name], calling on behalf of Iraq Veterans Against the War.  Tomorrow combat veterans who recently returned from Iraq will be patrolling the streets of Manhattan, dressed in full uniform.  They’re staging mock combat operations similar to what they experienced in Iraq – to show New Yorkers the realities of military occupation.  Did you receive our press release?

While the second pitch is actually slightly longer than the first, it is packed with words that command attention and stimulate the imagination.  Everything in the pitch floods the mind with powerfully vivid images.  The first example, on the other hand, is bland.  There’s no indication of what I’m even talking about until a few sentences in.

The effective example ends with a question: “Did you receive our press release?”  The reporter or editor has to respond, and will typically do so in one of three ways: 1) Yes, 2) No, 3) Maybe/I don’t know.  You can respond to their answers in the following ways:

  • Yes: Great.  Will you be sending someone to cover it?
  • No or Maybe: I’ll resend it right away.  What email or fax number shall I send it to?

No matter how they have answered, you should close the call by making another brief, compelling pitch, this time one that speaks more explicitly to production considerations:

You should see these veterans in their uniforms doing these operations.  It’s a very powerful visual – definitely send a photographer [if print].  They served their country, and now they want to show their fellow Americans what war is like.  Will you be sending someone?

If the reporter or editor is non-committal, ask them if there is any additional information you can provide that would help them decide.

Writing an effective news release has some things in common with making an effective pitch call.  It’s important to stack the most exciting stuff at the top: the most exciting language possible to describe the most compelling people and to spotlight the most captivating visuals.  In a press release though, it is also important to weave the issue more substantially into the story.  The modern media tends to be disturbingly lazy, and sometimes they simply quote from-or even print whole sections of-news releases rather than send a reporter.  A good news release starts with the strongest news hooks (the stuff that catches them – an idea I’ll be exploring more in part 2 of this series) but weaves in the campaign message (what you want to communicate about your issue), so that, ideally, any one sentence could stand strongly on its own if that were the only sentence a news outlet chose to print.

A few more related tips:

  • When to hold your event: late morning on a Tuesday or Wednesday is often the best time for an event to attract media attention.  Monday can be bad because reporters are figuring out their schedule for the week.  Tuesday or Wednesday gives you a day or two beforehand to make your final round of pitch calls.  Fridays are typically a terrible day to try to attract media attention, as reporters are wrapping up their weeks, and the weekend skeleton crew is arriving.  (This is why, when a company or government agency has negative news that they must make public, but they want to minimize news coverage, they typically release it on a Friday at 5pm.)  If your event must be at another time (e.g. on the weekend or in the evening), then be sure to pitch all the harder, as they may have to go to greater lengths to send a reporter.
  • When to call: early and often. If you’re calling about an event, and you know about it a month ahead of time, send your first advisory then to get it on editors’ radar screens (and calendars) early.  Make your first round of calls to accompany the advisory.  Send it again at two weeks out, perhaps with a little more info.  Send it a week before; then two days before; then again the morning of.  Always send the release and make follow-up calls first thing in the morning (7-8am) when possible – to hit morning meetings where assignments are often determined.  Additionally, if you are organizing an event where you want a lot of people, then find out if your local papers, weeklies, etc. have a public community calendar where you can list your event.
  • Who to call: If you don’t already have a press list, see if you can “borrow” one from another grassroots organization that does.  If you can’t borrow a list, don’t worry, just look up all your local media outlets online or in the phone book, and start calling.  The default is to call and ask for the assignment editor.  However, pitching specific reporters can be more effective.  So, it pays to familiarize yourself with the reporters for your local news outlets; notice who covers what “beats”; and start calling the reporters who you think will be interested in your story.  Once a reporter has covered you once, be sure to call them next time around.  Think of your press list as a dynamic document.  Keep good notes, including links to past coverage.
  • Who should call: Ideally the folks who are doing the pitching are folks who can speak compellingly about the issue; who are prepared to do an interview on the spot, should the opportunity arise.  When possible, it’s good for the pitch caller to have a level of authority on the issue.  In the example I provided above, of Iraq Veterans Against the War, it would be ideal for the person doing the calling to be a veteran. However, anyone making pitch calls is better than no one making pitch calls.  And it’s important to train new people too.  One thing you can do is assign “lower priority / lower stake” news outlets to new folks, so that they have the opportunity to make their first pitch calls without as much pressure.  Role playing pitch calls is also helpful for building confidence and refining your pitch.