More and more tasks can be automated these days. And yet, someone is still to develop an effective PR robot. Journalists are humans and much of the work also needs to be done by humans.
Having said that, there are some useful tools out there that can help you. And many of them are free.
Google Alerts (alerts for keywords/phrases)
The humble Google Alert. If you don’t already have searches saved for your keywords, start now. Find out what people are already saying about your issues, who is saying them and where.
Buzzsumo (content alerts, trending content) (keywords, author, domains, etc.)
Looking for relevant content about your niche? It pays to investigate what is already trending and the kinds of articles that are doing well – Buzzsumo is handy for this.
Boomerang (schedule email reminders)
A useful tool for anyone who uses Gmail. Part of the fun of media relations is following up with journalists and editors to make sure they got your email. Boomerang lets you set reminders. The email you sent reappears in your inbox after hours, days or months, you decide. So you don’t have to set a calendar notification.
Feedly (viewing publication feeds on certain topics)
Follow the feeds relevant to your niche in one place. Feedly delivers news from RSS feeds so you can view them easily. You can choose content from your favourite blogs.
Yesware (how people react to your email, open rates)
Not all emails you send will get read. Sometimes they’ll be deleted on the strength of the headline alone. Plugins like Yesware and CRMs like Hubspot show you if and when an email has been opened.
Find That Lead
Find That Lead helps you find the email address of the journalist you’re looking for. You put in the URL of the publication and their name and it does the rest.
FullContact pulls together social media profile information, helps with gather influencer data, which can be handy when you’re looking to do blogger outreach.
Writing good media pitches is not particle physics. It’s common sense, yet it’s something that people often screw up. If you’re about to do some media outreach, here are a few things to avoid in your pitch:
“I would love it if you would publish an article about my product.”
If you are writing to a journalist, the chances are you want to be published. So there’s no need to state the bleeding obvious. Not only is it not the journalist’s job to make your day, it’s a waste of precious words.
Spell their name wrong.
Spelling a journalist’s name wrong is bad form. Even worse is copying and pasting a previous pitch with a completely different name. Yes, it’s happened to me. Take the extra few seconds to check before you hit send and avoid being blacklisted.
We’re inundated with article after article on social media and our way of filtering is almost always by the headline. It’s what catches our attention and makes us want to learn more. Tailor your headline to your target publication. An editor should be able to imagine your headline in their publication. “15 things you didn’t know about quantitative easing”, for example, is unlikely to make it to The Economist’s editorial meeting.
Long, rambling pitch.
Your pitch should be straight to the point. Don’t include unnecessary details or blather on about the product or service.
Do not, I repeat, do not ever use caps lock. Journalists will think you’re yelling at them or completely exaggerating. And there’s also no need for excessive exclamation points. Or any, for that matter.
Not following up after an information request.
Journalists are often on tight deadlines and need information quickly. You might get a response to a pitch immediately so you need to have all of your information prepared and ready to send. Keep an eye on your email for any follow-up requests.
Pitching about a topic the journalist never writes about.
Most journalists have a select topic or industry they typically cover. Don’t send your pitch about new innovative software to a person who writes about female travel. Do your research and find journalists who write about your industry.
“I think it would be beneficial for your readers.”
Don’t tell them how to do their job. We all know the reason why you’re getting in touch.
Not having data to back up your claims.
Why are you credible to tell this story? What sources do you have to back up your claims? You need to show the journalist why your story is important and why you should be the one sharing it. Send evidence to back up your claims.
Including multiple attachments.
Journalist email accounts are slammed with hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of emails per day. If you send six attachments, you’re likely going to clog up their email even more. Send a maximum of two images. If you are sending a press release, put it in the text of the email.
Sending a pitch and immediately calling to confirm they received it
I know you are excited and curious, but leave it be. If you don’t hear back within 3-5 days, follow up with the journalist. They are busy people who receive many requests, they don’t have time to let you know they’ve received your email.
Ramming your pitch full of buzzwords.
They won’t be impressed, only irritated. Believe me, they’ve heard every superlative before.
Over the years, I’ve ghostwritten for many individuals and businesses seeking to establish themselves as thought leaders.
Sometimes, these clients have had a great command of their viewpoints and even their arguments. Other times, however, they’ve been less clear – and asked me to help them find their voice (and arguments).
One of the best ways to become a thought leader is to differentiate yourself from the chorus of voices already out there. Humans are social creatures and we tend to be swayed by large-scale outpourings on issues – and it can be tempting to follow the herd.
But one of the most surefire ways to become a thought leader is to point out the fact, truth or argument that everyone else is missing.
So next time you see a blog trending in your niche, ask yourself:
- What argument or viewpoint is everyone else missing or ignoring?
- What experiences do you have that will help support your points?
- What is everyone else getting wrong?
It doesn’t have to be an essay. Most opinion pieces are less than 1,000 words in length. And professional columnists typically recommend that you bring three new points to the table when you write an opinion piece.
So when responding to a debate or news issue that affects your niche, briefly outline the topical issue at the beginning of your blog, before pointing out the issue or point that everyone is missing.
Try to think of three examples, analogies or personal experiences that support your argument.
Personal observations will always make you more credible. And they don’t have to be experiences you’ve had directly, they could be anecdotes and stories from friends or clients.
You don’t have to spend 30 years mastering your niche to be in with a chance of getting your opinions in print.
I spent eight years working as a business journalist where I received thousands of pitches from people who wanted to get their ideas and articles published. Pitching remains a time consuming and sometimes, inefficient process, where would be contributors compete for an editor’s attention – often without success. But if you follow the advice below, you can vastly improve your chances.
Not researching your target publications
The first mistake people make is not understanding the publication that they’re pitching to. Yes, it can be time-consuming to research each one but it will vastly improve your chances of getting published.
Research the tone and style of the publication before you send anything. What kind of stories have they run before? Do they tend to publish first-person opinion pieces or are most of their articles written by journalists? How do they divide content categories up on their website? Understand which sections publish which kinds of content.
Sending your pitch to the wrong person
The second big mistake is sending your pitch to the wrong contact. Each journalist or editor has a ‘beat’. A beat is their specialism or area of focus.
Most journalists and editors are too busy to forward your pitches on to the right person. If you send your pitch to the wrong person, your email will probably sit at the bottom of their inbox and never see the light of day.
Writing too much in your pitch
You need to say as much as possible in the fewest possible words. Editors are just like the rest of us – they have short attention spans.
One of the biggest irritants is rambling pitches that seemingly go on forever. So skip the niceties and just be straight to the point. You shouldn’t have to say that “this will be interesting to your readers”, the headline and pitch should speak for itself.
Keep it short and sweet and they’ll love you forever – well for a while anyway.
You are being manipulated. Right now. Every single day, in fact. It starts from the moment you begin to comprehend the English language and the deception continues until you read your last news article.
These cunning manipulators draw you into stories, features, and online quizzes. They’ll make you click on articles in the Daily Mail. They’ll entice you to read stories about celebrities you hate. And they’ll make you keep reading.
They’ll lead you up alleyways and down garden paths using an arsenal of techniques. You may think you’re in control, but these cunning headline writers are the real puppeteers of your attention span.
So how do they do it? Journalists have been employing a range of tactics to command our attention for years, and many of them are effective because they’re rooted in an understanding of innate human psychology.Convey change
Journalists often like new shiny things. So they like anything that seems “new”; a breakthrough, a threat, an opportunity or some kind of transformation. Why? Because we as readers are programmed to be attuned to change or the threat of change.
Whenever you can, talk about change in an active tense. Talk about the changing tides, the growing army of people, a growing realization. Flag up the end of one era or the beginning of a new one. Declare the “death of Twitter”, for example. You will make people curious.
Whether you’re writing headlines, short form, or long-form, change and the threat of change are two of the biggest drivers of human curiosity. They are also the hook used on many a headline.
Emotional trigger words
We are innately moral creatures who are wired to react emotionally to acts of altruism and selfishness. And we’re psychologically predisposed to be wary of threats. Over the years, we’ve honed our ability to sniff out liars and troublemakers, crooks and charlatans, which is why we’re drawn towards stories that promise to expose the truth.
As readers, we want to know about myths, hidden truths, scandals and surprising facts. This is why we are drawn to exposés and myth- busting articles. Often these articles will have a curiosity rousing word like “secret” “myth”, “hoax” or “truth” in the headline.
Three headlines from the Guardian’s top 200 performing articles over a four-year period contain the word truth in the headline. Try it in yours.
Often you will see the word “right” and “wrong” in a headline for a comment piece. Why? Because these articles appeal to our moral side. We are innately moral creatures trying to make sense of the world and all its complexity. When something happens, our brains seek out moral viewpoints. By promising to offer one in the piece, the article is waving a red rag to our curiosity, regardless of whether we agree with the argument or not.
Predict the future
Go to Google News. Write the word “future” into the search box and you will see thousands of articles. We all want to know more about the future because it’s scary and uncertain. Often the word ‘concerns’, ‘worry’, ‘risk’ will feature alongside. Why? Because it plays on our fears. Journalists are often accused of scaremongering, but the truth is: scaremongering sells papers.
Upworthy rose to eminence stringing together headlines like: “You Won’t Believe What Happened Next ….” etc. “You’ll Die When You See ..” It’s admittedly a tactic it seems to employ less these days, presumably because people are increasingly growing wise to it. But you see this technique mimicked across the internet.
Many of these articles are written about surprises. They are tales of happenings that don’t confirm with our regular expectations. To be successful, the headline needs to give the user enough information to stoke their curiosity without necessarily giving them the whole story.
Some studies have shown that negative modifiers (like worst) lead to more clicks and shares than positive modifiers (like best). Yes really.
The numbered list has almost become a cliche. But they work. Buzzfeed built its empire on its numbered headlines e.g. “15 Reasons Dudes Should Never Do Yoga”. These headlines wouldn’t have stood a chance in newspapers of old, but they have now taken over the internet. What does it mean? It means we respond well to numbers. And, according to some experts – especially odd numbers. They are also perfect for the lazy blogger, allowing you to write without having to think of vaguely intelligent subheadings.
Hyperbolic word selection
Why use a regular old verb when you can use one like “Skewered” “Shocked” or “Slammed”?Words can be evocative. They add drama. Don’t go overboard but try the occasional unusual verb to liven up your writing.
Journalists have been employing this tactic since the dawn of time. A critical remark becomes a roasting. A share price fall is portrayed as a collapse and someone on the receiving end of a telling off gets slammed. A skewering or a slamming is a more evocative way of making a criticism.
Judicious adjective selection also has its place: in journalese a lengthy meeting is often depicted as ‘marathon’ talks.
Verbs over adjectives
The majority of words in headlines are nouns and verbs. According to legendary advertising man, Leo Burnet, “Dull and exaggerated ad copy is due to the excess use of adjectives.” To prove it, he asked his staff to count the number of adjectives in 62 failed ads, then compare those to the number of adjectives in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and other exemplary pieces of writing.
Be wary of overusing adjectives. They often appear in headlines and viral news sites, but overdo them and you risk alienating your audience – don’t say something is surprising, if it isn’t. You’ll lose people’s trust.
The right length
It’s said Gawker doesn’t allow headlines longer than 70 characters longer headlines get cut off by Google and are less likely to be shared on Facebook.
Eight-word headlines get more clicks, apparently. News aggregator Newswhip found the mean headline length was 8.9 words. But there’s a big difference between the outlets. The BBC averages 5.4 words while the New York Times averages 7.5 words. TechCrunch, meanwhile, averages at 12.4 words and Business Insider at 10.9 words.
Speak to your audience
One feature of internet headlines is that they are now more likely to feature “you” or “your” than they were in the pre-internet era. Social feed scheduler Buffer analyzed the words that appear in the most popular headlines and found that “You” the fifth most popular word, with “your” also making the top 20. Combined, these two pronouns appeared in 16 percent of all the headlines in this study.
Academic research supports this concept. A Norwegian business school experimented with different headline structures, including referential headlines, rhetorical headlines, and declarative headlines. They found that question headlines referencing the reader were the most effective.
So what does this all mean for you?
I wouldn’t recommend you necessarily go down the route of emulating the Upworthys of this world. It really depends on the kind of business you have and what kind of overall tone of voice you’re going for.
If you’re going for a cerebral vibe, stuffing your headlines full or numbers and adjectives probably won’t help your cause. The key thing is to understand the techniques out there and pick and choose the best ones for your blog and your audience.
“Yesterday’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip paper”
To create newsworthy content on your blog, you have to move quickly. Research shows the average shelf life of a news story is 36 hours.
More precisely, 36 hours is the amount of time it takes for half of the total readership of an article to have read it, the paper found. So timeliness and relevance are probably the most important bearing on your success as a media spokesperson.
Identify the issues you want to comment on
Have you ever read an article and wondered why that particular person was being quoted? Ever thought the writer was missing an important angle or detail? If so, you’ve missed an opportunity to be quoted. Don’t feel like you have to have an opinion on everything, but identify the keywords and issues where you have expertise and where you can add an interesting perspective.
Set up Google Alerts
If you’re a female business coach who helps women entrepreneurs, you must have views on women and entrepreneurship, you may have a view on the writings of Sheryl Sandberg, or Anne-Marie Slaughter, so set up alerts for their name. Whenever they feature in the news, you’ll get an alert so you can respond with your viewpoint in a timely way.
Ask what it means for your audience
Whenever a key news event happens, you need to ask yourself what it means for your audience. Why should they care? Why is it important? Are most people responding to the event in the wrong way? What are they missing? Most writers say you need at least three new points in any comment piece. Outline the basics of the story, what people are saying (in case your readers have missed it) then add your points using additional research and examples to make your case. Use a headline like: What [news event] means for female entrepreneurs or Why [person’s name] is wrong about female entrepreneurs.
Often a writer will need someone to comment right away. They will post on Twitter, on Facebook groups, or platforms like Haro [Help a Reporter Out]. Pitch to freelancers with story tips and feature ideas, if you’re good, they’ll keep coming back to you for more.
As a former journalist, I tend to think in headlines. This isn’t as painful as it sounds. In fact, it’s kind of useful, because in the world of non-fiction, headlines make ideal writing prompts. Just take your headline prompts and pair them with the specific keywords you’re looking to hit for your blog and off you go.
By taking your keywords and mixing them with different headline formats, you can create hundreds of possible blog ideas.
A common gripe from would-be bloggers is the amount of research that goes into creating blogs. But writing fresh content shouldn’t always require tonnes of additional research.
You should often be able to take existing knowledge, content and ideas and repackage it for your blog under a new headline. One useful time-saving way to create more blogs is to look at existing articles on your site and think about how you can update them for your audience with a new headline. All you are doing is shifting the emphasis of the piece.
Find the missing angle
What is the rest of the world missing? Take a widely held assumption and question it. Start with a headline like: “Why most people are wrong about carrots [or whatever].”
Anyone who’s read Peter Thiel’s Zero to One will know he believes that we should focus on unearthing secrets. In a business context, these are the products or services that most people think can’t be done. Or won’t be used. In a blogging context, these ‘secrets’ are the previously unsaid or secret beliefs. By finding the untold secrets or viewpoints, you have the chance to truly stand out.
‘How to’ articles
‘How to’ blogs are always popular. These articles are practical responses that help your audience overcome whatever challenges they might have. Run a keyword search and look for common questions that come up. Then write a blog post that answers them directly. Alternatively, ask your followers or fans for some common concerns.
But you don’t want all your headlines to start with ‘how to’. So mix it up with other headlines that begin with what or why, for example.
Productivity articles relating to your niche
Who doesn’t wish they could be more productive? Every day there’s another blog claiming to have unearthed the secret to productivity. They probably haven’t, but that doesn’t stop them from being wildly successful. Just tailor them usefully to your niche. And off you go.
Unusual facts about [insert keyword]
Insert the word ‘unusual’ into a headline and you’re bound to cause a stir. The same goes for ‘surprising’. Again, this comes down to the whole thing about resisting the prevailing wisdom. Often you’ll win blog cred for questioning the status quo.
What we know about [Insert news event]
Again, a canny insertion of the word ‘myths’ into any headline makes it automatically far more interesting to the reader. Use this as a chance to get on your virtual soapbox and tell your audience why everyone else has been getting it wrong the whole time.
You can also make your blog stand out by questioning conventional thinking. Ask a question that challenges popular wisdom, or write a headline along the lines of ‘The truth about X’ or ‘5 Myths about Y’. Deviations from the norm are more likely to get people interested.
You could also try experimenting with questions in your blog headlines to rouse curiosity.
Great resources for [your audience]
Being good at blogging is about being helpful so it makes sense to share some of your favourite resources with your audience, whether it be podcasts, books, audiobooks or other websites/resources.
Product reviews [for relevant products or apps in your niche]
A good product review can get you tonnes of hits, especially where there aren’t many pre-existing reviews. Often apps/products have multiple uses. It could be that your niche hasn’t considered them yet, so prepare to think laterally.
Product or app reviews relevant to your niche are an easy way to go. To do them justice, ask yourself what the product does, what it’s meant to do and how it works. Examine the features and benefits and what works and what doesn’t. Is it easy to use? Are there any compatibility issues? How much does it cost? What else should you bear in mind?
Lessons learned from [relevant book to your niche audience]
Read any great books recently? If so, then summarize some of the key points into a blog and share it with the world. Read relevant books and produce ‘Top ten lessons from X author’-style articles
Ways to avoid [common pitfalls facing your audience]
You almost certainly already know what some of the common pitfalls facing your readers are, so write a blog with those in mind. They’ll thank you for it.
Another tactic is to look at successful headlines from other blogs and think about ways you can adapt them.
If you’re looking for even more inspiration, try Headlinr, an extension for your browser. The app will create hundreds of new marketing-friendly headline ideas at the click of the button.
And you can try the basic option for free or upgrade further down the line if you want more functionality.
The problem with my creative practice before 2014 was that I didn’t have one.
I half-assumed that creativity couldn’t be pushed or cultivated. My ideas would come to me on walks, on bike rides, or on the tube. And I thought I should be grateful for those, as opposed to deliberately trying to generate any more.
The romanticized view of creativity is that you can chain-smoke cigarettes, hit the G&Ts at midday and sit and waiting for an amazing idea to land in your lap. Because that’s what countless artists and writers throughout history have done, right?
But the more successful creatives I’ve met the more I’ve realized that good ideas come as much (and probably more) from drive and discipline as they do from aimless drunken musing. Moreover, having an idea is the easy bit. Finishing what you’ve started is much harder.
Make time to write
I’ve learned a stack of things over the past six months. But one of the most important of those is the importance of making a time for the practice of creative pursuits every day.
Ok so it sounds so blindingly obvious but you need to make time for your creative writing.
Like a lot of writers, I spend all day every day writing things for other people but I spend precious little time every week, or even every month, pursuing my own creative writing. This is how it tends to go. Get up. Check emails. Get a bit stressed about emails. Send emails. Then spend the rest of the day reacting to emails and Twitter posts. This kind of pattern is typical of modern working life. But it’s a creativity killer.
My friend Pernille Nørregaard is one of those disciplined creatives who rises every day at around 6 am and sits down to start writing. No Facebook checking, no emails. Just words down onto the page. She does this every day for two hours and gives herself a day off on Sundays.
Just aiming for a couple of hours a day is probably more effective (and realistic) than attempting to write all day long. If you can rattle off 500 words or so every day, it soon adds up.
Don’t edit a word.. until later
Fortunately, I’ve never had this problem. I remember interning on a newspaper in central America years ago with a close friend of mine. She was much smarter than me, but she was a perfectionist. You can’t be a perfectionist when you’re writing – you put your perfectionist hat on when you edit.
My approach has always been write to write fast and furiously and then to come along with the computer equivalent of a big red pen and rip it to shreds later. The hardest bit is getting the words out, you can make it read properly later.
Find out what makes you a better writer
I’ve become more interested in this since going freelance. When I worked for someone else I would come in from time to time to work with hangovers and sleep deprivation. When you’re paid according to how much you produce and when you know that the state your body is in will be reflected your ability to construct sentences, the rules of the game change a bit.
I’ve nearly given up caffeine, cut back on alcohol and I am making getting more sleep a priority.
And what time you work better..
I’d often felt that early mornings were better for me. I’ve always been the kind of person whose brain leaps into action as soon as I’m awake and I’ve found a useful kind of mental clarity that comes in the early morning: before my brain has been tugged in different directions by email requests and admin. I am so much better in the morning that I used to joke I was ‘useless’ after 11 am. That’s not quite true, but I’m very nearly useless.
Some studies have backed this up, suggesting that bouts of creative writing are more likely after waking as this is the time of day when the prefrontal cortex is most active. The analytical parts of the brain (the editing and proofreading parts) become more active as the day goes on. So write in the morning, edit in the afternoon.
Find a quiet place to write
Sometimes the background hum of a cafe is helpful. But generally, I find the best creative writing happens for me in complete silence or with some non-lyrical music in the background. Surprisingly, this can be hard to find in Bali, where I’ve been living for the past six months. I currently live opposite a giant construction site where they are building a hotel. Every day the builders start work at 8 am. And I swear they have an agreement that states they must use their loudest tools first thing.
Constantly challenge yourself
One of my biggest problems is that I had the fun educated out of me. I studied politics, philosophy and economics at university, which was hardly a barrel of laughs. Writing became something I started to associate with stress. The process would begin about five hours before the 2,000-word essay was due. I would pore over books (or the introductions of books), trying to think of intelligent things to say. This approach would generally fail. So I would stress out about the impending tutorial. Go to the tutorial. Finish the tutorial relieved and elated and not do very much work for the next few days before doing it all over again the following week.
Then to make matters worse I became a financial journalist, which is a tough gig to be honest.
What’s the problem with banker jokes?
Bankers don’t think they’re funny, normal people don’t think they’re a joke.
Jokes about bankers are hard to come by. Making financial writing colorful is also hard work. Although I’ve been known to try.
The problem with doing so much of this kind of writing is that you forget how to be fun. So you need to work hard to retain and cultivate your fun streak. For me, this involved writing stupid song lyrics, poems and starting a satirical blog. These helped remind me that constructing sentences can be a lot of fun. And got me into writing again.
Take a walk or go for a ride
Okay so it’s hard to write and walk at the same time but walking is often credited with helping provide valuable inspiration to writers.
Claire Tomalin, biographer of keen walkers Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Samuel Pepys and Jane Austen, recently told Radio 4 that Dickens would write in the morning and walk in the afternoon. It’s also really relaxing if you happen to be hitting a wall with your writing.
And finally…stop worrying about being rubbish
Some of what you do will be good. Some will be not so good. Some people will like it. Some people will hate it. Very few people can produce work consistently to a Nobel Prize-winning standard. And no one is universally loved. So the best thing you can do is develop a thick skin and make peace with the fact that you can’t please everyone.