Time magazine’s editor: How to pitch reporters

Harry McCracken, the magazine’s editor-at-large, discusses good and bad pitches in a recent podcast. PR pros, turn your listening ears on.

A few weeks ago Harry McCracken started a project on his Facebook page where he published and exposed laughably bad pitches. He pasted a snippet and made a silly or snarky comment about how off target or inappropriate the pitch was.

While not eager to expose or ridicule the author, the purpose of the exercise was to get a few laughs, commentary, and hopefully guide others through better pitching. After all, he gets plenty of good pitches and he doesn’t want people to stop pitching him.

He sat down to talk about what should—and shouldn’t—be in a pitch for an episode of my Hacking Media Production podcast. Here are the highlights:

What doesn’t work

1. Launch into industry background: Poor pitches never start “My client, X Corporation is about to announce Y on date Z.” They start with giving a background of the issue, or try to describe a trend. Or they suggest a topic roundup and other companies McCracken should write about.

McCracken gets 100 pitches a day. “The less reading I have to do to get to the point, the better,” he said. “If you’re trying to pitch a gadget for the car, you should not start talking about Henry Ford.”

2. Subject line is irrelevant: McCracken’s email inbox only permits him to see the first half of the subject line. If he can’t see what he needs to know in that first half, he will delete it without reading the rest.

3. Body copy takes too long to get to the point: Get to the point quickly as possible.

4. Lack of prior relationship: While he can’t get back to everyone he’s not using, for people who aren’t completely irrelevant, he will get back to them with some feedback as to where he stands on such a story.

5. Opening with an icebreaker line: Don’t be so chummy with someone you don’t know. McCracken gets those styles of pitches, and the first sentence has nothing to do with the pitch. It’s often something like “Happy Friday” or “How was your weekend?”

6. A disingenuous compliment: Complimenting the journalist has been ruined, McCracken said. Even when the pitch references a past article, he thinks it’s disingenuous. To McCracken, pitches that include compliments look like PR pros used a database and just took his last article and mail merged it in.

7. Carpet bombing: Don’t send the same pitch to every journalist on every beat imaginable.

8. Silly mistakes: A good number of bad pitches can sometimes start as good pitches but fail because of silly mistakes. For example, a meaningful number of pitches call him something other than Harry. One called him Allison, and another Ed.

What should be in a good pitch

1. Pitch something relevant: For McCracken, it’s personal technology. As long as it’s in that category, a mass mailing might be OK.

2. Subject line should be clear and simple: For his tech press releases, a headline that just says a client is announcing a product on a certain date is perfect. Often McCracken will see subject lines that have nothing to do with the pitch. For example, he’ll get pitches that say, “Here’s news you can use.” If it’s a useless headline he won’t even open it.

3. Past success with the journalist definitely helps: If he’s worked with someone in the past, he’ll give them more attention.

4. Pitch should be something new: It must be news. That’s key, but not always. For example, he’ll do a story on the 50 best iPhone apps of the year. It’s OK to have in the headline: “For your next iPhone apps roundup article.” Keep in mind that if he doesn’t write about something now, he may write about it eventually.

5. Mass mailing without personalization is often preferable: Mass mailing with personalization often comes off as weird. If it’s a mass email, McCracken is not offended by lack of personalization. Cut to the chase. Don’t ask him how he’s doing or give him a history of the industry.

6. Just the facts and links to photos: Give him the news, when it’s coming out, the price of the product, link for photos, etc. That’s much better than attachments because his company’s spam filter will often reject attachments. Adding a tiny bit of context is OK especially if it’s a new company.

7. Be creative in what you’re offering: “Don’t be creative about how you package the pitch. Be creative about the news you’re trying to pitch,” McCracken said. What does work is if you can offer him news that intrigues him and prompts him to do something he wouldn’t normally do.

For example, McCracken writes about Facebook all the time. Facebook suggested he come to its new campus, walk around, hang out, and do a story. Facebook’s campus was originally the Sun Microsystems campus. It made for a really good story.

Listen to the entire podcast here:

David Spark (@dspark) is the owner of the brand journalism firm Spark Media Solutions. The original article was published on Spark Minute. For future episodes, subscribe on iTunes to Hacking Media Production.”

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Topics: PR

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