Pitch Perfect—A Primer For Scientists Reaching Out To Journalists
Updated: Jan 8, 2019
By Liz Neeley
The discussion was bright and busy. Everyone at the table was talking rapidly, asking questions and sharing thoughts about science journalism and outreach. Everyone, that was, except the scientist sitting across from me. She had been tentative and largely silent, but suddenly she was grinning. “I get it,” she said, “I am a runner, right? People are always saying, ‘It’s hard! It takes time! I don’t know how you do it.’ And I just tell them, ‘You just have to get up, lace up your shoes, and get out there. It’s not pretty at first, but it becomes a habit, and then you start enjoying it more and more.’ This is the same thing—you just have to decide to do it.” She is so very right. For most of us, the hardest part is lacing up and heading out for that first run. It’s particularly true when the stakes are high, like when you have a new paper coming out and are hoping it gains traction outside your academic circles. In most cases, this requires a lot more than just hope; you’ve got work to do. Your task is to pique the curiosity of the right people, to make them want to learn more and share it with their audiences. You need to pitch your story.
Over the years, COMPASS has coached dozens of scientists through this process. On projects great and small, from one-on-one conversations to press releases, we’ve helped scientists connect with journalists. And while there’s no such thing as a secret recipe for guaranteed success, here is some tried and true guidance: 1) Take heart. You’re not “bothering” reporters or asking them for a favor. Writers love and live for great stories. You just might have one. The vast majority of the journalists I talk to say that they rarely hear directly from researchers, and always appreciate it when they do. 2) Understand the dynamic. Most reporters see their role as working for the public good, but the reality is that they need to make a living while they do so. To tell your story, they first need to sell it—to their editors or to an outlet if they’re a freelancer. This means that educational value alone is not a strong argument for why your work merits coverage. They need to know why what you’re doing is important, but also why it is interesting. What makes your science a story? Why should readers care? I’m going to pause here for a moment. Do you feel indignant that we would question whether your science merits coverage, or take issue with the stance that the main job of a journalist is to not educate people? There have been great discussions about this all over the blogosphere—go read them, vent, think about it awhile. It’s OK to feel uneasy about this whole thing or to hope for change. There is a bigger conversation to be had for sure, but you will hurt your chances of making a connection with a journalist if you refuse to acknowledge the pressures and priorities in their world. 3) Answer “why this? why now?” This follows from my first point. Of course there are exceptions, but news is called news for a reason. Novelty is always at a premium, but nothing takes place in a vacuum. As you think about what you’re going to say in your email or on the phone, consider the broader context. In addition to the searing brilliance of your science, what’s happening in the wider world that makes it particularly timely to discuss right now? And why are you somebody interesting for them to be talking to about it? 4) Play to your (and their) strengths. Think about the nature of your story. Do you have squee-worthy photos? Disgusting video? Did you make a spectacular infographic? Where are your field sites? Do you geek out with robots and lots of gear? What I’m asking you to do here is think through your unique assets, and then look for the natural fits. Highlight the aspects of what you’re doing that will work really well for the format or medium in which they work. 5) Get to the point, quickly. A classic mistake is starting off with a glut of background information and supporting detail, and failing to present the most important stuff up front. Writers call this “burying your lede.” You may be so used to writing in the structure of a journal paper that you don’t even realize that it’s become your default. When you’re writing a pitch, put your bottom line up front, and only include the most necessary details. I’ve heard people say that the pitch is just an appetizer that should leave them wanting more. That’s not a necessarily bad piece of advice, and it’s right that you don’t need to tell the whole story in the pitch, but we’re not playing head games. Raising tantalizing questions is good, but answering them is awesome. Provide the guts of the story in a nutshell. Don’t be too cute, and don’t agonize over this too much. It’s important to be interesting, but essential to be brief, direct, and concrete. 6) Look to your network. Come on… admit it… you want to be in the Science Times and chat with Ira Flatow. There is nothing to be ashamed of in targeting the highest profile outlets. The whole point of what you’re doing is to try and get your science in front of the biggest, best possible audience, and that’s exactly what those outlets do. Of course, because of their popularity, they are also the most competitive and difficult places to land a story. So while you should still go after them, don’t forget about smaller opportunities, local outlets, and journalists who have covered your work in the past. If you’ve met reporters at science meetings or communication trainings, follow-up with them and see what unfolds. And finally, do a little strategic crowdsourcing. Ask your lab mates and colleagues about which reporters they know and could connect you to. Journalists won’t write about your work as a favor, or just because they know you, but having a human connection certainly helps the chances of your email getting read.
7) Prepare for rejection. Top journalists get dozens to hundreds of story pitches over the course of their week, and often they’re simply flooded by PR spam and junk. It’s hard to be heard in all that noise. Think about crafting a subject line that demands that they open your message instead of just hitting delete. If you’re lucky enough to spark their interest, the next hurdle is fitting into the schedule. The news cycle is a thing of chance and timing. The most spectacularly cool story can drop right off the radar if it coincides with a natural disaster, political scandal, or any host of “higher priority” events. If you think your work deserves to be widely disseminated, be ready to work for it. Getting turned down stings, but it often is no reflection on the quality of your work or your pitch. If you pay attention, it can tell you how to improve. Maybe you need to refine your pitch. Maybe you’re pitching to the wrong people. Most likely you just need to keep at it. Every journalist has different personal preferences and there is no set methodology to the work of pitching. You need to find a style that feels authentic to you and also is successful for them. My advice here just scratches the surface, and not everyone will agree with all of it. If you want to go deeper, you’ll find excellent insight into the world of journalism and how-to advice for honing your messages in books like Explaining Research by Dennis Meredith or Escape From the Ivory Tower by our own Nancy Baron. Another essential resource is the Pitch Database at The Open Notebook. It is a library of successful pitches science writers have submitted to magazines. While the examples are many times longer than your pitch notes generally should be, this is a spectacular source for learning about what works for editors. All right, enough talking and reading – time to get up, lace up your shoes, get out there and do it. Good luck. Liz Neeley was Assistant Director of Science Outreach at COMPASS from 2008-2015. This post was transferred from its original location at www.compassonline.org to www.COMPASSscicomm.org, April 2017.
Image info: Photo by Sarah Sunu.