As a freelance journalist, I look for stories all the time. In fact, my livelihood, and more importantly my cupcake budget, depend upon scientists just like you approaching and pitching me – that is, giving me a short, condensed version of an interesting story that I could potentially write about. I love being pitched. And I especially love it when a source, their public relations (PR) representative, or the public information officer (PIO) at their institution offers me ideas over long periods of time that are exciting, have narrative teeth, present something new, give the reader a fresh perspective on a topic, and engage my audience. I welcome these pitches and look forward to them, as they serve as the foundation of a fruitful alliance.
Indeed, some of my most favourite articles that I have written (and related, stories I have shared during speeches) came from people approaching me and not the other way around. And I would venture a guess that most other journalists feel the same way – if you have a good story that could work for our readership, we want to hear from you!
But before you do go on a pitching rampage in which you text me 30 times in a week to ask if I had a chance to read your very general press release, take a gander below at some tips for how best to interact with reporters. This is relevant in any industry, sector, field, and career path; an essential aspect of contributing to and advancing in your profession is effectively and regularly communicating with the media. As professionals in any space, be in STEM or stemware, it is critical for you to develop partnerships with the press, in such a way that they look forward to hearing from you, because they know you are always thinking about value – the value that I, as a journalist, and you, as a source, craft together to provide information and inspiration to readers.
On that note, allow me to present a few tips to help you “get” the press:
- Build a relationship. #SpoilerAlert: some of my best articles are from sources and PR pros with whom I have been working for months and even years. It is all about networking – building that win-win alliance for the long-haul. They know that not every story they pitch me will be something I can or will write about, and if they are respectful and persistent, they know that there will be other opportunities to have me write about their work in the future. Some partnerships are so good that I come back again and again to the same source or PR director to write about them and their client multiple times over multiple publications. They always give me good story ideas that are the right flavour for the pubs that I write for, and have always been extremely responsive and helpful with my story ideas. I know you want press now, and I welcome your timely pitches (see below), but more importantly is to think long-term for how we can possibly work together over extended periods of time.
- Get to know what I write about. Get to know what publications I write for. Get to know my style. Get to know my pitching preferences. (For example, don’t text me if we have not already inaugurated a relationship. I much prefer email reach-outs.) Get to know me. The more you know me, the better you can craft customised pitches that are more likely to get you media exposure.
- Show me the story. If you are pitching me, don’t just tell me “I know a great scientist”. There are many great scientists. What makes you (or your client, the great scientist) specifically so great? I am looking for a narrative, a way to tell an overarching story – perhaps of ingenuity in the face of an uphill challenge, of failure that led to success, of personal trauma that transitioned into inspiration and innovation. Walk me through the why and how this scientist is amazing and why my readers need/should know about them.
- Become an essential resource. If I come to you and ask you if you know of a source in volcanology, leverage your network and see if you can find a colleague who is a volcanologist. If I inquire about hot topics in AI, and that is tangentially related to your field, certainly you can present yourself as an expert. But you could also offer me other sources with whom I can speak as well. I appreciate your assistance. And the more resourceful you are with the media, the more we will come to you.
- Make it easy: Help the reporter understand what the essence of the story is. Don’t just send me a press release about your paper, conference, or new product. Customise the pitch for my needs. For example, knowing that I write about career topics for scientists and engineers, you can approach me with a story idea about yourself and your career path and how you overcame certain challenges. Think stories about people, not necessarily projects or products. The humanity is what I am after, as are my readers.
- Understand rules of journalism. I know you want to see your quotes before they are published, but some publications have specific rules barring this. And I know you want to review the article before you see it in print or online, but my editor will kill me if I share it with you. Do you want to invite me to Paris, all-expenses-paid, to get a sense of your research institution? Know that if you fund the trip, chances are I will not be able to place an article in a mainstream publication, because of the rules barring this type of behaviour – it gives the appearance of quid pro quo, even if it is not the actual case, and creates a potential conflict of interest (COI) for me, my editor, and my publication. So before you offer me a free trip, just be aware that I won’t be able to feature you. It is a good idea to familiarize yourself with some of the issues that journalists deal with, such as the publication’s rules against sharing quotes, text, or full articles with sources. Mind you, not every publication is like this. But many, many are. So please don’t ask if you can see the article.
- Everything’s on the record. Many years ago, I went on a journalism fellowship with about a dozen other science and environmental reporters, photojournalists, and videographers, where we had the chance to learn about the green energy initiatives of the Native American tribal governments in the Southwestern US. As part of the fellowship, it was arranged for us to meet with a PR director who represented the oil and gas (O&G) industry for a certain state in the US. He knew we were all journalists in the room. He knew we were taking notes and recording what he said. But at the end of an hour-long conversation, essentially an interview, about the state of O&G in the state, he turned to us and stated: “this was all off the record, right?” The fellowship director’s eyes almost popped out of his head, and we all started laughing. He was a veteran PR pro and should have known the bottom line: unless you ask for something to specifically be off the record at the beginning of an interview, everything you say to a journo is on the record.
- Time it right. Timing is a big concern of mine as a journalist. I need to have time to properly vet, report, and write an article. The topic needs to be timely for the audiences of the publication. The timing of the pitch and the article’s publication has to be in a sweet spot, too. Time is of the essence, and yet I have had sources, PR managers, and PIOs come to me with the story idea to write about a conference, sometimes one day before the meeting begins, and sometimes, after the conference has concluded. As much as possible, please give me time to contemplate and write the story. Another aspect of timing to keep in mind is when publications actually publish stories. For breaking news, stories may go live within hours or less of you being interviewed – case in point, the Nobel Prize announcements. But then there are stories that take weeks or months to prepare. I have worked on stories that don’t get published for more than a year after the original interview. So please be patient. It is no problem to follow up with me and ask what the status is or if I know the publication date. I am happy to provide you with any info I have.
Additional Note: On 18 October 2018, Alaina G. Levine held a webinar concerning science communication for the Alumni Network members of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings. The webinar can be watched in the video below or on our YouTube-Channel.