PR Pickup Lines: How to Start a Relationship With Your Favorite Reporter

Flickr Creative Commons photo by Flare

Flickr Creative Commons photo by Flare

When was the last time you reached out to a reporter without a story to pitch?

If you’re like many nonprofit communicators, you might be straining to answer this question because it’s been a long time.

This is especially true if your role isn’t exclusively focused on media relations. If your work also involves some combination of social media, marketing, speechwriting, fundraising solicitations, event planning, blogging, and managing the production of your annual report, it’s hard to carve out the time to actually build relationships with reporters and editors.

As a result, your media relations work largely focuses on sending out news releases. Often at the last minute.

And, often, you send those releases out of obligation or habit — not because you think they are actually going to result in a media hit.

But if you care about getting better coverage for your organization, I’d like to try to break this cycle by giving you an assignment.

I’d like you to try to pick up a reporter.

Of course, I don’t mean this in the get-a-number-and-let’s-go-out context.

What I’m suggesting is much more, let’s say, professionally correct.

The first step is to identify a reporter who works for a news outlet that reaches a key audience for your nonprofit. Ideally, it’s a reporter who you’ve been thinking that you should build a relationship with. 

Now here’s the catch — you’re not allowed to pitch a story with your initial outreach.

Instead, you’re simply going to introduce yourself or your organization to that reporter — and make it clear that you’re there to help.

That’s it.

You’re not going to try to sell him a story idea or get her to come to your annual dinner.

You’re simply aiming to start a relationship that will eventually evolve into a story or an invite or an interview.

How do you do this?

It’s easier than you might think.

Ideally, you want to start the relationship by sending the reporter or editor three important signals:

  1. You follow and respect his or her work.
  2. You or your organization can be a resource in future reporting.
  3. You’re not looking to simply pitch stories — you want to be a partner.

The first step in this process involves a bit of legwork.

You actually have to spend a little bit of time getting to know the journalist’s work. Go online and look at recent stories he or she has covered. Pay attention to the themes they cover and the examples they cite.

Next, think about how you can help.

Perhaps it’s by providing them with background data or a report. Perhaps it’s by having them get to know your executive director. Perhaps it’s by offering to connect them with a partner organization that does similar work.

The next step takes a bit of courage.

Send that reporter an introductory email or note.

If you don’t know where to start, let me give you a few suggested “pickup lines” or openers:

  • “I’ve enjoyed following your coverage of nonprofits for the XYZ Gazette and wanted to offer my organization as a resource to you for future stories …”
  • “Your recent piece on state budget cuts is an important one for our community because it will likely reduce the amount of aid to nonprofit organizations. As you continue to report on this story, I’m happy to put you in touch with some local experts who can add perspective …”
  • “I followed with interest your recent series on Medicaid. Since you’re interested in this topic, I thought I’d pass along a 2016 study by the ABC Institute that includes some projections that might interest you in future reporting …”

It doesn’t have to be fancy or too in-depth. It simply needs to start a conversation.

Chances are, you’ll get a reply.

And with that reply will come an opportunity to take that budding relationship to the next level.

It might not pay off immediately, but in time that relationship has the potential to develop into one where you become a trusted resource for that reporter.

The 5 Keys to Connecting with Gen Z

If you’re a Gen-Xer or Baby Boomer who has spent the past several years trying to figure out how to communicate with Millennials, it’s time to start reckoning with another challenge — Gen Z.

Gen Zers are still young — ages 12 to 21 — but they’re coming of age quickly.

And, as was recently explained to me, they are decidedly unMillennial.

That insight came during a recent interview with Marcie Merriman, Executive Director, Cultural Relevancy and Brand Strategy, Ernst & Young.

As Marcie was talking about the characteristics, preferences and habits of Gen Z, she made a point that really caught my attention.

“This generation loves story,” she said. “If you think about success of the musical ‘Hamilton,’ well that all started with them. They love to know the story. What is history behind it? Why is it relevant? What does it mean to me?”

For those of us who are storytellers, this is extremely encouraging news.

But before we get too excited, we have to consider how this emerging generation shares and processes stories.

Gen Zers, after all, are true digital natives who seem to have an attention span more attuned to Snapchat than Shakespeare. As a result, the notion that they are all in for a good story left me a bit skeptical — especially as a parent to two Generation Zers.

So I took a detour in my interview with Marcie to dig a bit deeper. And indeed, she explained there are a few strings attached. Gen Z will listen to your story. But only if you follow these 5 rules:

Don’t treat them like Millennials

The differences between Millennials and Gen Z are stark.

“This next generation is as different from Millennials as Millennials were from Gen Xers,” Marcie says. “Gen Z is much more independent, and focused on succeeding. And because of the Post-9/11 world they grew up in, they have been raised by parents who gave them much more realistic views on life.”

Marcie further explained that the ‘helicopter parent,’ has been largely replaced with the ‘stealth bomber parent.’ In general, Gen Z parents don’t constantly hover. Instead “they monitor, strike when needed to guide, correct or advise their child, and then zoom out.” 

Your story should follow the same model. Be strategic in the information you include and how it can be useful to your Gen Z reader. Don’t hover.

Be authentic

This advice cuts across every generation, but is particularly relevant for the under-21 set. As Marcie bluntly put it: “Their BS meter is pretty good…They have had easy access to all the information they wanted and needed their whole lives, so they tend to look things up, find out what is behind it, and then make decisions.”

Any attempt at the hard sell, fudging the facts, or outward phoniness will be sniffed out and rejected. When it comes to storytelling, as long as it is factual and offers an easy way for them to understand what is behind it, then you have an audience. 

Get to the point

Gen Z has little time for fluff. They are a no-nonsense lot that values relevancy and logic. As Gen Z expert Lucie Greene told the New York Times, think studious and practical Alex Dunphy from the popular ABC show “Modern Family,” as compared to her more Millennial-leaning older sister, Haley.

And if you are trying to hold Alex’s attention, your content better have a quick and clear purpose. “Focus on helping them to learn as opposed just drilling random facts into them,” Marcie says. “The education system has largely moved away from rote memorization, so this is the way their psyche has developed.”

Show don’t tell

The classic ‘show don’t tell’ maxim for good writing hits the mark with Gen Z. 

“They don’t take being told what to do very well,” Marcie says. “As opposed to telling them what to do without context, it’s much better to provide them with the opportunity to see how they can be part of a something or contribute in ways that benefit themselves or others.” 

Marcie cites research that found 80 % of Gen Z respondents said they know whether or not they should do something because their parents have explained the consequences – not because those parents said, “because we say so!”

Deliver seamlessly

Here may be the knottiest catch of all. Your story may hit all the right Gen Z buttons, but it’s all but dead unless it appears before Gen Z eyes effortlessly or requires they take only minimal of action to access it.

“This is the one-click generation—and you are lucky if you even get that,” Marcie says. “They are expecting things to happen automatically. Anything that creates any hassle whatsoever is not just inconvenient, it is a deal killer.”

Ultimately, Gen Z isn’t really asking much. They want information delivered quickly and in ways that help them make decisions—and make sense of the world they are navigating. As storytellers if we achieve that, we’re sure to make strong connections with Gen Z, and all the other generations that came before them.

Scott Westcott is Corporate Practice Leader at Turn Two Communications. Learn more at

The 5 Things Reporters Really Want From P.R. Pros

Roger H. Goun, via Creative Commons

Roger H. Goun, via Creative Commons

When you open your e-mail box, which messages are you most likely to open: generic messages from unknown senders or personal notes sent by someone you know?

The answer to this question is obvious, right? You’re going to open the personal message first.

And you’re more likely to trust that message than you would a message that comes from a stranger.

Effective media relations relies on the same idea. The nonprofits that are often most effective at earning headlines do so because they've positioned themselves as trusted sources.

They didn't develop their reputations through sending cookie-cutter press releases a few times a year. Instead, they put in the work to get to know what journalists really want -- and they took the time to position themselves as reliable sources who can deliver.

Journalists, after all, are people.  Busy people who have a lot of folks who are vying for their attention.

But while each journalist has her own tastes and needs, we do have some clues that can help you determine those tastes and needs.

This week's release of  The Cision 2017 State of the Media Report provides some interesting insights into what today's journalists are looking for from media relations professionals.

To compile the report, Cision surveyed more than 1,550 North American journalists and influencers -- and that survey offers some important takeaways for nonprofits who are looking to step up their media relations game.

Here are 5 key things you should know from the survey:

1. Know What They Cover Before You Pitch

If you've read any of my other posts on media relations, you already know that I strongly advise against sending a generic release to your entire media list.

In my experience, reporters HATE getting generic releases.

The Cision survey backs up this advice. When asked how PR professionals can improve, 72.8 percent said "tailoring the pitch to suit my beat/coverage". Another 82.5 percent said "researching/understanding my media outlet."

"A major complaint from journalists is that they receive too much spam and irrelevant pitches that sour their relationships with communicators," the Cision report said. "'Batch and blast' methods don't work and are counterproductive."

Sending 2-3 personalized pitches to high-value outlets is going to get you much farther than a generic pitch to 100.

It takes a bit more time up front, but the results are almost always going to be better.

2. Don't Bother Calling

Journalists overwhelmingly prefer to get pitches via email. More than 9 in 10 -- 92 percent -- said email is the preferred channel for pitches.

Meanwhile, only 2 percent said they like to get pitches over the phone -- and many of them report that phone pitches are strictly off limits.

During my days as a journalist, I hated getting cold pitches from people over the phone. I considered such pitches a waste of time and eventually screened calls from numbers I didn't recognize.

Journalists spend a lot of time calling sources. And they're often willing to take calls from folks they know. But unless you're on a first-name basis with that journalist, don't ring her phone.

Send an email instead.

3.  They Want Your Expertise

More often than not, journalists aren't relying on PR pitches for story ideas. They often find stories during the course of working their beats and talking to people.

What they do need, though, are experts -- people who they can rely on to provide context, facts, and commentary to help with their reporting.

Smart PR professionals understand this and take the time to let reporters know about the executive director or board member who really understands health care or environmental issues. They often share reports and data outside of the context of a pitch.

If your reports and data are useful, they will likely be cited in future reporting.

If your experts are credible, they'll reach out when they need access to their opinions.

Again, the Cision report backs up this notion.

Roughly half of journalists surveyed said PR professionals would serve them better by providing them with information and expert services.

4. Sharing Shows Caring

Want to build credibility with a journalist?


Retweet one of her news stories. Share his latest think piece on Facebook. Embed the video of a recent TV news report mentioning your nonprofit on your website.

Nearly 1 in 3 journalists in the Cision survey said PR professionals could do a better job of sharing their stories on social media.

My takeaway: journalists are paying attention to who is sharing their work. And doing so can help you become top of mind when they're looking for sources in the future.

After all, you draw more bees with honey than with vinegar.

5. Pictures -- Still Worth A Thousand Words

The Cision survey includes another important nugget -- that staff photographers are providing fewer images than in the past.

Increasingly, news organizations are relying on newswires, stock images, and sources for images to accompany their pieces.

This means you shouldn't be shy about making it clear to journalists that you can provide photos, graphics, and other visual materials.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway is that you should approach your relationships with journalists as you would any of the other valuable relationships in your life.

By taking the time to listen and understand their needs -- and being willing to share -- you will achieve much better results than you will be simply pitching them.

This post is part of an ongoing series that Peter contributes to Nonprofit Marketing Guide on media relations for nonprofits. For more advice on communications, marketing and PR for nonprofits, we encourage you to explore NMG.