How to hook a journalist on your press release from your email subject line

June 26, 2014

156705768I recently participated as a panelist in a webinar by BusinessWire for public relations professionals who pitch to journalists covering sports. I was asked to be a panelist because of my experience as a sports business analyst and reporter for outlets such as ESPN, Forbes, and Comcast Sports Southeast. However, I also brought something to the table the other journalists on the panel did not: I’m also a public relations professional.

Before the webinar, each panelist was asked to think of three things public relations professionals should know before pitching to journalists. I think all three of us on the panel immediately went to some version of advising people to only pitch us content relevant to our reporting and our platform. I would conservatively estimate 60 percent of the pitches I receive are on topics or story angles I would never cover for any of the outlets where I report.

A larger problem I discussed, however, is that I miss pitches that are perfect for my reporting because I simply can’t read every email I receive. That’s why it’s imperative to hook journalists from the subject line of your email.

Press release headlines aren’t always compelling email subject lines

Cutting and pasting the headline of the press release is quick and easy, but it might not grab my attention. In the two hours before the webinar, I tracked my email: I received 76 emails in those two hours, six of which were press releases. I couldn’t possibly read every one of those emails and also get any work done during those two hours, so I skim subject lines. It just so happens that my Outlook settings only show me the first 5-7 words of your subject line, so unfortunately you have to hook me from those first few words.

I’ve received press releases that simply state “Press Release” as the subject. I’m sorry, but I’m not stopping to open that to try and figure out what you’re pitching. There are too many other emails fighting for my attention (not the least of which was the one from my favorite fashion store reminding me, “Sale ends at 12 p.m.!”), so your press release has to grab me from the subject line. Your subject line should make clear that the news you’re releasing fits in with my reporting.

Lead with the most compelling part of your release

I recently received a press release with the following subject line: “BEACON Tech: Company X/Company Y partner for enhanced in-venue experience.” The first problem is that I only saw “BEACON Tech: Company X/Company Y partner…” in Outlook. I was already bored and moving on to my next email.

The second problem is the focus of the subject line, even if I’d seen it in its entirety. Honestly, I don’t really care about Company X or Company Y. I’m not going to report on your company. I don’t even report on what Nike and Adidas do from a corporate perspective. What I do report on are stories, innovation, and data that might be related to those companies and their efforts. The real story here isn’t that the companies partnered, it’s the technology that partnership produced.

I did read this press release (mostly for purposes of this blog post), and these companies were partnering so they could offer stadiums and teams technology that allows them to beam messages to mobile phones based on geo-locating fans when they are in or near the stadium. For example, they can welcome a fan as they enter the stadium or deliver a coupon as they walk past the team store. Now that’s pretty cool. However, if it weren’t for today’s blog, I would have never read that press release. I was already about two hours behind schedule when that release hit my inbox and my stomach was starting to growl for dinner.

I get it – you want your company front and center – but you need to lead with something more intriguing in order to initially get my attention as a journalist. Remember: you have a vested interest in your company, but I do not.

The bottom line: lead with the technology and how that might improve attendance or in-stadium experience, not with the company names. I probably would have opened a release with a subject like “Venues greet fans through mobile” or “Further integrating mobile with venues.” I have to pitch my editor on a story, and the outlets I report for aren’t going to let me write a piece about Company X and Company Y partnering, but they might let me write about a great new piece of technology that improves in-stadium experience.

Obviously, every reporter and every outlet is different, so that doesn’t mean there isn’t any reporter out there who would be interested in the partnership between the companies. That’s why you have to do your homework on journalists.

Get to know the journalists who cover your client’s industry

With my public relations hat on, I sympathize with those of you who are distributing press releases for more than one company. Unless you only focus on clients in one industry, it can be tough to get to know all the journalists you need to pitch. However, with my journalist hat on, I can tell you that nothing beats that personal connection. I always tell students my best piece of career advice is that you should always “make it easy for people to remember you.” I remember public relations professionals who have introduced themselves over email and done small things to make my job easier, like sending me an email before the holidays to let me know which of their experts are available if news breaks on Christmas Eve.

There are other (quicker) ways to make that connection. If your subject line references something I’ve already written, you immediately get brownie points for doing a little research. It also instills in me a little faith that you’re pitching something relevant.

By way of example, here are a few subject lines that always grab my attention:

  • Follow-up to your piece on…
  • Your recent piece about…
  • Introduction

Put simply, I’m always impressed if you’ve read my work and can show me why you thought your pitch was right for me based on something else I’ve covered. I also love to connect with new people, so I’m a big fan of public relations professionals who reach out and introduce themselves and let me know who they represent that might be a good source for me now or in the future.

If you’re like me when I have on my public relations hat, you are invested in your clients’ businesses, and you do believe there is a story worthy of being told with each press release that leaves your office. Just remember that you have to sell a journalist on the newsworthiness of your release, and they have to turn around and sell an editor. Make it impossible for them to skip over your next email.

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