What To Do When A Journalist Goes Quiet (And How to Avoid That)

Captain Jean-Luc Picard famously said “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness; that is life.” It’s a quote every PR specialist worth their salt should remember because in our line of work it’s often truer than not. 

We’ve all been there. You’ve done your research, you sent your best pitches, you diligently followed up with your press contact, and yet…no response. It’s something everyone faces, and what we should all be prepared for. 

Here I will go over my expert advice for your Preparation, Outreach, and Follow-Ups that I’ve found helpful over the years, as well as my #1 Tip at the end of the article. These come from my over twenty years of experience practicing and teaching PR that has helped dozens of clients and saved possibly hundreds of stories. I also wrote about this in my book titled FREE PR.

Are you ready? Here’s how we’re going to save your story.

Preparation

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.

Abraham Lincoln

Nearly half the work I do in PR involves laying the groundwork for the first pitch and my follow-ups. We all know that cold emailing journalists with random story ideas to promote your story is going to get you nowhere, or worse get yourself added to their spam list. So it’s important to remember that one of the major goals of PR is to build lasting relationships with respected journalists, and that means respecting their time by not wasting it.

With that in mind, here’s a good way to sharpen your “ax” before you ever hit Send:

  • Do your due diligence by researching trending news stories within the sphere of your upcoming campaign to pick up on key terms.
  • Build a targeted media list of a minimum of 50-100 journalists that cover your specific industry and review their previous stories to learn what they write about.
  • Make it a habit to follow and add these journalists you want to work with on their professional social media (i.e. Twitter and LinkedIn). This will help with your pitching later and give you an insight into their current areas of interest.

These are just a few practical steps to take before you start emailing, and a great way for beginners in this field to improve their pitching game. Now let’s move onto the real work. 

Outreach 

If you’re an experienced PR Specialist or you’re ready to advance your pitching skills, then you need to pay attention to these following attributes when doing outreach for a new campaign.

Shotgun vs. Sniping

The Shotgun Approach is a good way to reach out to a lot of media in a short amount of time. Generally, you use the same generic pitch copy and pasted for a large number of writers or sequenced in a mail merge to add a layer of customization. Typically used for news releases or last-minute stories, the drawback with this approach is that most reporters can tell you’re not taking the time to reach out directly and so will usually not take the time to respond. In my experience, with good preparation, you should be able to achieve as high as a 75% open rate and a 5% response rate but you need to have a good subject line and a well-targeted list. 

The Sniper Approach is my preferred way to reach out to the media but takes more time to prepare and execute than the former. You start out by researching more of your target’s work to understand what will appeal to them and crafting a highly personalized pitch that compels the journalist to respond. While it takes more time to carry out, this method has proven to be the most effective way to get journalists to respond in virtually every industry.

The 4Ps

When creating your media pitch, whether you are using the Shotgun or Sniping approach, you should also keep in mind the 4Ps, which are my personal Keys to Success when pitching.

  • Pleasant: Every single interaction you have with a journalist should be as genial and helpful as you can make it. After all, you’re about to ask them to take time out of their busy schedule to not only read your email but take on a story that usually requires a fair amount of research and writing.
  • Polite: Similar to Pleasant, being Polite is especially important when you fail to hear back from a journalist or if they are initially hesitant to accept your pitch. The best way to do this is to bring value to the journalist every time you correspond. This could be offering an alternative angle, an interview opportunity, or even a sample of your product/service to get them to commit to a story.
  • Personable: We’ve already talked about why Sniping is the more effective outreach technique, and being Personable is the backbone of this approach. If the reporter feels that they are actually talking to a human, you’re more likely to get their attention and -more importantly- get a response. Use their name, mention why you chose to email them and try being informal without being unprofessional. 
  • Persistent: This is the secret sauce to the 4Ps because 9 times out of ten journalists are cold emailed once about a story idea and never hear from the source again. You have to be the 10% that doesn’t give up, and follow up with them with new ideas and helpful suggestions until you land that story. This one can’t be taught, you just have to hustle!

These are all good ways to help ensure you get off to a great start with interested journalists and get some sort of answer back.

Now let’s turn our attention to what we can do to encourage journalists to accept your story idea and get the press we’re looking for.

Follow-Ups

One of my favorite expressions has got to be “The squeaky gear gets the grease.” We’ve all probably had some car or computer problem that we kept putting off for another day, but the more you hear that “squeak” the more likely you are to attend to it. 

Here’s how to use the “squeaky gear” approach when following up with a journalist:

  1. Send your first pitch, then follow up by a second channel within the hour (Twitter, Linkedin, or even Instagram). It’s as easy as, “Just sent you an email about XYZ and want to make sure it didn’t get buried in your inbox. Let me know if I can be helpful.” No matter which one they see first, they’ll know you’re serious about the story.
  2. Follow up and ensure they’ve had a chance to read your first message, sometimes a polite prodding is enough to get a response. 
  3. If they haven’t responded yet, send another email (using the same email conversation) and ask for feedback or a question that has to be answered. Here are some good examples of follow up openers: 
    “I was just speaking with my founder and she said that she would you like to connect directly if you’re open to connecting with her. Can I make the intro?”
    “Can I send you a sample or guest access to my app/product/service so that you can see it for yourself?”
    “Is there another angle that you would find more helpful?”
    “Is there any data that I could share with you that you think would be useful to your readers?”

Notice that all of the above are questions? I’ve found that question-based follow-ups are twice as likely to get a response. 

  1. Show empathy and even humor (recall Personable from earlier) to remind them you’re a person that deserves a response. 
    – “Sorry to harass you again…”
    – “Whoops! Forgot to ask…”
    – “I don’t mean to be a pain but I really feel like we could bring some value to your audience…”
  2. As a last-ditch effort, it’s okay to be more direct and ask for a recommendation for a referral or future article. This is also helpful if you get a rejection back instead.
    – “Are there any future story angle ideas you think I could help you with?”
    – “Do you have any feedback for making this story idea more relevant to your audience?”
    – “I’ll take your silence as a hint that you’re really busy or perhaps not interested in this specific angle but is there someone else at your publication you think I should connect with? I would appreciate any guidance that you have to offer.”

I can’t tell you how many times my third or fourth follow up finally got them to respond, often along with an apology from them for not getting back to me sooner. 

Look, we’re all busy -especially journalists- and it’s okay if we don’t hear back right after we hit Send. When was the last time you responded right away to an unsolicited email?. Sometimes it’s about timing and getting it right, and sending multiple friendly follow-ups can make all the difference.

Many times I’ve pitched 5 journalists at the same publication (cough! Techcrunch) only to get my sixth contact finally respond. What if I had given up on the fifth one? No story. 

“Ghost” Writers

Now, it sometimes happens that you’ve been corresponding with a journalist, maybe even sent them a free sample or sat for an interview, and then they go “ghost” and disappear. 

If you’ve done all of the above and you still can’t get a response, here are some steps to take to save your story from the drafts.

  • Send a gentle reminder and ask for open communication in case they are dealing with an emergency. It’s unfortunate, but they also owe you an update. 
  • Find an actual number you can reach them, or their editor, and give them a call. Try their other lines of communication too (they might be avoiding their email).
  • If all else fails, don’t burn a bridge. This story might not happen, but a mean-spirited follow up almost guarantees your name on a “do-not-write-about” list. 

Be persistent, but know when it’s time to move on. The time it takes to save a story from a difficult journalist could be three more at other top tier publications. 

My #1 Tip for Pitching

Put yourself in the journalist’s shoes for a moment. You probably want to get back to every email that comes your way but deadlines, breaking news, and reality doesn’t always allow that to happen. What we can do is make it easier for journalists to get back to us and complete the stories we offer them in the first place. 

The most important thing to remember is that you work for the journalists – not the other way around. In today’s world, a journalist has to research story ideas, investigate trends, set up interviews, test new products and services, and all well before they sit down and write.

Luckily, we can help with every step of this process. Ask your contacts how you can be most helpful to them and their audience. After all, they know them best. 

It’s all about collaboration, and once you understand that your job becomes 100x easier. The journalists that you pitch will pick up on your helpfulness and feel more comfortable with working with you. So, stay humble and go hustle! 

Adrian Salamunovic is the author of the best-selling book FREE PR and the founder of Earned.co, a company that offers PR training and media outreach services. You can follow him on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, or reach out to him Clarity for one-on-one coaching.