Public Relations For SEO: How To Pitch Journalists

A few years ago, I launched a website called FindHow, and we gave it a full-court press from a PR standpoint. In this series of articles, I’m running through all the best practices we leveraged. In Part 1 and Part 2, we talked about how to convince journalists that your topic is newsworthy,  the basics of […]

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A few years ago, I launched a website called FindHow, and we gave it a full-court press from a PR standpoint. In this series of articles, I’m running through all the best practices we leveraged.

In Part 1 and Part 2, we talked about how to convince journalists that your topic is newsworthy,  the basics of writing a press release, strategies for targeting journalists and tips for scheduling your announcement. Here, we conclude with tips for pitching journalists and how to work it before, during and after the announcement of your release.

Pitching Journalists

Before you start, understand two things.

First, journalists are human beings – try to put yourself in their place to understand where they are coming from. Hundreds of people are constantly bothering them to try to get their news covered, their editor is probably hounding them for material, and often, they’d really rather be taking their wife or husband out to dinner. So, be respectful of their time and frustrations.

Second, you have one goal and one goal only: to get the journalist on the phone. This requires calling over, and over, and over again until you get lucky enough to catch them at their desk.


Image via Shutterstock, used under license.

When you have them on the phone, you should establish what you’re calling about, but also ask them open-ended questions about what sorts of things they are looking to cover.

With FindHow’s launch, I had one fellow, for instance, that was spending almost all of his time covering a very prominent trial, which we discussed at length. Another discussed Little League, a mutual interest, with me for about 20 minutes on a call. You need to engage people on the level they are willing and interested in being engaged, but understand that the goal of your call is to get a meeting.

So in short: get them on the phone, engage with them, and try to get a physical meeting.

You can use electronic materials as a fallback, but I would caution you to give journalists as little material initially as possible. I only very sparingly sent out our press kit, and only when I was already assured I was not going to get a meeting. The press kit essentially answered every question a journalist might have, but it wasn’t going to pitch them for me – and if they read it, why would they ever ask for a meeting?

So, in some cases, think of what you’re doing as being like advertising, or writing a resume – you only need to give enough information to tantalize them into wanting to hear more – from you directly.

Our campaign consisted of me calling roughly 50 journalists repeatedly until I caught them at their desks, in some cases meeting with them and then taking them through a funnel where they tried the beta and looked at some of our press kit materials. Note it took numerous phone calls. This comes with the territory – don’t think you can send a bunch of emails and it’s going to happen – it’s not. You need to use the phone.

Journalists Are Busy — Help Them Do Their Job

The more material you can give a writer that they can pull from, the easier it will be for them to write an article. It’s not uncommon for writers to pull portions directly out of a press release or a press kit.

Think like a Washington lobbyist who is writing legislation for a congressperson to propose — just do as much of the work for them as possible — it’s human nature to want to get any job done quickly with a minimal amount of work, so make it easy for them.

Validate The Trend By Disclosing Competitors

The crowded field helped us to validate the site with journalists (i.e., we weren’t crazy; there was a real trend here). To bolster the validity of the trend, we put graphs of the growth of How-To queries in our press kit, and even listed all of our competitors and their (and our) strengths and weaknesses.

That’s Crazy, Why Would I Mention My Competitors?

Why mention competitors, you may ask? Well, would you rather there be an article on you, competitor B, and competitor C talking about an important trend you all represent, or would you rather there be no article at all? Walter Mossberg, when thumbing through our press kit with me, made a remark to the effect (I’m paraphrasing), “hmm, strengths and weaknesses, and competitors… you don’t see this sort of thing much… very good.” So, I have it on good authority that this will help you stand out.

Speak Their Lingo

Here are three key examples of journalist lingo you need to understand, both for their actual use, and to demonstrate that you have some sort of an understanding of the world of PR.

“On a Deadline”

These are two key pieces of lingo you need to understand, both for their actual use, and to demonstrate that you have some sort of an understanding of the world of PR.

When a journalist is “on a deadline,” it means they are working furiously on a piece that they have to finish by a certain time. If you call a journalist and are lucky enough to get them at their desk, always ask if they are “on a deadline,” and if so, can they talk for a few minutes at another time, and then schedule a time with them — journalists really appreciate this, and it shows you are somewhat of a professional and not someone completely out of left field who will be difficult to work with.


When you’re issuing a press release but are first circulating it to some select journalists far ahead of time to see who will bite, you should mark it as under “Embargo.”

Understand that journalists do not sign NDA’s, but most respect the informal concept of an embargo, i.e., they are looking at this press release but know not to report on it until it is issued. Every draft press release we sent to an individual journalist included the following in very large bold letters above the release title:

                  “EMBARGO UNTIL JUNE 11, 2008”

We also included a disclaimer, in bold, at the top of every email about it: “This Press Release is Under Embargo Until Issuance, Currently Scheduled for June 11, 2008.”

However, this is only informally adhered to by journalists. Significantly, we had one online news outlet, that shall remain nameless, that swore they would adhere to our embargo but jumped the gun and put their article out at 10:08 PM the night before our launch!

This was aggravating, but fortunately, none of the larger media outlets noticed it, or they might have thought, “I’m not going to cover that if some online news site has already covered it.”

My sense is: the further you go down the pyramid, the less embargoes are respected. Try asking a blogger what an embargo is, and they might look at you like you have two heads – so you may want to leave bloggers out of your initial media push if you are using a strategy of giving the press a heads-up before a press release.


Our Little Secret” Image courtesy of Bradd Libby


Occasionally, if you get a journalist interested enough to talk with you, they may ask for an “Exclusive.” This means that they would have the exclusive rights to write about it, and essentially, your promise that they will be the first out with the news on the item.  Journalists like this because you are guaranteeing them the “scoop” on their competition.

Now, there are “exclusives” and there are “exclusives.” If the New York Times asks for an exclusive, you don’t necessarily have to promise that you won’t approach any other media outlets at all; you can push back and tell them you can give them an exclusive in terms of not approaching the Wall Street Journal until the day after the announcement. The WSJ is probably the only competitor the NY Times really cares about.

On the other hand, if USAToday wants an exclusive, you can promise them you won’t talk to The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Keep in mind that media competitiveness is kind of like an Ivy League football game — the Dartmouth/Harvard Game is “The Big Game” for Dartmouth, but it’s definitely not for Harvard, everyone has different perceptions of competitors.

Just be sure if you negotiate an exclusive that you and the journalist are on the same page about what it means, so you don’t destroy your credibility in future campaigns.

Don’t be afraid to utilize this tactic, though, if you are in a very niche-y, boring space where exclusives can be to your advantage.

I’m reminded of a friend, Ron, who got in hot water once from his higher-ups for giving one publication an exclusive on a new product announcement (for an Uninterruptible Power Supply – truly riveting news – not!).  In the years since, I’ve come to realize – that was a fantastic strategy, because you know what?  No one cares about Uninterruptible Power Supplies – they are extremely boring! One article in a major publication in that case was a fantastic result!

So, don’t be afraid to use this tactic if you have something with very limited, narrow interest appeal.

Journalists Are Like Penguins – Help Them Bump Each Other

Do you know how Penguins decide whether it’s safe to jump in the water? (Killer whales being their concern). They all bunch up together and start tipping back and forth slightly, bumping each other, until the whole crowd is seething with tiny bumping going on — then eventually one of them falls into the water. The penguins on the edge then lean over a little and look to see if the one that fell in has been eaten or is doing fine. If he is ok, they all jump in.

The press is exactly like that. Journalists are much more courageous to step out and cover something, putting their reputation on the line, if someone else has already.

When I got a meeting scheduled with Walter Mossberg at the Wall Street Journal, a few weeks out, I made sure to slip this fact in when talking with journalists going forward — and got an instant credibility boost with all of them. Even though he never ended up writing about FindHow himself, I am convinced his willingness to meet with me at all conferred huge credibility with the other journalists I spoke with.

Ask Journalists For Advice

I asked several of them for advice on how to pitch Walter Mossberg and had some really interesting and lengthy conversations where they told me their philosophies on how they like to be pitched.

Another approach was to ask a journalist who else they thought I should be pitching – and I got several warm leads as a result where I was told I could use their name when contacting someone. People love helping, so give Journalists the opportunity to help you

Use The “Journalists Are Like Penguins” Concept to Set Up A One-Day Press Tour

Let’s say you live in Atlanta. Every time you pitch a journalist based out of San Francisco, ask them if they’re willing to meet in person (because you “happen to be coming out there for some other interviews during the week of such-and-such”).

If they say “sure,” commit to it, call all the other journalists you’ve been talking to, let them know you’re flying out to meet this important competitor of theirs, get a commitment from them to meet with you as well, and buy the ticket. A little one-day press tour is totally worth the price of a ticket, and you can just take a red-eye back and avoid paying for a hotel.

“Work it” Just Before, During & After the Announcement

The AP journalist I had been pitching prior to the launch of FindHow was very close to committing to write something, but not quite — he had a lot going on, and he was careful not to really make a commitment to me (although he had given me some great advice on how to pitch Walter Mossberg).

On the day of the launch, I still did not know where he really stood. However, The Chicago Tribune, and some other outlets, came out with pieces covering FindHow and some competitors that morning.

I called the AP journalist and let him know that we were starting to get a lot of coverage including in the Chicago Tribune. This apparently pushed him over the edge, and he followed suit with a short article, which only talked about FindHow, and not our competitors. This was a major coup, and I am convinced it would not have happened without that follow-up.

After The Launch

Months after the launch, I continued to contact journalists on and off, pointing out to them the great coverage we had received and that there was a real trend going on here. One of them was a journalist with the Technology beat for Agence France-Presse (AP, Reuters, and AFP are the big three of newswire services).

He was sufficiently impressed by our coverage by his competitor/colleague over at the AP that he used a quote from us in a piece he was doing on the financial crisis in the fall of 2008. This resulted in another widely circulated article titled Web Traffic Jam as People Search for Financial News. This was an angle we never would have considered, but because we continued to maintain contact with the journalist, when the right article came along, he gave us a great mention.

The Media’s Dirty Little Secret

Occasional coverage continued to dribble in for another 12 months on the strength of the initial articles. As the articles came out, it was very clear that some of them were just paraphrased versions of the original articles. So, if you’re doing any article rewriting, I suppose you can take some solace knowing that the media does it, as well.

In some cases, the paraphrasing was fairly blatant; in others, you could see that they used the original structure but mostly rewrote from scratch. Well, at least they weren’t spinning, and we were happy to take what we could get!

Roundups Are Much Easier To Get Coverage On

Some of the best coverage we obtained was in the nature of “roundups,” i.e., articles listing multiple companies on how-to sites. People like lists and collections of resources, so we actively pitched roundups to journalists wherever possible.

While it may seem preferable to get an article entirely devoted to your own company, there’s a very low-probability. What’s best: getting one or two articles devoted to your company, or eight articles that mention it along with others? The second approach had an added bonus for us — being mentioned along with other well-known sites further legitimized and reinforced FindHow’s brand as a trusted resource.

Final Results

The first month of FindHow’s existence, it surpassed 15,000 unique visitors, and eventually grew to around the 100,000 uniques mark. After about five months, the Public Relations effort had resulted in a total of around 18,000 links to the site, primarily because of prominent media mentions that boosted the site’s credibility and aided word of mouth.


Every release you do doesn’t have to have this level of planning and effort — but how much effort is required to ring up the nearest regional newspaper and ask for the Features Editor? How much effort is it to drop a note to your local Patch person? Cultivating relationships with the media, even on a simple local level, can yield results down the road for you, as well. After all, who knows what clients you’ll be working for or what announcements you may have to pitch in six months or a year?

Before launching each press release, you should evaluate what level of effort is necessary and appropriate to leverage the announcement so you can have results that are worth the investment.

These techniques that we used to launch FindHow really have nothing to do with online marketing per se; they’re just classic marketing techniques, and human nature is the one constant in this ever changing technology landscape. Investing in your PR skills will continue to pay dividends going forward, regardless of Google (or anyone else’s) algorithm changes. So, get started!

Series Recap: 

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

Ted Ives
Ted Ives is founder and CEO of SEMCopilot, software for PPC account managers.

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