One of my latest pitches in the local paper.

10 rules for nonprofit PR pitches

Reporters work really damn hard to make our communities and our nation better. Let’s make their jobs easier.

When I was a cub reporter at a local newspaper in Southern California, I was always fascinated by the reporters at the paper. Gritty, serious, funny, grumpy, upbeat, intelligent, relentlessly curious, brave, authentic and depending on the beat — a little jaded. OK a lot jaded in some cases, but that’s only because they have really hard jobs. They see and do the things that require a certain amount of nerve. They ask hard questions and sift through mountains of information daily to decide what’s worthy of a story for their audiences. They spend hours, days, or months researching. They’re also hitting the pavement looking for stories. It’s a lot of work!

So while I didn’t go on to be a journalist full-time, I never forgot how important a reporter’s job is and how much pressure they carry. Most importantly I have kept asking over the last dozen years or so how we as communications and nonprofit professionals can make their work easier.

Here’s what I learned wrapped up in 10 rules for non-profit pitching, which have always led to good relationships and stories for me:

  1. Don’t pitch them your fluff
    Seriously, don’t do it. I know your boss wants a press release over some internal news they are excited about. Maybe you have a new board member or a new service or something else. That’s great but I need you to put on your real world glasses for a minute. Outside of your nonprofit if you shared this news with friends, family, or someone on the street would they care? Have you ever seen stories similar to this in the outlets you are pitching to? If you’re a prominent non-profit I think you have some more wiggle room here but smaller, lesser known nonprofits should focus on pitching stories that are newsworthy. If you’re not sure what newsworthy is exactly read or watch the publication more and look in their archives. 
    If your news doesn’t pass the newsworthy litmus test, offer up a big push to your boss in other ways:
    - Your newsletter 
    - Your social media 
    - Your websites (internal and external if you have it). 
    - Maybe a special email blast to all employees. 
    - Don’t forget your board also likes to see good news too. 
    If your boss keeps pushing (I’ve hand many bosses who do this) let them know you can send it and remind them you’ve been working really hard to become a source of high quality stories. When the big stories come you want reporters to actually read your emails so being selective about what you pitch is a good thing. If you must, then send it and let the reporter know it’s an FYI for their community news section if they have it.
  2. Look up reporters’ names
    This is really about knowing your audience and personalizing your pitch emails. Resist the urge to send out email blasts to lists. Instead look up who you are talking. Is this the right reporter for the story? What is their beat? If there are several people at one outlet you are writing to that’s OK, just know their names and address them as such. This helps build a solid media list for your nonprofit.
  3. Introduce yourself (first paragraph)
    If you’ve never emailed these reporters before tell them who you are in one sentence. I usually say something like: 
    “Hi XX, My name is Teresa and I am the communications person for NAME OF NONPROFIT here in NAME OF CITY.”
    I do this because I want to build a professional relationship with them and become a source of quality stories. People like to talk with other people, not ambiguous organizations so identify yourself clearly. Speaking of clarity…
  4. Introduce your non-profit (first paragraph)
    One line, on what your nonprofit does in real people language. That’s it. No missions statements here please.
  5. Tell them why your news is meaningful to their audiences (second paragraph)
    This is the “why” should they care part. In 1–2 sentences tell them your news and why it’s important to their audience/ your community.
  6. Make sure your contact information is prominent (third paragraph/closing)
    This can be in your signature or closing. Bold it and let them know when they can reach you if there are restrictions. I usually say “call me any time at XXX-XXX-XXXX” about this story. I indicate I will connect them with the person to quote.
  7. Now, copy and paste your press release inside of the email (final paragraph)
    Copy and paste the whole press release in the body of your email. You can attach it too, but remember many reporters are working from their phones. Opening attachments is a pain in the ass on your phone isn’t it? It is for them too. So make it easy by sticking the whole thing in your email.
  8. Ready to send? Make it error free and time it
    Before you hit that send button, review your emails carefully. These people are professional communicators for a living, so make sure your email is the best it can be. Now think about the timing. You should be sending your stories in advance so reporters have plenty of time to read and take the information to their editorial meetings. I try to send a week in advance of when I hope to see a story. I try to avoid sending my emails on Monday mornings (email overload) but after that I feel like it’s all about testing and research. If you Google “best time to pitch to reporters” results are all over the map. Some people will say afternoons are best because reporter inboxes are less crowded, while others will say mornings are best to catch them before an editorial meeting where they pitch to editors. The news I pitch isn’t super timely or breaking news, so I typically send on Tuesday-Thursday, afternoons. I’ve sent on Fridays and had fine results too. It usually takes a 1–3 days to hear back from reporters so give it some time before you follow-up.
  9. You got a response! Good, now be accommodating
    SUPER accommodating. Remember you are asking something of them. I make myself available and tell all my internal people who might be interviewed to be ready at any time. I’ve noticed TV crews need a lot of flexibility because they are evaluating stories by the hour and sometimes minute. Try to give them whatever they ask for and do it with some positivity. We are nonprofits with good missions and good people, let’s give them the best we have to offer.
  10. Follow-up and a thank you
    I know this might feel unnatural to some people, but I try to always follow-up on my pitches with a thanks when my story get’s picked up. It’s nothing long winded — just a quick note saying thanks and how much we liked the story. If their needs to be a correction, ask for the correction NICELY and don’t make it a big deal if it doesn’t have to be. Instead focus on the positive, thank the person for their time and for running something. Tell them how awesome it was to see the story and how your team reacted too!

As you work your way through your thank yous don’t forget to update your media list. Many times you will find your story is passed along to another editor or reporter than who you originally sent it to. Add that person to your roster and makes notes on them. Don’t forget to save those clips too!

Those are my rules, what are yours? Leave me a comment and share what you have learned.