Scott and DustinScott Merritt and Dustin Siggins co-authored this article.

Picture the scene: you’re sitting down for dinner when the phone rings. It’s a telemarketer offering a free gutter inspection. There’s just one problem: Your home doesn’t have gutters. This salesperson clearly didn’t do any research. He’s looking for a needle in a haystack.

That’s how a lot of reporters, editors and other media gatekeepers feel when their inboxes are assaulted by untargeted and irrelevant pitches. Those bad pitches make a beeline to the trash folder and may even earn the offender a spot on the journalist’s blacklist.

Capturing the attention of the right media with the right pitch at the right time is hard. Journalists drink through a firehose of emails, phone calls, texts and tweets, sometimes receiving dozens of pitches per hour. It’s why some build “how to” pitching guides for their beats and others use services like Qwoted or HARO to provide the explicit details necessary for someone to send the perfect pitch, source, comment, etc.

Taking these steps shouldn’t be necessary. PR professionals have a duty to our clients, our craft and our media contacts to be more empathetic and strategic. This involves deeply researching specific reporters and making sure they’re currently covering the subject at hand.

It’s a lot of up-front work, but the results will speak for themselves. Here are a few principles that underlie how we help our clients.

Solve journalists’ and clients’ problems first

Cision, Muck Rack and Meltwater are powerful tools for PR professionals. You can find thousands of media targets, their contact information and beats and recent coverage samples in a quick search. It seems like the world’s best cheat code for getting in the press. Spoiler alert: it isn’t.

Both authors have used these tools to serve our clients, but they’re not magic bullets. While the effort to build a list using these tools is minimal, the results are likely to be just as minimal: few emails landing with the right people, a lot of which get bounced back and even more pitches landing in the wrong inboxes.

And worst of all, little or no coverage for your client. That’s because instead of solving a journalist’s problem of finding good sources, and your client’s problem of getting the right message covered by the right media outlets, you’ve simply solved your own: saving time.

Bottom line: building a media list without a strong, research-first strategy makes it harder to consistently deliver results that keep clients happy.

Build your process for client success

Landing a media placement requires the Three Ts: pitching the right Topic, at the right Time, to the individual with the right Title. You wouldn’t send out a tax-deductions press release on Independence Day, so why not apply that principle throughout the year?

Here’s our recommended process for building a list, whether it’s one reporter or 100:

  • Identify the target outlets that are the best fit for your client’s style, tone and message.
  • Find the contacts most likely to be receptive to your clients’ insights.
  • Research each journalist’s preferred style, tone and angles.
  • Introduce yourself with a “this is not a pitch” message to a journalist when you have a client whose expertise and activity is sure to lead to future pitches.
  • Use email, phone and social media to contact the media. But never send a text unless they request it or you have a well-established personal relationship with someone.

You won’t land every pitch, but you’ll do a lot better by building a list the right way.

Everything is sales

Yes, even PR practitioners are salespeople. We have to “sell” the client on campaign narratives and story angles; and we have to “sell” the media on running with our clients’ stories. The latter happens when, unlike the telemarketer at the top of this piece, you have done the research ahead of time to solve the pain points of each journalist, editor, and producer you contact. Then, you’ve reached out with a carefully crafted message that’s designed to result in the “sale”—in this case, client coverage.

Not taking the time to hand-select needles for the haystack is no different than being the telemarketer who calls every house in town, including those without gutters.

That’s why it’s important to narrow your scope by doing the upfront work to target only the journalists who make the most sense. Take the time to understand your target audience and apply sales mechanics, whether you’re seeking revenue or a placement:

  • Crafting a pitch is comparable to positioning a product or service to appeal to the end user.
  • A good pitch, like a good salesman, makes a direct ask.
  • The best pitches—whether for new business or media coverage—solve pain points concretely and succinctly.

The telemarketer who interrupted dinner might have a chance if they called you about gutter cleaning in the fall because your home has gutters … not just because you live in a building that gets rained on.

The best PR practitioners don’t endlessly search for a needle in the media list haystack; they build the haystack out of needles.


Scott Merritt founded Strategic Global Media after spending more than two decades leading teams at other PR agencies. Dustin Siggins is Founder of Proven Media Solutions. A former journalist, his work has been published in USA TODAY, Business Insider and Forbes.