It’s All in the Hook

Much has been made of the fact that we live in a world of diminished attention spans and information overload – particularly by the advertising trade media. However, these macro trends don’t just present challenges for the creators of pre-roll shorts, online banners or 30-second TV spots. They are also obstacles for PR professionals in their relentless pursuit of publicity.

Let’s face it, journalists live in the same media-saturated, message-weary world as everyone else – and, if anything, they are even more bombarded with messaging than John Q. Public. In this age of social media, entrepreneurial chutzpah and endless start up-to-IPO-in-a-year success stories, there are more story pitches reaching journalists now than ever before. So, how do we, as the merchants of this messaging, break through all this clutter and rise above the din?

It’s all in the hook.

Journalists get hundreds (and hundreds) of email pitches a day. Unsurprisingly, most of them are deleted before opening. So what makes the cut? The most succinct answer I’ve heard came from a wonderfully acerbic USA Today editor, who said that before opening any pitch, he asks himself two questions: 1) “Who cares?” and 2) “Why now?”

The “who cares?” question is all about relevance. This is really just an extension of what we all go through with unsolicited messaging received through online retargeting, snail mail direct marketing or quasi-NSA Facebook voodoo. Make sure your subject line and opening tells the reporter or producer why this idea is relevant to their beat, their column, their show. But just being relevant isn’t enough – you must also be timely. Make it clear why this story is hot NOW, or will be hot for an upcoming issue.

While most people want to work on their pitch and/or release first and then write the headline, I suggest doing it in reverse. Let’s learn a thing or two from Hubspot. They tell clients preparing to send out whitepaper “offers” that at least half the total project time should be spent on the subject line. HALF! As in, 50 percent. Ponder that.

Want another tip beyond relevance and timeliness?  Be provocative. Political operatives are highly adept at this. The 2012 Obama campaign – which tested email extensively – found that jarring subject lines (like “Some scary numbers” or “I will be outspent”) were far more successful than more mundane solicitations. On the other side of the aisle, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s PR team has become famous for its forceful, occasionally snarky emails with subject lines like “Since When?” or “Obsolete Now?”

Word play, word trending and slang are other ways to get a reporter or producer’s attention. Try having some fun with a keyword (like “health care” or “entrepreneur”) and create word combinations that demand a recipient’s attention. Humorously insert the latest slang or trending terms into the pitch (“filibuster” anyone?) and your response rates may rise dramatically. If you don’t read a serious newspaper or newsweekly regularly, check out for suggestions. Twitter is great for trending terms, of course. And for slang? If you have a teen at home, you are probably covered. If not, I suggest UrbanDictionary or BuzzWhack.

Of course, none of this is any good if your message isn’t relevant to the target journalist. A tried-and-true “Old School” approach that still works is to mention a reporter’s previous story in your subject line. Another golden oldie is to reference the reporter’s beat or column in your subject line, or just highlight it as a relevant topic tip. For example “Health Tip: (insert 3-4 word summary).”

One last thought. Don’t let your carefully crafted pitch get neutered by bosses, clients or other interested parties on the approval ladder. While releases – like pitches – should also be brief and engaging, their tonality is inherently more formal. They are intentionally written so they can be seamlessly dropped into any journalist’s article. While you should fight like crazy to keep them free of schlocky marketing-speak, every once in a while you will get stuck with a Final Approved Version that reads like self-congratulatory catalog copy, not news. When that happens, simply smile, post the release on the company web site and go to the media with your excellent pitch – not the release. If they bite, follow up with legitimate and newsy information in a bulleted e-mail. Then after all that is done, use the release. Maybe. (Believe me, I’ve been burned by lame press releases.)

So, to summarize: the hook is the key to any news story pitch, just as it is to any type of communication, from pre-roll to print ad. The subject line is the sharpened point on that hook.  It is the bait you dangle in front of a trophy fish, the cover of your bestseller, your first remark to the hottest girl at the bar. Don’t blow it.