Public Relations
Apr 23, 2018

What’s Your Line? How to Use Email to Pitch Stories Like a Pro

(Note: This blog post originally appeared in MuckRack.  It has been modified slightly.)

Hollywood signIn Hollywood, it’s the logline.

In newsrooms, it’s the headline.

In PR, it’s the email subject line — and first sentence of an email pitch — that can make all the difference when PR pros pitch stories to the media.

But how can you possibly present the gist of a story in just a few words?   

By borrowing logline/headline strategy from the entertainment and news businesses!

Did you know that before a movie script is written, or any film is shot, Hollywood producers imagine a movie based on a one-sentence description — the logline — of the story? Here’s an example of a logline for the 2004 cult hit Napoleon Dynamite from TV Guide:

napoleon dynamite

A listless and alienated teenager decides to help his new friend win the class presidency in their small western high school, while he deals with his bizarre family life back home.

Similarly, in media newsrooms, editors often assign feature articles with enticing headlines — even before journalists are assigned to cover the stories. Here’s a scene from HBO drama series The Newsroom in which a reporter tries to boil down what’s most compelling to her cable news audience from a dire but complicated Environmental Protection Agency report:

(She should have begun with, “End of the earth as we know it!”)

In the business world, management gurus from Stephen Covey to Tim Ferriss have encouraged us to “start with the end in mind” or “work backwards.” Amazon founder (and coincidently, Washington Post owner) Jeff Bezos famously asks employees to start with what they think Amazon customers — and Washington Post readers — want before the employees create anything.  Jeff BezosThe head of Amazon Web Services revealed a few years ago that software programmers are required to write a headline and press release before they even write a line of code for a new product offering.

Before you write your subject line and first sentence of your email pitch:

  • Know exactly what the news is. (Watch that newsroom clip again!)
  • What’s your offer? What is it that you are using to entice the reporter to say yes? Is it an exclusive, an in-person interview, an advance copy of a report, etc.?
  • Decide on a vehicle. Is it breaking news, a feature, an opinion piece?
  • Think about the audience of the media organization you are pitching. Is what you’re pitching important to them?
  • Get creative to stand out from the crowd.  Should your approach be fact-based, humorous, visionary, provocative, diplomatic?

How do you write an email pitch subject line?

Here’s where you copy what the newsroom does and write your headline.

Pretend you work at Apple and you’re pitching reporters on a story ahead of the iPhone X  launch day. (I said, pretend, didn’t I?) Here are some ideas you might use for your email subject line:

  • David: Apple’s new face of iPhone will recognize yours
  • New phone for Apple fanboys and -girls: Preview Monday?
  • Exclusive? Jony Ive on new iPhone X, Wed early
  • Exclusive:  Heeeeere’s Jony (Ive)!
  • Peek inside Jony Ive’s iPhone X: Tues 2pm?
  • Inside the mind of Ive, iPhone X designer
  • Meet tomorrow for first look at the iPhone X?

Here are some tips for writing a compelling headline/subject line:   

  • Be brief. You don’t have much room, time, or attention. Keep it short and pithy.
  • Create a sense of urgency. Emphasize time-sensitivity, if it’s important to the pitch.
  • Inspire curiosity. Tease the story. Use wording that grabs attention as it explains the story’s significance.
  • Be useful. If you know your local reporter is writing a piece that requires local input, offer your spokesperson, especially if the reporter is on deadline.
  • Use facts and figures. Support your story with numbers or research data where appropriate.
  • Front-load it. Find a credible way to use a recognizable company or product name (e.g., iPhone, Uber). Place it early in your subject line. Or, use a whiz-bang tech or product name before a no-name client.
  • Keep it lively. Eliminate (most) adverbs and adjectives. Let nouns and verbs do most of the heavy lifting.
  • Abbreviate. It’s OK to use common abbreviations in the subject line.
  • Plan for truncation.  Expect your subject line to be cut off from the recipient’s full view, and work around that.
  • Choose when to be boring. Sometimes “Company X Acquires Company Y” just works.

What not to do in a subject line

  • Don’t start with ‘Press Release,’ ‘Story Idea,’ ‘Pitch,’ or  ‘Interview Opp.’ Those end up in the trash.
  • Don’t use all caps.
  • Don’t name drop (unless you can deliver).

How do you write a first sentence that fulfills the promise of your subject line?

Here’s where you emulate Hollywood and use your logline. Write the first sentence (or two) of your email pitch as if it were the lead minus the puffy adjectives — of a press release. Use words that you imagine the publication itself might use if its own journalists were telling the story.  

Try these  techniques

  • Riff off a recent article the journalist wrote. Or, ride a hot trend to grab attention.
  • Offer an exclusive. Give one editor exclusive access to your story, if you can.
  • Personalize it. “Jim: iPhone X review unit for you.”
  • Localize it. “Denmark’s Develco acquires US startup.”
  • Make it an invitation. “Brief you? Lyft rides for women only.”

What not to do

If you’ve succeeded in getting an editor to open your email with a well-crafted subject line, don’t blow it with a phrase like: “I hope this email finds you well.”

  • Skip the so-called niceties and get right to the point.
  • Pare your pitch to two (maybe three) short, clean paragraphs.
  • And never include attachments. They can snag your email in the media organization’s spam filter or annoy editors who might be paging through pitches on their cellphones.

Now it’s your turn

What techniques do you use to write effective email subject lines and pitches?