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Pitch Letters, Press Calls and Letters to the Editor

June 18, 2008

PITCH LETTERS

When you glance through a newspaper or watch a newscast, you're likely to see a feature story on a new product, someone's personal achievement or an in-depth look at a current issue.  Many of these stories originated from a persuasive "pitch letter" and effective follow-up.

A pitch letter suggests a story idea to a news editor or reporter.  The goal is to get them to interview your chapter leadership or a person your organization is honoring.  Writing an effective pitch letter can be difficult and takes practice, and such letters frequently need to be tailored for each specific reporter or organization.  Therefore, chapters should write pitch letters only for the one or two major media outlets they particularly want to cover the event. 

An effective pitch letter should include:

  • A creative, gripping first sentence about the subject that grabs the reader's attention, making him or her want to read on.
  • Information that briefly and creatively describes the story you are suggesting, including statistics and figures to support your ideas.
  • A statement that suggests an interview with your spokesperson for further information.
  • A closing statement that you are available to answer further questions or provide more information. You should also mention that you will be following up within two weeks to determine if they are interested in an interview.

Tips to remember when writing a pitch letter:

  • Be creative.
  • Try to keep the letter to one single-spaced page.
  • Make sure you've written the letter with your particular media in mind. Personalize the letter, and address it to a particular person, not a title.
  • Follow up within the stated time.
  • Be prepared to pitch your story idea verbally when you follow up. Often the person to whom you sent the letter will not have received it.
  • Be ready to suggest an alternative story idea if the first idea is rejected.

TELEPHONE CALLS

Typically, you will call the media to suggest a news story that cannot be pitched in writing because of time factors, and to follow up on a letter, release or media advisory that you sent a few days earlier.  Either way, your objective is to secure a commitment from the reporters or editors you call to cover your cause.  How do you handle the call?  What do you say?

Follow these guidelines:

  • Prepare for the call in advance. The media may not have had time to read your letter or release, so be prepared to sell the idea by phone.
  • When you call, ask for the appropriate person. Explain who you are, immediately ask if they are on deadline, and if so, ask what would be a good time to call back.
  • Explain what you are calling about. Keep it short and to the point.
  • Assess their interest. Here are some replies and appropriate responses:

“I vaguely remember receiving that, tell me what it was about…” or “I haven't had time to read it.  Quickly summarize what you want."  Briefly explain the event and subject and reason for the letter or advisory and offer the opportunity for them to interview appropriate spokespersons.  Position your organization's spokesperson as an authority on the subject.  “Our director, Joe Smith, has worked with volunteers of all ages for more than 30 years and can give you an in-depth look at philanthropy and the growing trend of volunteerism."

“I read the advisory, but I'm not sure whether or not we can do anything with it."  Reply by asking if they've ever covered this story before; point out that you thought the public might be interested in this angle, etc.  Try to move them off the fence to your side.

"I'm not interested."  If possible, politely try to find out why they aren't.  Often, time and/or staffing may be the reason.  They may be interested in the story at some other time or on a different aspect of the issue. This could open the door for future coverage, but don't push it.  Ask if they know of anyone else at the station or paper who might be interested.  If not, thank them for their time.

In general, don't use the phone to initiate contact unless time constraints demand it. Use letters, faxes, and especially email to begin the conversation.

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR AND EDITORIALS

A letter to the editor is an opportunity to express praise or criticism for an article or editorial or otherwise comment on a story you may have read.  Depending on the newspaper's editorial policy, you can write a letter to inform the public about a particular issue such as NPD.  In general, smaller newspapers would be more likely to print such a letter.

Writing an op-ed piece provides another opportunity to appear on the editorial page.  This is an effective way to address important issues or comment on developments in the news, such as the growing trend of volunteerism, the good deeds philanthropy enables, or the contributions made to good causes in your community during the past year.

Unlike a news release, the focus is strictly on the subject or issue, not the organization itself.  Giving the organization a reference (such as, “As the local director of [ORGANIZATION], I hear of the many service programs made possible through private and corporate contributions") is usually sufficient.  Review the op-ed page of the newspaper for a better sense of how to write an editorial.

The main things to remember are:

  • Keep it short: no more than two typed pages (rare), and preferably no longer than one.
  • Write clearly and simply.
  • Provide a main point near the beginning of your piece. Use the information in the body of the article to support your point.
  • Wrap up your op-ed with a conclusion that ties together your main point and your supporting evidence.

With enough background information, you might be able to persuade the editorial page staff to publish a staff-written editorial. 

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