Wednesday 06 July 2016, Bristol

Burges Salmon hosted a great session this week on how to hit the headlines and how to avoid dud pitches. The title allowed for a two-speaker format: Gavin Thompson who is the recently appointed editor of the Western Daily Press and Richard Chapman, associate director at PR agency Grayling. 

The journalist’s perspective

Gavin started with a quick background briefing on the nature of the Western Daily Press. The paper is owned by Trinity Mirror and so is part of a group with 5 daily national newspapers, 150 regional titles and 80 websites. What’s interesting is that the number of websites has been shrinking over recent times as the owners sought to consolidate local journalism to slightly more regional web sites (as opposed to very local sites). Another observation was that the journalists for the group are predominantly web-first and that’s the way that marketing and PR people should think of them. 

Gavin also explained that knowing the ins and outs of the titles and their readerships (audiences, if you prefer) meant you’d stand a better chance of a great pitch. His rural readership of the Western Daily Press differs greatly from relative urbanites who read the Bristol Evening Post, for example. The numbers were impressive: 2.3m monthly unique website visitors to the Bristol Evening Post and over 8m page views – beating all but the very largest professional services firms’ websites, no doubt. 

The Story

What makes you special? What makes the deal special? What makes it unique?

Gavin said that the clue is in the first three letters of the word news. If it’s not new, it’s not news.

He also pointed out that people like reading about people – so that’s often a good angle with which to lead.  

Or maybe lead with the answer to ‘Whose idea was it? And how did they come up with that idea?’

Details bring a story to life.  

Gavin recounted a story where an editor had said to him: “It’s not enough to know that a shopkeeper gave away free tea and biscuits to some demonstrators in his town: what kind of biscuits were they?”

He also told a story to show how to pass the pint of beer/latte test. How would you tell the story to a friend over a pint/coffee?  

If the stationary cupboard at work is closed because Mrs X and Mr Y were caught canoodling in it, you wouldn’t tell the story to a friend by saying “You’ll never guess what? The stationery cupboard at work has been closed!” would you?  

Tip: pitch what’s interesting, what’s unique, what’s personal and what’s of interest to the reader. 

What really annoys journalists? (or how not to treat them)

  1. Repeatedly calling to chase down press releases. Gavin said that their number one bug bear was chasing last Tuesday’s press release by phone. Either the moment has passed, it wasn’t interesting enough or the journalist was simply too busy.
  2. Capital Letters on Random Nouns. The closer your pitch is to copy that the journalist can use, the better. If you italicise things and use upper case on job titles and they slip through, everyone looks silly.
  3. Missing key facts. The simple truth is that the first question is always going to be: How much? If you don’t have the answer or can’t talk about the value, it’s a big red flag to the journalist and is less likely to make it online and into print as a result.
  4. Jargon and acronyms. The broader business readership won’t understand you so replace them with the full words/meanings.
  5. Meaningless surveys. You need proper stats, not just the views of three people on the street. Don’t waste his time with the latter.
  6. Birmingham. If you pitch him a story with Birmingham in it as opposed to Bristol, it’s a dead giveaway that you’re pitching this in everywhere and since he wants something unique, it means it’s less likely to be used.
  7. Asking if he’s had a great weekend. You only get to ask this if you really know me. Better to get straight to the point as we’re both busy people. 

The pitch

Every story needs a picture. Since it’ll go online, better to send one than not. And preferably in landscape as that’s how web pages work.

Every story needs quotations. So provide them. And make them sound as if someone actually said them.

Be honest. Don’t oversell as journalists see straight through it.

Provide context. There’s a huge difference between 10% of £10 and 10% of £10m. Better not to try and hide the facts behind stats.

Video. Readers love video. But they won’t watch rubbish video. Send in video to accompany stories but make sure it’s interesting. 

The important bits

Get to know the product – who does the paper write for? Gavin showed us the difference between Brexit coverage the day after for both the WDP and the BEP and they are very different in terms of tone and look and feel (despite the teams sitting near each other) as their readerships are so different.

Don’t call the news desk. Much better to invest time getting to know a journalist and pitching to them instead. Build a personal relationship with them – and then you can ask them how their weekend was!

Work with our daily schedule. The WDP goes to press at 10:30pm so they don’t tend to come in at 7am. Much better to work with their news cycle and pitch in mid-morning whilst they are still thinking about what will make their news pages. The physical production of the newspaper means that quite often, good stories pitched too late get a fraction of the space that they would otherwise get and are hidden in a column on page 2.

Journalists prefer exclusives but will work with embargoes. Embargoes are useful when there’s work to be done to make the piece work. 

The PR’s perspective

Richard Chapman has worked in PR since the 1990s and has been in Bristol since 2008.

He walked us through:

The pitching process

Getting the most out of your agency; and

Why hire an agency? 

Why hire an agency?

Firstly: to keep you honest and give you an external perspective on your stories.

Secondly: we have the connections with journalists as we deal with them every day.

Thirdly: we have strength in depth at our agency that you’d be unlikely to match with an in-house team. 

Getting the most out of your agency

This involves both sides getting what they need.

Agencies need: open and regular communication, to understand your business objectives, to know your KPIs, a dedicated internal contact, experts and content to use, timely approvals so that they can work with journalists’ timescales, and constructive criticism.

You should expect: to work with a trusted partner, some understanding, transparency, accountability, experience and creativity, accessibility, a shared desire, and results! 

Pitching for success

Pitching isn’t spamming. It’s outreach. It’s not just an email and it changes depending on the context.

There are four considerations when pitching.

1. Why pitch?

2. What are we pitching?

3. Where are we pitching?

4. Who are we pitching to? 

And if you can hit all three of the following points as a sweet spot, it’s more likely to run as a story:

What is the audience interested in?

What does the journalist want to write about?

What does the client want to say? 

How does the content look?

Press releases are useful, but not in isolation. You need to use images, graphics and even animations if possible. You should also consider op eds (opinions) interviews and using embargoes and exclusives. 

Final tip

Richard also said that you should consider who is most influential across social/blogging and the media and focus your efforts on them. 


Much of what was said was common sense. But the issue with common sense is that it’s not very common. How often do we send an image with our press release? Or a humanised version of a quotation? Sticking to the golden rules outlined by Gavin and Richard every time will help us all to gain the kind of coverage we and our leaders crave. 

Simon Marshall
Executive Head – Markets, Burges Salmon LLP
PM Forum South West Committee