Nine tips from leading business columnists on how to pitch a story

Alan Kohler, Myriam Robin and John Durie recently sat down with Conal Hanna, Streem’s Corporate Affairs Lead, to discuss how pitching marquee business columnists differs from other journalists. Here are nine essential takeaways from their discussion*.

You can watch a recording of the session here, or just listen to audio here.

  1. Efficiency is key

All three columnists agreed that when it comes to making your pitch, efficiency matters. Every day, each of them receives countless pitches across a wide array of industries. Waste their time and you run the risk of having your emails unopened in future.  

“One of the big jobs of those people who do PR for companies, is to understand what are the requirements of the columnists … one of the common threads with columnists is the need to be efficient,” said Alan Kohler.

Business columnists are also often employed for their ability to add personality to the news, so knowing the tone and personality of the columnist you’re pitching not only increases your odds of success, but saves the columnist time by pitching them a story that suits their style.

  1. Your reputation is crucial

Spinning a story is one thing, but if your pitch fails to add up, your reputation could be at risk. A pitch based on mistruths won’t only prevent your story getting a run, but will ultimately damage your reputation, and the reputation of those you work for.

“If you try to pull the wool over someone’s eyes, and you prove to be wrong, then that’s it. If anyone lies to you, just write them off straight away. So just beware that we’ve got memories too,” said John Durie, underlining the importance of being honest in your dealings with columnists.

While some of the most prominent columns, such as Rear Window, don’t have outwardly obvious sourcing, you can be sure that everything presented is verified to the fullest extent possible. “We’ll get the tip, and we’ll check every one of them, and read every document, and see if it stands up … if anything is misrepresented, I very heavily discount that source from then on,” Myriam noted.

  1. How and when to pitch

Our three columnists presented a fairly similar picture of their days: an early morning filled with catching up on the news and taking care of what came in overnight. The middle of the day, filled with generating ideas and hunting down leads. And then the afternoon and evening, when the column comes to life.

So when should you get your pitch in? That middle of the day time period works best in their view. After 10am, and before 2pm, that’s when your odds are the best. A to-the-point email containing all the necessary details was the preference for Myriam and Alan, while John prefers a phone call. 

If you’ve got something specific to discuss, scheduling a phone call via email is never a bad idea, says Alan Kohler.

  1. Coffee or dinner, not lunch

As you might be realising by now, the days are very busy for marquee columnists, which raises the question: when’s the time to take them to lunch, and make your big pitch?

The answer is to skip lunch, and make it dinner. By that time, the column is filed and the day is done, and you can be assured of a more attentive dinner guest than you’d get at lunch. For smaller things, though, such as an introduction to an incoming CEO a coffee usually works best. 

  1. Exclusivity is expected

High-profile columnists are expected to have unique and valuable insights, so bear that in mind when pitching. 

For Myriam at Rear Window, exclusivity is a necessity. “Sometimes I’ll get a really great tip on a Friday, then on the Saturday it’ll be in the Weekend Australian and the source is upset as to why I didn’t run it … I’m sorry, but it’s not what we do, we want everything to be really fresh,” said Myriam.

“The imperative for all of us is to come up with an interesting column,” said Alan. “Sometimes that’s a reaction to a big piece of news, but hopefully it’s something nobody has thought of or heard of.”

When discussing the ‘unforgivable sins’ of pitching, Alan mentioned that form letters, lacking any personalisation, are one. As mentioned above, make sure you’re tailoring your outreach for the columnist you’re pitching, including an offer of exclusivity, if you can make it in good faith.

  1. The media release is not dead yet

While columnists are always on the lookout for exclusive material or angles, they still appreciate getting your major media releases, which they can rely on for the key facts. 

“Media releases are very important,” says John. “I’d much prefer to talk to people, but you still need the basic facts on hand and media releases are a very good way of doing that.”

Alan agreed, and said a media release archive online is also very useful for columnists looking for background information. 

  1. Understand the rules of backgrounding

All three columnists agreed that being given information on background was vital to the work of a columnist, and all three of them were broadly in agreement on what the rules of engagement are.

‘On background’, ‘off the record’, or whatever phrase you use, it’s all treated the same: not to be directly quoted and attributed to the person saying it, but fair game for publication.

If you do want to tell a journalist something and not see it printed at all, be sure to explicitly say that. Although Myriam was upfront at questioning the motives of people doing that in the first place. 

  1. Connecting your pitch to a broader theme increases its effectiveness

Alan made the point that columns written about broad topics tend to do better with online audiences than columns about one company, so it pays dividends to find a way to connect your pitch to a broader theme or topic, both to increase the appeal of your pitch, and to increase the potential audience of a column.

It’s also worth paying attention to angles of your pitch that might emerge down the track. Myriam mentioned that sometimes, a story is more interesting after the front pages have moved on, so if your pitch evolves in a unique and engaging way, it may have a life beyond its first outing.

“I often quite like letting the herd move on, as there’s often a lot of news written in the 24-48 hours after it breaks, but often people who know a bit about the story, after they’ve dealt with all that media, will think ‘there was something no one picked up on’, and that can be interesting,” she said.

  1. You can’t argue opinions

More often than not, when you’re pitching a columnist, you’re pitching to an opinion writer. Their job is to present their opinions on the topic they’re writing about, distinct from the role of a journalist, who is tasked with reporting the news.

All three columnists agreed that they would correct factual, material errors as a matter of urgency, but when it comes to changing their opinion, it’s a different story. Make your case, make it convincing, and explain to them why they should change their view.

And if you’ve got an issue with something they’ve written, go straight to them. No matter if you go to their editor, or the paper’s editor, it’ll ultimately be up to the columnist to reply.

*quotes lightly edited for readability.

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