JOURNALIST SPILLS THE BEANS: THE DO'S AND DON'TS OF REPLYING TO A CALL OUT

06 September 2021 Bec Derrington

Sharon Green is the founding editor of SHE DEFINED, an online lifestyle publication for women. Prior to starting SHE DEFINED, Sharon worked in journalist and editor roles at mainstream media outlets in both Australia and the UK.

As a regular user of SourceBottle, Sharon shares her advice on what makes a good response to a call out, as well as some tips for pitching to niche publications. Here’s what she has to say:

What do you look for in a response to a call out posted on SourceBottle?

I look for a response that meets my brief and answers specific questions I outlined in my call out. It sounds obvious but you’d be surprised how often journalists receive generic responses that don’t even remotely address what we’re looking for. 

"...meets my brief and answers specific questions I outlined in my call out."

I am quite explicit in my call outs – I indicate the type of experts I am looking to interview, and I usually include a list of questions I want responses to, so it’s very easy for me to weed out irrelevant responses when they come in. 

While I appreciate that some people might be responding to try their luck, journalists are often crafting their call outs with a specific story in mind or a very specific angle within a story that needs to be fulfilled so it’s best to match that as closely as possible. 

For example, receiving pitches from a range of coaches that can comment on "any issues relating to women", when what I really need is a clinical psychologist who can share insights into the mental health impacts of burnout in women, isn’t going to compare.

If someone has taken the time to respond to the questions I’ve outlined in my call out in a detailed manner, that is always a winner for me. Journalists are time-poor and under constant pressure to meet deadlines, so receiving detailed responses not only makes our job easier but saves us a lot of time. I then might only need to a quick follow-up call to clarify a few details. That’s the most effective way to secure an interview, in my opinion. 

"If someone has taken the time to respond to the questions I’ve outlined in my call out in a detailed manner, that is always a winner for me." 
It is also far more favourable if the person responding to the call out is willing to use their full name in the story and can provide a hi-res image of themselves for use in the story. 

In a nutshell: Provide a response that specifically addresses the call out, answer questions supplied in the brief, and provide your full name and a hi-res image for use in the story.

Which responses do you delete (immediately) or ignore?

I usually delete the responses that are too vague and haven’t gone to any trouble to address my call out. 

These are normally the one-line responses that say something like “I have an expert available for you to interview” but then they don’t include any information about who that expert is or how they might be relevant for my story. 

"I usually delete the responses that are too vague and haven’t gone to any trouble to address my call out."

Other vague or low-effort responses that go straight to the bin include ones where they simply attach a generic press release but there is no context in how that information or expert might be positioned for my particular story.

I don’t mind that people send press releases for background information, but at least include a response that speaks to the call out.

What does a ‘perfect’ response look like?

A perfect pitch is one that is tailored to the brief.

I can always tell when a business owner or public relations professional has taken the time to tailor their response to the call out. 

"A perfect pitch is one that is tailored to the brief."

A tailored pitch not only specifically addresses any questions I have outlined in the brief, it would also put forward a case study or expert with context around how they are relevant to my story. 

"...not only specifically addresses any questions I have outlined in the brief, it would also put forward a case study or expert with context around how they are relevant..."

For example, if I am looking for a fashion stylist who can share practical tips on how women can dress when working from home, I would expect a perfect response to come from a stylist that has experience working with women as a personal stylist, or a stylist who has experience with professional working women.

If they can answer a set of questions included in my brief as well, then that’s pretty perfect. The pitch also needs to get to the point quickly.

I don’t want to wade through 300 words about your life journey before I discover that you’re the kind of expert that is relevant for my story.

What must be included in a response?

It absolutely must be relevant. 

I’d rather you take a little more time to tailor your pitch than send off a rushed response that doesn’t address what we’re looking for. 

"I’d rather you take a little more time to tailor your pitch than send off a rushed response..."

At SHE DEFINED, we typically work on lengthy features with generous lead times, so we aren’t necessarily looking for the fastest responses. In our case, it’s quality over speed. 

"Responses also need to include the person’s full name, location...a contact phone number is also helpful."

Responses also need to include the person’s full name, location, and at least one image like a headshot to include in the story. A contact phone number is also helpful, in the event we need to do a quick follow-up call or if we want to arrange a phone interview.

How long should a typical response be?

Keeping your pitch concise but relevant is ideal. 

Usually this will look like a few paragraphs that share details about who you are, your profession or area of expertise, what your background entails, and why you are relevant for my specific story. 

"Keeping your pitch concise but relevant is ideal."

You could then include a few more paragraphs to elaborate on your background or your story, or this can be included as an attached press release. Try to make your story compelling and share something interesting about who you are, rather than a sales pitch for your products or services. 

"...share something interesting about who you are, rather than a sales pitch for your products or services. 

If you find a great source via a response to a call out, do you keep their details on file for future media opportunities?

Absolutely! 

I have found many experts via SourceBottle that I have gone back to several times for different stories. This is usually because I am writing a lot about a particular area and need a specific expert that can speak to that subject, or because the person was lovely and cooperative to deal with and I know they’d be willing to help out with future stories. 

"I have found many experts via SourceBottle that I have gone back to several times for different stories."

This is why I bang on about tailoring your pitch – you may have to spend a bit of extra time initially adapting and customising your response, but that effort could pay off tenfold if the journalist adds you to their contact book and comes back to you directly for future stories.

Should respondents include attachments?

Yes. 

I find this to be quite helpful, especially if the attachments elaborate on the initial pitch. This could be a press release to detail background information about your business, or responses to a set of questions included in the original call out. But keep it to one or two pages – anything more than that and I am unlikely to use it. 

"I find this to be quite helpful, especially if the attachments elaborate on the initial pitch."

And definitely include attachments of images, in high resolution. It’s good to get a couple of image options, such as a headshot in landscape and portrait orientation, so we have options for different layouts.

Are you interested in press releases being attached, ever?

Yes, but think of your press release as supporting information rather than something that stands on its own.

What’s your advice for pitching to niche publications?

For a niche publication like SHE DEFINED, which predominately caters to an audience of women, it’s important to ensure that your pitch is relevant for the publication. 

"...it’s important to ensure that your pitch is relevant for the publication."

In most cases, we want to hear from female experts on women-centric topics, so don’t put forward a male expert who specialises in something specific to men. For example, if we’re working on a story on women’s health, I’m much more likely to accept a pitch from a female doctor with experience in women’s health than a male doctor who can speak generally about health issues. 

"...if we’re working on a story on women’s health, I’m much more likely to accept a pitch from a female doctor with experience in women’s health than a male doctor..."

If you’re pitching more broadly, rather than responding to a specific call out, take the time to review the publication before submitting your pitch.

Really scrutinise the kinds of stories they run, the types of experts they typically include in their stories, and do a search to see if the publication has run a similar story to what you are pitching as a guide for what’s acceptable.

(I know it sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how often SHE DEFINED receives pitches for Father’s Day or to review men’s grooming products, and that’s simply not going to work for us as a women’s publication!) 

"Really scrutinise the kinds of stories they run, the types of experts they typically include in their stories..."

Lastly, if you can pitch a story to a specific section of the publication or as a suggestion for a regular column, that will really show you’ve done your homework and given consideration to where your story might fit within the publication.

I don’t receive these suggestions often, but when I do they really grab my attention

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