by Nina Starner
You never know how the other half lives until you rummage through their inboxes.
The thought occurred to me as I wondered why a perfect editorial query — great subject line, counterintuitive angle, timely — was floating in the ether, unnoticed, unappreciated…unloved.
But I should know better. I’ve spent a lot of my time on the other side as an editor receiving these queries. And most of that time has been spent flicking them aside. Some were worthy of a glance — the subject caught my eye at just that time — but most were summarily dispatched to the trash bin. That’s just the way it is (sorry, PR folks!).
In principle, reporters, bloggers and pr pros work toward the same purpose: find great, or, at least, interesting stories and expert or eye-witnesses to bring them to life. But the relationship also has an inherent adversarial aspect: reporters are by training if not by inclination, wary of anything anyone has to “sell”…while the pr person vies for a moment of attention, knowing there are too many of them with stories to tell and far too few reporters with the time or interest in hearing them.
For readers unaware of what a query is, it’s really another word for “pitch.” It’s typically a concise description of an idea for an article and why it’s timely, usually concluding with an offer to make subjects (your client) available for interviews. Queries can be proactively sent to reporters covering relevant beats, to an editor for consideration in a planned feature article, or sent in response to a reporter on deadline seeking story sources. Public relations is tied to news cycles and editorial schedules — when a reporter reaches out on deadline you need to respond immediately with a cogent, timely query. Queries are actually the main currency in PR — they’re a combination of a legal brief and 30 second TV commercial. If you’re faster and more clever, if you have a client with something fresh to contribute, if you can pack a lot of information in a short space, you have a good chance to be successful.
My experience on the other side of the transaction has given me realistic expectations, but it’s also enabled me to set the bar for every query I write — sort of a WWND (What Would Nina Do) if this hit my inbox: would I actually stop and read this?
Speaking from experience, editors aren’t completely jaded or unwelcoming — they’re always on the lookout for a brilliant hook. Something that leaps out because it was unexpected, provocative, funny. The lede grabs you, it hits you with a stat or trend you never imagined and all of a sudden you’re not just reading to the end (egads!), but wanting to see where it’s headed… you want to see the story!
I never gave much thought to what could make a query really “grab” someone until I started working in PR, but it’s something I’m constantly thinking about — looking for that elusive turn of phrase, the counterintuitive angle into the story, how to connect something in the news with something a client of ours can insightfully speak to.
I’d like to offer some handy tips or suggest there’s a “science” to writing queries that cut through the noise. But apart from the obvious — be quick, compelling and timely — there’s no real formula. I believe it comes down to the thing that reporters and pr people (good ones, at least) do have in common — an instinct for “news”: the ability to know, just know what is and what isn’t topical and newsworthy…and to frame your query accordingly.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to refresh my inbox…someone must respond to this query!
Nina Starner is an account executive with BackBone, Inc. For more, visit www.backboneinc.com.