A Freedom of Information request constructed out of uniform questions with measurable answers can build content that earns press coverage on a large scale, both geographically and across the various news topics it can cover.
The Freedom of Information Act enables any member of the public to uncover information that otherwise may not have been released to the public.
The law applies to more than 100,000 public bodies in the United Kingdom, meaning there are lots of stories out there to be told by using the law to access data.
In this post I’ll talk through various aspects of using the UK’s Freedom of Information Act as part of a content and outreach strategy that is built for earning links via press coverage, including:
What the FOI Act is
Where to find inspiration for stories
Tips on requesting the right information
Some pitfalls to avoid
1. What is the Freedom of Information Act?
Introduced in the UK in 2000, it is the right to know information about publicly owned organisations. The Act places two main responsibilities on those public authorities: a) to confirm whether they hold information, and b) to disclose that information to the person who asked for it.
Some bodies that you might expect to be covered by the Act are exempt. These include housing associations for the most part, security bodies such as MI5, and the royal family – so you won’t be able to find out how much of the taxpayer’s money the queen spends on her breakfast anytime soon.
Despite their public status, it’s also tricky to obtain anything especially useful from the BBC, as most of their interesting data seems to be protected internally “for the purposes of journalism, art or literature”.
The FOI Act also committed public authorities to regular publication schemes, meaning organisations now publish information much more proactively than they did before. This may not seem as valuable as asking for exclusive information yourself, but it’s surprising how much useful data these publications can already provide, without having to send a request. Take a look at the UK Police Force’s open data portal, for example, and you’ll already find crime data regularly published at a constabulary level.
2. Where to find inspiration for stories
If you send a quick general enquiry email to the first public organisation that you can think of, you might be disappointed to find that your request was rejected after waiting 20 working days for a response. Take a look at some of the below recommendations, which will provide inspiration for potential stories, and possibly be able to tell you if the information you seek is available at all.
Some organisations, such as the Office for National Statistics, will publish FOI requests that were made to them and responded to directly on their website. For those that don’t, WhatDoTheyKnow is the most useful way of accessing previous requests made to UK organisations.
Study examples that did and didn’t work by filtering your search by ‘successful’ or ‘unsuccessful’ requests. Doing so will potentially save you a lot of time with having to clarify your FOI request further down the line.
Another useful feature that was recently rolled out on this platform allows users to add any examples of their request being used in a news story as a citation. Look out for these citations, as they can help to inform your outreach strategy to a greater extent by seeing how certain FOI requests convert into news headlines.
WhatDoTheyKnow also allows you to make requests through their platform and includes a guide for beginners on how to request information. Requests can also be made through your own company email address or private email address.
Google News search: “Freedom of information”
When seeking inspiration for stories, sometimes a simple Google search can be just as useful as pouring through the specifics of WhatDoTheyKnow. Type in “freedom of information” and browse through the many ways in which UK and international journalists are utilising the law to produce public interest news stories.
Taking the time to read these articles from top to bottom will also show how many metrics journalists may report on for a particular type of story, as well as showing the kinds of spokespeople you can seek out within that sector to comment on your findings later on.
Doing this also presents the potential to scale up an interesting local story into something national that can be compared across different parts of the country. Did the Manchester Evening News publish their own FOI-led story about car parking fines? There’s a good chance that if it makes headlines in Manchester, a similar piece will make headlines elsewhere too.
The organisation’s website
If you have an organisation in mind, but you’re not sure whether they hold the information you want, take the time to browse through its website; specifically their services, publications and type of user data they retrieve. By the time you’ve read through these sections you will have a much better idea of what data you could ask for, and how this could convert into an idea for a story.
For example, OFCOM are one organisation covered by the Freedom of Information Act, and if you didn’t know what they do already, it doesn’t take long to see from their website that you can access data about public complaints related to TV, radio and other UK broadcasting services.
The BBC Shared Data Unit
The BBC Shared Data Unit is a nationwide partnership between the BBC and News Media Association that previously won ‘Editorial Innovation of the Year’ at The Drum Online Media Awards. It is dedicated to sharpening the data skills of journalists in local newsrooms around the UK and producing stories that work at scale for various regional and local titles.
Much of their data work is sourced from FOI requests, and, similar to how Digital PR campaigns aim to include angles that appeal to as many newspapers as possible, the Shared Data Unit is an excellent example of how to produce a story that resonates throughout the UK by picking out the angles from a larger dataset to make them work for local readerships. Here is one of my favourite examples of theirs:
A story that found British football matches were being heavily over-policed at a significant financial cost to the taxpayer. The journalists behind this story compared information that they requested of police constabularies around the country with match attendance data from Opta, allowing them to rank ‘number of fans per officer’. It went on to generate 18 unique pieces of coverage in different newspapers within six days – not bad, considering Digital PR isn’t their game!
Like all good data storytelling, the Shared Data Unit is transparent with its methodologies and data. I would recommend reading through these if you’re just starting out on a larger FOI project for the first time, to see how they go about their process, from research and data interpretation, right through to execution and coverage.
3. Tips on requesting information
Think like a: marketer investigative journalist curious citizen
Understanding what kind of information you can obtain doesn’t mean that you need to be an expert in coming up with ideas for data-led stories. Neither does it mean that you have to be wearing a Pulitzer prize-winning cap in the hope of exposing the next great national scandal.
Some of the most effective FOI-led stories ask straightforward questions that the average citizen would be concerned with knowing and reading about, and which the person managing your request can easily interpret to collect data from their organisation.
Simplicity with this in mind is important. While it’s noble to try to expose a brand new category of information from a public organisation that hasn’t been released before, the time constraints of your campaign’s production may risk leading you to spend more time contesting complicated and unsuccessful requests with the Information Commissioner’s Officer (ICO) instead of gathering straightforward, consistent data.
If you’ve already committed to the sign-off and kick-off of your idea without sending any test requests, then general enquiries or ‘fishing’ for information that you’re unsure is held shouldn’t be making up the crux of your FOI request at this point.
Including a speculative question alongside a set of questions that you know will be answered would at least guarantee that the majority of your request will be fruitful.
Whereas tentatively fishing for unknown types of information and expecting completely useable answers can easily end in wasted time and resources on your side and on the organisation’s side. More on this further down in the ‘potential pitfalls’.
Scale it geographically
Typically, FOI-led stories about UK organisations are less likely to appeal to non-UK journalists or publications.
You need to consider how many organisations need to be contacted in order to produce a comprehensive story, and whether the work you put in will even deliver a large enough pool of outreach prospects.
Taking your FOI requests global (i.e. contacting organisations outside of the UK) will add a new layer of complexity to your research, which I won’t cover in this post. For more information on how you can work with FOI laws in other countries, click here.
A campaign we produced for Admiral in 2019 and 2021 looked at the scale of the empty homes crisis in Britain, and provided us with perhaps the most granular list of UK-based outreach prospects that we could hope for.
The housing crisis, of which empty homes are a symptom, is engulfing the whole country. Therefore it was necessary to ask every British council for the same information in order to be able to compare the luxury districts of London and holiday home hotspots of Cornwall to other parts of Britain.
You don’t necessarily need to contact every council for every idea that considers information from them. This campaign produced by CompareMyMove looked at where in the UK registered the most noise complaints, and decided to focus on the most populated towns and cities. For an idea that ranked noise, focussing on places where a lot of people live made sense and didn’t necessarily require more rural (and typically quieter) districts to be considered.
You will find some organisations only have one central contact that stores all of its localised data, which means you would only need to ask for the same data once and specify that it should be broken down locally.
Some of the coverage from our Testing Times campaign for GoCompare leaned on an FOI response to our question on ‘multiple testers’ (i.e. those who need 5 or more attempts to pass), as well as open data from the Dept. for Transport and a survey that revealed demographic and geographic breakdowns of claims and convictions.
To reveal the hardest test centres for passing a driving test, the DVLA (Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency) held this information centrally, meaning we obtained all of the local data we needed from a single FOI request.
Scale it with data points
A common method in campaigns built for link building and digital PR is to rank different metrics related to locations that are covered by news publishers. This presents the opportunity to outreach to those publishers and acknowledge that their locality ranks particularly high or low on certain measures.
While an FOI-led analysis that compares different locations on certain measures will still reveal the highest and lowest ranks in the same way, you can also build out a comprehensive story that works for all of the locations that you are including in your dataset by considering ‘the state of play’ in those areas.
For example, the TV Tribulations campaign that we created for Buzz Bingo analysed complaints made to OFCOM and revealed which parts of the UK complain about television shows the most.
Even newspapers based in locations that didn’t rank highly on a national level were able to cover the campaign as we were able to provide data on their 10 most complained-about TV shows, plus how many complaints were made by that area over a given time period. It didn’t matter whether or not they were the highest ranking in the UK.
And in terms of outreach prospects, the data points were able to be split in a way that appealed to different sectors as well as different regions. Digging into the raw data of our TV complaints allowed us to reveal ‘the most complained-about radio show’ as well as ‘the most complained-about sports teams’.
Once you’re confident that your data is available, you can ask a number of related questions that will make for a more comprehensive dataset, and which may include outliers that wouldn’t have been discovered by only asking one broad question.
For example, depending on how sensitive the information is, you may be able to ask for more specific street-level figures rather than just a figure for an entire local authority, as we did in this GoCompare campaign called Speed Offences. This told us which roads record the most speeding offences per year (locally and nationally). Again, doing this creates an interesting story to be told for every locality, not just the outliers.
Other angles we built into this campaign included: the highest speeding offences recorded and the worst months for speeding, simply by asking for specific breakdowns.
4. Potential pitfalls
Check for ambiguity
Accurate language is essential when crafting an FOI request.
If your request isn’t clear, it can be the difference between receiving the information you need in 40 working days rather than 20 days (after you’ve had to provide a clarification), or never.
If your request is misinterpreted and you receive the wrong kind of data, it may well be unusable and require a second request anyway.
Word the request exactly how you want the information to be delivered to you.
Describe how it should be measured, what period of time you would like it to be for, and how that time period should be split (daily, monthly, yearly?).
Oh, and specify the format. The last thing you need when compiling your responses are more than 400 councils replying with PDFs and Word Docs of data.
Consider the cost and limitations
This might seem slightly contradictory to what I mentioned about scaling up the number of angles you want to include, but you should consider the limitations of the FOI Act.
The cost limit of a request is £600 (equivalent to 24 hours of work) from a central government department, and £450 from local authorities (equivalent to 18 hours of work).
If your request is estimated by the organisation to exceed what is known as the “appropriate limit”, certain sections of the request will be refused. If your request consists of one or two questions that demand substantial work, the request may be refused outright.
If you know the data you are asking for is recorded by them, or better yet, you have done your research and seen evidence of it being published already, then the work involved in retrieving the data should fall within the cost limit.
There are more exemptions that apply to the Act, which you can read about here.
Plan ahead by sending a tester email
An FOI-led campaign can be quite a time commitment. Planning further ahead by sending an email to an organisation that asks if they have the information available is a useful step for if you want to uncover a more unique story that hasn’t been published before, but which you suspect is available from them.
Taking a longer term approach to this method of research will also give you an idea of how reliable certain organisations are in responding on time. Regardless of how much you do test in advance, a 100% response rate is unlikely to arrive within the 20-working day period that it’s supposed to.
The example below from the ICO shows that between October 2018 and September 2020, Northamptonshire Police only managed to answer a maximum of 66% of their requests on time in a single calendar month.
Sending testers further ahead would also help for you to gauge whether the information you seek is consistently measured by similar organisations. An email to a handful of universities, for example, should tell you if they record certain data on their students in the same way, before you embark on a full investigation.
Be proactive in monitoring your responses
You’re probably blessed with more research time than the average online journalist, who is busy producing upwards of eight or more articles per day. This means that your FOI-led story could be something they wouldn’t have had the capacity to produce themselves.
Equally, you’re almost certainly not blessed with as much time and autonomy as an investigative journalist, who can press the ICO for months until they receive their satisfactory response, and it’s important to remember this during the process.
Say you’ve embarked on a round-robin FOI request, and contacted all 130 UK Universities in the UK. There’s a reasonably high chance that at least a handful of them will misinterpret your request, seek clarification, or respond beyond the 20-working day timeframe — in this case, you’d be relying on at least 130 different people to get back to you with the same information in the same format.
In the interests of deadlines, sometimes you have to cut your losses on the information that didn’t arrive. At the same time, you need to closely monitor the story that is accumulating in front of you, and decide whether there is a story there at all.
Generally speaking, a two-thirds rule of responses with consistent data would be adequate for producing an analysis of UK Universities, with clarification of how many didn’t respond, but it really does depend on what you’re comparing and what the sample size of organisations is. The data that is missing could well be more valuable in constructing a story than the data that you did receive.
Seek comments and anticipate a PR response
By its very definition, the data that you’re dealing with is authoritative and within the public interest, so don”t be surprised when organisations and public figures acknowledge it and often respond to it when it concerns them. Below is one notable recent example…
But responses are often concerned with more serious topics of public interest, such as when our empty homes valuation was quoted by a local property agent when commenting on Aberdeen’s local housing issues.
Since releasing FOI-led stories and following the news coverage they receive, we’ve dealt with phone calls from a number of press offices, including NHS Trusts, councils and cultural institutions, all of whom have wanted to find out more about the data they originally sent to us.
If the main headlines that emerge from your data can be attributed to an individual or a small number of organisations, then it’s worth reaching out to them to comment. Even though a journalist will typically contact the public organisations to comment before publishing their story, doing this yourself adds valuable context and commentary to your research.
Why is your brand doing this?
This is a question that should be asked of any potential idea that is going to be published and outreached for your clients.
In the case of FOI requests, as soon as you produce content that is built on information from public bodies and take those stories to the press, the brand you’re outreaching for is influencing the reputation of other people and organisations.
Some topics may seem relevant enough to approach from a storytelling perspective in order to earn coverage for a client, but public data is sensitive and often gets politicised.
The client that you work with should be made aware of potential backlashes to an FOI-led story before an idea is deemed appropriate for them.
At the ideation stage, think like a journalist would and try to figure out how you could reach a headline or story that would evoke certain emotions such as shock, anger, sadness, happiness, or outrage.
Your subject line really is absolutely key as it is the only factor that will decide whether a journalist would open your email or not.
Don’t do a click-bait headline. Journalists see through it and will delete it ASAP.
Be specific. ‘Manchester is the most popular city for shopping’ rather than ‘The 10 best cities for shopping in the UK’. Journalists want to know immediately what the story is.
Front-load keywords in your subject line – the most important keywords at the front.
When prospecting and refining your pitch, check recent articles by the journalist and see when they were published to gauge when to send your pitch. Journalists work shifts, so 8am Monday-Friday might not be the only pitching-time option.
Speakers: Laura D’Amato, Surena Chande, Jon Buchan, Chris Czermak, Sarah Fleming, Jasmine Granton, Louise Parker, Laura Wilson.
When going out with a reactive piece of content, always get a second pair of eyes (preferably the client) beforehand.
Having a diverse set of skills and experiences on your team is great for coming up with ideas, for checking campaigns, and for ensuring that what you put out is ethical.
Be honest and believe in your abilities with brands. It will make them trust you a lot more.
The speakers had different opinions about whether you need to put out a campaign or not. At the end of the day, it depends on your or your client’s expectations. As long as this is clearly communicated and that you agree with what you want the results to be, you can choose how to get there.
Verve’s take on it is that big campaigns allow us to reach out to a large panel of journalists with in-depth research and therefore get the attention of top-tier publications. However, we always like to mix this with a more reactive approach to target relevant publications for the client.
As long as your content is relevant and resonates with your target audience, the format is not the most important.
Your content needs to be suitable for social media too as it’s a big part of journalists’ KPIs.
Diversity and Inclusion in Marketing, One Year On – Why Has Nothing Changed?
Speaker: Azeem Ahmad, Digital Marketing Lead at Azeem Digital
Companies should ensure every leadership bonus is tied to D&I initiatives – if POC/women aren’t being paid fairly, neither should the leadership.
Start to measure and publicly release detailed yearly diversity data.
Introduce wage equity schemes to ensure women and POC are being paid on par with white counterparts.
Looking back at 2020:
8% average POC speaking representative at selected conferences. All were men.
6 in 10 believed their identity or ethnic background has affected their career opportunities.
58% said they were either unsure or disagreed that their workplace actively tried to address the diversity gap between POC/white staff, and 43% believed their organisation doesn’t have an inclusive culture.
2021: Why has nothing changed?
One in six fear they would lose their job if they got terms around race and ethnicity wrong, while 30% felt it would lead to disciplinaries.
Workers are more confident talking about death (38%) than race and ethnicity (29%) in the workplace.
Make sure it has different angles to go out with, to different journalists, different publications, and fits different niches. Don’t limit what you can achieve with your campaign.
Have on hand a rich variety of different assets: data, visuals, case studies, expert comments, and (if it’s relevant for them to provide them) client comments.
Writing a press release…
Personalise your pitch to the journalist. Use their name. Is it really relevant to them? Have they written about this subject before? What do they normally feature in the way of assets or case studies?
Cater what you include in your email according to what the publication typically covers. National newspapers tend to like gender breakdowns in data. Niche industry publications will want to talk about data relevant to the industry.
Use a subject line relevant to that publication and make sure it is effective. There are lots of tools out there that can analyse and score your subject line on its effectiveness. Try things out and experiment to see what works best.
Write according to the language and tone you see in the target publication: for example, do they write in a sensationalist tone or more factual?
Brief press releases are better for bigger publications. They are busier and the brief needs to be more to the point. Include all the key information that they need. Detailed press releases are better for niche publications. Detailed releases will be really relevant to them so they can have lots of detail.
Big national newspapers like case studies as it provides a first-hand experience of the subject in your release. Consider focusing your pitch around this case study if it’s strong enough. Otherwise, you can just mention that you have one on hand.
Including expert commentary – whether external or client – makes a journalist’s job easier. They won’t have to search it out themselves if they need it.
The more you provide, the less a journalist has to do. It’s easier for them to take all your assets and get a story live if they don’t have to keep referring back to you.
Great accessibility is also great UX. Great UX has long-term SEO benefits for your brand and builds brand loyalty. If your website is accessible to everyone, it makes sense that more people will come back to use it and recommend it.
There are various kinds of disabilities you need to be aware of when building your website. These include not only sensory, cognitive, or motor, but situational, temporary, and socioeconomic. A temporary disability might be that you’re in a space where you can’t listen to a video out loud and need subtitles. Temporary includes carpal tunnel syndrome or a concussion. Socio-economic disabilities might include poor wifi, which impacts load speed and limits what a user can access.
There are different things you need to consider to make your website more accessible. The main ones highlighted in this talk are: improving your site’s colour contrast; making images accessible (e.g. with alt text); ensuring accessible navigation (e.g. making your website conveniently accessible with just a keyboard); and using the right tone of voice (e.g. using plain English).
There are free tools available online to assess your website’s current accessibility and help you to improve it. One example is WebAIM’s contrast checker.
In the UK alone, £17.1 billion is lost every year due to inaccessible websites. You are also legally obliged to make your website accessible.
How to devise a content strategy following a content audit
Speaker: Jess Peace, Senior Content Producer at NeoMam Studios
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to content marketing, particularly where your target audience is concerned. Your business goals should highlight areas of focus, which will help to set your content strategy’s priorities.
Before trying to define what content you want to create, first define the audience that it is for. This will help to make the content more relevant and valuable for them, and increase the likelihood of greater engagement and more conversions. To do this, ask questions like: Who do you want to reach? Are you looking to expand your audience or target a new one? What does your audience care about?
Try applying the ‘snog-marry-avoid’ framework when combing through existing pages during a content audit. It can be defined like this:
Snog: content that works well in meeting KPIs but could be working harder Marry: content that works really well in meeting your KPIs and is a prime example of the kind of content that you should be creating more of Avoid: content that doesn’t really hold any benefit, for example, it drives no traffic, has low engagement and/or is outdated
The importance of consumption for creativity: we work in an inspiring industry full of creative case studies, but also pay attention to what’s outside of the industry, and outside of your realms of interest in the form of blogs, podcasts, artwork, newsletters, TikTok, inspiring people, Reddit, etc.
When your only goal is earning links, it can be easy to forget about core PR values, like looking after your client’s brand.
At the ideation stage…
Make sure you have a tight methodology and strong data:
In an age where consumer trust in the media is low, we owe it to the public to provide the correct information.
Weak and untrustworthy data will negatively impact your relationship with journalists.
It upholds certain digital PR standards. It’s not ethical or good for the industry as a whole to provide false data.
Consider the ethical implications and ask yourself:
Could the campaign be harmful, e.g. add to harmful stereotypes or upset a group of people?
Are there opportunities for a journalist to take your story and turn it into something harmful? Is it harming a conversation taking place in culture and could it take the media’s attention away from more important conversations in that space?
Is it inclusive? Are the designs thoughtful and inclusive as well? Not only does inclusive design reflect well on the brand and include more people in its audience, but gives us some power in the media to enact real change in representation.
Think about brand guardianship, too:
Be honest with your client. They need to be aware of their limitations when it comes to the type of content they can put out. A campaign can’t be hypocritical. Where are they an authority and where are they not?
You’ve been trusted with their brand. Think about how you communicate with journalists on their behalf and prevent any backlash or negative attention.
Interested in our content marketing and digital PR services? Get in touch.
8 reasons you should be sending follow-up outreach emails
To follow up or not to follow up? That is the question. But it’s an easy one to answer – yes, absolutely. And here’s why.
I am a firm believer in the efficiency of follow-up emails and will use this blog post to convince you to become a fellow believer – a foleiver if you will. I’ll give you eight reasons why I think sending chaser emails is worth your time. These are entirely empirical and based on my (and some of my teammates’) personal experience.
Why someone might try to convince you not to follow up (and why you should ignore them)
First, let’s tackle arguments against follow-ups that you might stumble across, which could lead you to believe they are a waste of time.
The simplest argument to accept is that follow-ups are annoying and pushy. To a certain extent, they are.
As PRs, we’re constantly reminded of how inundated a journalist’s inbox is with press releases and pitches from nagging PRs and as a former journalist, I can definitely relate. But sending pitches and press releases is literally the job of a PR, and follow-ups are not annoying for the grateful journalist who ends up using the story.
However, there are a select few who don’t like follow-ups, and these journalists will normally not be shy about letting you know. If you do come across someone expressing they don’t want to receive follow-ups, take note of it and do as they ask. Simples. It’s not worth risking your relationship with them.
Other anti-follow-uppers might suggest that follow-ups are pointless, arguing that if your email didn’t pique the journalist’s interest the first time around, it won’t the second time either. That’s not necessarily true, and you can refer to reasons one to eight (yes, that’s all of them) below for clarification.
Another reason could be that if the journalist is interested, they will write it up or get back to you regardless. In some cases, you could be lucky enough to hit a home run straight away if your headline and pitch is strong or you targeted a journalist who would be more likely to cover the topic, but by not following up to all those other journalists, you are massively missing out on untapped potential.
So, as promised, here are all the reasons why you should bother following up on your original pitch.
Why follow-up emails are worth it
Follow-ups lead to more responses
Fact. In my experience, journalists are much more likely to respond to me in my follow-up email than in my initial one. In a sample of 600 emails I sent recently, I received a response for 20 of them when following up. Now, this might not sound like a lot, but it’s 20 responses I wouldn’t have had if I didn’t chase.
Admittedly, a few of them were to tell me they are not interested in the story or asked me to please take them off my email list (always a joy) but at least they responded. This gave me an opportunity to evolve the conversation, ask why they weren’t interested, if a different angle might work better, or if someone else in the team would give me better luck.
But crucially, some of these responses, and ultimately some of these follow-ups, lead to coverage – which brings me onto my next point.
Follow-ups lead to more coverage
You might strike gold with your first email and land linked coverage straight away, but that’s no excuse not to send follow-ups and maximise the potential for more linked articles.
Below are six examples of coverage I secured in the past 12 months that came about as a result of me chasing the journalist.
In the above example, the client’s name and research was mentioned in the weekly New York Times DealBook newsletter and associated article. The journalist claimed to have not seen my first email and thanked me for following up.
This was another classic example of the journalist missing my initial email, but a gentle reminder led to the first open, resulting in an excellent piece of coverage that is highly relevant for the client.
Here we have the example of one of the journalists I chased not being interested in the story, but then forwarding it onto someone else in his team who he thought might find it worth covering. That journalist then got back in touch asking for more information, resulting in this juicy piece of coverage.
Getting links for a travel client in the peak of the pandemic in the UK was a struggle to say the least, so this coverage actually took two follow-ups to get through. Proof that being ‘pushy and annoying’ (or simply being persistent) can pay off.
The final example is to demonstrate how contacting a journalist on the wrong day can have a huge impact on the potential for coverage. I initially reached out to the writer on a Friday – yes, I know this isn’t the ideal day to pitch – and my email slipped through the cracks. But when I followed up the following Tuesday, he was thankful that I had reminded him about it and he ended up covering it.
Largely what the above examples demonstrate is that without following up, a journalist can easily forget about you and your story from the first round of pitching…
Follow-ups remind journalists that you (and the story) exist
Because journalists receive such an overwhelming amount of email pitches on a daily basis, standing out with your subject line just one time isn’t enough. The journalist might not bother reading it, miss it as they skim read hundreds of headlines, forget about it, or – worst of all – delete it.
A gentle nudge will not only put the email to the top of their inbox, but maximise the subject line’s exposure, potentially igniting something in the journalist’s subconscious that can result in coverage.
Follow-ups offer an opportunity to be more casual and friendly
A follow-up email can prove to the journalist that you’re an actual human being with resources. To emphasise this point, follow-ups are a great opportunity to be more friendly and casual than you were in your initial, formal pitch.
There’s no need to overdo it as you can still be approachable and precise at the same time. A simple ‘in case you missed this before the weekend, I’m reminding you of…’ will do the job. Or, if you’re following up with someone who has been out of the office, a simple nod to that such as ‘in case you missed this while catching up with emails after your time off’ will demonstrate that you’re paying attention.
Follow-ups offer an opportunity to learn about what the journalist covers, to receive feedback, or a lead for someone else to contact
In line with my first point of follow-ups leading to more responses, not all responses will be “thanks, I will be covering this”. A lot of the time, it will be “thank you, but I don’t cover this topic”, which at first might seem like a rejection, but is actually a prime opportunity to learn more about what the journalist actually covers. This will be invaluable information to have on hand for future outreach to this journalist.
While rejecting your pitch, the journalist might offer up a better person within their team to contact instead. This is an example of the journalist doing the prospecting for you, handing you an alternative contact on a silver plate – and it would be silly not to take it.
Some journalists also offer feedback on the topic or on your pitching style, both positive and negative. This can be insightful and help you hone your pitching skills and ability to reach your target audience.
Follow-ups offer an opportunity to give the journalist more information
Crucially, a follow-up email offers the opportunity to provide the journalist with additional information, which might sway whether they decide to cover it or not.
All those extra bits of information you chose to leave out in your initial pitch in order to keep it neat and succinct? Now’s the time to pull those out of the bag. This will make your follow-up email different to the original pitch, offering something new to the journalist.
Follow-ups can bypass spam folders
We’re now moving onto more of the ‘tips and tricks’ section of this post. In the Outreach team at Verve, we use an email scheduling programme called BuzzStream, which we find highly efficient and effective. Among many other functions, it allows us to send out a high volume of emails separated into the different publications we’re trying to contact. Crucially, it allows us to track the number of opens the emails we send out gets.
Recently, we’ve recognised a pattern when it comes to opens of automated emails with bigger publications; they’re all opened at the same time. This has led us to believe that the mail operators of the bigger newspapers have spam filters, meaning our emails never end up in the journalist’s inbox, or at the very least ends up in a dedicated spam or junk folder.
Doing manual follow-ups directly from your own mail operator can bypass this. I have examples of journalists from the likes of The Guardian, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, who claim to never have seen my initial email, and I believe them. Tracking the amount of opens the emails have in BuzzStream shows how there is a significant increase in opens after my first follow-up.
Note that it is the manual follow-up that takes the credit here – automated and bulk follow-ups might have the same results in terms of your email being considered spam.
Follow-ups can make journalists believe you’re already having a conversation
Another benefit of doing manual follow-ups directly from your email service is that it ‘tricks’ the journalist into thinking you’re having an ongoing conversation. When journalists see that there is an email trail, they might absentmindedly think you’re replying to an email they sent.
It’s borderline sneaky, and if they’re not interested in covering the topic, it might not lead to anything more. It will, however, likely lead to more exposure for your headline and pitch, which might lead to more coverage.
Hopefully my reasons for following up your pitches have convinced you that it’s worth your while. If you’ve taken the leap, below is a quick guide on how to send a good follow-up email.
Tips on how to follow up
Here are four tips on how to sharpen up your follow-ups.
Follow up manually and don’t bulk send
I’ve already touched on this in point seven and eight above, but I’m reiterating it here as I firmly believe doing follow-ups manually is hugely beneficial. Admittedly, it will take you longer, but I personally feel it is worth it.
Although I use BuzzStream to schedule emails for my initial pitches, I usually never do bulk sends. This is a personal preference as manually sending emails allows me to tweak the headline and intro to fit the journalist and publication better and to ensure I absolutely have the journalist’s name right.
The same principle applies to my approach to manually sending follow-ups; it allows me to be more personal, ensures I’m not following up while someone is out of the office (see more on this in tip four), and ultimately makes me feel more in control of what I’m sending out.
Avoid the word ‘just’
The word ‘just’ is frequently used in conversation, so it’s quick to think that adding it to your follow-up will instantly make it feel more casual. But using ‘just’ actually has the opposite effect as it lessens the importance of your request and undermines your importance as a spokesperson.
It’s as simple as leaving it out at the start of your message. So write “I’m following up to see if this was of interest or if you had any more questions” instead of “I’m just following up to see…”. Although it’s easier said than done as it requires some discipline and getting used to.
But to sum up, just don’t use it. See what I did there?
Stick to a maximum of two follow-ups
As I mentioned right at the beginning, follow-ups can be seen as pushy and annoying and that is just a fact that we as PRs need to come to terms with. But there are ways of minimising this annoyance and one is to limit the amount of follow-ups you send.
As a rule of thumb I usually stick to only one follow-up, but in cases where I strongly believe in the strength of a story, I might feel inclined to do a second one. This was the case when I was outreaching a coronavirus myth-busting asset for our client Babylon Health.
I knew stories about coronavirus were oversaturated during the first wave of the pandemic back in April 2020, so standing out was harder than normal. But I also knew our story of a doctor debunking a range of far-fetched statements about covid would appeal to journalists, so I powered through. My second round of follow-ups led to a linked article in The Mirror.
I also tend to do a second follow-up to journalists who have expressed an interest in the story either by responding to my initial email or who I can see have opened my email a substantial number of times.
To avoid being viewed as exceedingly pushy and annoying, specify in your final follow-up how this is your final one, so they know they won’t be ‘harassed’ any longer.
Keep abreast of OOOs
If you think follow-ups are annoying, imagine how annoying it must be to get a follow-up while you’re still out of the office. Keep track of when journalists you contact are out of the office so you can wait until a couple of days after they get back to follow up with them. Their inbox will be fuller than normal upon their return (making it even harder for your headline to stand out), so allow them to get to grips with all their messages before you bump yours to the top of their inbox.
As mentioned before, referencing how you’ve noticed they’ve been out of the office can be that personal element that convinces them that you’re paying attention. Just be careful not to assume that they’ve been off for strictly positive reasons such as a relaxing holiday, so keep it neutral with something along the lines of “In case this got lost in all your emails when you returned to the office, I’m resending this…”
To sum up, incorporating routine follow-ups into your outreach strategy has plenty of potentially positive outcomes. They lead to more responses, which can also ignite friendly and informative conversations about your topic, and they act as a reminder for the journalist. All of this can ultimately lead to more coverage, begging the question of why you wouldn’t do it. So tell me: are you a foleiver now?
Interested in our content marketing and digital PR services? Get in touch.
6 questions that turn numbers into newsworthy stories
Digital PR campaigns regularly build stories out of statistics, and the questions that we ask of numbers to arrive at those stories are quite consistent.
For this post, I will explore examples of news headlines, coverage for our campaigns and content from elsewhere that can be constructed from asking the following types of questions:
1. What are the highest and lowest values? 2. What’s the grand total? 3. How much or how little has something changed? 4. What’s the proportion? 5. What are the averages? 6. How many are there?
Data is as good as the questions you ask of it
Ideas for data-driven stories often start with asking: ‘what data can I find to answer my question or to create my intended headline?’.
But even once you or your team have sourced and cleaned the data you think you’ll need, you’re unlikely to find a dataset that is ready to outreach to a journalist without also examining all of the potential stories that lurk within it.
In a similar way to how a journalist asks different questions of their sources to gain different sides to a story, why wouldn’t you ‘interview’ the data that you’re working with to consider all of the ways in which you can tell your story?
Whatever your job title (asking questions of data isn’t reserved for data analysts), remembering to explore one dataset from different dimensions can be incredibly useful throughout the process of producing content and earning linked coverage — here are some of the ways in which it applies:
Ideation: the difference between producing a new idea for a campaign from one that already exists can sometimes involve calculating a similar dataset in a different way. The idea that you already have in mind may become even stronger by considering what further steps you need to take to apply a calculation that hasn’t been applied to it before.
Production: before committing to kicking off a campaign’s production, you should have some idea of the type of story that your research is going to produce. However, properly interrogating the data that you work with ensures that no important contextual layers of a story are being missed, and it may even reveal a stronger angle than what you originally set out to find.
Execution: uncovering new trends worth visualising helps to tell a more comprehensive data-driven story. Even if certain trends don’t go on to be your headline statistic, they can supplement your narrative for users of your content and for journalists who are going to write about your findings.
Outreach: applying different calculations to a dataset can diversify the number of angles you have to outreach — more angles generally means more potential for linking opportunities. At the very least, it will provide a journalist with more context around the story that you are telling them.
Not every team follows the exact same creative and outreach process, but the following examples will provide a useful framework for anyone stuck on what to do next in their quest to find stories within numbers.
1. What are the highest and lowest values?
It’s no secret that superlatives make great news stories. The maximum and minimum values in a dataset often translate as being the outliers, or the unusual, or the best and worst of something.
In 2020, two in every five headlines that had been published about Verve Search client campaigns contained one of the words: ‘most’, ‘best, ‘top’, or ‘highest’ — the majority of them referring to the highest rankings in one of our data-driven campaigns.
For example, when we analysed the details behind more than 6 million new business creations on Companies House, we were able to rank and reveal which UK cities and towns were enjoying the biggest boom in new start-ups in 2020.
Ranking the highest and lowest values may often be the final step in a method of producing a story after asking other important questions of data. In the above case, we created a ranking-driven headline after our analysis also counted the number of new businesses registered on Companies House, and measured the year-on-year change in those figures.
These calculations also produced another headline figure by revealing the grand total of how many new businesses were created across every town and city in what was estimated to be a record-breaking year for UK startups forming. Summing together the key sections of data in your sample is another way to make a great headline…
How many times does a headline catch your eye with the size of the number it uses? One reason that the below headline from The Financial Times works is that behind the figure of 4,000 is a story about 4,000 humans who have lost their jobs from a single company during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The human element behind a totalvalue can help to sell it in as a headline figure, but an important consideration is whether its scale can be understood as a standalone number by the average person without needing further context. Although, sometimes, a large, eye-catching figure does do the job of providing a shocking headline before anymore context is given.
A campaign we produced called Influencer Investors analysed the scale of finance misinformation that was circulating among TikTok’s #stocktips from influencers with massive followings.
After mining through videos to calculate how frequently misleading content was appearing on the profiles of popular finance influencers, we also revealed the scale of the issue by summing together the total number of followers (28.4 million) and likes (3.6 million) that the misleading influencers and content had received.
If you can uncover grandtotals to answer questions such as ‘how much something costs’ or ‘how many people were affected’, then you could be revealing a dataset’s most newsworthy statistic.
Even if this kind of figure doesn’t become your headline, it’s important to cite overall sample sizes as part of a transparent methodology. Add up all of the values and show off the scale of your analysis for whichever parts of your data make sense to. Journalists will usually mention this in their story along the lines of:
[Client name] analysed [sample size + metric] to discover [statistic]
Total values can become even more newsworthy when they represent a significant change…
Follow the links for how to calculate sums in spreadsheets through Google Sheets or Excel.
3. How much or how little has something changed?
Change is an essential part of storytelling. When important things change dramatically, or don’t change as expected, they often make the news. In the below investigation by the BBC, revealing howmany students sought mental health support was essential to the overall story, however, the headline focuses on that fact that more students were using mental health services than in previous years.
A campaign we produced called Priced-out Property revealed which locations in the UK and around the world have seen the greatest change in property affordability, based on the growing gap between earnings and property prices over recent years. Using change as our key measure meant we could consider every location with comparable historic data to produce a ranking of both positive and negative changes in affordability.
Another common way of converting change into a story is when a decreasing number is highlighted to indicate a ‘risk of extinction’ headline. This type of story often emerges from the Office For National Statistics’ Most Popular Baby Names dataset.
You may be working with data that isn’t longitudinal (i.e. doesn’t consider different time periods), such as cross-sectional survey results. That doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t suggest a change is taking place in the broader state of things.
A survey-led campaign we produced called Between The Sheets asked Brits numerous questions related to their sexual activity, including what sexuality they identify as. Our insight revealed 24% of 18-24 year olds identified as either homosexual or bisexual.
Although our data only accounted for one point in time, coverage by publications such as Bustle and The Mirror reported on this as an increase in young people identifying as gay or bisexual. They referenced a similar survey that was included in our outreach email from four years prior, which showed the figure was lower at 21%.
As well as calculating change, those headlines also incorporated proportion into their story…
Alongside other calculations, almost every campaign that I have referenced so far has included a proportional angle. Proportions tell you how large or small a number is in its relationship to a whole.
As neatly explained in an excerpt from Content hubble’s Ebook (2020), proportions provided a different perspective to the data in our Movie Mortalitycampaign, which revealed the actors who had been killed the most in their film roles:
“Without considering things proportionally, to some degree, the actor who dies the most will be a factor of who’s been in the most films. In another context, cities like London or New York will always over index for everything due to their financial power and population numbers.”
James Barnes, ‘Content hubble: 31 content campaigns that earned 11,882 links’
A campaign we created called Remake My Day analysed what the best and worst movie remakes were in history. This ranking of remakes according to critic and audience scores revealed little change in appetite for movie reboots, because they were consistently reviewed as worse than their original versions.
Based on the consistently negative reviews of remakes, we asked a broader question: what proportion of all remakes do audiences and critics actually prefer? Just 13% among critics and 9% among audiences was the answer. This angle – also indicated by the cluster of purple dots in our graph above – became the leading statistic that was covered in top tier publications, such as VICE and The Washington Post.
Our methodology for Remake My Day also relied on the movies in our dataset being pre-measured on a weighted average score, according to critic and audience reviews….
Follow the links for how to calculate percentages in spreadsheets through Google Sheets or Excel.
5. What are the averages?
Average occurrences don’t always stop the press, but the average can be used as a benchmark to calculate who or what performs above or below it, or whether the average itself is wayward of what you would expect over a certain period of time. For example, when the average house price in the UK changes significantly, it hits the headlines.
Averages can also be useful for ranking large samples of different data points. A campaign of ours called Pioneering Women considered a sample of more than 6,900 female founders to rank universities on metrics such as how many female start-up founders had attended them and the average amount of funding raised by founders for the companies that they went on to launch.
Average earnings are a particularly useful benchmark for comparing to society’s richest and (often) most talked about people. One of our most successful angles for a campaign called Pay Checkrevealed how much more world leaders earned compared to the citizens who paid their wages.
Remember to also read between averages, especially by looking at the mean and median values.
This analysis by CNN picked apart the assumption that the average American is one of the world’s wealthiest. In terms of mean net worth, which can be heavily skewed by a country’s super wealthy citizens, Americans were the fourth richest in the OECD (2014), but when you line up every individual’s net worth, the US median was actually one of the lowest.
And such a vast gap between the mean and median values of a dataset may lead you to ask howmany super-wealthy people in the US there actually are.
Follow the links for how to calculate averages in spreadsheets through Google Sheets or Excel.
6. How many are there?
The same year that CNN published their analysis of the net worth of Americans, the LA Times took a different angle by counting how many households with a net worth of $1 million or more existed in the US, which turned out to be 9.6 million – a record number at the time. This is also a headline that highlights a significant change for the most recent time period.
Counting how often a text or numerical value appears in a spreadsheet is often used to deliver a ‘best seller’, or, in the case of our campaign below, a ‘most borrowed’ type of angle. For a campaign called Well Read, we analysed three decades of lending data from UK libraries and counted which authors, novels and genres were borrowed the most.
Unlike the data source we used above, you may be collecting information from multiple organisations, with the aim of comparing their data against each other. This means there could be missing data or inconsistent collection methods that can have implications, either as part of the story you’re trying to tell or in terms of whether the different datasets can be fairly compared at all.
By counting the data that was missing rather than what was present, VICE’s Broadly channel analysed and reported on 86 percent of universities failing to make any mention of stalking or abuse in their policy documents (2019).
One example of overcoming the nonuniform data collection methods that are typical of UK universities when responding to freedom of information requests came from an FOI-led survey by Uswitch. They counted UK University responses to uniform ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions about their commitments to renewable energy to score them on a straightforward index.
Coming full-circle to the highest and lowest values again, many data-driven stories can be constructed by an index that considers multiple indicators to rank a group of data points.
Ranking locations within indexes is a common method for outreach campaigns, as it provides local journalists with stories that are targeted to their area, and because comparable towns, cities and countries tend to record all sorts of interesting data that can be spun into a story.
This is a creative approach to creating a headline out of many statistics where one statistic in isolation wouldn’t do the same. For example, there is no single metric that can determine what it means to be a hipster, but thisindex created by MoveHub compiled metrics such as the number of record shops, vintage boutiques, and vegan restaurants proportionally to the size of the local population to determine it was Brighton, UK.
Indexes may be considered more comprehensive than trying to make the jump from one individual statistic to a headline, and indexes can sound impressive when a brand produces one about a topic within which they are considered an authority to name ‘the best’ or ‘worst’ or ‘capital’ of something.
However, indexes can also mask certain stories that exist behind individual metrics, which could have quite easily produced a headline on their own. We have previously analysed a similar metric to the one used in the above ‘Hipster Index’ to name the world’s most vegan-friendly capitals, based purely on the percentage of restaurants in a location that serve vegan food options. With a surprising result revealing Dublin, this is another example of the strength of one statistic built out of one question creating a strong headline.
So be sure to consider how each data point or statistic that you’ve worked hard sourcing and analysing can produce its own outreach angle, even if it was originally intended to support an index’s methodology.
Keep an eye out for how often news stories are constructed by:
As part of your creative process, consider whether each of these methods can reveal more interesting angles about the next dataset you work with, or whether they can even form the crux of your next idea’s methodology.
There’s no guarantee that a dataset will contain a headline-worthy angle, and you may find that there is more data to source before you can build a story.
But when you do find yourself interrogating a particularly fruitful set of numbers from all of the dimensions we’ve discussed, then you could uncover numerous stories to tell as part of your content and outreach strategy, or at least be confident that you’ve found the most newsworthy statistic.
A broader look at the process of turning data into a content marketing campaign: 
As well as your calculations, there are other ways to diversify your angles and ideas during the production and outreach stages of a campaign. This post discusses that process through considerations about topics and journalist sectors: 
3 useful resources for finding data and hunting for stories:   
Interested in our content marketing and digital PR services? Get in touch.
Why your content needs expert collaborators (and where to find them)
Producing newsworthy content for our clients means communicating a level of authority between industries that we (quite often) have no first-hand experience of working in and journalists who have years of experience covering sectors that our clients sit within.
Often, we can rely on client spokespeople to provide comments for the press and which analyse the work we produce. But content that is built to earn links can also cover topics and conversations that stretch beyond a client’s product while still remaining relevant for them to talk about, which means we often look further afield to find people who can offer valuable perspectives on our stories, or help us construct our content from the very beginning.
In my time at Verve Search, I’ve been lucky enough to work with world-renowned scientists and academics, artists, authors, photographers, gamers, and experts on more subjects than you can shake a stick at. All of these individuals and organisations have taken our stories from being a collection of interesting statistics or attractive pieces of content to something more newsworthy, which is brought to life by the authority behind their words.
How we work with collaborators depends largely on which gaps of authority exist within the production and PR strategy of each piece of content. Here are just some examples of how we’ve worked with expert collaborators in the past:
We’ve tapped into the unique resources of subject specialists to create in-depth campaigns with data that is normally unavailable to the public. We worked with Ian Shirley (editor of Record Collector magazine’s ‘Rare Record Price Guide‘) to put together reams of imagery and information not found elsewhere about hugely valuable vinyl records
We’ve received valuable commentary from industry experts on our survey results and independent research. For Influencer Investors, our Paxful campaign about stock market guidance on TikTok, we asked financial planner and psychologist Dr. Brad Klontz for his expert analysis of our findings and created a valuable Q&A asset
The Outreach case for finding collaborators
One key indicator to any campaign’s success is how many high-quality and authoritative links it generates, and it should almost go without saying that journalists will appreciate a story being sent their way that is supported by reliable and authoritative experts within a relevant field. I spoke to Tonje, one of Verve Search’s super-talented Outreach Specialists, to ask about why the team finds it useful to lean on the expertise of external sources…
Q&A with Tonje Odegard, Outreach Specialist
Why is outreaching more successful when there’s an externally-sourced expert attached to the story?
First of all, in addition to a credible data source, journalists always need quotes in order to complete a classic news story or feature. If we can provide these from a relevant and credible expert or collaborator, it will save the journalist having to source these from elsewhere, increasing our chances of them using our content (and ultimately linking). Alongside having graphs and illustrations from the campaign, we’re essentially providing a one-stop shop for the journalist.
Secondly, having expert commentary or quotes adds substance, credibility and gravity to the pitch, which again increases the chances of it being covered. For instance, when working with Babylon Health, we used expert commentary from the doctors there on several occasions in our campaigns and outreach. Overall, we secured links in high-punching publications such as The Telegraph, City AM, Time Out, Metro, New York Post, Houston Chronicle, Forbes, and Cosmopolitan as a result.
What kind of things do you think journalists are interested in when it comes to experts and collaborators?
The clue is in the name; the purpose of experts and collaborators for journalists is exactly that – to provide their expertise on the subject the journalist is covering. They are an essential part of any news story or feature as it helps break up the article into a more digestible format for the reader as well as offer credibility. In essence, experts help explain the topic covered in a story.
Are expert Q&As useful to have on hand?
Q&As are a formidable way to convey information in a conversational tone that is easy for the journalist to turn into quotes – if they’re feeling really lazy, they can even copy and paste it entirely. But having the expert ready at hand to answer any additional follow-up questions is also key as many journalists want something unique or more specific to use in their article.
Do you think journalists find campaigns more reliable when they are backed up with an externalexpert’s data and imagery rather than completely in-houseassets?
Yes, I definitely believe so. Having an expert involved who is willing to endorse the campaign’s message demonstrates to the journalist that this is a legitimate and reliable source of information. If the expert comes from the client we are representing, there is a danger that the pitch can appear too commercial, but this will usually not be the case if the expert is relevant and credible – so always make sure they are. Using an external expert can often add more credibility.
How important is it to journalists that a field expert provides commentary and context on independent research findings?
As mentioned above, it helps cement the credibility of the data and message of the campaign. Any good journalist would seek to back up claims made in their article and as such, they would try to hunt down a relevant person to comment on the findings. If we can present this person at the same time as pitching them the research, both us and the journalist have killed two birds in one stone.
So, where should you begin?
Identify your needs
There are different ways you can incorporate an outside expert in your campaign. At what point they enter the production process depends on how best you think they’ll be able to contribute to the project. In my time at Verve, our collaborator partnerships have usually fallen into one of the following categories:
They comment on our in-house study. This means we’ve sourced our own data and broken it down into key findings. We may have run a study and come to some interesting conclusions, or collected a huge variety of new information via freedom of information requests. Either way, we’re looking for an authority on whatever the subject may be to give us some all-important context to what we’ve found out. We want them to answer some burning questions that have arisen because of surprising or even predictable discoveries we’ve made – answers that journalists love to feature and readers instantly trust. Ask yourself whether you need someone to answer your burning questions.
They advise us on a methodology and provide commentary where necessary. Sometimes we need collaborators to help shape the building blocks of our campaign. It means we have the story in our mind, but we need specialist guidance on how to execute something that needs an expert eye. We ran a campaign called Understanding Dementia and knew that the subject needed an official figure on dementia to ensure our campaign handled the subject with the sensitivity and authority it deserved. We worked with a leading dementia expert to give us her vision for how our planned games and puzzles could successfully emulate the confusion and frustration associated with the condition. We’ve also worked in this capacity with world-renowned academics and specialists who’ve advised on our campaigns at early junctions, like planning survey questions, helping shape extra angles to our research. Ask yourself whether you need expert guidance to build your project.
They lend us resources that are otherwise not openly accessible. Some campaigns rely on the knowledge and resources of industry professionals. We’ve worked with all sorts of individuals and companies over the years that have given us their time and expertise to help create a more valuable piece of content for the news landscape. For example, Wheeler Dealer for GoCompare saw us partner up with an expert on vintage toy cars who gave us lots of specialist data and imagery…
…and we tasked the talented 3D-modelling artists at 3DLines with creating fantastic photorealistic mock-ups of familiar TV and movie rooms remade for the modern-day. Ask yourself whether your campaign needs the unique resources of an interesting individual or company.
But where can you find the right expert?
Where to find an expert
Use free find-an-expert search engines
Some of the best universities in the world have find-an-expert indices that list the academics and experts open to helping out the media. Here are some key ones:
You can usually search by field of study to help you track down the best person for your needs. If you’re going down the academic route, you should also try googling scientific studies and research institutions relevant to your subject to discover their authors. Why not try reaching out to them? We went to Professor Daniel Russell, a leading loneliness expert who developed the globally recognised UCLA Loneliness Scale, for guidance on our loneliness project with former client Echo.
Use social media
One of the best resources for widening your network is Twitter. Search out highly followed and influential people on the subject you’re working on. We contacted Matt Huxley, an esports lecturer at Staffordshire University, through Twitter, and he agreed to help us out with our project Esports Elites for Casumo. Matt had a large social media following and was used to being featured in the media, so we knew he was a fantastic authority to comment on our findings.
Find a book
Don’t worry, you won’t need a library card for this one! We’ve found expert collaborators by searching for books around our subject of interest. If you can track down and contact the authors or researchers (perhaps through their personal websites, social media, or publishers), you might just find that they’ll be really enthusiastic about your project.
In the past, Amazon has proved to be a useful resource for finding the right books. We used this method to find an expert to help us answer some questions for our project Crep Check for Farfetch. Crep Check is a database of the most valuable trainers in the world, and we included rankings for the shoes that have appreciated the most in value from their original retail price. We knew that finding a top sneaker expert and having them answer some questions would give journalists an extra angle to feature, so we searched online for experts and found one in the form of Mathieu le Maux, author of ‘1000 Sneakers: A Guide to the World’s Greatest Kicks, from Sport to Street’.
We sent Mathieu a message over Twitter and it didn’t take long for him to get back to us. The result? GQ magazine and the Daily Mail featured some of his comments prominently:
We used this method again to search for a reputable source of data, high-quality imagery, and expert commentary for Record Value, our project with Australian life insurance company NobleOak. Our answer came in the form of Ian Shirley, editor of ‘The Rare Record Price Guide’. Ian was the perfect fit for our campaign and gave us plenty of resources to work with as well as giving us valuable information about each of the 75 records in the final campaign.
Find a charity
We’ve partnered with lots of charities over the years and the benefits of attaching the campaign to the name of a reputable and established charity are numerous.
With Understanding Dementia, our Babylon Health campaign that attempted to reflect the effects of dementia with a series of frustrating games and puzzles, we partnered with Professor June Andrews, a renowned dementia expert to help us out.
June provided guidance on what effects we could attempt to reflect with our games, plus commentary on our games to help the user understand what aspects of dementia they were experiencing.
We partnered with two mental health charities for another project with Babylon Health called Student Stress. Both charities appealed in person and on their Twitter and social media accounts for students to tell us what stress felt like in their own words. We received lots of evocative descriptions of mental health from students all around the world, and our talented designers went to work illustrating them.
Keep up with the news
We’ve secured collaborators in the past by reaching out to them as a result of seeing their work in the news. It’s a surefire way to find names that are trusted by journalists as an authority on a subject.
When should you budget for expert collaborators?
It’s always worth keeping a budget in mind if you expect to ask a collaborator to do a large amount of work for you.
Before you reach out to someone, ask yourself:
How much of their time are we asking them to take up?
Are they just doing their day job, but for us? If so, they’ll expect to be paid.
Is this specific expert absolutely vital to the story earning coverage? If they require a fee, it’s worth thinking about putting aside some of your budget to cover it.
Sometimes, budgets will be tight. In many cases, you’ll be able to get a collaborator on board for free just by outlining the (credited) coverage they themselves will receive by taking part in your project. For a lot of people, this is sometimes compensation enough for being involved, especially if we know we’re presenting them with fascinating new insights around their specialist topic.
Keep your communication respectful of your collaborator’s energy and time and you’ll be able to build a creative partnership that will always be useful to have on hand.
How to enhance your Digital PR outreach with expert quotes 
20 examples of great quotes for your press release 
Interested in our content marketing and digital PR services? Get in touch.
SEO in journalism: how can we use it in outreach?
After five years working as a journalist and more than a year working in digital PR and outreach, I have seen SEO in operation from both sides – here’s how they can be used in combination to secure coverage.
When I first started doing my degree in Journalism at Kingston University in 2012, SEO was a mere afterthought in my Multimedia News Writing course. Yes, we were told to hyperlink or to include keywords in our copy, but we were never fully educated on its purpose or importance, nor did it ever dictate what we were writing about.
Eight years later, I was working for a publication where the content we produced was almost entirely driven by SEO strategies. It was prioritised on the same level as editorial integrity and quality, which I found surprising and intriguing. As much as I love writing, I felt myself being drawn to this ‘behind the scenes’ world of SEO more and more, to the point where I decided to pursue a career in it.
I started working at Verve Search nearly 18 months ago, where I was introduced to a whole new and more technical side of SEO. This, in combination with my journalistic experience and my knowledge of how SEO is applied in journalism, has really strengthened my ability in outreach. I want to share this knowledge so you can too.
So, how can we learn from the way journalists and publications use and are motivated by SEO as part of their day-to-day runnings and editorial planning and apply it to outreach and ideation?
What motivates journalists in terms of SEO?
Traditionally, the way journalists and newspapers measured their success was purely down to how many newspapers they sold or how many quantifiable readers they had. For some publications, these metrics still come into play, but it’s not farfetched to say that today, SEO metrics have replaced the way we measure a publication’s success.
But what are SEO metrics? Metrics such as ranking, search traffic and engagement are what motivate publications the most in terms of SEO. What these metrics have in common is that they focus heavily on keywords.
Ultimately, publications want to rank as high as possible on search engines for the topics (AKA keywords) they cover, whether niche or broad. If you type “news uk” in your Google search bar, the BBC ranks in first and second place in the SERPS (Search Engine Results Pages). This is where every publication would love to be. Additionally, publications want to rank for specific keywords relevant to the topics they cover. For instance, the BBC would also want to rank high for keywords such as “TV”, “weather” and “sport”.
How do journalists use SEO?
So now you know what motivates publications in terms of SEO, it’s time to see how journalists and writers apply this in their day-to-day roles, and crucially, how this can benefit us in outreach.
“It’s about understanding what people are searching for online, the answers they are seeking, the words they’re using, and the type of content they wish to consume. Knowing the answers to these questions will allow you to connect to the people who are searching online for the solutions you offer.”
For a publication and for a journalist, it’s all about understanding what content your readers want, how they would like to consume that content, and what kind of readers you want to attract. And this is exactly what journalists do to plan their content and the style of that content. This brings me back to keywords.
What are keywords and why are they important?
Keywords are the words and phrases in a website’s content that make it possible for people to find the site via search engines. So, as you can imagine, keywords are a huge part of a digital journalist’s day to day.
The days of cramming keywords into copy (also known as keyword density) might be over, but if a journalist wants their article to rank well in search engines, keywords need to be incorporated into their article’s structure (headlines, meta descriptions and URLs). Out of these, it is particularly important to include keywords in the headline.
Revisiting the earlier quote, it says that it’s about understanding what people are searching for online, the answers they are seeking and the words they’re using. In other words, journalists are keen to discover the target keywords that are driving their readers to their site – or indeed, the target keywords that are taking their desired readers to competing publications instead.
How do journalists choose the keywords to focus on?
Publications are focused on ranking for keywords that are relevant to the topics that their publication covers. For niche publications, such as Boat International, the keywords will be narrower and more specific, whereas for bigger news outlets such as The Guardian, it will be much wider and far-reaching.
For instance, TimeOut London aims to rank for keywords such as ‘best restaurants in London’, ‘things to do in London’ and ‘best West End shows’.
These are all evergreen keywords or evergreen content. As the name suggests, evergreen content is content that readers will be interested in and might be searching for all year round – they were interested in searching for it last year and they will be next year too. This is the bread and butter for any news website as it is the biggest source of consistent traffic.
But TimeOut also wants to rank for ‘most romantic restaurants’ around Valentine’s Day or ‘best rooftop bars in London’ before a hot summer bank holiday. These are seasonal keywords and refer to keywords that generate most of their search traffic during a specific time of the year.
Then there are trending keywords, which, as you can imagine, is all about ranking for keywords that are trending at a particular time. At the time of writing, everyone is covering the story about how a bunch of Reddit users made the GameStop share price skyrocket, leaving established Wall Street traders with pie on their faces. Newspapers would want to get in on these trends and rank for it.
So journalists use all these keyword categories to determine what to write about. But how do they decide on which keywords to focus on?
They use these tools to determine the popularity and search volume of keywords in order to figure out which new topic areas to explore, which articles to update and optimise to improve their ranking, as well as to guide them on which keywords to include in their headlines.
How to apply journalistic SEO in outreach and ideation
Now that you know what motivates journalists and how they use it in their day to day, it’s time to investigate how we can apply the same methods and strategies in the various stages of outreach.
The most obvious place to start is to look at the target publications of the client you’re working for.
What publications does the client wish to secure coverage in and what do these publications cover? Use the SEO tools mentioned above to explore the evergreen, seasonal and trending keywords these publications will be aiming to rank for to anticipate what its journalists will cover.
Incorporate evergreen keywords into your ideation
‘Evergreen’ for a journalist means a story that is not time-sensitive and which has relevance throughout the year. ‘Evergreen’ in content marketing can differ in its definition, so I will adopt the journalist’s version here for our ideation and outreach strategy.
We always prefer to create and outreach a story that doesn’t rely on a smaller window of time to achieve coverage, while potentially including additional seasonal news angles where possible.
One way in which you can ensure the topic and subjects of your story will produce keywords that stand out to journalists at any time of year and which appeal to the correct journalists, is to carefully consider what sample of subjects you consider in your method.
When creating a data-driven story, as we often do, you may find that your sample of subjects varies in size or popularity. This presents two potential problems – one is that you may not be comparing like-for-like subjects, and the second being that you might lose the most popular subjects from your story because a smaller, lesser-known subject has taken its place.
Assuming that the data you are working with is trivial and unlikely to mislead people or cause harm by not including larger samples, you should aim to work with a sample of data that will appeal to your target journalists, and, if necessary, set an appropriate threshold.
In our campaign called Cuisine Hotspots, where we analysed which cities ranked highest for specialising in certain cuisine styles, we were keen to make our story appeal internationally where our client Hayes and Jarvis would wish to see their name mentioned.
To help achieve this, we chose to analyse a large sample of cities that were specifically known for being ‘the most traveled to destinations in the world’. This resulted in cities such as Dublin being widely reported at home and abroad for ranking as one of the world’s vegan food capitals.
Analysing larger and smaller-sized sample subjects as part of the same method can provide surprising (and newsworthy) insights. For example, it might be much more interesting for a smaller UK city to beat London on a particular economic measure. Other times it’s best to analyse like-for-like subjects as part of your method for your story to have wider appeal – London and New York have much wider outreach potential than a small local authority or town in the US.
When we designed a methodology for Lucrative Leaders – discovering which tech CEOs oversaw the greatest increase in their company’s market value – we chose to only consider tech leaders at companies worth $100 billion or more. This ensured that our story considered the Jeff Bezos’s and Steve Jobs of the tech world who are much more headline-worthy than the lesser-known Joe Blogs.
Incorporate evergreen keywords into your outreach
Verve’s very successful Profanity on Film campaign revealed which actors have sworn the most across their filmographies. It demonstrates, in an evergreen sense, the value of including a big name in a story that appeals to journalists regardless of other events that take place in the real world.
We first started outreaching this campaign in March 2020 with no timely news hook and only aiming to demonstrate how Jonah Hill had overtaken Samuel L. Jackson as Hollywood’s most profane actor.
In the end, the campaign achieved more than 800 pieces of coverage in the likes of The Guardian, The Independent, NME and The Wrap – entertainment publications that will report on A-list celebrity actions and events wherever possible. However, a decent proportion of that coverage came from the outreach team reacting to events that involved Jonah Hill, other famous actors who are known for swearing, and the announcement of a Netflix documentary.
Due to an Instagram post by Jonah Hill himself, the campaign gave us a chance to react and achieve more coverage in May. Later, in September, when Samuel L. Jackson decided to launch swearing lessons as an incentive to get people to vote in the 2020 US election, we saw another opportunity to jump on the trend and achieved an additional 20 pieces of linked coverage. By January 2021, Netflix had released a documentary called the History of Swearing, its original announcement led to our third wave of coverage, including a second link for the campaign in The Guardian.
The keywords for Profanity On Film were the actors’ names. There was no threshold set or carefully chosen sample of data here. We analysed more than 5,000 publicly available scripts from movies that had a cinematic release, and the data provided us with an excellent selection of names who are popular for entertainment and showbiz journalists to write about at any time of year.
Evergreen keywords work well for campaigns that you intend to outreach for several months, and they help to eliminate the risk of irrelevance for your target journalists. With that said, implementing more seasonal or trending keywords definitely has its place as part of a wider outreach strategy.
Using seasonal keywords in your outreach strategy
If you have a specific time frame for the outreach of your campaign, seasonal keywords provide an excellent asset both as a starting point for a campaign idea and for your angles.
A great example of this is when we knew we had a campaign lined up for a client around the time of Halloween. The Scariest Horror campaign discovered what the scariest film of all time was by asking volunteers to wear heart monitors while they watched 10 films known for having the biggest jump scares.
While horror movies have wide enough appeal at any time of year for entertainment journalists to discuss, the campaign naturally appealed even more to publications such as the LadBible as the 31st October approached.
It may hamper your outreach efforts if a campaign relied purely on a seasonal event to achieve coverage, but it is worth exploring seasonal keywords related to your client and your client’s target publications to incorporate these keywords into your pitch to journalists.
Again, I would recommend incorporating seasonal angles as part of a wider ideation and outreach strategy that is more evergreen to journalists. For every Halloween-related story you conjure up, make sure there are plenty more stories available that appeal throughout the year.
How to incorporate trending keywords into your outreach strategy
I also find trending keywords too fleeting to base campaign ideas on, but they are perfect to use as a news hook for your pitch or as a tool to breathe fresh air into an old campaign.
An example of this is when we capitalised on the PS5 release hype before Christmas with our campaign Global Cost of Gaming, where we looked at and compared the different costs of the new PS5 in different countries. Including the keyword ‘PS5’ in the headline was instrumental to the high volume of coverage this campaign received.
Again, make sure you maximise the keyword by including it in your headline.
How to incorporate long-tail keywords in your outreach strategy
Long-tail keywords are longer and more specific keyword phrases, which don’t necessarily have a very high search volume.
It’s worth noting that there is bigger competition between publications to rank for high search volume keywords. Therefore, going more granular and finding keywords that are more specific and which have a smaller search volume, might make it easier to rank and appeal more to journalists.
Additionally, if you have a client that is interested in coverage in certain regions or countries, exploring the various keywords in these markets will be time well spent. This is all about understanding the target audience and the language they use when searching for content.
For instance, if you’re planning on outreaching to both the UK and the US for your client, even though the language used will be the same, taking the differences between British and American English (Brits go on ‘holiday’ whereas Americans go on ‘vacation’) into consideration in your keyword search can be a game changer. Localising keywords is a worthwhile strategy.
How do we use this for outreach? Going for headlines that aid a high-volume keyword such as ‘the best brunch in London’ might actually be counterproductive if journalists want to cover something more targeted. High-volume keywords may also see more articles being published around that specific keyword already, so the subject line in your email may not stand out so much in a journalist’s inbox.
However, if you opted for a keyword that considered something even more long-tail and granular, such as ‘the best vegan brunch places in Peckham’, the competition may be lower and the originality of the story may be greater.
So to sum up, spending time familiarising yourself with the client and its target publications, and the various keywords they would want to rank for will be beneficial for you from ideation right through to outreach. This involves all keywords, from evergreen and trending, to long-tail and localised. By using the same SEO tools and strategies as journalists do to find your keywords and incorporating them into your approach, you will find your outreach efforts piquing the interest of journalists much more frequently.
Interested in our content marketing and digital PR services? Get in touch.
It was another fantastic online sharing session, the only disappointment being that we didn’t have quite enough time for Laura to answer all your questions in the Q&A sessions. But happily Laura, with the help her two of our outreach starlets, Maddi and Elisabeth, have taken the time to answer your questions…
How long should I wait before recontacting the people who didn’t open the email or didn’t write anything about it yet?
We would usually follow up between 3 and 7 days after the first email. Some journalists were happy with the follow-up after 3 days, but others thought it was too little time and asked us to wait a week before reaching out again. Usually it’s because they didn’t have time to look at it yet, because they get a lot of pitches.
Unless it’s a very urgent and relevant story, we wouldn’t follow-up within less than 2 days though otherwise it feels very pushy.
Do you handcraft the subject lines with 20+ variations for every individual email? Or group in similar publications (tabloids vs. national news sites, etc.) with the same subject line?
We would definitely change the subject up for different publications, but more for groups such as tabloids, national news sites or more niche publications. We also adapt it depending on the type of journalists we contact, looking at how they write, if it’s serious or more light-hearted.
If there is a journalist that we find particularly fitted for the story, we might look at their previous headlines and tailor it to them specifically.
How many hours go into that research? looking at 3500 film scripts?
The campaign Profanity on Film took longer than usual, since it was quite a lengthy process, and was quite technical. This one took about 2 weeks of work. We had to:
Scrape all the movies scripts from various sites
Scrape actor/actress profiles on IMDB
Get data from the IMDb API
Calculate words per actor, character and movie
and then just some final data formatting
Luckily we work with a team of data wizards who handled this challenge like pros.
Journalists have said that they prefer tailored, personalised emails, how do you manage doing this to scale without it being too time consuming?
We obviously personalise our emails with the journalists name but what we focus on is offering them a good and relevant story, so we avoid the fluff as much as possible. If we have a previous relationship with them or if we contacted them via Twitter, we will have a short personalised message but not much more as it can also feel a bit fake. It is also the feedback that we have received from journalists through the years – they prefer getting into the story rather than trying to pretend you have a relationship if you don’t.
But sometimes, if we feel like the journalist is a great fit, it is worth taking a bit of time to research the style and headline from previous articles to try and match it to the pitch.
How many times would you follow up with a journalist?
We usually don’t send more than one follow-up. We only send a second follow-up if we can see through Buzzstream or Hunter’s email opening tracker that the journalist has opened the email several times but still not written up an article yet. This would just be a very short email to say “just wondering if you were interested in this”. Also if we think that a story is very fitting but the journalist hasn’t opened the email at all, we might push a bit more with a second follow-up. More than two will be too much.
How do you ensure that the journalist will trust the data you provide?
Including a methodology section in the pitch email to explain how the research or data was conducted definitely helps. That way the journalist can see whether what you’re presenting is reliable or a good representation. It is also important to quote our sources. As we have said before, if you don’t have the authority, borrow it from someone who does and make sure to tell the journalist about it.
Make sure to familiarise yourself with the data prior to sending out the emails to journalists and check anything that doesn’t look right in case the journalists have any questions.
Do you think it’s easier to get links from journalists compared to other websites? Most of my work is outreaching to sites related to our industry, and I find them very difficult to get links from.
National publications have a different way to approach the news and the content they publish than niche websites: they have to be more accessible and they have to write much more content. It makes it easier for content marketers to approach them. Usually when outreaching to specialised websites, we wouldn’t send the same email as we would to national newspapers’ journalists, but would make it more personal and send it in a “I thought you might be interested in this research” tone. You also need to make sure that you bring something to these websites who are already specialised in a particular topic.
If you have any other questions you’d like answered, don’t hesitate to get in touch email@example.com. Also stay tuned for more updates on our next event, outREACH Conference.