How to Pitch During COVID-19: Tips from HuffPost’s Kristen Aiken

Photo by Damon Dahlen, HuffPost

In times of crisis, people need good journalism. The COVID outbreak is no exception. In recent weeks, people have been flocking to the new sources in record numbers, hungry for ever more information about the virus and its spread.

Service journalism is “news you can use”: it’s content that provides readers with actionable, practical information and it’s more important in stormy times than when seas are calm.

Today, some digital media organizations are thriving on it.

At HuffPost in New York, senior editor Kristen Aiken has seen readership skyrocket for the sections she oversees, “Food & Drink” and “Style & Beauty.”

She has been working up to 12 hours a day* from her mom’s house in Westchester County, where she cranks out stories on topics like how to bring your groceries home safely and unexpected ways you’re weakening your immune system.

We spoke with Kristen about what kind of content resonates with her readers, how brands can figure into that content, and what she looks for in a PR pitch in the midst of a pandemic.

How COVID-19 Has Changed Service Journalism

Unlike a lot of breaking news, which is unpredictable and has to be produced quickly, most service journalism is evergreen. This means it can be planned ahead.

“But the pandemic has drastically sped up [the] pace,” Kristen says.

“It’s extremely important that we not only publish stories that react immediately to the news, but ideally, we try to anticipate the news before it even happens.”

At this moment, impactful media coverage may look more like getting your product placed in a list of home workout solutions than having a full article dedicated to profiling your CEO.

What matters today is that your brand is part of the conversation as a helper and is poised to support the news of the day.

What Service Journalists Are Looking For in a PR Pitch

Relevancy is more important than ever. We asked Kristen what service journalists are looking for in pitches today. Her wish list contains two things:

  1. “Solid new information, particularly from studies and preferably in the form of charts or infographics.”
  2. “Access to experts who aren’t pushing their own agenda.”

If the product or story you’re pitching doesn’t feel 100 percent relevant to what’s going on right now, consider whether it’s worth sending in the first place.

“The absolute worst PR pitches are the ones that acknowledge the coronavirus and then pitch me something totally unrelated.

If you’re thinking about acknowledging that a media target is slammed with coronavirus coverage as a lead-in to pitching them a new line of high-end swimwear, think again.

How to Anticipate the Story Before It Happens

Kristen and her team aim to anticipate the news before it happens.

One way her team does that is to monitor what people are searching for. The lifestyle content they produce depends on SEO traffic to provide a window into what people want to know, in real time.

“We’re trying to protect readers from making dangerous mistakes before they even think about making them,” she says.

“On the lighter side of things, we’re trying to predict their needs and questions before they even realize what they are.”

Takeaway: Think ahead to what people will need to know next week, next month or even next quarter, and you’ll have a better chance of not getting relegated to the Spam folder.

Above All, Be Useful

Service journalism, as the name implies, is meant to serve.

Kristen says company reps that showboat their own agenda and want to promote their own product above all else will be roundly ignored.

“We want to be a trusted source of information, so we only mention brands when they offer a useful service to our readers,” she says.

“Tell us about the latest data on what people are buying, or send us a few psychologists we can interview who specialize in dealing with stressful situations.”

For example, her team recently published The Best Coronavirus Face Mask Materials, According To A New Study.

This article was built on a study that a B-Corp called Smart Air conducted and then pitched to Kristen under embargo a week before it was set to go live.

The data was compelling and the utility to the reader is obvious. This is the kind of alignment that helps place an article.

Provide Real Value in a Time of Crisis

For PR professionals working to get a reporter’s attention, it may be tempting to go to extremes to get a placement for your client, but that’s not the right move.

The cornerstone of all communication during COVID-19 is being human and demonstrating empathy. Even your pitches must take this into account.

“The coronavirus has thrown us all for a loop, and what little information exists changes every day. So, if you can offer us an antidote for that, we’re going to be all ears,” Kristen says.

But if it only benefits your brand, get lost.

*Twelve hours sitting in front of a laptop makes for long days. Kristen says that to get the blood flowing, she goes down to her mom’s basement once a day to jump on a small trampoline or whack a tennis ball against the cement wall. Activity is good for everyone!