When you pitch a comment article, it helps if it links with an ongoing news story. True, some comment articles can put topics on the news agenda, rather than follow them. But that occurs less frequently. You will need to a find an appropriate “slot” in the publication, where experts who are not on the publication’s payroll contribute. There is no point in pitching an article to The Economist. They do not have guest columnists. But The Times has a daily column, often written by an outsider, called Thunderer.
A quick note about terminology. In British newspapers, the normal term is “comment article”, while American papers call them “Op-Eds”. An Op-Ed is sometimes mistakenly thought to be short for an “opinion editorial”, but is actually short for “opposite the editorial page”.
An editorial in the UK could mean all sorts of things, but in American newspapers, it has the specific meaning of a commentary written by the editorial board, which is not attributed to any individual author. It represents the official position of the newspaper. In the UK, these unsigned editorials have a different name: a “leading article”, or “leader” for short. It is best to talk with the publication, either by phone or email, before writing the article. The commissioning editor (who could have any number of actual job titles, normally the Comment Editor or the Op-Ed Editor for a newspaper) will be able to give you some pointers about the angle that will appeal to her readers.
She may suggest that you include a reference to something else that has appeared recently in the publication. And she may just say that the topic is not relevant at the moment, but would be
more interesting when there is a news hook later in the year. She may try to get some idea of your credentials and whether you can write. It helps hugely if you have a back catalogue of articles already published, which you can refer to. If appropriate, you could offer to email a couple of examples. Some people think that they should write the article first, and then pitch it to a paper. Outside of the United States, where the practice is commonplace, and comment editors receive 100 unsolicited articles a day, this is a mistake. It won’t be what the publication wants to publish. For newspapers, a commissioning editor might suggest that you write it and submit it “on spec”. What that means is that they aren’t committing to print it. Perhaps they don’t necessarily think that you will write a good enough piece, but they would like to use it if they can.
The alternative is that they might “commission” it, which means that they are agreeing to pay for it. In fact, the publication will assume that you, unlike a journalist, are being paid by your employer to write the piece and you should assume that you won’t actually get a fee. But the terms, if used, can still give you some idea of how keen the paper is to use your work.
By seeking a commissioning editor’s opinion in advance, not only will the article be better tailored to the publication, but the commissioning editor will feel some affinity with the article and be more likely to publish it. Moreover, you will be in a stronger position with colleagues within either your company (if you work in-house) or with your client (if you’re in an agency). They may want you to write something that is tediously boring because they are not used to dealing with the media. But if you can say that you spoke to the editor and she said that it needed to cover such and such, it is harder for people to argue with you.
About the Author – Alex Singleton is one of the world’s leading public relations strategists. Through consultancy, training and speaking, he helps organisations, large and small, all over the world. Companies such as Kellogg’s, Virgin Atlantic and FirstGroup, along with major charities and public bodies, have turned to him for his expertise.