Before we begin, we just want to say a huge thank you for the incredibly open and heartening responses we had to the last newsletter. It was humbling that so many of you chose to share your worries, stresses and journeys with us, and for a moment, it felt like this all too often closed community really opened up. We hope we can keep that going for as long as possible.
We've got exciting plans afoot, but for now, here's your usual Tuesday newsletter. As always, you can email us with comments or leave feedback here.
What came first: the press trip or the commission?
Earlier this week, in a non-travel piece, I wrote about how I love an invite. Stick “invitation” in the subject line of an email and I’ll open it as fast as a Brit abroad whose holiday destination just got binned from the travel corridor list. Most of us journos love an invite, right? And as travel writers, we love a press trip invite specifically.
In the golden times of BC (before corona), I’d get upwards of a hundred press trip invites every month. But we all know it’s not as easy saying “yes please” and offering your passport details. Because before you can be confirmed for the trip, you need to get the commission. And before you get the commission, you need to know what the story is. But before you really know what the story is, you need to go on the trip. But before you get on the trip, you need the commission… You see what I’m getting at, right?
These days, in the UK, most PRs expect a pre-arranged commission before they’ll book you onto a trip. For staffers, that’s no problem – the PR knows they’re pretty much guaranteed to get some sort of coverage in that publication. But for us freelancers, it creates quite the conundrum. Pitching a story about a place we’ve not yet been to, or selling the story of an experience we’ve not yet had, is really quite hard.
But beyond the challenge of sounding like an expert in a pitch when you’re not, the real question for me is: is it ethical? Is it OK to pitch a story about a destination or experience when you’ve not yet been and can’t guarantee that you’ll be able to write the feature you’ve promised? Is it OK to risk letting your editor down, and disappointing the PR and their client? Doesn’t this put our integrity on the line? I think it does.
This chicken-and-egg game with press trips doesn’t really exist as much in the US, where I’m told by colleagues that editors generally won’t commission you until you’ve actually done the trip, and therefore US-based PR companies are generally happy to host you without any pre-agreed commissions. In the UK, this happens, but it’s rare.
What does the PR say?
For the PR, it's all about risk versus return. Alice Brignani, from the Bologna tourism board, told us that it's hard invest a budget in transportation, accommodation, meals and activities without some kind of guaranteed coverage. It makes sense. But sometimes, she breaks the unwritten rules:
“The reason I think it’s sometimes worth inviting someone even without a secured commission is that I have seen the long term importance of good relationships between PRs and journalists. You can never know what happens in the future, maybe today’s press trip doesn’t give the immediate result of a publication but a year later the same journalist will write something about your destination for a major publication or will develop a collaboration with some important magazine and feature you in an article. So, for me it’s worth it, and it’s my job to try to keep good relationships with media and writers – and try to balance my budget when I know there is the possibility of zero publications.”
Freedom to find the story
When I was a staffer with Rough Guides, I would occasionally get a taste of what it’s like to be sent on a trip without a pre-agreed commission. While I was obviously going to write something for our website, I often pitched a few ideas to my superiors, then had free reign to find the top story on the ground and write up what I thought was the best angle when I returned. This made life so much easier, and it meant both sides got better reporting. I wrote one of my best pieces after a trip like that.
But, it’s all swings and roundabouts. While staffers might have it slightly easier, freelancers are often a more attractive prospect, because we might write stories for two, three or perhaps even four different publications off the back of the same trip. If it hadn’t been for this pandemic, I’d have been in Dubai for five days writing for four different outlets, covering Peru for three different publications and then in the States for two separate online publishers.
The key point here is that it’s all about relationships – with both editors and PRs. Writers who have been sent on trips without prior commissions have all told us the same thing: they had an existing, good relationship with the PR in question. We’ve written about how to foster better PR relationships before, and will cover this in more detail in later editions.
For now, though – for those of us still frantically pitching when we get those invites – we’ve got some tips from Telegraph Travel’s Commissioning Editor, Penny Walker, on how to pitch stories before you’ve even been.
Tips for pitching off the back of press trip invites
Don’t send a pitch that just says “I’ve been offered this press trip, do you want a story?” That’s not a pitch. You need to think about what the story could be, and what makes it different from what other people on the same trip might produce.
Be open about the fact it’s a press trip, especially a group trip. If it’s a group trip, I want to know so we can get copy in sooner and try to run it before any of the other publications.
If you can demonstrate some kind of expertise – perhaps not in the destination but in the subject matter – that’ll go a long way in your pitch.
Don’t rush. There’s a temptation to pitch immediately when the invite comes in because you know there’ll be big competition for spaces on the trip. But an editor’s day is so busy that they won’t always see your email immediately, so if you spend an extra 10 minutes crafting better pitch, that could make all the difference.
Hot tip from Lottie
Instead of frantically pitching a barely-thought-out idea, get back to the PR who invited you straight away and ask them to reserve a space for you pending a commission. I usually say something like this:
Hi X, Thanks so much for this invite. It looks like a great trip with some fantastic stories. Are you able to reserve me a space on this trip? If so, I would love to pitch it to X, X or X and would aim to get a commission before the end of next week.
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