Placing an op-ed (otherwise known as a comment or opinion piece) with a national newspaper is a powerful way to demonstrate industry influence and expertise. It can sway popular thinking, inform policy, instigate debate and lead to wider opportunities, as well as new clients.

Whether writing for the Financial Times, The Times, Telegraph or Guardian, a contributed article is one of the most sought-after PR opportunities for businesses. As such, competition is fierce. With strict editorial policies, and a clear focus on newsworthy, engaging content (see my previous blog), editors are ruthless when it comes to what they will publish in the name of a business leader or brand.

Get your pitch right and you could land a golden egg in PR value. Get it wrong and you could risk alienating influential journalists who are quick to consign brands to the sin-bin for poorly thought-out pitches.

What are editors are looking for in an op-ed?

Luckily, they’ve been quite clear and told us! in a bid to ensure quality submissions the FT, Guardian and City AM have all shared their guidelines on submitting opinion pieces. Here is what we can learn.

Don’t be boring

Perhaps the most important aspect of opinion writing is not to parrot existing arguments, to demonstrate personality and to have an opinion!  It’s amazing how many people want to land a comment piece based purely on why their product is the solution to a current issue. Well yes, that’s an opinion of sorts, but not one that’s going to engage a national editor, or a discerning audience.

“We… want our opinion pieces to be punchy, readable articles that make strong arguments; and we have a soft spot for writers who demolish conventional wisdom or dissent from opinions we have already published.” (The FT)

And from City AM:

“Make sure you are doing something original. Don’t simply offer the same view as everyone else. Use your own industry knowledge or original research to add depth or a different perspective.”

Fastest fingers first

Not only do news titles receive hundreds of ideas and pitches every single day, they also closely follow a constantly changing news agenda which dictates what is of interest on any given day (or hour). Trying to place an opinion piece on news that broke a week ago is pointless. Half the battle in successfully writing for a newspaper is to be the first to get in on the news with an engaging angle.

“Most of the pieces that we run on Guardian Opinion are news reactive, so they respond to a specific news story that has recently broken. The news story is the “peg” for the column – the reason why this is a pressing issue that readers need to hear more about.” (The Guardian)

And again from City AM:

“Tie what you write to something topical and in the news. The sooner you can write about a news event after it happens, the more likely people are to read it. Conversely, if you come to something a week after everyone else was talking about it then you are going to have to offer something pretty exceptional to get people interested again.” (City AM)

Ban waffle

For most op-eds you have circa 700 words to make your point, if that. This means focusing on one key point that can be easily summarised, argued and understood in a short and punchy article. This is not the place to describe the latest technical process or discuss the history of your industry. It is the place to bring a current issue to life with colour and passion.

As the FT puts it, “Be a miniaturist, not a landscape painter.”

“Avoid it feeling like a stream of consciousness. Focus on one thread and make that point clearly. Don’t be tempted to cram too many different themes into one piece.”

The Guardian offers this advice for pitching op-eds:

“Send over one idea at a time, two at the most… we’ve been known to receive emails with 20 ideas – it can feel as if we’re being sent a round robin, as if the ideas haven’t been developed with our section specifically in mind. If you send over a single idea, it makes it much easier for us to consider it properly, and get back to you.”

The learning – keep your argument tight and focused on one killer message.

You’re always writing for the audience!

It can’t be said enough that whenever engaging with journalists you have to put the audience first. For national news outlets this audience is diverse – and your writing must reflect this. ‘National’ titles are no longer really national, but international given the reach of online news. As the FT puts it:

“The FT gives you the chance to talk to a trader in Hong Kong, a professor in Paris and an engineer in Silicon Valley, all at the same time. That means your article needs to move beyond local issues to make a broader point and it cannot assume inside knowledge.”

There will be times when your piece is focused on a ‘local’ issue, for example the effect of the government’s edtech strategy for UK schools and suppliers. However, just because a subject has a UK-specific basis, that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to talk about it in a broader sense, bringing the subject to life for those outside the UK, and outside the specific industry.

What next?

Not everyone is a born writer but that shouldn’t put anyone off considering landing an op-ed. That’s where an experienced PR can assist by helping articulate your message into an article packed with passion and clear on focus. In my experience once an expert has had a helping hand with the first piece, the bug bites. With understanding of how editors choose opinion pieces the ideas start flowing and confidence grows.

Not every pitch will work, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Where so much of what leaders do is based on clear communication, the mere act of refining an argument that’s been brewing in your brain is an invaluable exercise.

If you are passionate about what you do and about the industry you do it in, try to keep your mind open to where your passion could translate into a pitch. If you need a helping hand bringing it to life, then get in touch!