How to write an effective email subject line for media requests

I can’t believe I’m writing this in 2017, but judging from the state of my inbox there are still a lot of people who need this information. This guide is aimed at journalists and other people who are looking for a favour from me in a time-sensitive fashion from a cold email. Friends, of course, can feel free to keep doing what they’re doing :) 

Your main goal is to communicate to me the entire content of your email in the preview that will show up on my phone or in the single line of gmail’s inbox before I even open it. This will let me know how urgently I need to open it at all and thus greatly increase your chance of getting a quick reply, especially if I’m travelling, at a conference, have just woken up, or am simply on my phone.

For the same reason, I prefer all media requests to come via email — please do not message me via social media, call, or text me, even if you have this contact info from previous engagements or mutual friends. Use that subject line!

Here are some great subject lines for media requests:

  • NPR on emoji interview request for 5pm thurs (live)
  • $new_meme Wired media request by COB tomorrow
  • Review in [place] of BECAUSE INTERNET

I want to know: what the outlet is, briefly what the topic is (not “language” or “linguistics” – I am a linguist so all my requests are about that), whether you want to interview me (i.e. media/interview request) or for me to write for you, and ideally what your deadline or timeline is. I don’t care if it has real syntax, just put in all the relevant words.

Here are some terrible subject lines for media people:

  • Hello
  • A question
  • Time to chat?
  • Wondering your thoughts
  • Are kids these days ruining the English language with all their texting and selfies? [Way too long]
  • Your book/your recent article [I exchange many emails daily about my book/articles, and if I need to forward it to my editor or publicist, they deal with many books and articles]
  • Anything containing my own name – I know what my name is and spammers know how to use mailmerge now, so it just makes you look like one

Notice how uninformative these are! From an unknown sender, the first four also look identical to general fanmail and questions that I get from my blog, which are not as urgent as media requests.

You don’t need to dance around the fact that you’re requesting an interview or looking for consulting services: I’m used to it. In fact, I have filters set up in gmail to label emails by topic (for example, emails containing interview, journalist, media request always get flagged as media), but you might be surprised at how often they don’t get tripped — especially in second emails from journalists I’ve previously talked with, since those don’t contain “Hi, I’m a journalist working on…”. Even if I know you already, summarizing your entire query in your subject line is still best practices for time-sensitive requests.

I often find it helpful to write the whole email first before writing the subject line, which means I can look back at the whole content of the email and think about how to summarize it concisely in less than a dozen words. Also think about how this subject line is going to “age” through the course of the email thread: keywords (XYZ news emoji media request) are generally better than full sentences (Will you do an interview with XYZ news about emoji?) for this reason. “Will you…” looks silly when we’re following up after the interview has already happened and yet it does make sense to keep all emails about a particular interview in the same thread.

You may feel like you’re being rude, that approaching a subject more delicately is more polite, or that if I knew what was truly in your email then I wouldn’t want to open it. I assure you, for busy people who receive a lot of unsolicited email, the most polite thing you can do is to help us triage our inboxes more effectively. The kind of cold email I am least excited to open is the kind with the vaguest subject line. If you don’t think I’d be interested in your request when stated baldly, that may be a sign you shouldn’t be sending the email at all, but it’s never a sign that you should cloak it in mystery.

Editors and radio producers, keep doing what you’re doing, your subject lines are generally excellent. People who are new to cold email, this guide is for you. Your other correspondents will also appreciate it.