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March 3, 2023

How to write, pitch and 'place' op-ed columns

If you work in public relations, you’re bound to know what “op-ed” means. Even if you don’t, you’ve probably come across one — perhaps without even knowing it.

An op-ed column refers to a piece of written content that is traditionally “opposite the editorial page” of a newspaper. It is an article written by a subject matter expert as a form of commentary, taking a stand on a particular issue and informing readers in the process. Because it is a commentary piece with a particular slant, an op-ed is separate from a news story, which should be an objective piece of reporting (at least in theory).

Photo / Courtesy of Nancy Marshall
Nancy Marshall is the owner of Marshall Communications.

People in the PR industry understand op-eds — and their value — because they work with clients to draft, pitch, and place them. (By “place,” I mean submit an op-ed to a news outlet that then accepts the submission, securing a placement.) Through op-eds, clients can position themselves as thought leaders, leveraging a news cycle to bring their subject matter expertise directly to readers. That thought leadership needs to be legitimate and topical, providing content to the target audience in a timely manner. We call it “newsworthy” in the PR business.

For example, op-eds on Ukraine and inflation are newsworthy right now. Those are two news “hooks” that are important to readers, so thought leaders who are qualified to opine on them are perfectly positioned to have relevant content published. Opinion editors judge that content on its merits, choosing to publish it or not, but newsworthy submissions always stand a better chance than those not tied to current events.

Now, you may be thinking: Why are op-eds even important in the first place? Well, they obviously demonstrate thought leadership, allowing clients to stand out and draw attention. But, on top of that, the opinion page of a newspaper can be the most popular and widely read piece of that publication. To quote former New York Times editor Herbert Bayard Swope, who is considered the grandfather of the op-ed: “Nothing is more interesting than opinion when opinion is interesting.”

In some cases, op-eds can generate millions and even tens of millions of “reads.” They can even influence public policy. Especially with national publications like the Times, the opinion page is prime real estate from a readership perspective.

So how do you reach readers? First, you need to brainstorm a topic, developing an idea that is tied to a relevant news cycle. The news hook can be a recent event, holiday, or something else, but there needs to be one.

4 components of an op-ed

After you brainstorm an op-ed topic, it’s time to draft the piece. Op-eds are generally broken down into four components: The lede, pivot, argument and conclusion. The "lede" should include the news hook, which explains why the argument is timely in the first place. Getting to the argument requires a pivot from the lede to the main talking points, which are then summarized in the conclusion at the end. Ideally, the talking points will include facts and figures, key statistics, and so forth — empirical evidence that can back up your rhetoric.

All in all, op-eds generally range between 500 and 800 words. They are pithy and quick-hitting, but also substantive. They can be shorter or longer, based on a particular news outlet, but I generally consider a 600-word piece to be the sweet spot. Readers can have limited attention spans, so it’s best to be short and sweet with your writing. For instance, I try to keep my paragraphs to five sentences at most.

Once the drafting process is complete, then it’s time to edit, edit, and edit some more! This is very important: The best op-eds go through multiple phases of editing, since a first draft is rarely acceptable for publication (or, as PR professionals call it, “placeable”). I edit first for substance, second for style, and third just to proofread all of the content. You never want to pitch op-eds with grammar or spelling mistakes.

After editing comes pitching—actually reaching out to opinion editors with a final product. But, first, you need to ask: Who is the target audience? And what does the target audience read?

Let’s say that your op-ed has to do with federal legislation being considering in Washington, D.C. With that in mind, The Hill is an example of a news outlet that may be interested in the submission. Securing that placement could reach the most relevant readership. Therefore, you would identify The Hill’s opinion editor and send them the piece, introducing it with a pitch (two to three sentences) followed by the content itself.

If the Hill says “yes,” then your job is done! The placement has been secured and you can share the published version with your client. But, if not, you need to look elsewhere and keep pitching opinion editors until one finally accepts the submission. In this case, news outlets like Roll Call and RealClearPolitics could be other options to consider.

The key is making the pitch — including the op-ed itself — as compelling as possible, so opinion editors have no choice but to say yes. Then it’s all about patience and persistence.

Be patient until an op-ed placement has been secured. Trust your process, but persistently try to achieve the final outcome of publication. After all, your job isn’t done until the op-ed is published and read.

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