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How to Pitch: Jacob Dean, Food and Travel Freelancer

Jacob Dean fell into food writing without really trying, leading him to cover travel as well. His love of culture has fostered this career, allowing him to cover places that might not normally be on the radar of most publications. His freelance work largely supports underdogs in the travel industry. “Chefs particularly in the U.S. can be easy to access but when you go oversees a lot of those chefs don’t even have websites. They’re using sites like Facebook,” he said.

This quest to tell their stories has led him to grapple with ideas like authenticity, a loaded term to Dean. “It’s like, authentic to who?” he asked. He seeks honest stories about people who are just living their lives, doing what they’ve been doing for years, and who have little access to the media to share their stories. We spoke to him to learn a few key takeaways about working with freelancers, especially in this post-COVID-19 environment.

Food & travel industry struggles

For writers like Dean, the industry was collapsing – or at least changing – well before COVID-19 arrived. He described how freelancers were losing jobs and publications were cutting back, giving priority to in-house staffers. “As a freelancer, I got presented with a contract the other day that is incredibly manipulative and really, some of the worst terms I’ve ever been offered. But what other choice do you have?”

These struggles are not new for Dean, but he does think it’s getting worse in recent years. “I wish I had better news but its challenging out there right now,” he said.

Looking forward

Despite shuddering publications and slashed budgets, Dean is hopeful in a lot of ways about the state of the media. He is confident that the travel industry and the writers that cover it will still exist in the near future. How that looks, however, remains unknown. DCI’s original research provides some insight, but things are changing so fast.

“I don’t think there’s a question of there not being any travel writing, it just might end up being hugely consolidated and who knows what that really looks like, and who’s paying for the content? You know, it’s just very much unknown.”

Pitching positively

Dean doesn’t always know what he’s looking for, but he knows what he doesn’t want. If a pitch has nothing to do with his expertise, he deletes it. “If I get a personalized email that looks like I was actually selected by the publicist that’s a big plus. That says the publicist knows what they’re doing and has put in a little bit of effort at least to vet their list,” he said.

The takeaway? Do your research and pitch thoughtfully and purposefully.

For Dean, knowing that a publicist has done their homework signals all sorts of greenlights. It means a smoother working relationship, more efficient communication, and likely better results. Publicists who provide sources and information easily and willingly are necessary, and Dean trusts them more if they approach him in a way that shows that they have done their research on him first. “They help to provide sources or information about whatever they’re pitching, and if the pitch is bad then it really throws into question how good the information is going to be,” he said.

He also suggests keeping pitches and press releases short – a few paragraphs maximum. A link to images is also preferable to bulky attachments when it comes to things like photos. Providing everything upfront is almost always preferable. “I wrote a story recently that included the link to the photo assets in the pitch and that was great because I didn’t have to ask for it and I sent it to my editor and we had the rights, so that worked out great,” he said.

And Post COVID-19?

From the onset of the pandemic, Dean watched as publications suspended their food and travel coverage. Advertisers and budgets all seemed to disappear. Without formal notification from many editors, Dean and other freelancers heard through the proverbial freelance grapevine.

“There were no emails from editors giving a heads up, you just sort of heard through freelancers talking to each other or groups like ‘Studyhall’ where there was this wave of cancellations and stories being suspended and then publications went out of business or just completely fired all freelancers, but editors didn’t let anybody know,” he said.

Dean experimented with virtual trip coverage without much success, but routines have begun to normalize already. Many publications are moving away from COVID coverage and back to their more normal topics. Recovery is happening, slowly. “For travel [publications], they’re still trying to figure out what that coverage is going to look like,” he said.

Moving forward, economic recovery overall will largely dictate how quickly travel returns, Dean thinks. While big companies will weather the storm, smaller ones may face more difficulties, though he also believes they’ll have opportunities to provide more intimate, worry-free experiences. “For destinations, there’s so many unknowns but I think the appetite for travel will be extraordinary,” he said.

On disclosure post-COVID-19

One thing that he believes will change moving forward is that press trips will become less accepted simply as fun perks for freelance writers and more as pivotal components to their work.

“There are a lot of freelancers that treat press trips as a form of compensation, and don’t let their editors know,” he said. Undisclosed press trips violate FDC guidelines on social media, for example, and Dean is concerned that undisclosed trips will go unchecked as destinations are increasingly footing journalists’ trips moving forward.

Food and travel publications have no money to send their writers away, but travel is still a requisite for good storytelling. “I think there’s going to be a huge need for that tab to get picked up by the destinations but right now there are so little enforcements of those disclosure rules, and journalists who don’t disclose on media or to their editors, that I think it will reach a breaking point,” he said. Press trips that target journalists more purposefully and thoughtfully are likely to be the winners moving forward, and freelancers like Dean are on board when they happen again. See clips and examples of his work on his site, Jacob Dean Writes.

Working with food and travel journalists and influencers, and doing it right, will forever be a challenge for travel PR. It’s a challenge that DCI has mastered time and again. Get in touch with Kayla Leska at [email protected] to learn how our 60 years of public relations can benefit your destination. Featured image photo credit: Jacob Dean.

Written By

Symeria Palmer

Symeria is a publicist with a focus on generating earned media coverage travel, lifestyle and luxury brands. She also serves as co-chair of DCI's Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) initiative.

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