The trip sounds perfect: A week in Hawaii, with round-trip airfare, lodging in Waimea and Hilo, and activities such as stand-up paddleboarding and snorkeling paid for by the Hawaii Tourism Authority, including several meals at top-notch restaurants. The organization is accepting full-time journalists and freelancers, and the timing fits right into your schedule.
But then the last line of the description leaps out like a villain from the closet in a scary movie: Letter of assignment required.
This whole “travel for free” thing can seem like a bit of a vicious circle, right? You need an assignment letter to be accepted on a press trip. But in order to get an assignment letter, you need to have been published already in order to establish relationships with editors who will give you assignment letters.
Well, yes and no. Your best bet for getting an assignment letter is to ask an editor you have been working with, but that’s not always possible, especially if this is your first story. The truth is, there are editors out there who will give you assignment letters without having worked with you before, but they are rare, and you need to know how to approach them. Also remember that you want to send a request for an assignment letter only to publications that allow you to write stories from free trips.
First, though, let’s talk about what an assignment letter is: This document informs the people running a press trip that you have been given authorization to go on the trip on behalf of the publication, because the publication confirms that you will write about the trip, and the publication is saying that it intends to publish the story.
It’s important to keep in mind that an assignment letter is not a legally binding contract. It simply states that the publication plans to run the story. You need to have a separate conversation with the editor about a contract in order to negotiate your fee and other issues. That said, for a tourism bureau, a convention and visitors bureau or any other sponsor of a press or “familiarization” trip (also known as a FAM trip, for short), an assignment letter is often the final vetting process to be considered for a trip.
The assignment letter from an editor usually includes:
- Your name
- A request for you to be included on the press trip and a line confirming that you indeed are on assignment for the publication
- Any special requests, such as access to specific people for interviews
- An estimate as to when the story will run and the anticipated focus, and whether it will be in print or online (or both), as well as requests for photography and video, if those are part of the package
- Contact information for the editor in case there is a need for follow-up
If you already have published a story, requesting an assignment letter from the editor you have worked with is a matter of deciding how formal the request needs to be, and then proceeding accordingly. If you have progressed to the level of informal, back-and-forth chatting with your editor, then an email with a link to the press trip’s website or a copy of the details dropped into the email, with a short synopsis of the story you plan to write and a timeline for doing so, should suffice.
However, if you are still on a more formal basis with your editor or you never have been published before, then the situation calls for a query (aka pitch) format, with the beginning of the email set up just like a regular query. Hook the editor with a compelling first sentence that grabs him or her with why this story needs to be written and why it is ideal for the publication, and then offer 2-3 sentences that sum up the general idea. Describe anything else you can offer, such as photos or video. Instead of finishing the query with a request for story consideration, though, you want to say something like this:
I am in consideration for a press trip to write this story, and I respectfully am requesting your assistance with an assignment letter, please. The details are as follows:
Then include either a link to the press trip or drop in the exact wording of the press trip, with the contact information that the editor needs to write the letter. Thank the editor, include your contact information, and then, fingers crossed!
You should send this request to more than one editor (the more, the better, in fact). Don’t worry that you will offend any of them. It would be unusual for one of them to write the letter without letting you know first, and if you do get more than one positive response, you will have the ideal scenario – and may the best publication win the right to publish your story!