Photo by Jon S
Now I’m at Google I don’t get to talk to reporters, which is a shame because they’re a lot of fun. When I was doing startups I learned a lot from hanging out with them, because they’re generally very smart, curious people who have a lot wider perspective on what’s happening than anyone else. I even dabbled in writing articles myself at the old ReadWriteWeb site many years ago.
I was talking to a startup founder recently, and realized she didn’t actually understand the basics of what a journalist’s job is like. Knowing the day-to-day routines and constraints on reporters is essential if you’re going to do a good job helping them cover what you’re doing. Here’s my advice, based on my personal experiences over the last few years. I’d love to hear more from other people too, since I think this is far from the final word on the subject!
Connect Early and Selectively
Most founders want to wait until they hit a milestone they consider significant, and then mail-blast every high profile journalist they can find an email for. Every reporter’s inbox is piled up with so many of these every day that they’re almost never even read. Every writer has their own areas of interest, and their own long-term storylines about the tech world, and you first need to identify a handful of people who might truly care about what you’re doing, long before you’re looking for a story. Connect with them on Twitter or story comments, chat to them at conferences, and communicate your own enthusiasm about the things they care about. Don’t be a stalker, just be human. They’re in their jobs because they are interested in this new world we’re building so connect with them on that level.
If you do start to build a relationship, one of the most helpful things you can do is provide quotes or off-the-record background for their stories. The key here is that they usually are up against a very tight deadline, they might need to submit in a matter of minutes, so drop everything and get back to them immediately. Make sure you know if what you’re saying will be quoted, or if it’s “on background”, before you say it! You can’t take back an ill-considered quote just because you regret it later.
Having quotes is essential for almost any story, since they’re the evidence to back up the writer’s version of events. Make sure you listen carefully to the reporter’s questions too, they’ll often give you an idea of what angle they’re interested in, so you can focus your response to fit. Be honest – having a quote that disagrees with someone else or the conventional wisdom can sometimes make an even better story than a confirmation.
Let the Story Emerge
A friend of mine used to curse about all the ’round number’ pitches that endlessly filled her inbox – “FooBar.com has reached 100,000 users!”. They’re boring for everyone outside that company. Only slightly better are fund-raising announcements, or new product features. What journalists care about are stories that readers will actually be interested in, and those need to be entertaining. Drama, surprise, tragedy, hope, and humor are all vital parts of the stories that engage people, so you have to let the journalists into the lives of your startup and let them decide what the real story is. It might be something you’re embarrassed by, like being turned down by every VC but finding alternative ways of staying afloat, or that you expanded too early, went through painful layoffs, but are now turning the corner. It might be something you don’t think about because you take it for granted, like that you have a great working environment for disabled people, or take interns from the local community.
Good reporters love getting to know people and teasing out the stories their readers will want to hear, so let them do their job and don’t bombard them with your own ideas, because you lack their perspective on what’s interesting. If you really are the next Facebook the stories about how you’re crushing it will come, don’t worry, but in the early days you need all the coverage you can get.
Everyone knows blogging’s been dead for years, but there’s no substitute for writing short-form articles in your own voice and publishing them yourself, and it actually helps journalists you’ll deal with in a lot of ways too. When you speak to them about a topic you’ve already blogged about, you’ll be far more articulate and quotable because you’ll have already worked through the ideas on paper once already. You’re also giving them something to link to in their articles as evidence to back up their own arguments. If you develop even a small audience on your blog, it’s actually useful for journalists to know you’re likely to link back to their own coverage, and so drive more readers in their direction. Any graphics or data you’ve produced can be very useful to quickly illustrate their stories too, especially about trends. Journalists tend to be voracious readers, so writing regular interesting posts is a great way to build a relationship as well, and it’s even better if you reference their work and engage their arguments. Your posts may end up sparking ideas for stories too, and if one’s got a lot of shares on social media that’s strong evidence people find the underlying topic interesting.
I have never found PR firms helpful*. When I was on the other end of their pitches, I saw how much of a negative reaction their formulaic emails got from other reporters. I see them as middle managers inserting themselves between journalists and the founders they actually want to speak to, and I’ve run across too many who make their money by pandering to founder’s egos without helping the business. It’s possible it all makes sense in the corporate world, but as a founder you need to build your own direct relationships, and if you do have to cold-email somebody, at least make it a personal note in your own voice.
Think of it like dealing with investors, it’s not something you can delegate when you’re starting out. Reporters want to get heartfelt quotes from un-coached entrepreneurs, not rehearsed soundbites from someone sitting with a handler, and just the hassle of arranging interviews through a third-party can put them off. It does feel risky, but as an early-stage startup the reward of good coverage is so valuable, you need to take the plunge.
Focus on Your Work
Success in other areas makes good PR possible, and good coverage is a force multiplier, but PR shouldn’t take up more than a small percentage of your time as a founder. You can charm reporters all you want, but if you’re not doing anything fundamentally interesting, you won’t get a good story. Even if you do get coverage, if your product or business model don’t work it won’t help your traction. Journalists know you have a job to do, and would much rather you come back to them less frequently with amazing things to show, than spend all your time on little stories at the expense of everything else.
(*) The only situation I’d recommend getting help is if you find yourself in the center of a scandal, like Alasdair Allan and I did with the iPhone locationgate problem. There having the wonderful Maureen Jennings from O’Reilly performing traffic control for all the people who suddenly wanted to interview us was a life-saver. She was able to communicate effectively with everyone involved, we’ll forever be grateful to her for all her help!