Press coverage is for achieving goals not getting famous:
Journalists constantly get calls from businesses asking for press coverage. I know, because I used to be one. This approach is completely wrong and won’t get you the results you’re after. If you want to get your story into the news you have to consider what the journalist’s goals are and align yourself.
Journalists work for media companies. These media companies have an audience. The journalist’s goal is to provide that audience with the best stories possible. Journalists want to write timely, factual and informative pieces that are relevant to their audience. That’s it.
So if you approach a journalist who doesn’t cover your topic? This isn’t relevant. If you approach three weeks after your big event? Also not relevant in most cases because your news is out of date. Your story now belongs in history books not the daily newspaper. Again, remember the journalist’s main goal is to publish timely, factual and informative stories that matter to their news organization’s audience.
As for my experience as a journalist, my career began in high school and from there I went around the world working for major news leaders. I was with Bloomberg News’ London Bureau during the financial crisis. I had plenty of contact as a journalist with businesses of all sizes from startups to Fortune 500 companies. Here are my top tips for getting your startup press coverage.
1. Research journalists and publications.
Before you ever speak to a journalist you need to figure out what you want to achieve with it and then set your strategy. This begins with researching individual journalists plus publications that cover news about your sector or industry. Press is only effective when you get your story in front of the audience you want to inform (or motivate to buy your product or invest in your business).
Build a diverse contact list. Don’t just focus on TV press. Sure a three and a half minute interview on breakfast television is great! But, for example, if you are an early stage B2B solution industry press will probably be a much more effective way to reach YOUR target audience (and help the industry press journalist writing the story serve the publication’s readers).
2. Make contact before you want press coverage.
Don’t wait until the last second then start frantically spamming any journalist you can ever remember reading. That isn’t going to work. The best way to get your item picked-up (if it has merit) is to get into the journalist’s list of expert resources BEFORE you want anything. For daily publications, stories are assigned each morning. Reporters only have a few hours each day to research, write and publish their story. This isn’t a lot of time to search for several new sources a day. So offer yourself in advance.
Contact journalists and let them know you follow their reporting and introduce yourself. Don’t ever bluff with this one because it will backfire and you’ll damage your credibility when the truth comes out in conversation. Offer your contact details and let them know they’re welcome to contact you if they need any analysis or quotes for future pieces around your area of expertise. NB: Be prepared to wait. Maybe you’ll get lucky and a relevant story happens a week later but in most cases it might take a few months. Your day will come when you match a source that is needed to produce a balanced piece and the journalist will call you.
3. Set goals for press campaigns.
Press is going to help you take your brand message to the public. It makes absolutely no sense to waste your team’s time and energy (and possibly even budget!) going after coverage if you have no clear goal in mind for what you want to achieve with it. First you need to figure out what’s the point. Then after you know what you want to achieve through press you need to set Key Performance Indicators or KPIs to measure the success of your campaign. Here are some typical campaign goals — do you want coverage to:
* brand build,
* announce a new product/service and be in front of people who might buy it,
* share news of your growth to attract investors?
Knowing what you want to achieve will also help you select the journalists and publications you’ll target for coverage. For example, if you’re a technology company you might contact industry press to announce a new product or service. Meanwhile, if you’ve already had seed funding and are looking to attract VCs for series A, you might focus on the business and financial press to share news about your international expansion.
4. Don’t ask for coverage, offer to share your story.
The absolute worst thing you can do is call a journalist and ask them to publish your story. Fundamentally journalism is the production and distribution of reports on the interaction of events, facts, ideas and people that happen on any given day and that impact society. This means your story has to have merit and as explained above, it must not only fit the journalist’s beat but the news organization’s audience.
Can you see the conflict? A journalist and your marketing team have completely different agendas. The person you have in charge of press wants coverage to achieve a defined company goal but the journalist needs to produce relevant factual reports for their employer’s audience. At media companies the newsroom and the advertising department are two completely separate functions. If you go after press coverage like you’re looking for free advertising, the journalist will tell you to call the ad department, dig into your pockets and buy some space. Approach the process from the journalist’s point of view and you’ll be a lot more effective.
So instead of asking for coverage, offer to share your story with them. Explain why you believe your story is relevant to their audience. Let them know what’s new and timely about your story and why you believe it needs to be published. Tie your developments to a current event if you can — this is called ‘the news peg’. If you have a good peg, you’re more likely to get yourself a good story.
Let me give you an example. During my MBA studies at the University of Cambridge, Reid Hoffman the Founder of LinkedIn, came to visit Cambridge with around 30 of his buddies from the Valley for a youth entrepreneurship event he also co-founded called Silicon Valley comes to the UK (SVc2UK).
It was known that I was a journalist in the Cambridge MBA, so I got asked to advise on press because SVc2UK organizers hadn’t been able to get much traction. From SVc2UK’s point of view, they wanted to get mentioned in the main stream British media so they could attract more young people including students to participate.
I could instantly see the story potential. SVc2UK actually had a lot going for it. In fact, the then British Prime Minister David Cameron not only called SVc2UK a key inward investment initiative for the UK but he also invited the organizers to Downing Street along with young people who won app competitions around the event for a chat about youth entrepreneurship. Additionally, the Entrepreneurs were also invited to attend a special session in Parliament about it too.
But while these points are noteworthy, what made the SVc2UK event newsworthy was when the event launched in November 2011, the British government was also reporting monthly unemployment data and youth unemployment figures were expected to surpass one million. This was a high level of young joblessness in the UK not seen for 25 years.
By tying the event to such a big news peg, SVc2UK got their main stream media coverage. It was picked-up by a number of news outlets and the event made it into the top story of the day which was the downward spiralling youth unemployment figures. It ran on TV news and on news radio across the United Kingdom. It was also written about in features on youth unemployment.
CourseHorse, one of the app competition winners, captured a segement BBC News ran on the young app winners’ visit to Downing Street. The BBC broadcast this segement on the day youth unemployment figures were released. CourseHorse later shared this video recording on YouTube.
Reflecting back, I can remember Reid getting a request from Sky News to do a live interview outside Downing Street around his visit to meet the Prime Minister. Meanwhile, another organizer, Megan Smith who at the time was Google’s VP of New Business Development (she later became President Barack Obama’s United States Chief Technology Officer) also had bids from Sky News to do a live interview from Westminster after the group’s visit to Parliament.
The list goes on and on. In fact if you’d like to see a business feature that many years later has miraculously survived the newsroom website technology upgrades that regular happen to keep up with advances, you can still read this piece on the Sky News website called Entrepreneurs ‘Could Spark UK Job Growth’.
And finally, understand that most news stories are what journalists call ‘planned events’. Newsrooms know in advance they are going to happen and they plan to cover them. My example using unemployment data reporting illustrates how to peg your news to a planned event in order to get coverage. Every journalist who covers unemployment data reporting knows it is going to happen on a regular basis and they prepare for it. At the same time, don’t make your big announcement on a date that you know will have a super heavy planned news agenda if it isn’t relevant to you.
For example, if your country is going to the polls to vote for a leader, you probably don’t want to release your news the next day when everyone is talking about the results. Instead, be strategic and do your best to avoid these big events that don’t allow for most other news stories to make the day’s agenda. At the same time, be prepared for breaking news to replace your story. Unfortunately this happens. Nobody can predict a natural disaster or other immediate events. Don’t get upset, you can’t change global events. Just do the best with what little press you might get.
5. Get media training if you need it.
Always prepare before you give an interview. Make sure that you have clear points you want to get across and know your facts. Be prepared for tough questions and have non-confrontational answers ready. Journalists will push if you’re coming across as shady (that’s their job!) so be honest and if you don’t know the answer to a question tell them “let me double check that with my staff and I’ll get back to you this afternoon”. There’s nothing wrong with double-checking your facts. Journalists will check you so check yourself!
If you’ve been asked to do a broadcast interview of any kind (podcast, radio, television, YouTube etc.) and have very little experience speaking in front of people, get proper media training. This is not the sort of thing you want to do DIY with your bestie on a random Sunday afternoon. The trainer will help you with everything from how to answer questions to what to wear.
If you find yourself in that golden position of being acquired by a publicly traded company, get yourself some more media training. In fact, if you are remaining onboard as an Executive ask for it as part of your acquisition package. Here’s why: entrepreneurs have the luxury being able to talk about almost anything because the finances are privately held. But with a public company, anything you say can influence the share price.
If you’re being asked to participate in an official acquisition announcement, as many entrepreneurs are, you’ll need to be prepared for even tougher questions from the press. You’ll also need to know what you can and can’t say. For example, talking about a customer deal that is about to sign (before it actually signs) can be viewed as market manipulation. Market manipulation is actionable. You do not want to go there. You don’t want to slip and find that you’ve gotten your new employer into a messy investigation totally by accident.
6. Say no to PR extras that won’t help you achieve your goals.
If you hire a PR company to run your campaign they will usually sell you everything you ask for. But sometimes you don’t need EVERYTHING. Again, remember you have to be strategic and define your goals before engaging with a PR agency or journalists.
Here’s a scenario. You’re a European company operating globally but you’ve just made a very big deal in Asia. You want to announce it properly but your team doesn’t have the experience to handle such a big announcement so you hire an agency.
You tell the agency that you want the press release to go into global distribution because you have offices peppered around the world. You also wouldn’t mind press coverage in the US as well because you have an office there. But while you have this office, the US isn’t the bulk of your business. You make it clear that the focus for this campaign is Europe and Asia. However, you think that maybe it would be cool to get into the news in the States even though this deal in Asia will have very little if any impact on your business in the US.
The PR agency will prepare your proposal based on what you’ve told them. They will put a figure on each item. For the sort of US press coverage your asking for they’ll have to engage a stateside partner agency and that will cost you $50,000 alone. (Not a typo, this isn’t a completely made-up scenario).
But here’s the thing: you don’t NEED this US press component because the deal is between Europe and Asia, your US business is currently minimal and this announcement isn’t really going to impact your US business. Additionally, you are already paying for global distribution of your press release so presumably it could get picked-up in the US via agencies anyway. Applying a focused US campaign on top is a pure extra.
Even if you’re the luckiest most over funded startup on the planet, waste is waste. You don’t need to spend this $50,000 because the US doesn’t factor into your strategy for this campaign. Don’t let the fear of missing out cost you extra cash. If you really feel the need to burn $50k why don’t you take $50k and blow it on a staff party to celebrate your success instead? When you view it that way you’re probably thinking “wow that is a lot of money for a party!”. I think you get my point.
It is hard but resist the extras that don’t fit with your strategy.
7. Press will only help you publicize your good points.
Press coverage highlights what’s great about you, it can’t compensate for a bad product or service and it won’t give you what you have not got. In fact it can and often highlight big problems, if you’ve got them.
Know your company’s values, mission and vision so you can clearly articulate your brand and just what it is your doing. Here’s an example. Facebook’s on a mission “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together”. Meanwhile, Amazon’s working “to be Earth’s most customer-centric company, where the customers can find discover anything they might want to buy online”. If you know what these are for yourself, then, you can easily say to people “we’re bringing the world closer together” (Facebook) or “our aim is to become the best e-commerce company in the world” (Amazon). Now people understand what it is your doing and why it is so special.
Go ahead and list a few extra facts beyond your current announcement on your release to give journalists some background understanding of your business and an overview of the current situation. This does not need to be a business encyclopedia. A few clear bullet points and/or an infographic will do. But make sure your information is accurate because journalists will double check what you give them. Remember reporters and news editors are very busy people. They don’t have large amounts of time to spend trying to figure out what’s going on inside an overly complicated press release. Keep it simple.
Embarking on a press campaign isn’t as easy as many startups assume it is but if you do your homework and organize yourself before you begin, you are more likely to get the results you want. My biggest single piece of advice would be to remember it is the journalists’ job to tell factual relevant stories that inform society. You have to fit into this. There is no way around it. Unless of course you want to dig deep into your pockets and visit the advertising department to buy some space.
Now that you’re ready to run your press campaign, read more about how you don’t have to spend a lot of cash to get coverage in my article “How to Build a Startup Press Kit by an Ex-Journalist”.
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Cambridge MBA | Marketing Consultant | Speaker | Author | Ghostwriter