For startups trying to attract media attention, it’s never been more difficult. The sheer number of new tech hopefuls launching everyday means that it’s an impossible task for a single reporter to vet them all. Factor in faster news cycles, and the smaller amount of reporters covering wider beats, and you can begin to understand why reporters hate time wasting.
Nothing, these days, is a bigger time suck than the unsolicited, generic email pitch clogging up reporter mailboxes — unless it’s the dreaded cold call. And yet, companies still send them and still call. At a discussion on how startups should approach reporters at Mike Butcher’s Europas tech conference in London yesterday, Robin Wauters, the editor of Tech.eu, and Monty Munford, freelance writer for the Telegraph and the Economist, declared that this method of reaching out to reporters “is broken.” Well and truly. In fact, it’s not unheard of for some reporters to receive 500 generic email pitches as well as a couple of unsolicited calls a day.
So, how then should a startup try to get a reporter's attention? According to Wauters and Munford speaking to a packed room, it’s actually quite basic: be polite, know your story and how to tell it, help them do their jobs better by hitting them up with news that’s not just about your company, and yes, offer to take them out for a drink (as long as it’s not coffee).
Specifically, here are some of their tips on approaching reporters:
Create a Relationship Before You Need Them: It used to be that reporters cultivated sources, but now more than ever reporters want you to cultivate them. Most reporters complain they simply don’t have the time, or as Wauters put it too many startups to chase and to little time to sift through and write about all of them. How do you cultivate reporters? Ask them out for a drink and talk about things other than your own company. Maybe you’re in a particularly interesting industry that’s being upended by tech, or you can add colour to an ongoing story in your sector. As Wauters said, “Help journalists become better at their jobs.”
Call Me, Maybe? This is another age-old question that doesn’t have an answer, down to the fact that most journalists have different tolerance levels on how they like to be contacted. Wauters flat out hates phone calls. It’s the ultimate time-waster for him (all that blah blah blah small talk!) — so don’t even try. Munford, on the other hand, doesn’t mind them, but did say he’d prefer to be messaged first, as in “Are you free to take a call?” It’s also fine to contact the reporter to ask how they’d like to be contacted.
Use Embargoes Sparingly: Reporters don’t like embargoes. They hate the orchestrated release of information and the feeling they are puppets of some large media machine. Typically, you have to be a pretty hot company that everyone has to write about to constantly get away with this. Why do PR’s use them if they are so hated? For PRs, embargoes aren’t so much about controlling the information, but trying to ensure the news gets covered by as many outlets as possible. PR’s know that if one site gets the news ahead of another, a competing site is much less likely to pick up the news, a fact that Wauters confirmed. Yet, reporters don’t want to do embargoes either. It’s a vicious circle. The only advice is to weigh up carefully the news you’re sharing and to consider whether it's newsworthy enough that it will get covered widely on a non-exclusive basis, or to ensure that who you give your exclusive has the widest targeted audience reach.
Should You Even Bother with a Press Release? The press release is another convention reporters hate. Munford’s particular objection was with the superlative language and phrasing — revolutionary this, groundbreaking that, and the much loathed, “excited to …and passionate about…” Strip out the buzzwords, advises Wauters, and your release should still be able to communicate what your company has achieved or is trying to do.
But should you forgo them altogether? I personally did not mind press releases when I was a reporter, especially if it saved me from hunting far and wide for fact checking - did I spell everyone’s name right? Did I get the numbers correct? Did I get certain dates right? Munford suggested they be written differently. A visual, interactive one could be posted to your company blog with further links to even more information. I still think they’re necessary as an “on the record,” document, but it’s true that it’s a very rare story that gets written from a release picked up from "the wire".
Have a Good Product, Show Proof of Concept: “Have a good product” is obviously a hard one. Everyone, of course, thinks they have a good product. But reporters want to see that you have “proof of concept”. Proof of concept for a reporter usually means sharing numbers, which sometimes a company isn’t quite ready to do. But this leads to a question asked by TrustedHousesitters.com founder and CEO Andy Peck. In particular, why wasn’t anyone interested in them as a revenue-making startup and why were reporters seemingly obsessed and only interested in covering startups that had scored funding rounds? In the absence of proof of concept, journalists view funding rounds as vetting from people willing to put their money where their mouth is — never mind the number of startups that have failed despite being funded. (To be fair, it was unclear how and why Peck couldn't interest tech reporters, especially as he's got plenty of consumer press).
Know How to Tell Your Story: This is one that seems shockingly obvious: know how to tell your startup’s story. Who and what are you and your company? How and why did your company get started? It’s sometimes the case that if you can’t show proof of concept, but you can tell a good story, you’ll get some coverage. This happens more than you think in tech reporting, especially if reporters are writing on a very “cutting edge trend” (a few years back this was crowdfunding) and want to gather up examples of who’s venturing into this new territory. But if you can’t show proof of concept and can’t tell a good story, your pitches are doomed.
Some Basic Housekeeping: Learn how to spell and use grammar correctly. Munford’s pet peeve is the seemingly ongoing confusion between “your” and “you’re”. (Though, apparently, grammar mistakes are not necessarily your fault; it’s the way your brain is wired for language). He also asks you be polite and if he turns you down, don’t keep pestering him. How long should you follow up with them? Up to two weeks is the norm for them, then it’s on to the next story.