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A Journalist’s Perspective on How to Earn Press for Your Company

Leah Fessler
December 7, 2020 · 4  min.

Most founders know the value of publicity, but earning press can be a massive headache. The media world is notoriously difficult to navigate from the outside, and working with PR agencies can be even more of a black box. When I joined NextView Ventures as an investor after building my career as a journalist, I knew that helping founders more effectively engage with reporters would be among my top priorities.

Prior to NextView, I worked as a journalist at Quartz, where I regularly covered early-stage founders and companies with a focus on the intersections of gender, race, culture, and technology. I frequently fielded pitches from founders and tech-oriented PR agencies, and to be honest, I auto-deleted most of them. Not because the companies or agencies were inherently bad or boring, but because the narratives weren’t well-framed, and the fit wasn’t interrogated.

While there’s no silver bullet to sparking a journalist’s interest, simple mindset and behavioral adjustments can significantly boost your chances. Before sharing tips, I want to clarify a potentially harsh reality: Journalists don’t owe you anything. They’re usually overstretched and underpaid, and if they don’t respond to you, that’s their prerogative. I don’t say this to intimidate founders or sound mean. I say this to remind you that reporters are humans too — and even if you’re building the most interesting product on the market, it may not be the right story, or the right moment for whoever you’re pitching. And that’s okay!

Now, on to the help. Below is my top advice for behaviors to avoid — and how to fix them — when pitching journalists on your company. These tips set a baseline to help ensure your emails are strategically oriented toward respecting journalists’ work, and positioning your company in a positive and intriguing light.

Don’t tell the reporter what the story is

Yes, you know your businesses, market, and growth opportunities better than any reporter ever will. But that does not mean telling them what to write will be convincing. Usually, it’s the opposite. Instead, think of your pitch email as setting the table, then letting the reader know what’s on the menu — not immediately serving the dinner. Journalists are interested in larger market trends, and it’s fascinating to hear why and how the problem you’re solving arose, rather than simply cutting to your solution. We care about context.

Don’t intentionally ignore competition

Even the best ideas have been thought of before. Founders who think they’re the only one doing or thinking about their problem come across as arrogant and ignorant. Instead of pretending like your competitors or failed companies in your space don’t exist, lean into the larger market narrative, and your differentiation within it. It’s okay to admire competitors, too; you can be confident that any reporter who covers your company is going to aptly research market competition, and mention it. It’s in your best interest to own your company’s narrative and market positioning so to sound simultaneously confident and self-aware.

Do your research on the reporter or publication!

Not all reporters are the same. Not all tech publications will care about your story. I cannot tell you how many pitches I’ve received that were intended for someone else, or lacked a name entirely (“Dear XX, Have you heard about the latest product in Femtech?” = immediate sigh).

It’s also common to receive pitches that have nothing to do with a journalist’s beat, or areas of interest. To me, that’s a clear indicator that you put me, along with many of my peers, on blast. Not a great look. Instead, take the time to read the work of whoever you’re pitching, find the best fit, and reference your research in the pitch. Link to relevant past articles — not just the most recent piece a reporter wrote. When a founder links to a recent piece I wrote with context on how it relates to their vision, I am far more likely to keep reading and respond.

Don’t count yourself out of the narrative

PR pitches can hurt to read because more often than not, they’re impersonal. Reporters want to know the who and the why behind the what. We want to hear about the bright sides and the dark moments. A robotic success story translated through a PR person who isn’t in the weeds on your business is just boring. Instead, share your story (briefly!), noting why you were motivated to build your business. This approach is especially powerful if you have an authentic narrative about founder-market-fit. Journalists are always thinking about how to frame their stories, and a powerful story is one of the best tools in our kit. Personally, whenever I consider a story, I’m thinking about that first line — how would I open this narrative? You can help me out by speaking from the heart.

Don’t freak out about timing

Founders who are stressed about when they should reach out to press ought to keep in mind that journalists are looking for stories all the time, we don’t churn out pieces overnight,  and the world doesn’t read nearly as much as you think they do. Unless there was recently a major scandal or sale in your industry, you’ll probably overthink it if you try to time your press reach outs based on industry events. If a publication covered an adjacent company last week, that doesn’t mean they’ll ignore you this week.

Instead, focus on giving reporters sufficient leeway. If you’re working with an exclusive, give at least a week’s notice. (It is annoying, not incentivizing, to receive an email on Sunday night saying “this exclusive embargo will expire on Monday morning.” Please remember that we have editors, and that the pitch process is rarely instantaneous.) If you’re reaching out around a holiday, once again, remember that journalists are humans with families and lives too. Time is your friend not your enemy — give us more of it. It takes longer to craft a story than you may imagine.

Don’t underestimate the power of relationships

It’s often said that you should build relationships with the press before you want them to write about you. I get that this is somewhat frustrating advice. If this is done inauthentically, this “relationship building” is just weird. Instead, build relationships with reporters by being genuinely useful. Offer to be a source in your area of expertise — whether that’s startup leadership writ large, the future of work, how consumer businesses are fending off Apple and Amazon, etc. Let us know that you’re always available to speak to on background, or on the record about your industry or relevant trends. Drop your cell number, and make yourself available. Also, read and amplify journalists’ work — whether on Twitter, Linkedin, Instagram, Clubhouse, or TikTok, a little flattery can go a long way.

These tips are pulled from a recent AMA I did with NextView Ventures portfolio founders. If you have follow up questions, please feel free to reach out: @LeahFessler