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Startup PR: A Journalist’s Advice for Seed-Stage Companies Seeking Press Coverage
Editor’s note: Unlike the Ubers and Airbnbs of the tech startup world, seed-stage companies don’t typically have the valuations, awareness, or traction typically associated with press coverage. That said, coverage is important, and early-stage companies would be wise to work with local press in addition to national. Below, we interview Lauren Landry, a journalist who covered the Boston innovation economy for four years prior to her recent move to Northeastern University.
NextView Ventures: It’s easy to see how larger startups with serious funding, traction, and brand awareness can generate at least a reasonable amount of press coverage. But if an entrepreneur is entirely flat-footed without any media connections or huge numbers just yet, how should they approach a journalist with their story?
Lauren Landry: Like a human. I know that sounds a bit odd, but the first question I always ask people — entrepreneurs, especially — is, “Why?” Entrepreneurs put their livelihood on the line, and I want to know why they took that risk. So I encourage people to make that human connection. Tell me in a concise way, and likely with some bullet points, why what you’re doing matters. Make me want to drop everything to pick up the phone and call you.
NVV: Tactically, what’s the best way seed-stage startups should reach out to journalists? And should they do this one by one, offering an exclusive story?
LL: Admittedly, it depends on what the startup is looking for. Do they want national media attention, or do they want to start local? And if they want to start local, who’s their target demographic? Each outlet has a different audience and approaches news with a unique tone, meaning entrepreneurs need to determine what they want to get out of the piece, whether it be name recognition, signups, etc., before they start pitching.
Once they have that, I suggest emailing in priority order. It can be the same story — just make sure the research is there and that you’re catering to each publication’s audience. Look at the last 20 or so stories they published and tweak accordingly.
As for exclusives: As much as I used to love getting them, they do have the power to burn bridges. Once journalists realize they are not your number-one priority, it’s likely you won’t be their’s down the road either. Some journalists only write stories if they are an exclusive, however, so ask yourself how much having that particular person pen the piece matters. Maybe it will, or maybe you should do some more shopping around.
NVV: What are some of the biggest mistakes startups make when pitching their companies?
LL: Too often, startups rely on buzzwords. I don’t want you to tell me in your pitch that you are “disrupting” an industry. I want your pitch to be so compelling that when I’m done reading it, I have come to that conclusion myself. If I haven’t, you’ve already over-promised and under-delivered — not the best first impression to be making.
If it’s not buzzwords, it’s usually the “Uber for X” problem. I understand why companies do it — they want to sound relevant. But if you need to use another company’s name to explain what you do, you’re doing it wrong. I interviewed Peter Thiel in September, and I think he said it best: “The something of somewhere is the nothing of nowhere. ‘The Warby Parker of shoes’ is like ‘the Harvard of North Dakota.'”
NVV: What was the best attempt at approaching you to pitch a story? What was the worst?
The best approach, ultimately, didn’t require any pitching. There was one startup I had wanted to write a profile on, but the founder kept saying, “It’s not time yet.” The night before the team was set to announce its Series A, however, he called and said, “You ready to write that profile now?”
He didn’t want money to be the story — just a part of it. And admittedly, I never got a thrill out of writing funding announcements. There was rarely every any meat there. So the next morning, I got to publish an in-depth look at the [aforementioned] company, while everyone else was regurgitating a press release. It was a win-win situation.
As for the worst, there’s nothing that used to bug me more than when entrepreneurs would pitch me by sending links to what other outlets had already written about them. Now, not only did I look behind, but the company was proving I wasn’t its go-to choice. Why stop what I’m doing when there are others out there who want me to tell their story first?
NVV: In the first example above, it sounds like you already wanted to write about a company ahead of time. What if a founder has no prior connections to journalists? Should they pay things forward by helping you scoop stories, sharing your articles on social, or something else to start that relationship?
LL: I suggest entrepreneurs go through their network and see who they might have in common with the person they’re trying to pitch. Can that person make the connection? I’m more likely to open an email if it’s coming from a trusted source, whether that be a fellow entrepreneur I previously covered, a professor, or an investor.
Of course, a cold email needs to come in from someone somewhere, but those never really bother me if the person is concise, to-the-point, and knows who he or she was pitching.
NVV: How fully baked should a pitched story be? Should it be a quick idea, a blurb, or a final draft?
LL: I want to know why I should care in no more than two paragraphs. If you sell me in those, I’ll visit the media kit that you’ve (hopefully) included that provides more information. Feel free to send ideas on an angle but, ultimately, know that I want to decide how the story gets told.
NVV: What’s the right way for entrepreneurs to use Twitter and other social media to interact with journalists?
LL: I want people to be retweeting my stuff because they care about what I have to say, not because they want press. So there’s no need to butter me up first. The reality is, you can pitch me via Twitter, but I’m likely to redirect you to email anyway. It’s hard to get a pitch across in 140 characters, and I’d rather receive one email than multiple tweets.
If you’ve emailed me though, you don’t need to tweet at me 30 seconds later to tell me that — I’ll see it. Give me at least 48 hours, if it’s not time-sensitive news, before you’re following back up.
NVV: Can social be a useful starting point at all, or does it actually hurt and feel spammy?
LL: I don’t mind if people tweet at me to tell me they have company news and ask for my email address. But if the first and only time I hear from someone on Twitter is because he or she has company news, it does feel a bit disingenuous.
There’s a human on the other side of the screen.
NVV: Pitches aside, what would cause you to cover a company organically? What would cause you to approach them, rather than vice versa?
LL: It was likely one of two factors: The company either (A) had a champion behind them whom I trusted or (B) I encountered one of the founders and we just clicked. There are some people you meet who you know just have it. And if I wasn’t meeting those people firsthand, I wanted to make sure I was finding out who they were through my network Starting out, when I would meet someone awesome, I would always ask at the end of the interview if they could give me the names of five people they thought were equally awesome. I built a lot of my network that way.
A champion at a company could come in different forms. For some, it’s a professor or fellow entrepreneur. Since I focused primarily on campus innovation, I would often reach out to, say, John Gallaugher from Boston College or Neal Doyle from the Harvard Innovation Lab and say, “Which student startups do you think are ‘the next big thing’ that people might not know about yet?” Whatever startups they mentioned, I would reach out to personally — no introduction required — because I trusted their judgment. That’s how I got to know companies like Drizly or myLINGO. There are other startups that, if I saw a big-name advisor or investor on board, I’d be more inclined to reach out to as well.
One thing I’d reiterate is that it’s important to build relationships — and even more important to retain them. “It’s who you know” couldn’t ring more true, and there are entrepreneurs who, over time, could email me and I’d drop what I was doing because there was a mutual respect there, cultivated over many months or years.
You can follow Lauren on Twitter @LaurLandry.