Let’s talk about how startups approach the media.
The easiest way to understand the problem is to compare how founders contact the media with how they connect with venture capitalists.
Founders asking for money hone their pitches and target their audiences. They know it’s better to build a relationship well before they need funding.
No founder would come unprepared to a VC meeting or confuse Bill Gurley at Benchmark with Howard Lindzon at Social Leverage or Fred Wilson at Union Square.
Nor would they delegate the meeting to a junior person, much less an outside agency.
Yet, that is what many do with the media.
CEOs often wait until they have something to announce – a new product or a seed round – before they call a PR agency which handles the “release” to the press.
I spoke to a founder recently about her company’s efforts to raise more capital. I asked if they had been interviewed by any reporters.
“We did TechCrunch!” she said.
I feigned alarm.
“What did you do to them?” I asked.
“We gave them an exclusive on our new funding round.”
“Who gave it to them?” I asked.
Reporters want to hear directly from CEOs or founders or at least senior executives. No journalist wants to get a call from a PR agency.
These days startups say it’s all about “the storytelling.”
So it’s arguably a bit nuts to outsource that part of the job.
I think CEOs in general and startups in particular should approach the media as they do their investors or VCs. That means: targeting key reporters and building long-term relationships.
VCs will ask startups what other investors they have approached.
They should ask founders which reporters they know.
The answer for many would likely be zero.
Often companies don’t feel the need to know reporters until suddenly they do.
Robinhood struggled to explain payment for order flow during the Gamestop meltdown. It was not the ideal moment to develop new relationships.
How can you get more and better media coverage?
I have a six-step plan. Every CEO big or small would benefit from following it. Give yourself at least half a year to let it unfold. You don’t build trust overnight.
You can have a PR firm help you identify the right people, but you cannot outsource the actual connection and conversation or it won’t work.
Also, there are different “brackets” of media just like there are different VCs, with anchor investors ponying up $3 million for the cap table and others coming in at $25,000.
Broadly, there are the national outlets like the New York Times or LA Times; financial newswires like Bloomberg or Reuters; and niche publications, such as local newspapers or newsletters.
Here are the six steps:
1) CONNECT: As you read articles about your industry that are informative, entertaining or insightful, note the byline. Use LinkedIn to connect with the writer.
2) COMMENT: Start commenting on LinkedIn publicly or via Direct Message. Keep it professional. Do not complain or whine. Note what is insightful and/or missing.
3) MEET: Invite the reporter to coffee when you/they are next in New York or LA or wherever. There should be no agenda. It’s not an interview and it is off the record. The point is to build trust.
4) BECOME A SOURCE: Start offering the reporter off-the-record comments or perspective about trends in the industry. The goal is to build the relationship.
5) COMMENT ON-THE-RECORD: Start offering comments about industry trends on the record.
6) ANNOUNCE NEWS: You are now ready to call the reporter when you have a major development such as a new product or deal. They will know and trust you and understand the context of why it matters.
I think it’s obvious and intuitive once you see it. Reporters are stakeholders. If you treat them like an afterthought it will not go well. The media is an institution and people tend to be around for a long time.
Reporters are also not, it should be remembered, your friend. It’s a business relationship. You are careful about what you tell your investors. You should be judicious about what you tell reporters.
The media can play a huge role in accelerating growth or undermining it. It behooves every CEO to develop a “portfolio” of connections in the media industry to help tell their story.