I was over at Robert Scoble’s blog Sunday night reading about the “Death of the Great Startup Launch.” I’m not 100% sure that I understood his core thesis but I *think* it was that startup events such as Demo force such a zone of secrecy about what you’re working on (with a threat of being kicked out of the event for leaking your story) that they kill the ability for most companies to dazzle people with a great company launch and doesn’t allow journalists to triangulate with others in the market before going to press. Oh, and Demo charges the startups $18,000. Robert’s article is worth reading.
It got me thinking, which for me is always the sign of a good blog post. I think Robert’s right. Too many startup execs place too much emphasis on the big stage launch. There are many problems with this:
– Your chances of being selected aren’t great
– When you are selected you share the stage with 49 other companies (in the case of TechCrunch50. It is a great show but would be 10x more valuable if it were TC20)
– Most people pay attention to the first 5 companies. Maybe 10. By company 22 it’s hard to remember what any of them did.
– Journalists don’t know enough about your company before the show, don’t have time for proper research, and you will be competing for their time afterward with 49+ other companies that want them to write about you
– So I’ve always advised people that if they do launch at a big show, the most important public relations work they do is after the conference. Use the fact that you were on an anointed list to build credibility when you eventually approach journalists (and VC’s, customers, employees)
But more broadly it got me thinking to one of the biggest mistakes tech executives get into in the first place. They see journalists as a means to and end. They see them as a person who can influence the outcome of their company at a single point in time – when they (the startup) have something important to say. I’ve heard many startup CEO’s (and VCs!) lament the coverage they get from journalists who reported the details unfairly. It’s no wonder many companies don’t get good coverage. Here’s my thoughts on improving your relationships with journalists and as a by-product improving the coverage that they afford you:
1. Have a great product – OK, I know I’m stating the obvious, but being friends with or helping journalists will never get you great coverage (if you’re dealing with a high-quality news organization or blogger) if you have a bad or mediocre product or service. At best you’ll get coverage or avoid getting panned. Don’t put in the time to getting coverage until your product rocks. Guy Kawasaki said it best (paraphrasing), “you can’t do great marketing with a bad product.” Total waste.
2. Know that journalists are human – Again, sounds obvious. But you’d be surprised how much tech folks either hold journalists too much on a pedestal or disdain them. They’re human. Get to know them as human beings. The closest relationships I ever built with journalists were at cocktail parties where we didn’t talk anything about my company. I became quite good friends with a journalist at the Financial Times and eventually helped her as she wrote a book on the venture capital industry. It started socially. The more she got to know more the more she called me for help with stories. The more you connect with them the more you’ll get over the tendency to want to “spin” and the more they’ll trust you when you give them facts. They get BS’d too so much that you shouldn’t take their trust for granted.
3. Understand their needs - You need to understand a journalist’s needs. First, understand their deadlines. Imagine if you had to release your software daily in order to keep your job or to have the traffic numbers you need to earn your paycheck. They are often interested in knowing whether there is a story to be had from their discussion with you. I’ve gone on social lunches with journalists where they’ve brought a small pad of paper and pen and left it on the table. Sort of makes me a bit uncomfortable because I’m thinking, “sh*t, I hadn’t planned anything interesting to say. Are they expecting an announcement out of me?” I don’t think they always are. But as journalists they’re always prepared just in case.
When they are interviewing you for a story, don’t be afraid to ask what the “angle” of the story they’re working on is and how you can best help them with the story. Every great article has an “angle.” The angle of this article is that most people don’t build good relationships with journalists and they should. If I needed third party quotes to support that story I’d be calling journalists to get their opinion on my topic and calling CEO’s to get theirs. In my blog I just save that for the comments where people can say what their perspectives are.
By knowing the angle you know how to better serve their needs when you speak. Make sure you know before talking how much time they have – remember they have to publish frequently. To that end, make sure you also know when they plan to publish your story.
Mostly, I believe that journalists want to be able to have “unfiltered” conversations with real business leaders. Given a choice of your marketing person or talking to you (the founder) there’s no competition. Make yourself available. It is an important part of your job. Not talking to the press is a bit like a politician saying they don’t want to talk to the press because they’d rather save that time for drafting legislation. Might be true, but not in your best interests.
4. Help them better do their job – I’ve always been a big believer that relationships with journalists are a long-term investment. You need to deposit in their bank first. Get to know them when you don’t have a story that is running. Offer to help them with stories they’re working on. Be willing to go on the record with quotes / sound bites. If they want access to people in the industry that you know make sure to help broker the intro – both sides will thank you for it. If you’ve got good ideas for a story – shoot it over to them in an email. If they call you for an interview that has a deadline – be responsive. You’ll be depositing all the way and earning trust.
On many occasions I’ve offered to give 30 minute industry overviews on a tech topic to journalists when they’re not working on a deadline and want to better understand a topic like SaaS, Cloud, LBS, etc. The bottom line – if you enjoy discussions with people, if you enjoy educating and sharing – these conversations will not only form closer relationships but will be enjoyable for you as well.
Robert Scoble interviewed me in 2006 about my startup, Koral. This video will be too long for most of you to want to watch (22 minutes) but provides a good example of how I think about this. We had a far ranging discussion. I wasn’t trying to pitch a tightly controlled message about my company. It was Robert’s show. I wanted to just let him take it where he wanted it to go (while ensuring that I at least got in my points about what Koral did and why it was a benefit).
By the way, don’t forget that all those times you’re quoted in the blogs and press articles helping other people’s stories you’re actually accruing benefit as well by having your name and company listed.
5. When it is your turn you’ll get a fair shot – If you’re helpful to journalists they are far more likely to want to cover you when you have news to share. It’s that simple. Do not equate that with them giving you glowing reviews – you have to earn that. But you’ll likely at least get inches. And remember when you do to understand the angle of their story, understand the key points you want to communicate and make sure to balance those to make the article successful for both of you. Often when the journalist is agreeing to consider writing about you they don’t yet know the “angle” so I always recommend trying to define the angle. Don’t be afraid to be transparent. You can say something like, “I was thinking that you might cover a story like, ‘why today’s mobile ad networks don’t benefit most application companies’ and then work me into that story line. Does that sound right to you or do you want to come at it from a different angle.
6. If you’re unhappy fight back fairly – There is always going to be the time where you get unfavorable press. If you don’t that’s a sure sign that you never really had any success so you’d rather be the person who occasionally gets side swiped. Deal with it gracefully. Write the author and let them know that you understand why they wrote their story they way that they did and your OK with that. But that you’d like the opportunity to clarify a few points so that they can better understand you for next time. If possible, use it as a way to get an in-person meeting to discuss it. At a minimum maybe you’ll have a chance to strengthen your rapport for next time.
Also, remember that this is the era of the blog. Don’t be afraid to write a blog post with their comments in it and point out why you think the actual case is a bit different than what they wrote. Be respectful. If they wrote some good points obviously point those out, too.
Summary: Journalists are people. It turns out that they’re actually quite interesting people. And they spend time with people far more interesting than you or me. So spending time with them can be enjoyable. You can hear all sorts of wild stories and learn much. So any relationship you build with them will be worth it purely at the friendship level. But one day you’re obviously going to want coverage (after all, I don’t hang out much with journalists who cover the healthcare sector). Make sure you deposit much in their bank in terms of assistance and trust before you ever luck for a withdrawal.
If any journalists read this please feel free to add extra tips or disagree with anything I’ve said.