6 Tips for Building Relationships with Journalists

Posted on Mar 22, 2010 | 75 comments


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

- If you’re Yammer, Mint or RedBeacon (all winners) you’re knighted with wonderful coverage.  Many other great companies are not.

- 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.

  • http://www.wehelpyourock.com/ Mike Walsh

    Great points Mark. I have found that the same approach works with industry analysts, such as Forrester and Gartner. I think the most important point that you covered is to help them do their job better. To point #4, I have found that many journalists appreciate an industry education and value quality input.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes, the same applies to industry analysts, for sure.

  • http://www.twitter.com/justglew Geoffrey Lewis

    This is a great post, Mark.

    … And your point “deposit much in their bank in terms of assistance and trust before you ever luck for a withdrawal” while especially relevant for relationships with journalists, is actually a good principal to follow as much as possible for relationships in general.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    So true!

  • davidkpark

    Sage advice as always. With a little tweak here and there, I think you can write a nice post title, “6 Tips for Building Relationships with Future Investors.”

  • http://www.madmagz.com Youssef Rahoui

    Interesting. In fact, it's somehow about content marketing :) An entrepreneur must provide them with good, useful and trustful content.

  • http://www.wehelpyourock.com/ Mike Walsh

    Great points Mark. I have found that the same approach works with industry analysts, such as Forrester and Gartner. I think the most important point that you covered is to help them do their job better. To point #4, I have found that many journalists appreciate an industry education and value quality input.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes, the same applies to industry analysts, for sure.

  • http://www.twitter.com/justglew Geoffrey Lewis

    This is a great post, Mark.

    … And your point “deposit much in their bank in terms of assistance and trust before you ever luck for a withdrawal” while especially relevant for relationships with journalists, is actually a good principle to follow as much as possible for relationships in general.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    So true!

  • davidkpark

    Sage advice as always. With a little tweak here and there, I think you can write a nice post title, “6 Tips for Building Relationships with Future Investors.”

  • http://www.madmagz.com Youssef Rahoui

    Interesting. In fact, it's somehow about content marketing :) An entrepreneur must provide them with good, useful and trustful content.

  • http://twitter.com/Clarkebar Clarkebar

    I know beggers can't be choosers but building relationships with the right journalists are key. Big conventions or headliner press releases generate a ton of buzz but do they reach your target market? For me time and effort are the scarcest commodities and I question how efficient it is to bark up the wrong tree. A Congressman from Maine should pose at the local lobsterfest, not court a reporter from the Miami Herald.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yeah, that's true. But I've spent a lot of time with journalists in the past who couldn't really help me that much. Aside from the fact that I enjoy hanging out with journalists, I would tell people that perhaps this would be a harmless way of learning to work with journalists so that when you get a chance to hang out with the ones that are really important to your business you'll have experience. But, yes, your comment is accurate.

  • davidmhuffman

    Musicians/Artists can really take this advice as well. I blog about this regularly – you don't just shoot off your blind press release and expect it to get attention. Build a relationship, be a trusted street source for stories, in other words “give to get.”

    Here is my take in case anyone is interested. The pic is kind of morbid, but I feel strongly about it ;)

    http://www.theindielaunchpad.com/blog/2010/1/14

    @davemhuffman

  • http://www.joaobelo.co.uk/ Joao Belo

    Great post. Too many companies forget to leverage the media to get good, in-depth content that only costs them the relationship building effort. Advertising is much more expensive, particularly from a startup point of view, and often has marginal impact.

  • http://www.launchsiliconvalley.org/ Chris Gill

    Re: DEMO & TC50. Startups looking to create buzz around their product launch light want to consider Launch: Silicon Valley, http://www.launchsiliconvalley.org It's run by the non-profit Silicon Valley Association of Startup Entrepreneurs (SVASE) in conjunction with Garage Technology Ventures & Microsoft, and attracts a lot of the same VCs, angels, bloggers, press & TV crews, for a fraction of the cost of DEMO or TC50

  • CamiloALopez

    Nice video Mark, Although it is a couple years old, It is nice to get to know you in video as suppose to written format.

    Developing relationships with journalist is key. I also would add to your point that If you do not have any major press releases you should check in once in while. just send them an email and comment on their work. Tell them what you are up to.

    The release of our linux OS for high performance computing was featured on an article a month ago, and the journalist mentioned us again in another article recently. So I just sent him an email telling him that I red his work and thanked him for mentioning us again.

    It does not cost anythings and it builds a stronger bond!

  • http://twitter.com/Clarkebar Clarkebar

    I know beggers can't be choosers but building relationships with the right journalists are key. Big conventions or headliner press releases generate a ton of buzz but do they reach your target market? For me time and effort are the scarcest commodities and I question how efficient it is to bark up the wrong tree. A Congressman from Maine should pose at the local lobsterfest, not court a reporter from the Miami Herald.

  • http://twitter.com/Clarkebar Clarkebar

    Totally agree. Interacting with anyone based on how much you can personally benefit is a pretty selfish and boring way to go through life.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yeah, that's true. But I've spent a lot of time with journalists in the past who couldn't really help me that much. Aside from the fact that I enjoy hanging out with journalists, I would tell people that perhaps this would be a harmless way of learning to work with journalists so that when you get a chance to hang out with the ones that are really important to your business you'll have experience. But, yes, your comment is accurate.

  • davidmhuffman

    Musicians/Artists can really take this advice as well. I blog about this regularly – you don't just shoot off your blind press release and expect it to get attention. Build a relationship, be a trusted street source for stories, in other words “give to get.”

    Here is my take in case anyone is interested. The pic is kind of morbid, but I feel strongly about it ;)

    http://www.theindielaunchpad.com/blog/2010/1/14

    @davemhuffman

  • http://www.joaobelo.co.uk/ Joao Belo

    Great post. Too many companies forget to leverage the media to get good, in-depth content that only costs them the relationship building effort. Advertising is much more expensive, particularly from a startup point of view, and often has marginal impact.

  • http://www.launchsiliconvalley.org/ Chris Gill

    Re: DEMO & TC50. Startups looking to create buzz around their product launch light want to consider Launch: Silicon Valley, http://www.launchsiliconvalley.org It's run by the non-profit Silicon Valley Association of Startup Entrepreneurs (SVASE) in conjunction with Garage Technology Ventures & Microsoft, and attracts a lot of the same VCs, angels, bloggers, press & TV crews, for a fraction of the cost of DEMO or TC50

  • CamiloALopez

    Nice video Mark, Although it is a couple years old, It is nice to get to know you in video as suppose to written format.

    Developing relationships with journalist is key. I also would add to your point that If you do not have any major press releases you should check in once in while. just send them an email and comment on their work. Tell them what you are up to.

    The release of our linux OS for high performance computing was featured on an article a month ago, and the journalist mentioned us again in another article recently. So I just sent him an email telling him that I red his work and thanked him for mentioning us again.

    It does not cost anythings and it builds a stronger bond!

  • Some journalist

    Great advice for entrepreneurs/execs, Mark. I totally agree with your last point about writing to the author if you think a post was written unfairly, but just wanted to elaborate on that to your readers: Unless the reporting was horrifically factually wrong, don't CC the reporter's bosses. It makes you look whiny and unreasonable, as if you're hoping it results in some kind of punishment. And it's a good way to ensure your future emails “accidentally” get lost in his/her junk folder.

    Keep in mind that reporters usually churn out about half a dozen stories a day, not to mention field phone calls from PR folks, chase down interviews and deal with finicky editors. Though it obviously isn't ideal, sometimes mistakes are made. More people should realize that these mistakes aren't personal, so a quick note to the writer is always appreciated. But throw his/her bosses in the mix and he/she will feel like the fifth grader getting slapped on the wrist by Teacher.

  • http://www.envisionsec.com/ Jared Pfost

    Watching your interview reminded me of another tip I had a hard time with: adapt to the journalist's style. Some are listeners, some interrupters. It's their show and they don't appreciate the talent taking the director's seat. You did a nice job being patient with the interruptions and weaving in your points with the hooks the interviewer gave you.

  • Willis

    This very much matches how people “sell” products to specifying engineers for a project such as a new water treatment plant. Frequently, the manufacturer interested in the sale will write the specifications for the engineer to use (make their job easier) before they even attempt to convince them of the quality of their product.

    There are many industries where the norm is for someone to make someone else's job easier. Best to follow convention in many of these cases. Thanks for the post Mark.

  • http://twitter.com/Clarkebar Clarkebar

    Totally agree. Interacting with anyone based on how much you can personally benefit is a pretty selfish and boring way to go through life.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Well done. For sure.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    How true. I'm surprised that people would even consider this. If you email anybody's boss on any situation you're unhappy about consider that a dead relationship going forward!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks, Jared. Good points and I appreciate the feedback.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Ha. That's kind of funny. In sales I always said, “if you didn't write the spec, it's likely that one of your competitors did. So you're already starting from second place at best!”

  • Some journalist

    Great advice for entrepreneurs/execs, Mark. I totally agree with your last point about writing to the author if you think a post was written unfairly, but just wanted to elaborate on that to your readers: Unless the reporting was horrifically factually wrong, don't CC the reporter's bosses. It makes you look whiny and unreasonable, as if you're hoping it results in some kind of punishment. And it's a good way to ensure your future emails “accidentally” get lost in his/her junk folder.

    Keep in mind that reporters usually churn out about half a dozen stories a day, not to mention field phone calls from PR folks, chase down interviews and deal with finicky editors. Though it obviously isn't ideal, sometimes mistakes are made. More people should realize that these mistakes aren't personal, so a quick note to the writer is always appreciated. But throw his/her bosses in the mix and he/she will feel like the fifth grader getting slapped on the wrist by Teacher.

  • http://www.envisionsec.com/ Jared Pfost

    Watching your interview reminded me of another tip I had a hard time with: adapt to the journalist's style. Some are listeners, some interrupters. It's their show and they don't appreciate the talent taking the director's seat. You did a nice job being patient with the interruptions and weaving in your points with the hooks the interviewer gave you.

  • Willis

    This very much matches how people “sell” products to specifying engineers for a project such as a new water treatment plant. Frequently, the manufacturer interested in the sale will write the specifications for the engineer to use (make their job easier) before they even attempt to convince them of the quality of their product.

    There are many industries where the norm is for someone to make someone else's job easier. Best to follow convention in many of these cases. Thanks for the post Mark.

  • http://twitter.com/KurtyD Kurt Daradics

    I'd add that it's easy to make a journalist's job easier by simply understanding what ingredients they need to craft a story and always be sure to take the time to spoon feed it to them in a way that is digestible. If you want press, then get interested in the notion of storytelling and what it is that makes ideas spread. In other words speak to their listening. We did this recently with a journalist, and had a story written about us in a major news wire, all within 24 hours of meeting the person. It helped that one of our advisers was friends with him and made a very warm intro too.

    Also a big lesson we've learned is that no matter how chummy you might be with journalists, they have lots of pressures to perform and nothing is ever 'off the record,' no matter how good of friends you might be. Think about it, they're consuming so much info, everyone is hitting them up, how are they going to remember you saying “off the record.” Don't say anything to anyone that you wouldn't want getting printing or circulating through back channels that can bite you in the ass, which brings me to my next point.

    A very wise man recently told me, “if all you got is sizzle, then sell it, but at some point you got to deliver the steak.” Now that I think of it Mark, this could be a blog post in of itself…how to make markets and create buzz and still keep it real…

  • shanesnow

    I love this post. As a journalist (finishing my MS at Columbia Journalism School right now) and an entrepreneur, I've been on both sides of the table on this one (sorry for the terrible play on your blog name, haha). Working with sources that understand what we need as journalists to produce constant, consistent, compelling stories is so refreshing. A+ advice, Mark!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Well done. For sure.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    How true. I'm surprised that people would even consider this. If you email anybody's boss on any situation you're unhappy about consider that a dead relationship going forward!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks, Jared. Good points and I appreciate the feedback.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Ha. That's kind of funny. In sales I always said, “if you didn't write the spec, it's likely that one of your competitors did. So you're already starting from second place at best!”

  • http://twitter.com/KurtyD Kurt Daradics

    I'd add that it's easy to make a journalist's job easier by simply understanding what ingredients they need to craft a story and always be sure to take the time to spoon feed it to them in a way that is digestible. If you want press, then get interested in the notion of storytelling and what it is that makes ideas spread. In other words speak to their listening. We did this recently with a journalist, and had a story written about us in a major news wire, all within 24 hours of meeting the person. It helped that one of our advisers was friends with him and made a very warm intro too.

    Also a big lesson we've learned is that no matter how chummy you might be with journalists, they have lots of pressures to perform and nothing is ever 'off the record,' no matter how good of friends you might be. Think about it, they're consuming so much info, everyone is hitting them up, how are they going to remember you saying “off the record.” Don't say anything to anyone that you wouldn't want getting printing or circulating through back channels that can bite you in the ass, which brings me to my next point.

    A very wise man recently told me, “if all you got is sizzle, then sell it, but at some point you got to deliver the steak.” Now that I think of it Mark, this could be a blog post in of itself…how to make markets and create buzz and still keep it real…

  • shanesnow

    I love this post. As a journalist (finishing my MS at Columbia Journalism School right now) and an entrepreneur, I've been on both sides of the table on this one (sorry for the terrible play on your blog name, haha). Working with sources that understand what we need as journalists to produce constant, consistent, compelling stories is so refreshing. A+ advice, Mark!

  • http://twitter.com/PlayOffense David Morey

    RE: “If you’re unhappy fight back fairly”

    Whether it is dealers, customers or regulatory officials, you must recognize that their perceptions create your market reality. And you must also recognize that every detail is important in communications. A brand is the sum of thousands of tiny details; every aspect of operations and communications … every interaction with every constituent group—and they all count.

    No great battle is won on the defensive. Once objectives are set, targets are identified and strategy is in place—you must drive aggressively to take control of the competitive dialogue. And, whatever it takes, you must hold onto control of this dialogue.

    DEM
    http://www.playoffense.com

  • http://foodzie.com Nik Bauman

    Agreed on all points. We have a fairly press friendly business, but we very quickly learned that we could take the relationship farther by asking questions about the journalists needs outside of the current feature.

    We ask:
    What is your the schedule for food related articles?
    We ask about how often are you able to mention us per year?
    What kind of food related content is the hardest for you to get?

    Those questions (and others) have allowed us to continually be a resource for journalists when it comes to artisan food. And when we are being proactive we also know when and how often to pitch each type of content.

  • http://codercofounder.wordpress.com/ Ilya

    Definitely agree that journalists are people. I know, I am married to one.

  • http://twitter.com/PlayOffense David Morey

    RE: “If you’re unhappy fight back fairly”

    Whether it is dealers, customers or regulatory officials, you must recognize that their perceptions create your market reality. And you must also recognize that every detail is important in communications. A brand is the sum of thousands of tiny details; every aspect of operations and communications … every interaction with every constituent group—and they all count.

    No great battle is won on the defensive. Once objectives are set, targets are identified and strategy is in place—you must drive aggressively to take control of the competitive dialogue. And, whatever it takes, you must hold onto control of this dialogue.

    DEM
    http://www.playoffense.com

  • http://foodzie.com Nik Bauman

    Agreed on all points. We have a fairly press friendly business, but we very quickly learned that we could take the relationship farther by asking questions about the journalists needs outside of the current feature.

    We ask:
    What is your the schedule for food related articles?
    We ask about how often are you able to mention us per year?
    What kind of food related content is the hardest for you to get?

    Those questions (and others) have allowed us to continually be a resource for journalists when it comes to artisan food. And when we are being proactive we also know when and how often to pitch each type of content.

  • http://codercofounder.wordpress.com/ Ilya

    Definitely agree that journalists are people. I know, I am married to one.