Ready to surf the waves of fame and fortune? Splendid. Let’s go.

How to get your startup covered in the news

I’ve journalisted for what feels like forever, and I estimate I’ve had about ten brazillion press releases come across my desk in that time. To my dismay and confusion the quality of the info I’m receiving has gone in the wrong direction.

On the whole, I reckon only about 10% of press releases I’ve seen are any good. The rest is missing something. So, in order to make my life a lot easier (and yours, too), here’s a handy checklist.

The press pack checklist.

  • It has to be news. If you have nothing to say, then… don’t say it.
  • A headline. Why should the world care about your story? (Top tip #1: if your headline sucks, your release doesn’t get read)
  • A short summary. If you’re struggling for how long ‘short’ is, grab a business card, and write the story on the back with a pen. That’s ‘short’. (Top tip #2: If your summary sucks, the rest of the release doesn’t get read)
  • Keep six honest serving men. Make sure your release includes the what, where, when, who and how. And, if possible / relevant, the why.
  • A useful amount of copy. The body of your press release needs to have a lot of info in it. We won’t use it all, but it helps you get the story covered from several angles by various news organisations, and it helps me come up with those angles in the first place. 100 words isn’t enough. 500–600 words is perfect for the core news release. 2,000 words and I probably won’t read the whole thing, but at least there’s extra info there if I need it.
  • Keep the superlatives to a minimum. Yes, the press release is where you roll out your biggest guns and blast us with your marketing spiel, but resist the temptation to descend into fragrant intellectual onanism, and keep it factual. If your press release contains the word ‘awesome’ more than once, it’s going in the bin. If it says “best app ever” (you laugh, but it happens), I’m going to print it out, set it on fire, and then throw it in the bin. Fact.
  • Write in the third person. Please, “Company X today released an app”, not “We released an app today”. Why? Well that goes with the next point:
Pray for a busy news day, a lazy journalist, or both.
  • Write well. Journalists are usually frightfully lazy, in a terrible rush, or quite possibly both. We shouldn’t, but if you have a well-written press release where we can copy-and-paste chunks of it, we just might. Write well, and pray for a busy news day or a lazy journalist. Or, as I said, both.
  • Include quotes. Save us a few back-and-forths. Include 4–5 quotes from the CEO / Project lead / whatever, and remember to include their job title (!), and to spell their name correctly (!!).
  • A release date. Preferably be more than 3 days from now*. With a time. And a time zone. If the date is more than 5 days ago, the press pack will probably go straight in the bin.
  • Background. After the main press release, give me some background. Where and when was the company founded, who are the founders, how is it funded. What are the other products the company makes. This is stuff that journalists can put into their stories, or aid additional research. We love that shit, it makes us look far smarter than we are.
Hire a decent photographer.
Images on white are cool for shops, but look weird in news stories.
  • Images. This is crucial. If there are no images, there is no story. If the images are bad, there’s probably no story either. Hire a decent photographer. You’ll need at least three photos, but preferably 10+. If you’re showing off an app, try to have it show up on a phone, in use, in someone’s hand, in the setting it is meant to be used. It’s a hell of a lot better than just a screen shot photoshopped onto a stock image of an iPhone. Some publications want product shots on a white background, while others prefer lifestyle shots (i.e. the product, in use, by a real person. Or at least placed in an environment so there’s a bit of context). Most publications I write for only use lifestyle shots.

UPDATE: Here is a load of extra tips for what I’m looking for in a press release image. It’s important, so it’s worth getting that bit right.

That’s more like it. When shown in context, this press photo tells a lot more of the story. Well done, Triggertrap ;-)
  • Make downloading the files easy. Please, please make it easy for me to get your files. Don’t embed them into a Word document. That’s just dumb. If I have to click on every image, download a 20mb TIFF, discover it’s not a photo I’ll use, lather-rinse-repeat, I will swear at you. Loudly. And I may just bin the release. Make a Dropbox folder or something — it makes a huge difference. Don’t worry about resizing the images, but if you do have print-ready photos in TIFF, please also make high-res (2,000px longest edge is perfect) JPEGs available.
  • Contact Info. I might need to check stuff as we’re coming up to deadline, so a phone number is really, really useful, and an e-mail address for the press team (preferably one that’s monitored outside of business hours) is mandatory.
  • Video. Optional, but awesome. YouTube is fine in most cases.
  • No, you may not read it before it gets published. Sorry.
Here’s a great example of what not to do. This PR person wasted 50+ words without actually saying anything about why I should write about their startup. The headline is useless. The company name wasn’t in their e-mail address. In short: You’re busy. I’m busy. Get to the point.

Handy printable checklist


A note on file formats

I’ve had a few questions asking me about file formats and how to send me documents. That… Is tricky to answer. Some publications have different standards than others, and it differs from journalist to journalist, too. For me personally, I’d go with the following:

Press release — No files needed. Stick it in the body of an e-mail, underneath the intro / pitch. There’s no reason to also include a PDF or (shudders….) a Word document. The PDF bit is particularly important because a lot of PDF documents are hard to copy and paste from. Making me re-type that quote from your CEO? Yeah… Not a big fan and mistakes could sneak in.

Images — As discussed above, JPEGs are fine. If you have stupid large files, please also make smaller files (2,000 px along the longest edge is perfect) available. Throw a folder in a Dropbox / Google Drive folder and share it with me for extra bonus points.


A note on embargoes

  • Embargoes. I stick to them. Why? Well, I write fast, but I do need a bit of time to write the story, upload images etc etc etc.
  • Not all writers stick to embargoes. Don’t send a press release to anyone under embargo unless you already have a relationship with them, or unless you have discussed respecting an embargo ahead of time.
  • Remember time zones.
  • Also, make sure all other news organizations stick to the embargoes, too (if they don’t, don’t send them the release in advance).

A note on follow-ups

  • Don’t.

A note on Crowdfunding

My company ran a $500k campaign that failed to deliver, so I think it’s fair to say that I know better than most that Crowdfunding can be incredibly difficult. I estimate that at least 30% of the pitches I receive are for crowdfunding campaigns. I turn 100% of those pitches down.

I do write about crowdfunded projects occasionally, but only for companies where I have seen the product and the founders have somehow been able to convince me that they have their shit together, and that they have an above-average chance of delivering on their promises.

If you want coverage for your crowdfunding campaign, here’s a few tips:

  • Reach out to me very early in the process. I will want to see a prototype in person
  • Expect to be grilled on the mass manufacturing part of the equation. That’s the part that trips a lot of people up
  • Have an awesome product that I would have written about if it were a regular product launch

Tim at the Wirecutter wrote thefantastic piece “How to spot a bad Kickstarter (and why we don’t cover crowdfunding) that goes into more detail about this. I echo every word he says, apart from the bit where I categorically refuse to cover any campaigns. There are some gems out there.

In either case, even if you do tick the boxes above, chances are that I’ll turn your pitch down, asking you to get back to me when you start shipping your product. Don’t take it personally — it’s just that the standards for coverage on a crowdfunding campaign is way higher than for a lot of other news I cover.


Optional, but encouraged: Build up a relationship

If you have a working relationship with a journalist (I.e the first time they hear from you isn’t a press release out of the blue) that’s even better. Don’t be shy to introduce yourself and what you’re doing ahead of time, but remember that most of us get hundreds and hundreds of emails a day, so clarity and brevity are hugely appreciated in introductions.


Illustration image at the top is Paddleboarding (cc) visit st Pete


Changes and updates…

  • October 2016 —Added Crowdfunding section
  • August 2016 — Added Followups and Embargoes section
  • July 2016 — Added File Formats section
  • May 2016 — Article fully re-written and updated
  • March 2016 — Article first published