How to get your company in The Wall Street Journal (or any outlet)

Shawn Roberts

If you have these things, maybe you can place your story wherever you want it to go

In November 2015, my friends at TubeMogul and my current company’s competitor Operative netted articles from The Wall Street Journal’s ad tech beat reporter.

This led to a lot of uncomfortable conversations over the next few days. “Where’s our story? When are you going to get us in the Journal? Why aren’t we in there?”

Public relations professionals live for these questions. They also dread them. We love to dig out company stories and tease them out in ways that could benefit the business.

Netting this kind of attention also depends on actually having “news.” Buzz starts with having something buzzworthy to talk about.

To get into mainstream media, no pitching effort in the world can defeat the lack of a novel story that intrigues jaded reporters who have heard it all before.

Here are the 🔑 to your big mainstream PR win

Well, actually…. There’s only way to make coverage a sure thing: “Be a company that everyone wants to hear about because it has significant economic or cultural impact.” You know: Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Coca-Cola and so forth. (It also helps to be publicly traded, but that’s another can of worms.)

If you’re not one of these — and if you’re reading this you probably aren’t — we can see several elements in the TubeMogul and Operative pieces that helped these companies get attention and action from this major national writer.

From there we can extrapolate a few elements that may explain how they won these stories. Even when they’re all present, there’s still no guarantee you’ll get the story. Timing, persistence and plain ol’ luck are part of the package, too.

Get everyone involved

PR is a team sport. When a company lacks a PR rallying point, it has to take steps to create it. The PR counsel can lead this, but many areas of the company have to actively participate to make it happen. These might be development teams meeting a milestone, financial people or data analysts surfacing trends, account teams spotlighting happy customers that are doing interesting things, and executives who can give pithy, impactful, non-boastful statements that say something insightful about their industry or the wider culture it inhabits.

Real achievements, not potential ones

These stories depict companies that are actually, demonstrably winning at what they are doing. They are not talking in fuzzy terms about what they plan to do or being “positioned to win.” They are sharing real numbers and real customers who are willing to say nice things about them.

Corollary: Thought leadership isn’t a substitute for real success

Your thoughts on the industry and why your approach is best won’t get you into mainstream media. If you want to pursue this angle — and there are many good reasons to do so — write towards the editorial constraints of your preferred publication.

Do not mention your company. Naming yourself willl automatically relegate the market for your post to your owned media (the company blog, LinkedIn, Medium, a newsletter, a note to your clients, or whatever).

Inherent drama and interest

Even a reader who knows nothing about digital publishing would be taken by the archetypal story in the Operative article: the success of heroic little publishers taking on (alleged) thieving hordes of ad tech companies. Everybody loves a story about triumphing over “evil.”

Controversy, stated plainly

Check out the angry and direct quote from Operative CEO Lorne Browne: “All these companies are glorified rep firms.” It’s controversial, memorable and easily understandable. That’s editorial catnip,.

Operative’s customer hits the mark, too. Says Vice’s chief digital officer, “We are not trying to turn our viewers into commodities and suck every dollar out of every page.” Yeah! Screw you, ad tech guys!

These are statements that laymen can readily understand and enjoy. Your people should be prepared to speak so plainly on the happy day that WSJ asks for comment.

Somebody sexy says you are successful

The Operative story has supportive quotes from a couple of 2015's hottest names in NYC media: Vice Media and Vox. These endorsements were gold. Without knowing for sure, I would assume that Operative served these sources to the writer on a platter.

Corollary: Saying “Company says company is doing great” isn’t news

Patting your own back is fine for financial reports or internal meetings, but it’s not anything that will interest mainstream media. The financial statements of a widely-held public company are the exception, but even then it’s reasonable to expect that the reporter is more interested in what the company is not saying than the party line you’re serving up.

(Ugh, “momentum” press releases from startups. These have no chance of coverage, ever. You need only do them if they make a stakeholder happy.)

It fits the reporter’s beat, interests and biases

This reporter had demonstrated repeatedly that he was interested in stories about “publishers versus ad tech” and held a particular view on it.

The Operative story is actually a sequel to a story that the reporter wrote twice earlier in the year about younger publishers rebelling against ad tech vendors. Operative’s PR undoubtedly tailored its pitch to suit.

Corollary: Somebody else shares the reporter’s bias

Customers with strong biases of their own are golden. The Vice Media guy is clearly delighted to have an opportunity to bash ad tech vendors.

The story is supported with data confirmable by third parties

Business journalists have a fiduciary dutyto report data that’s 100% true. They will always prefer numbers that could pass or have passed a third party audit.

This is especially true for outlets covering public companies. In fact, most editors will not let journalists use internal metrics and will quash stories based on them. (The Wall Street Journal and San Francisco Business Times are examples of outlets that in my experience will notallow internal company metrics in their stories.)

That’s why your internal metrics probably won’t make the cut. Unless they’ve been in use for so long that they’ve become common industry parlance, internal metrics will be disregarded by reputable media (and should be, IMHO). Stick to numbers that everyone understands and agrees on — like third-party rating services or FASB accounting standards.

The best evidential data either fits established accounting definitions (e.g. revenue rather than “Spend On Platform”) or can be proven out by third parties, like analysts or academics.

It’s a big inflection point for the company (or at least it looks like one)

A careful reading of the TubeMogul story reveals that the ‘product launch’ is not, in fact, a launch. The product under discussion has actually been on the market for for a while.

Nevertheless, TubeMogul called it a launch. That gave the journalist enough of a hook to make a case to his editor that he should pursue the story and the paper should run it.

Beyond providing news about themselves, the story subjects were helpful in other ways

Whenever I see PR job reqs that ask for a “deep Rolodex of contacts,” I can tell immediately that this is a company that misses the point.

It’s not about knowing the right people. Just like any good selling, it’s about sharing the right info with the right people at the right time.

Relationships in PR are transactional. Sharing info that creates stories — even when you’re not in them — is how you build equity in the long game of PR.

Your job as a PR professional — whether or not you’re looking for immediate coverage or not — is to BE HELPFUL. Win their loyalty before asking for their attention.

Your access to information is currency. Reporters who know that you might be able to offer something of value are more likely to open your emails.

What do you have? Anonymized aggregated data? An interesting statistic that would otherwise be impossible to get? Dirt on a competitor? Insight into a decision that looks odd to outsiders?

Even when you offer these things, do not expect an immediate quid pro quo . Sharing what you have when you have it — and not necessarily when you’re looking for ink — is a good way to assure you can get their ear when you really need it.

Be patient, get lucky, and hope you pitched on the right day

Every day, journalists have a bucket to fill. If they already have something awesome or clickworthy, that’s great. They’re done for the day, they don’t need another story, too bad for your pitch, and they’re on to thinking about how they will fill the bucket tomorrow.

If it’s a slow news day, you might get a ping back. But you never know what kind of day it is. You might pitch a great story — but it happens to be the day that Verizon buys AOL — or your target reporter is testing the new iPhone under NDA — or there’s a plane crash or weather event somewhere — or President Trump tweeted something ridiculous. Ya never know.

Now — go get that story.

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Disclosure — In case you’re wondering why I feel comfortable writing about TubeMogul, Operative and this reporter: I was PR counsel for one of these companies, but had not worked with it for more than a year before the article in question was published. Both companies were subsequenty acquired. The reporter is no longer with The Wall Street Journal, although he still write about advertising technology for a national publication.

Shawn Roberts

Written by

Post-punk trapped in the body of a marketing communications svengali. Known to friends as Fun Fact Shawn. Opinions my own.

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