How to talk with press before you have a comms function

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash.

I agree. There absolutely should be a new reality show called, “When CEOs PR”. You know the drill. We’re all minding our own business, and then a CEO or founder makes a terribly short-sighted comment to the press, thinking it was off the record or it was overheard and then a whole news cycle overwhelms everyone, excoriates the CEO and we giggle about it for days?

Yeah. You’d watch it, I know.

The good news is that such gaffes are avoidable. And those mistakes probably frighten a lot of nice, humble founders who want to engage with the press but are scared off, often for good reason. So here are a few guidelines and ground rules in case you’re thinking of talking with reporters and want to make a good impression/not set your new company on fire in the bad and not 🔥 in the millennial way.

Pitching — and how not to be a goose.

If you’re reaching out to a reporter with an idea for a story, you should be aware of a number of things. One, reporters probably receive between 10–100 of these emails a day — it’s got to be really good to get cut-through. And I don’t mean a well-written email (although that helps!) but the idea has to be compelling: it has to make an interesting story, and not just a press release about how cool you are. Two, you’re probably not objective enough to write this pitch, so get someone you trust to look over it: is it meaty? Are you offering an understanding into a trend or an exclusive cool thing, or are you just talking about a mundane product update? Are you giving access to a top executive for interview? All of this can boost the pitch. Three, contextualize your news. Link what you’re doing to something that’s happened recently in the world, e.g. “You may have recently seen in the news that Cool New Kombucha Company announced ABC. In light of that, I really wanted to share some news about our company Even Stronger Artisanal Kombucha”. Or, “I noticed that you’ve been covering this company a lot. I also wanted to show that we’re in the same space, but we’re doing it a little differently and launching something exciting next week”.

Embargoes — not just for trade

You might have heard of an embargo but not really understood how it works. An embargo pretty simply means the time at which the news is going to officially go live. So you might tell reporter(s) that your embargo lifts at 6am PT, which means they’ll program their piece to go live online then, and you’d post your own post at around the same time (and not before — don’t scoop them!). Don’t screw up your embargo — if you go out with the news before a reporter has a chance to, that’s really poor form, and you’ll rightly make an enemy for life. Get the timezone right, make sure your company is all aware of the promise you’re making, and be consistent — you can’t let one reporter go earlier than all the others. And critically, make sure the product — if you’re launching one — is ready before the embargo lifts. It’s little use having lots of pieces published about your new thing, and it not existing yet!

There are different types of conversations

Weird, right?

Unlike most other conversations you might have, there are a few odd rules when it comes to talking with reporters. It’s really helpful to know what these are before you talk, tweet or rant.

On-the-record: This is the default. Everything you say can be quoted — even if it’s small talk as you sit down in the cafe or comment on something that’s not related to your business. (You’ve all read those celebrity pieces: “She walked wearing a casual button-down and ordered the truffle fries” etc). Anything you’re wearing or eating can also make it in. (A fleece vest might have its biggest moment right here). There are also instances of things you’re doing or not doing — like not being able to order an Uber — that can become a substantive part of the piece, so be mindful. Or a text message or email that you send a reporter? Yep that’s ripe for quoting, too. And think: where are you having the interview? (In an empty office where you’ve just had layoffs? A wildly expensive restaurant? On your private jet? On BART?). Think about the setting and optics — it can influence the story sometimes more than your words.

Off-the-record: This is when you would like a reporter not to report something. Critically, you can’t just go off the record in the middle of the conversation: it needs to have offer and acceptance.

E.g.: (While on the record): “Oh yeah absolutely — I mean, off the record, we totally stumbled on that!”

This is absolutely reportable because you unilaterally went off the record and the journalist didn’t agree to it.

E.g.: (While on the record): “Can we go off the record?” Reporter: “Yes” You: “We totally stumbled on that!” That wouldn’t be reported. But reporters are generally — and understandably — reluctant to go off the record, because they want to quote you — that’s the point of talking with you, after all. You also can’t go off the record retrospectively: if it’s said, it was on the record. (And your reporter is probably thrilled!).

On background: This is a tricky one. You know where you see “sources close to the family say” or “White House insiders suggest”? That’s a classic on background reference, which means you can quote a statistic or idea but you can’t attribute it to an individual’s name. Large tech companies, for example, often give context on the ecosystem on background to help frame a story for a reporter — many times the reporter has asked for it (and will likely get annoyed if you start offering it!).

I suggest that you should treat everything in your interaction as on-the-record — it’s the safest terrain and helps you keep your wits about you in the conversation.

It’s ok to say you don’t know

It’s really common for a spokesperson to feel like they need to have all the answers — and sometimes you just won’t. It’s absolutely fine to say, “You know, I don’t know the answer to that —can we follow-up with you later?”. This is much better than giving a guess or the wrong number — and a reporter will usually appreciate that you’re being thoughtful about the question. You shouldn’t use this tactic to dodge a question, though — it’s pretty transparent in those cases.

In conclusion…

Any press you do takes up time: and if you don’t have anyone in-house to help guide you, please be extra vigilant. Sometimes you’re better off doing your own post on your company blog and controlling your own narrative. When you do talk: only give the quotes you want to be quoted and nothing more. And for the love of potatoes, invest in some high-quality media training so you feel confident about your messages and presentation. Make it count.

About me:

Kate Mason founded Hedgehog + Fox to bring human stories to complex companies around the world. Our clients vary widely and include startups launching for the first time, later stage companies and venture capital firms. Say hello@wearehedgehogandfox.com and learn more at www.wearehedgehogandfox.com.