Starting Up Media Relations for Startups
nuggets of wisdom to “avoid looking like an ass when pitching reporters”
First off, credit where credit is due…
that eloquent subtitle goes to Mr. Jason Del Rey, Senior Editor at Re/Code.
And that one quote is also a great example of how this panel was a special kind of awesome — this panel was destined to be fun. The panel represented all sides of the startup PR puzzle:
- startup journalists from both Re/Code and The New York Times,
- startups’ PR managers from NewsCred and Mic News, and
- startup PR Agency leader from ASTRSK PR.
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With this group we set out to discuss the big questions about startup media relations including: if, how, and when startups should seek out press coverage, the ins and outs of publicity and earned media, what good media relations look like, how press can go bad and how to handle it, what coverage can mean for investments, etc.
Here is the full cast of characters:
Here are links to all the Twitters:
Now… on to the meat.
By the Numbers
14 Moderator Questions
3 Audience Questions
102 Tweets on #StartupMediaNY
16 Pizzas, 45 brownies, and 20 Litres of Soda
In a rush?
There is also a summary of a few key points at the bottom… so if you are impatient, feel free to scroll down.
Lessons from the Panel Discussion
We used #StartupMediaNY to facilitate and capture the conversation… below are some highlights from both the live panel and the twittersphere.
Q1: When should startups seek out media attention?
Caitlyn — In my past lives I’ve worked with startups from 3–100 people, pretty small still. Hold on promoting the company until you are really ready to make a mark on the industry as to who you are.
You know where you fit, who your competitors are, what your goals are (even short term 1–3 years) and you have a clear differentiator from others trying to do the same thing.
Jason — Some of the best relationships I have with entrepreneurs and those who have reached out via Twitter or email, to talk about stuff from Recode or AllThingsD I did and things they are interested in, maybe not ready for coverage yet, but saying this is who I am and I read some of your stuff.
As we all know about Mike, journalists have big egos, and like to hear you at least pay attention to the small stuff they write. Early is good for relationships but if you are not really ready for feedback that is not all positive — it’s probably not the time.
Mike — I agree. I want to tell a good story. The good stories are not really in the idea formation stage of a company — they haven’t really done anything yet. For me, people who have gone through a few rounds of funding or people who have gotten some real thing they’ve done and not the “this is what I want to do” stage.
Alicianne — a PR person was our first hire, she was a freelancer and there were 5 people in the company — she really help us get on the map.
We had just had our Series A, so more than just an idea. But having PR coverage, getting our positioning out there was critical and helped us grow that value prop over time. Total agree that early relationships, those same journalists have watched us grow over time — they don’t always write the best stuff about us, but at the same time, they are really honest and they are kind of rooting for us.
Mike — can I ask you what that Press does for you early in life cycle?
Alicianne — nobody knew what NewsCred was at all. We had some customers but nobody really knew. #1 was we got to tell people this is what NewsCred does. #2 it helped us tell about what our ambition was too. This helped us generate interest and it was measurable in the early days.
Q2: I wanted to talk about the tension between the PR world and the journalist world. Where does it come from? Is there something we can do on the PR side to alleviate? Or is this the natural state of things?
Jason — It works both ways. Both sides have people who are rushed and don’t have time to do the proper research. If there is 1 good pitch out of every 10, which is probably a fair assessment given where tech PR is right now, that creates a pressure. Actually trying to develop a relationship, it’s important to connect early — you aren’t pitching something cold.
The contentious relationship comes from pitches that are not targeted. I had one this morning from an experienced person that just started working with a new company and did not realize that I had written up the company several times before.
Caitlyn — Too many times, PR side will come with the pitch treating the reporter as if they are on their own marketing team, almost like they owe them something. Or if they are writing a story, they will deliver it at a certain point in time. Reporters and editors have an entire team on their side that decides things. To alleviate that tension, we need to recognize that we both have a job to do and consider that on both sides. When PR person is
pitching — they should consider, is this news, does it fit this reporter’s audience, does it matter, do they care, is it mirroring a trend or industry conversation that is timely or of importance? Oftentimes people in PR world jump to conclusions and they only have coverage of their company in mind — it should be a collaboration rather than a sales pitch.
Mike — I don’t dislike PR people, I don’t think I have a bad relationship with PR people, I just dislike people who are not good at their jobs. There are shitty journalists out there — it goes both ways. One thing that makes me good at my job, I like to think I’m good at my job, I know how to talk to people I know. Like when I’m doing a PR person on a story, they get a sense for the story, they know it’s coming from me, I’m not going to surprise them in a bad way — they may not like the story — but it’s not like I’m going to shit on their company out of nowhere — you know I’m going to shit on your company. I’m not a mean person. People who are good at communicating, do better in the role. Those that do their job well, and manage expectations.
Alicianne — do your job really well and effectively, make it relevant and
personalized. Don’t blast the same pitch to everyone at the same time — that’s a bad work practice. Best outcomes for us have come from building a relationship with someone and we give them an exclusive for an actual peice of news. It’s about 1 person, 1 relationship, 1 story - it is way more valuable than anything else — it has a thoughtfulness to it too.
Q3: What do PR people or companies do even when there isn’t a peice of news and they still want to get in touch with those top journalists?
Alicianne — it is very obvious when you are trying to fake news when it’s not actually news. A new feature to your software isn’t really interesting at all.
Don’t try to fake the journalist out because they are really smart and you’re going to look like an idiot. If it’s not news but you want to get it out there — write a blog post and put a bunch of money behind it and do a good social advertising campaign. Or do a peice of contributed content that is actual thought leadership.
Q4: Caitlyn, if you have $ to put into campaign, I agree with Alicianne - but what about companies at an earlier stage, if you don’t have money.
Caitlyn — this is where relationships come in, if there is no news or it’s a little softer. You can create news by reading the news. I can give you a
perspective on what someone is doing, I can give you our CEO to comment on that.
Mike — if you are interested in a story with the NYT, I’ve done features that don’t necessarily have a news peg, it just comes from talking to someone and generating ideas. Sometimes I bounce ideas off of people who are just in the industry. Sometimes pitches come through the back door.
I don’t spend my day looking for a story per se, but just talking to people. So be interesting?!
Jason — I will often say yes to a coffee. Interesting stuff comes out easily that way.
Q5: “Newsjacking” — something is happening in the news, and offering commentary from your CEO or executive — is it something you find annoying as a journalist? on the PR side — has this worked productively for your client?
Ex: a Photosharing App company commenting on something that Instagram did. Or a dating app commenting on something Tinder did.
Jason — 9 times out of 10, I have to think, doesn’t that CEO have something
else to do than commenting on a business that is not his or her own? I could probably find a case where it was relevant, but the fact that my initial reaction is “oh, god, no” — it’s my answer.
Alicianne — we haven’t actually done that. In some cases, we’ve developed realtionships with producers and they reach out. It’s not newsjacking, it just comes at the appropriate time.
Caitlyn — it’s the most annoying thing ever. Generally my advice is your CEO, founder, spokesperson — if they want to be a source, let them be, but it’s up to Mike and Jason to come to them.
Mike — Chris Dixon is a VC at A16Z — I didn’t really know who he was prior to that outside his writing, and I reached out and built a relationship there. I liked his thoughtful commentary over time.
Q6: What is the best pitch you have ever written or received?
First off was silence… lots of silence.
Mike — a lot of pitches I get aren’t cold. I write about startups a lot so I’ve developed relationships with VCs, so sometimes I will listen to whoever because I trust their judgement.
Q7: Creepy things PR people do. Can PR people cross the line? Send you baby gifts or email you mentioning your dog? Some like the person approach, but is there too far?
Jason — if someone says they are following me on Instagram and mention “your kid is cute” that immediately makes me think you are trying to guilt me into accepting a pitch. There is a fine line. Sometimes people follow me on every social network. They’ll favorite my posts because they want me to know that they know I am not answering their call but they see me tweeting. Other than strategically showing up at my house — hasn’t happened yet…
Mike — I think the thing that is strange in our business, a lot of the times you forget you haven’t met people in real life. I spend all day on Twitter and think I know folks way more than I do. I think there is such a thing as boundaries but it bleeds into the personal stuff — it’s all out there. It can be charming but it can be a little much some times.
Alicianne — I think there is value to having your CEO build his own personality on Twitter. What has worked on getting customers in
and building relationships in PR, our CEO will sometimes tweet into conversations with journalists. You can get noticed in that way over time.
Q8: Caitlyn, you’ve worked both in-house and at an Agency. What did you learn at an Agency that made it easier for you to pitch?
Caitlyn: At an agency you have the exposure to the industry in a number of different ways. In the tech world you are talking to VCs, CEOs, marketing and product teams, journalists and reporters — you can see industry from a diverse point of view. That’s an important characteristic to keep in mind
when you are pitching from a startup — it’s not a sales pitch — I’m not an adverstiser. An editorial pitch should not be a sales pitch. First week I started back “in-house”, I told my boss “keep me out of 50% of the meetings” because I need to keep a perspective that’s onestep away from it. To be able to tell the story from an industry perspective that’s furthering the conversation. You have to take a step back and look at that macro picture.
Q9: Alicianne, you do content marketing — do you see better returns from PR or content? and why?
Alicianne — On PR side — we see return on pushing our brand message out into the world. We see that helps especially in fundraising. For ROI in terms of pipeline, we see more value from content marketing — our own thought leadership (100k page views each month, 150k subscribers to our newsletter). Thinking of our brand as a publication.
Q10: For our journalists, do you give preference to a pitch from a founder vs PR person?
Jason — a founder should know their story better than anyone. Although I recognize that is part of why a PR person can take a step back. First instinct is to pay a little more attention if I can tell it’s a founder or CEO — usually they mention it in the first line. I’ve developed a lot of relationships that started on Twitter — it sounds wonky — if you’re founding a company you likely have less time than us journalists — but if you can, be active in conversations that are relevant to your space.
Mike — gut reaction is probably less. Maybe it’s something about cutting out the middle man. I’ve had founders approach me in ways they didn’t think were insulting but weren’t done in the right way. My job is not to support
you — it’s to talk to you and tell a story if it’s there. A PR person is on your side and so are your teammates. Founders may not know the etiquette so may hurt from that perspective.
Caitlyn — From PR perspective, I’ve worked with founders who need help and coached along in interviews and I’ve worked with those who don’t — they are blessed with communications skills, strong in meetings, have charisma, know what they are doing. From PR point of view, recognize what kind of founder you are working with.
Alicianne — when we were smaller, we had our CEO build relationships with all the journalists we dealt with. Now there is a certain set, he is generally interested in what they are covering, and everyone else I work with — that’s how we’ve been able to scale it.
Q11: Is the Press Release dead?
Alicianne — we write them to get our internal messaging together ourselves, not that we really believe in the effectiviness. What are we positioning and
want to be known for? We do press releases for our funding announcements. I actually don’t think they don’t work.
Jason — most I’m expecting by email tell me very succinctly and if I’m interested I’ll ask for 3–4 bullet points, or if you have written a release, please send it to me. It’s just to make sure that I have all the info together either in advance or after a call. Mostly unnecessary if you are doing targeted pitches, but if you are doing blasts then you need a way to do the blast.
Caitlyn — messaging it works to have a reference point, stories are not coming out of the inbox anymore. Stories have evolved to medium,
twitter — a million different platforms. I’d largely say it’s probably dead.
Mike — there is a joke that is why Medium was created. That is not a joke now. A lot of people say we have something to say and plop it on Medium and that’s that. It’s interesting because I don’t know what it means for businesses like Business Wire — who is picking those up? There are few things like financial releases that are material that go out on those wires, but messaging and speaking in lofty personal tone of a blog post is often preferred.
Q12: How much follow up is too much follow up?
Jason — I will tell you to stop — do not ask me again. I appreciate your
persistence. There is one person who has emailed me 7 times, it’s probably on me to end the relationship — I appreciate the perstistence even if your pitch sucks — and if I don’t, feel free to annoy me forever.
Mike — I don’t know, I hate to say a number, because I don’t want to get 3 emails every time. I think 2 is reasonable. One thing that is really funny
when I get a subject line in all caps that is “LAST RESPONSE” or “LAST CHANCE”… and I’m like “Fuck you, this is your last chance.”
Q13: Pitching on social media — do you prefer pitching on Twitter, direct messages, what is the protocol?
Jason — I’ll admit my answer changes every 3 months. Right now I say sure send me something on Twitter or DM. Email has become a harder space to pitch because there is a lot more noise. If it’s a smart pitch I respect any medium, even direct mail has worked before. Twitter, DM, text, reminder that you sent me an email. I respect it all.
Caitlyn — Has Twitter upping its character count changed number of pitches you’ve seen over it?
Mike — Jason, that is the worst advice you’ve given anyone. I do NOT want a text message from anyone other than my wife or Mom. Don’t do it. There is an etiquette around twitter DM that if you are gonna write a 500 word pitch it should not be in a twitter DM.
Q14: What is the etiquette around asking a journalist why they are not writing a story? Do you appreciate questions about feedback?
Alicianne — There have been times when we had a product launch once and we thought it was the coolest thing ever and every journalist would want to
pick it up, but find out nobody wants to write about it. It’s a great reality check actually. We have asked for feedback. They’ve said, “come back when you have news” or “if you are willing to show us financials and how it impacts your revenue growth”. It can’t just be about what you think is interesting — it has to be what their publisher’s audience thinks is interesting. It has to be something they can’t get anywhere else.
Jason — it’s fine most of the time as long as it doesn’t come across as an accusatory tell, which often happens. Sometimes it’s as typical as I was too busy that day/week, there’s not enough detail, I don’t often write about product launches but if I did it would have to reach a certain bar — that’s subjective, but if you work with me over time you get to know what my editors need. It’s ok to ask but the answer may change from week to week and story to story.
Caitlyn — it’s a good reality check. If you have a good relationship with the person you can bug them for the real reason so you can tell whoever you are answering to. From an agency perspective it matters most that you have that kind of relationship to get that feedback.
Mike — I have no problem saying why. I like your point, as a journalist too, I may be like “this is a huge story” and I’ll go to my editor and she’ll be like “no” so we all need that reality check.
Open for audience questions.
Ellie Wheeler (Partner at Greycroft) — I get questions all the time of should they get a PR firm and why, and usually what I’ll see is that they’ve already fired two. There is a fundamental mismatch between what they think the PR firm is going to do and what they are actually getting. A lot of that is management on both sides. What is your answer?
Elliot — a fundamental problem for agencies — PR can be seen as a silver bullet. People will spend on PR before marketing, spend on PR in a silo, they won’t bring on paid marketing or performance advertising. They think this one PR spend will be all of their marketing.
Alliciane — we didn’t bring on a firm, we brought on a freelance consultant. She was awesome and been with us ever since. It had an anti-agency feeling. We want to work with hustlers who feel like they are on our team. We also didn’t have money to hire an agency. Don’t hire a big agency when you are
young because you aren’t going to get that return. If you are willing to hire a consultant who will be on the ground and work with you, that’s totally worth it.
Caitlyn — you should hire an agency when you have a clear need to fill. If you are a 40 person startup and just raised a Series A and need launch PR and need consumer reviewers in the right way, work with an Agency that knows how to do that really well. If you are a media company with 10 editors who are really smart and delivering insightful breaking news every day and need to be on tv, hire an agency that is smart at PR and has great broadcasting relationships, if you need an Agency that can throw a great party and get great people in the room, hire that Agency that knows a lot of people. Problem with most agencies is that they say they can help with any of those, but you need to take a step back — say what are you good at, who do you know, why do you know them, what is your relationship, what have you done in the past and then make a decision after that. Other stuff, stay in house and hustle your ass off.
Audience Joe — as for unwanted publicity — as a small Company if you aren’t big enough for NYT and let’s say you go for ValleyWag and get the ValleyWag treatment, and some blogger decides to make headlines by destroying your company — how do you deal with that?
Elliot — ValleyWag isn’t going to come out and attack a company for no reason. Maybe it was a great launch but you speant to much on X. Whether it’s right or not, there is something for the journalist to point out. I’d go back to the company and say what did we do to get to this point? Sometimes the story can virally devolve, but it’s best not to freak out.
Alicianne — I don’t know the protocol, but don’t be defensive, don’t have angry storm on twitter and hope that it slowly goes away.
Caitlyn — crisis challenge — I agree with never engage too much especially with a company like ValleyWag, but be proactive in another way. You take a step back, identify all the positives about what happened, being transparent, and here’s what we’ll do to fix it.
Audience James — we talked about building relationships, what’s the best way to build a relationship with seasoned guys like you guys? I’ve read you shouldn’t ask someone to coffee but my boss wants me to though. You guys down to meet with me or a new PR person?
Mike — I think coffee is fairly easy. I don’t say yes to everyone because of time constraints, but I’m happy to take 30 minutes out of my day. Drinks, maybe I’m older ish, so that’s tougher. The other thing, when I was younger, when I was trying to do my own sourcing and networking, I’d go to night time events. There wasn’t a formal process to go sit down and talk, I’d meet random people and we’d hit it off and that would turn into a working relationship later on.
Jason — I can get coffee. If your company is squarely in my beat, I cover e-commerce and payments, and you think I’d be interested in chatting with you, I won’t always say yes, but I’ll say yes if it’s a smart email.
Elliot — working at an agency, people ask me that question. I think it’s different depending on the journalist. You have to be a little weird and have
your own personality in that email. Don’t be a boring guy asking to come have a boring coffee with me. You need personality and show it.
Audience Jane — what’s an optimal pitch — one line like a text? or something longer, closer to the deadly press release?
Jason — if you can’t get it across in 3–5 sentences, it’s probably too long. You can always dig deeper, but you should be able to get my attention as to why this is different, relevant, or timely in 3–5 sentences it’s tough. If it’s a brand new company, it may be a little harder, but the message should be honed down to what is compelling in a paragraph or 2.
Mike — short and sweet is good for me to see what’s interesting. If there is a sentence that I want to know more about I’ll let you know. My capacity is pretty limited.
Summary — take aways from our fans!
Understand the Big Picture:
PR Company Advice — Understand what you’re working with:
On Pitching via Text — consensus eludes us:
On Pitch Length:
I personally love putting these panels together. I get to learn from the amazing panelists, hang with the awesome folks who help put these together (Venturing Hoyas and Wahoowa), meet great attendees, and nosh on a little pizza. Thank you all for participating.
And it’s always great to get a little feedback!
Especially after you’ve had a night to sleep on it…
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