You can have the best idea, outstanding engineers, winning salespeople and happy customers. But if the media doesn’t know about your business, just how successful can you be?
While coming up with a concept and path to profitability is undoubtedly the most difficult challenge in getting your venture off the ground, if nobody knows that you’re toiling away in your dorm room, garage, loft, or office, the question remains, how big can you get—and would anyone care if you fail?
Entrepreneurs and the media have an interesting relationship. Tenuous at times, they also need to find a way to coexist, because both sides need each other.
As a reporter before coming to a startup, I know that part of what made me passionate about reporting on entrepreneurship and startups was sharing other peoples’ success stories. Especially in times like these, the nation needs a source of hope, and innovative people dedicating themselves to creating new companies is certainly a source of hope for many. But let’s bring it back to the bottom line. People are fascinated by the ever-mysterious entrepreneur. Often times portrayed by the media as the aloof, or eccentric, the idiot savant or genius geek, the what-have-you personality who somehow made something out of nothing.
Entrepreneurs need the media to help sell their product or service, grow their company, recruit new talent, appeal to potential investors, and communicate their vision. Since there’s often a misconception in the mass market about what it is the entrepreneur does, and what it is that he or she represents, a savvy entrepreneur can use the media as a mouthpiece to communicate a company credo and motivation that the company itself has failed to do.
But for startups, engaging with the media is often a challenge. Budgetary constraints typically make hiring a public relations firm—valued for its connections and experience—an impossibility. So how can a lean new venture still manage to get the word out, build positive buzz and position itself well ahead of a product launch on a low or non-existent marketing budget?
Here are some pointers:
- It’s all about the network. If you don’t know any reporters personally, work your social networks (LinkedIn should be your go-to source) and see who within your close circle can make an introduction. Reporters are always on deadline, but they will stop to answer an email or phone call from a trusted source, friend, or family member
- Talk over a drink. Desk-side meetings take forever, but a cup of coffee is 15 minutes. Offer to meet up right before work, at a break time (like 2pm) or after work
- Cold and smooth. If you’re cold emailing, make sure you have an effective subject line and opener. A typical reporter gets anywhere from 200-500 pitches and press releases per day. That’s a lot of “junk mail.” Make sure yours stands out from the crowd by having a catchy phrase. Include your company name or the name of your investor, if that will make a difference. If at all possible, keep your subject line to 3 words. Don’t go over 12 words
- What’s your story? Reporters are in the business of telling other people’s stories. Want to see a reporter come back to you time and again? Have a compelling story and provide value. When you send a pitch, the media knows you want to talk about yourself and your company. Start by answering the 4 Ws and the H: Who, what, where, why and how. But do it in this way: Give us the nuggets and highlights (all the important stuff)—but leave us wanting more. After all, we’ll want to ask some questions
- Choose your best storyteller. We know that as a CEO you want to be front and center with the press. But you might not be the best person to tell your company’s story. Maybe your CTO is that perfectly quirky geek yet relatable personality who knows how to engage with the public. Or maybe it’s your marketing director. Really think about who connects with others and have that person become the public face
- We’re not your VCs. We know you’ve perfected your investor pitch. We don’t care. Unless you’re talking to a super niche reporter, most of us would never need to understand the depths of how your technology works. Nor do we need to know that you’re on your 15.4 deploy. We want to know what drove you to start your business, what keeps you up at night, that your daughter’s first word was entrepreneur, and that you really dig Nutella and apple chip sandwiches
- Have testimonials on deck. We know you want to be successful and that you’ll present your company in the best possible light. So we’ll want to speak with some of your customers. Do NOT have them speak to a PR firm ahead of time or they’ll sound like zombies—and we’ll be able to tell. But DO verify with them ahead of time that they’re customers you can call on to be trusted sources, who will be excited about you and your product but will also be able to honestly address what they have on their wish-list for your next release
- Know about your competitors. We’ll ask about them, so know who they are and be able to rattle them off. We’ll take care of following up
- Be yourself. Journalists sometimes come off as gruff, aloof people—unlike some of the entrepreneurs we’ve met. We’re looking to connect with people, so just relax and talk to us!
Don’t undermine the importance of social media. It’s a great way to get your own news out there, because you’re not always going to get the coverage you want. Whether it’s for incremental news releases, staying engaged with your users, and keeping an eye on the competition, your social media suite of tools is a go-to for any startup and entrepreneur.