Tips for Startups on Working with the Media from a Top Tech Journalist

I talk to a lot of startups and most have little idea about how journalism works (or worse, as in the case of HQ Trivia, they have terrible ideas). But positive coverage in a respected publication offers visibility and credibility that can be impossible to duplicate in other ways. For many startups, an investment in public relations will be the most cost-effective marketing expenditure they make. I’ve written before that positive press coverage drove both customer acquisition and investor interest for CircleLending.

So how does positive press coverage happen? First, you have to have a good product or service. Second, you have to craft a good story. Third, you need to know how to work with journalists.

Erin Griffith is currently a Senior Writer producing in-depth news reporting, analysis, columns, and feature stories at WIRED. She was previously a senior writer for Fortune (where she authored Term Sheet, the daily newsletter about venture capital and private equity), and has written for PandoDaily, for AdWeek, and for Thomson Reuters. While at Pando, she wrote one of the most insightful articles about FinTech startups and accelerators that you’re likely to see. She is also a regular guest on “The Digital Show” on Sirius XM Business Radio.

In addition, Erin publishes Erin Griffith’s Tribute to the Heroes of Business. You should definitely sign up, though I’m still partial to the original name.

Erin Griffith

Q.   Erin, thanks so much for agreeing to do this. What makes a good tech story?

A.  Happy to. Just to clarify per your comment above, a good story for me (and my editor, and my readers) is not the same as a positive story for the company. Sometimes they overlap. Often they do not!

The answer to your question is different for every journalist and every publication, and it changes constantly. Journalists shift beats, publications shift strategies, readers shift what they’re interested in.

There are some constants, though:

– Hard news, obviously. Two parts:

  • What change is this story describing?
  • Has this story been told before? (If the answer is yes, is the story big and important and compelling enough that there’s room for a new angle on it? If it is a small story, like a startup announcement, the answer to this question is most likely no.)

– Impact. Does this news have big implications for the way we live / do business / think? Does it tell us something remarkable about the way we live / do business / think? Why should anyone care about this? Will it spark change? I’m often answering this question from my editors. The bigger, the better.

– Quirky funny entertaining things. The flip side of the above. Sometimes the only purpose of a story is to entertain or point out something ridiculous. These are harder to convince my editors that they’re a good use of my time (and more important, not a waste of readers’ time to read about). But they can be fun to do.

Q.   Do you read press releases? Do you want to receive them?

A.   I generally skim the subject lines in my inbox and will open a few that seem interesting. I almost never cover news based on a press release, and I often mute or filter anyone who repeatedly follows up on press release blasts demanding a response. The follow-ups can be extremely spammy. But I’m happy to get them as an FYI, particularly from the companies I am closely tracking.

Q.   What makes a good pitch? What sort of pitches do you want to see?

A.  Most stories come from my own ideas, which come from reading the news and conversations with sources. I usually have a list of about a dozen stories I want to do and am trying not to get scooped on, so a pitch would have to be super compelling for me to put those on hold.

For that reason, I’m wary of soliciting pitches, but I generally like hearing about new, never-covered-before business trends, mind-blowing tech products, crazy tales of success and failure, unlikely heroes, behind-the-scenes fixers, abuses of power that need called out, changes in the world that create fear, greed & FOMO, things we should be worried / excited about but no one is talking about…

Q.   Would you rather be contacted by people at a PR firm or by executives at the company themselves?

A.   Obviously direct access to executives and sources is ideal but I know time can be limited and PR can have a role in facilitating these things. It works when the PR truly knows the company, its execs, and product. I work with a lot of in-house PR people at the big tech companies, and the best ones are pros who know what I need to make the best possible story and deliver it, who don’t panic over a negative story and take it personally, who are honest and straightforward, and who don’t try to feed me B.S. spin on background.

For early stage startups, it does work best coming from the founders or top execs. It can seem strange when a tiny startup that barely has a product or strategy somehow has an elaborate press operation. But I do think it’s probably a good idea for people who are new to talking to the press to get basic media training. It could have prevented or mitigated some of the recent PR disasters we’ve seen with certain startups (Bodega, the Daily Beast story on HQ…).

I’m less excited to work with PR when it’s a spam blast and they have to go back to the company to answer a simple question I might have about their pitch (in a lot of cases the person sending it hasn’t even written it). And then they aren’t authorized to speak on behalf of the company. And then they need to set up a conference call with eight people listening in and taking notes, just to answer a basic question I had. Not my favorite.

Q.   If my startup is tiny and nobody knows us yet, what’s the best way to get noticed by a journalist who covers my industry?

A.   First find journalists / publications covering tiny startups that no one knows yet. In some cases it might make sense to target trade reporters and local press first, and work your way up to more mainstream / national publications.

One easy way is to just be helpful. Because startups span such a wide range of industries, I’m often diving into a new area I don’t know well, like real estate or cryptocurrency. If a founder can share their expertise in an area I am learning about, that can be very helpful, and can result in me quoting them in a story where it makes sense.

Beyond that I’m always looking for gossip, scoops and news tips. I like bantering about the news on text and in Twitter DMs. If I know an executive tends to be candid and will provide a casual unvarnished opinion / take on things when we’re off the record, I’m more likely to call them when I’m reporting a story. And the stronger the relationship becomes, the more top-of-mind they are when it comes to other stories.

And, this seems dumb and obvious, but it helps to just be out and around. If I meet you in person, the relationship is going to be more authentic.

Q.   What types of funding announcements are likely to make it into a daily newsletter (like Term Sheet)? Is it based on amount raised, fame of founder, name of VC? Some combination?

A.   I don’t write Term Sheet anymore, but when I did, we aimed to be comprehensive. So, any VC deal announced in the last 24 hours over $1 million went in.

Q.   If I’m talking to you about my company, what parts of the conversation are going to be on the record?

A.   If it’s an interview for a story, it’s all on the record… We can agree to go off the record or on background if you want to share a tip or scoop about another company… But if I am working on a story about your company, there’s no point in my learning a bunch of information I can’t use in the story. (There are exceptions… but generally this is my rule.) My customer is the reader, not the company I’m writing about.

If it’s a casual conversation, say, at a conference or party, just ask! I don’t go into those kinds of conversations trying to “gotcha” anyone and I’m usually not planning to quote people on the record but it never hurts to clarify.

Q.   How should I think about my relationships with the journalists who cover my industry?

A.   Play the long game. We’re not going anywhere, so don’t try to trick us, exaggerate or play short-sighted games. Think of it like any mutually respectful business relationship you might have. The main difference is that I think a lot of founders expect that the tech press will cheerlead for them and that’s not our function. I strive to be fair and accurate. Sometimes that conflicts with a company’s goals. But like I said above, my obligation is to readers.

Q.   If I want you to write about my company, what should I definitely not do?

A.   This isn’t a direct answer, but one thing I see often is people assuming that because I wrote a story about a competitor or a similar thing, I’ll automatically want to write one about their company. There are usually a million reasons a story happens, some of which may not be so obvious. (Maybe it was a big exclusive, maybe the timing was fortuitous, maybe it was part of a broader magazine package, maybe it was newsworthy for different reasons than you think, maybe my editor is obsessed with this one aspect of it, maybe it was trending then but no one cares anymore, maybe my editor hated the story and told me to never write about that topic again, etc. etc. etc.)

Also don’t pitch my personal email address! I tolerate it from longtime sources but try as hard as I can to keep work emails out of there.

Q.   Any final tips for startup executives on working with journalists?

A.   Be familiar with the work of the person you are pitching. So many people don’t do any homework before demanding I give them my time and energy, and so even the tiniest bit of effort there can go a long way.

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