Years ago, my friend Stacey and I published a magazine. It never got huge, but it got big enough that we started attracting inbound interest and press releases. Through learning how to handle those and talking with real journalists to learn how they handled those, I developed a sense of how to work with the media when you’re new and don’t have a track record.
For me, it always comes down to story. Journalists do not exist to be your personal marketing force – they exist to find truth in compelling stories. This implies a couple of things. The first is that they likely won’t print any finely crafted marketing speak or sales pitches. The second is that they will seek balance – they will interview your competitors or print quotes that are critical of you and your business. They will also comb through your social media accounts and read what other people say about you. Just because you don’t give them a quote or access to a source, it doesn’t mean that they won’t seek out other quotes or sources. The entire finished piece may be extremely critical of you and your business and if so, it is the mark of an incredibly good journalist, not an asshole. Got it?
If you can accept those truths, you’re ready to start working with the media to tell your story.
1. Study the space
You know how, when you started your company, you did some work on Google to figure out what other companies are in your space? Journalists operate in spaces too so your first step is to study that space. Your goal is to figure out who writes articles about your general industry (or who tells your story), how often they write about it and how the tone of the coverage has evolved through time. Figuring out the evolving tone is incredibly important, because if you pitch a journalist the same old story while the tone is souring, you should be prepared for negative coverage. On the other hand, if you pitch a journalist something fresh and new while the tone is souring, you could be in store for some positive coverage.
2. Figure out your story
If you don’t have any kind of relationship with a journalist, please treat your first contact like it costs the soul of your first born. Journalism is not about printing sales pitches, it is about uncovering interesting stories and presenting them in balanced yet compelling ways.
While you’re figuring out the space, you need to figure out your story. Think carefully about your story and consider all of its nuances. Also, ask yourself if it’s truly worth telling.
It’s important to remember that different journalists may find different facets of your story more compelling. For example, a major tech magazine that covers all the major Silicon Valley happenings likely doesn’t care that you released your SAAS out of your home office in MiddleofNowheresBurg. But, the local tech reporter would likely be very interested in writing about that news and the burgeoning MiddleofNowheresBurg tech industry.
3. Personalize your pitches
Here is one example.
In February, I read your coverage about that new software product released by 2 Founders Inc and was happy to read about other local founders because that coverage reminded me that I’m not alone. I just released my first version of BrushBase which helps painters catalogue their brushes out of my home office in MiddleofNowheresburg. If you have any questions or if you would be interested in a demo, I am availale to meet anytime or correspond over email. Or if you would like an update on the MON area’s tech industry, I would be glad to introduce you to other founders and solo developers.
Thanks for your time,
This pitch accomplishes a few things – it is short and to the point so it shows you value the journalist’s time, and it relates your story to other stories they have written. And I think it shows that you’re willing to be helpful and easy to work with. Don’t write like this unless you’re willing to follow through – it is a massive waste of time for a journalist to pitch a story to his/her boss, only to discover that promised sources never materialize.
4. Send your pitches and follow up
It is important not to overcommit when you send out pitches – sometimes, the natural impulse is to send our hundreds of pitches at a time. The problem is that if your story is popular, you will quickly end up with more requests than you can possibly support. Don’t offer exclusives, but limit your pitches to no more than two highly targeted pitches at a time. There are a few benefits to this. The first is that it will help journalists get to break interesting stories before every other outlet picks up on it. And the second is that it gives you a chance to practice writing pitches and figuring out what message resonates.
I feel like if someone wants to write you back, they will write you back immediately, so I’m not a big fan of sending a “Did you get my last email?” follow up email. Instead, I like to send a meaningful follow up when I have something of value to contribute. For example, two months after the first pitch, I might write:
In May, I wrote you a brief email letting you know about brushbase.sometld, a software product I built in MiddleofNowheresburg to help artists keep track of their brushes. I just wanted to let you know that I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from the community, including an artist who missed out on paying work because she couldn’t keep track of her brushes but who solved the problem with BrushBase! And, if you’re interested, the MiddleofNowheresBurg tech industry is hopping – we are having a meetup where seven founders are introducing their products on August 15. Let me know if you would like to come and I can arrange for whatever level of access you would be interested in.
Thanks for your time,
5. If you get coverage
If you get coverage, the polite thing is to thank the journalist who wrote the article and helped tell the story, even if it isn’t entirely positive. It is important to remember that the stories journalists write are independent of any advertising space you purchase, so no matter how negative the coverage, or how horribly you feel wronged, do not make threats/offers about advertising. Advertising and editorial exist far apart, so trying to use one to influence the other will see you branded an amateur.
I could sum up all this advice by reminding you that journalists are not your personal marketing force, so you should not expect any kind of control over any earned media. If you’re okay with this, do some basic research, approach journalists with humility and try your best to be helpful. If you approach the relationship with respect and tact, it can be very good for both parties. But, if you expect wholly positive coverage or for journalists to publish your press release verbatim, you will be happier if you purchase ad space in their publications.