Author: Kelly Johnson, Public Relations Specialist
The situation: You’re a startup founder or CEO, you’re operating on a limited budget, and you’re feeling pressure to quickly get your story published in a top-tier publication.
So what do you do? You send a mass email to all the reporters who might be interested in your story from your dream list of outlets: New York Times, The Atlantic, and Forbes, to name a few.
Then, you wait.
Only to receive nothing but *crickets.*
The unfortunately all-too-familiar lack of response that plagues startup CEOs, while on the other side of the inbox reporters are fielding a chorus of similar emails by the hour—think 20 to 30 pitches per day.
So how do you break through the noise? A tailored media strategy can get you and your startup on the radar of top-notch journalists and podcast hosts, along with relevant trade publications frequently read by your specific target audience, all of which require focused and deliberate reporter relationship building. To get you started, here are six foolproof tactics PR pros leverage for media success.
1. Make the Connection Before You Make the Pitch
Before you begin pitching reporters, remind yourself that this is a long game, it’s the work of sowing seeds. Relationship building takes patience and persistence but can lead to a bountiful public relations harvest and the satisfaction that can only come from logging the hours (which isn’t news to you if you’re a startup founder).
One of the most effective ways to gain a reporter’s attention is to connect with them on a real, human level. In other words: be authentic. Instead of your first interaction being a pitch asking for a story or some other agenda, turn to Twitter. Twitter is the platform reporters utilize the most, both to post professional updates, stories they’re working on, and calls for sources, and candid content about their personal lives, families, travels, and events they’re attending. It offers an abundance of opportunities to build this type of reporter rapport in a more casual setting.
Keep on the lookout for low-hanging fruit that’s easy to respond to — such as industry adjacent topics or content relative to your expertise. Engage reporters by ‘liking’ or retweeting their posts, making sure to add personalized comments. Bonus tip: if you can bond with a reporter over something that’s not your startup business, it will make you appear more human and your conversation more memorable.
Then when you go to formally pitch the reporter a story, you already have a history. Depending on your interactions on social media and what value you’ve added to what they’re sharing, they might even start to call on you as a subject matter expert for stories they’re working on.
2. Define What You Bring to the Table
Reporters are human too — they’ll always be more responsive to a familiar face than a complete stranger. Now that you’ve followed your target reporters on social media and engaged with them via likes and comments, you’re ready to slide into their DMs.
Before you do, ask yourself: what value can YOU bring to the reporter? Are you just asking them to write a puff piece about your company, or are you giving them timely news, a fresh perspective, or an exclusive? Reporters need you to show them that you have a unique, story-worthy perspective, and DMs are an excellent way to do that once you’ve built a connection.
Here’s a good example of what reporters are looking for, Tweeted recently by TechCrunch reporter Natasha Mascarenhas:
So whether it be responding to their request for an expert to share about the clean energy transition or tips on propagating fiddle leaf fig trees, your job is to communicate the value of your unique perspective. (And don’t forget, it’s possible to send too many DMs, so save them for the most opportune moments.)
3. Think Beyond Announcements
There are plenty of chances to interact with reporters about topics beyond your startup’s upcoming internal announcements. The goal is to initially connect with reporters without focusing on your startup. This way, by the time a significant announcement is on the horizon, you’ve already laid the groundwork for your relationship and can more organically share the news.
Client example: Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic Brea Starmer, Lions + Tigers Founder, hosted a panel of local business leaders to support parents in the transition to work-from-home. While the event was not directly related to her business objectives, it was timely, thoughtful, and led to this GeekWire story — driving greater awareness of the company in the media while strengthening Brea’s reporter connections.
4. Ensure You’re Discoverable
After patiently sowing reporter friendship seeds, there’s one more critical step before preparing to send out your email pitch: Ensuring that you and your startup are discoverable.
In other words, ask yourself the following questions:
- Does our website accurately represent our mission, voice, and story?
- Is our social media active and in line with our voice?
- How updated is my personal LinkedIn page? What about my Twitter?
5. Know Your “Who” and “Why”
You’re now equipped to begin the work of crafting a tailored list of relevant reporters you want to target. Taking the time to research, follow and know what reporters are talking about and when the topic is trending will empower you to pitch the correct people at the most effective time. In other words, it’s imperative that your startup and/or your announcement are relevant to a reporter’s current focus – otherwise, the story won’t get published. Researching and creating a focused media list can be the game-changer in your open-rate (and *cricket* deterring) success.
Your list will likely include reporters who:
- Cover a beat relevant to your startup (ie: biotech, edtech, cleantech, etc.)
- Have recently written a related story (think in the past three to six months)
- Follow and write about your competitors
Keep in mind, no reporter is too ‘small’ to pitch. Interns often turn into full-time employees, reporters at smaller trade or local publications often transfer to larger publications, and any reporter is capable of connecting you to colleagues who may also be interested in your story.
Then modify each pitch for that individual reporter, calling out why you think this specific story is a match for their beat. It turns out that mass pitch blasts are not so effective, nor are they respectful of a reporter’s time, so make each pitch personal.
6. Check Your Expectations
Pitching is a risky, unpredictable endeavor. It’s important to check your expectations prior to diving in.
Realistically, there’s always a chance that despite all of the effort you’ve put into building an organic relationship and positioning yourself as an industry expert, a reporter still may not return your email. But if this is the case, do not fret, your work hasn’t been done in vain.
Here’s why: By engaging with and pitching a reporter, you’re now on their radar. You’ve made them familiar with your name, your startup’s name, and your industry – which means they may reach out to you next time they’re crafting a story relevant to your work. There’s also a chance that they’ve even read your pitch, but the timing just wasn’t right (sometimes there’s no way of knowing what kind of deadlines a reporter is under, what unexpected news will pop, etc.).
Don’t lose hope. In fact, we’ve had reporters respond to our pitches up to one year after they were sent, and stories that have taken nearly a year to publish after the initial interview! We’ve also had reporters choose not to write about our clients, but instead kindly referred their story to a colleague who was a better fit. Count all of these as wins!
So, the next time you consider cold-emailing your favorite Wall Street Journal reporter, remember that getting your story published is a long game, and relationships are the foundation for pitching success.
Want more tips on breaking through the media noise? 3 posts you’ll also want to read: