So as this terrible wet August / Summer ends and online battle re-commences once more, I thought I may as well have a stab at giving you some ideas about how to interact with a blog like this. I’m going to use as inspiration Jason Calacanis’ post on SAI today and also one some points Michael Arrington made at Y Combinator’s Startup School a few months back. But I’ll re-filter it via a transatlantic journey to the UK context and a European mindset – and about 18 years of experience as a journalist.
It’s not definitive, and probably comes across a lot more grumpily than I am in real life, but I thought it might help some people out – and it’s the best I can do on a sunny day when I’m supposed to be on vacation. (In fact, ignore the grumpy bits, I love you guys!)
[UPDATE, December 2009:
I decided to add a "Zero" immediately below, so now it's 16 ways...]
0. Get on Twitter and Tweet smart things [added Dec 2009]
When I started using Twitter the fact that PR people followed me felt a bit odd. It was like being stalked. Now I find it utterly invaluable. I can now ask Twitter to help on a story and a PR that (might) be useful appears as if by magic. So basically if you are a tech PR and not on Twitter you are making a big mistake. Twitter is where so many stories break now, and that’s also where the journalists and bloggers are.
1. News is a Purple Cow – UK translation: Man Bites Dog
Much has been made of Seth Godin’s Purple Cow concept. That the way to get noticed is to, er, stand out of the crowd. But in fact this harks back to a much older phrase which came out of journalism. The phrase comes from a quote attributed to New York Sun editor John B. Bogart (1873-1890): “When a dog bites a man, that is not news, because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that is news.” Though that’s a US quote I prefer call it a “UK translation” because it reminds me of the legendary Freddie Star Ate My Hamster from The Sun newspaper.
In other words, I’d much rather write about something that hasn’t been seen before, ideally by anyone else. This is why exclusives always carry a premium, as much in the blogging world as the journalism world (assuming a divide still exists, as the lines blur from post to post, hour to hour).
2. Keep in contact – conversations usually beat press releases
One thing I hate is when a company does something but doesn’t tell anyone about it because they think it’s not news. Well, please allow me to tell you: you don’t know what news is. You’re going to have to let people like me decide for you. Sitting, 30,000 feet up, looking at the market every day, bloggers and journalists are able to see what is going on across the board. A new feature from a company over here, could affect another company over there – but (often) neither knows about it because they are in two dimensions, only able to see their own movements side to side. If you like, bloggers / journos exist in three dimensions, moving both on the ground and above it.
This is why, when you’re a company, keeping up a regular conversation on what you are ABOUT to do is important. Because at the same time, others are doing the same. I can then see market trends better and work something up into a real story, rather than a seeing a product announcement in isolation and thinking this doesn’t amount to much.
What’s the best way to keep in contact, and keep up a running conversation? Well, I hesitate to say it but email is pretty good. It’s asynchronous and easy. But it’s also tough to sift. These days one of my best resources is the blogs of the startups themselves. They are good to track. Their disadvantage is that everyone else (as in my competitors) can see them as well – which is why keeping a private conversation running via email works well. I also use Twitter a lot – it’s a great way to have passive conversations which can turn active and private fast.
3. Negotiate your exclusives
If you do keep up an open channel conversation then when it comes to something big to talk about it’s a lot easier to flag it.
Sometimes a startup has a great story – launches are usually the big one – but they stupidly put it out on general release. Why not email me first, ask me if I’d like an exclusive (I usually do) and then negotiate about that? I may not play ball, but let’s cross that bridge. Ok, I know this is self serving, but I’m just fighting my corner here. Most media outlets prefer exclusives and TechCrunch is no exception. BTW – be aware that an exclusive about something boring is still… boring.
UPDATE: Loic Le Meur riffs on this post and lists the various ways to release a story. Here are my thoughts on his post.
He notes that releasing an exclusive story to one outlet in advance of others might annoy other media. Sure, but these days exclusives don’t last that long, and every story is linkable by another blog. But I’d still fight for my exclusives
General release: These work “OK”. It depends on your strategy. But in general I’d say a more considered approach is much better.
Blog it or tweet it: Unless you have 10,000 readers (or at least a good number in your niche) it’s going to get lost in the noise. If I follow you and I found out you’ve Tweeted a potentially interesting news story without talking to me then I’m going to be annoyed.
Embargo the news?: The point about embargoes is that trusted media outlets have longer to prepare a piece. But then you risk embargo breakers, common in blogging where speed is all. I suppose it’s considered a good way to work out which news outlets you trust. The problems with embargoes come when they are over-used. When every tiny new product feature announcement is embargoed. It’s pointless. As a trustworthy, long-time player (18 years a journalist) I don’t break embargoes I’ve agreed to. But then they have to be agreed first. I try my best to deal fairly with people who blast out releases with embargoes slapped all over them, without prior agreement. In the UK media industry these are generally accepted, mainly because PRs (the good ones at least) use them sparingly. But if you haven’t agreed an embargo with me first then you do so at your own risk. The key is always to negotiate, first. And I prefer embargoes where I have the exclusive, obviously!
Release via a PR: Le Meur argues that this method is “broken” because journos and bloggers hear from so many PRs. I’d argue that it’s only broken if the PR person doesn’t know what they are doing. I will listen (consider / reject etc) to pitches from PRs I have heard from for years in this industry. I tune out the bad ones.
4. Don’t be a leech – Be part of the community
You know those companies that are always on send, but never on recieve, and never CONTRIBUTE to the community? Those are the companies that (in an ideal world) should get ignored. Why? Because they push their own agenda 24/7 and never have anything to say IN CONTEXT about the market or interesting trends. Participating and adding value to the market makes for much better content, and gives people like me something to riff off.
BTW, it’s fine to “Be The Brand!” as Calacanis argues, but if you end up not being a good contact, or contributing to the community, people are going to start finding you annoying. Honest.
Where this argument falls down of course is that even annoying people get press, because they talk a lot and constantly engage with the market. That’s also a reality. Yes, Kevin Rose lives for Digg and Loic Le Meur goes on and on about Seesmic. But they also put real content into the marketplace as well. They are active commentators.
5. Conferences are not news
I’m sorry to have to break this to you but the fact you are putting on an event (seminar, conference, party etc) is not news and it’s not that interesting, other than to the people who sign up and actually go. Even then, I can guarantee a certain amount of people who go will come away wondering why they went. That’s the sucky nature of running events. Everyone is a critic. That’s not to say they can’t be fun – and of course, we’re going to promote our own events. But in terms of content for a content site, they ain’t news. What happens AT the event might turn into something, however, and for that reason we might point to events that might be interesting to readers. But largely, it would be best if you added your to the TCUK Upcoming Group – it’s free and easy (just don’t add crap that isn’t relevant). I also like events people who offer our readers something special, like discounts, freebies etc. That might work. But not always. The only exceptions which allow us to write about events before they occur are a) if we have a media partnership in place (only I make decisions about this) which promotes TechCrunch to an audience we want to target; b) we have some kind of exclusive access to content that will break at the event. Other that that, repeat after me: events are not news.
6. Be a great contact
Great contacts are people who offer people like me stories which usually have nothing to do with them or their company, but which they know make great stories. “Gossip” might come into it, but – usually juicy and negative – gossip STAYS gossip unless it can be substantiated but more than one, preferably two sources AND it passes a public interest test. But you always need one source to start. Great contacts also get remembered – I’ll come back to you again for other things. You’ll be more “front of mind” when other stories break which might end up being a sector your company plays in. That may be good or bad for your company – it depends on the story. But the fact that you’re a contact who comes to me with interesting pieces of information will be more front of mind. How can you tell if being great contact is not actually your skill in life? When journalists stop replying to your emails/calls. But don’t be down about that – we can’t all be good at everything.
Oh, and it probably goes without saying that when you meet a journalist you are going to need to buy the coffee/lunch/pint. For you it will be one or maybe two coffees. For them it may be their fifth meeting, and their expense budgets are usually terrible. When the journos start buying you the pints, you know you’ve become the great contact (ok, just kidding now).
Good contacts also send me OTHER good contacts, people or information which are relevant to stories that (gasp!) may have nothing to do with them.
Good contacts also don’t expect me to call them for a 20 minute rambling chat when, wow, I have a bunch of other stories to write. Let’s ramble at that event next week, meanwhile, we all have work to do.
There is another type of contact that is “good” (in a manner of speaking): the person who likes to trash their competitors and deliver the inside dirt. Unfortunately this is the nature of the media beast, and this will happen. But when a company goes down and I start getting emails from competitors and ex-employees about how the CEO spent all the cash on trips to a Soho brothel, well, I am honour-bound to make a few calls to check it out…
7. Be a friendly blogger
Getting links back from other blogs is great for all the obvious reasons. But when someone else references and riffs on one of your posts, it keeps the mind going, and can lead to other posts. If that friendly blogger (they don’t have to be literally friendly, just active) is part of a company I cover, then they are going to be more front of mind when a relevant story breaks. Again, it’s like being a good contact. Hey, it’s all good!
8. Should you hire a PR firm?
Here’s the thing about PR firms. Only a small number are really any good. What happens is that there are individuals inside big PR firms who know their trade, understand how to interface with the media, read blogs, etc etc. If they’re good, they usually end up leaving and setting up their own boutique firm. In which case I still hear from them. The best PRs behave like the best contacts – they keep in contact, float ideas, check if something is of interest before bothering to send you a full-blown release, etc etc.
Others are good, but decide instead to rise through the ranks inside MEGA PR CORP, and guys like me stop hearing from them because they have been replaced by a spotty teenager / recent graduate who just reads your name and number out on a list and “checks if you got the press release”. Or worse, they call you to check if they can email over the non-exclusive (Aargh!) press release. Either that person learns fast and turns into a decent PR or they stay being the person who who cold calls you with crap – at least until they eventually realise they’d do a lot better in life as a bingo caller.
The traditional rule of thumb is that if your company gets a tonne of interest from the media and you are spending too much time on that rather than on your company, then you need PR help. But some people are just terrible at undertanding how to talk about their company, even at its inception. It’s just reality. So there is no shame (at all) in having good PR support. And this is probably something more relevant to the UK and Europe than the US. Because people tend to be more reticent about promoting themselves / their companies over this side of the pond. Maybe that will change, who knows…
9. Want to join in? Network.
Someone asked me recently how they could break into the UK scene – and specifically the London tech scene. I was happy to point out to them some of the events they should hang out at. But they still wanted to know what to do and who to talk to, at which point it felt like they weren’t “getting it”. I regularly hit events in the business two, maybe three times a week, and that’s just the in the evenings (and yes, my wife and kids are not keen on this!). But I’ve been doing that since 1996. I like events and I like talking to people in the real world. I pick up information that just wouldn’t surface any other way. I think I’ve also learnt to say hi to people and be friendly but not end up standing talking to the same person the whole night, which is quite a fear of most British people, especially at business events. I think the networking culture has changed to be slightly more American (“Hi great to meet you! What are you up to these days? Ok great to meet you, yeah sure catch you later, bye”) but not so American that you can’t have a decent conversation as well.
10. Please pitch like a human
I’d agree with Calacanis though – whther you are a lone startup trying to pitch your firm or a PR person, be a human being. I was once relentlessly pitched by a guy about “how great” his startup would be for a whole day at an event I couldn’t escape. In the end I realised that if his startup was not going to be the most amazing thing ever, then it would just get roundly trashed because he annoyed so many people. He wasn’t acting like a normal person. There’s nothing wrong with pitching, but please stop and revert to normality after the pitch. Note also that “Innovative” is now a meaningless word, and the reality is that it’s not going to be up to you to decide if your startup is innovative or not, so you may as well just say what it does and leave it at that.
11. Understand who you are talking to
I often get PR pitches from PR people and startups trying to sell me stories which have nothing to do with TechCrunch. “So I have this great story about a wireless transmitter that can detect submarines from 300 miles!” “Er, yeah, but you know we don’t write about those on TechCrunch, right?” “Yeah, but it’s a GREAT STORY!”. If you spent even 5 minutes reading TechCrunch you’d know this, but you’d be amazed how many people don’t. I hear from them. Every. Day.
12. The media likes CEOs
One of the biggest problems in the UK is the rise of the marketing manager. Just read the trade press in any sector. The marketing manager is always quoted. Like, who cares? It’s less of an issue in the startup world where CEOs are much more accessible, and they are almost always the person who knows their company best. What many firms also don’t realise is that it’s a much better story if a CEO says something than a marketing person. If they did, then some companies would get more press. Unfortunately, they still get press because too many journalists go with the marketing bod. Maybe that’s a little harsh on marketing people. Sorry about that.
13. Do you really need to have formal press meetings?
In the same vein that I like to keep up a conversation with people in the market, I sometimes swing by their office. As a few people might know, I actually cycle around London (yes, I am mad) so if I am in Old Street, it is easy for me to hit Shoreditch. If I am in Soho, it’s easy to swing by Covent Garden. Popping in for some coffee, and a friendly Hello and maybe borrowing some WiFi to check email enables me to keep in contact with your company and means I often fit better into your schedule than 10 emails to find a “window”. Yes, this is not always the case, yes, I can’t always swing by and, yes, it doesn’t replace formal meetings. But I’ve been known to actually sit down and blog from a spare desk in a company, while learning more about how they work. It’s damn useful and leads to more people who make… see point 6.
14. One company in a space is not (generally) a story
You might think you are leaders in your field, but it’s no good if that’s a field of one. There is more of a story if your startup clusters around others in a sector. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be original, and at TechCrunch we love bizarre new tech companies which push the envelope. But that’s why I always ask if you have competitors – it helps me place what you do. Companies that say they have no competitors either truly are original – this is rare – or just idiots. Everyone is (usually) riffing off someone else. Own up to it and you’ll earn respect.
15. “Yes, but how do I get on TechCrunch.com?”
“Yes Mike, we’d love it if you posted on TCUK, but how do we get on TechCrunch.com?” Some people might think it’s rude that you just trashed my efforts on TechCrunch UK by asking me this, but not me – I… understand your pain. But when I am asked this I usually reply that “it depends on the story”. Yes, it’s like asking “how long is a piece of string” but that’s the honest answer. But there are tell-tale factors like how big the story is, how exclusive, how just, well, generally interesting it is etc etc. I am much more pre-disposed to write about European companies though, hint, hint. (If it’s not fully clear: I write on TechCrunch.com as well).
Curiously, the more someone insists they deserve a post on TechCrunch.com, and how “wrong” I am to argue otherwise, the more tedious it gets. I’ll obviously have to work on my attitude.
16. “Strike when the news is hot” added 16 March 2010
I’m not sure if I emphasised this enough when I wrote this but it’s really cool to time your conversations with bloggers/journalists when there is something breaking in the news that is very pertinent to what you are doing.
17. “Skip the coffee and get to the point” added 14 Dec 2011
Loads of people want to “have a quick coffee” with journalists. Guess what? We get this ALL the time. If we had all the coffees we were offered we would never get anything done. So skip the coffee and get to the point (unless the journalist really DOES want to have coffee!). And read this great advice.