Media & Entertainment

How to pitch to a (tech) journalist

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Startup growth comes from many places, but one option is through “earned media” — stories and mentions in the press. Earned media is great, because the channel is nominally free, and it often can get many more of the right eyeballs than advertising. Minus some sleazy behavior in the journalism world, you should never have to pay a dime to get a story into print other than the work it takes to manage PR (and yes, of course, that can be very expensive, although it doesn’t have to be).

For these reasons, startups pitch writers a lot on stories about everything from their latest fundraise to new features in their apps. Yet despite that frequency, some founders (and PR folks) are extraordinarily good at pitching and find great success, while others seem to never get the attention of even the most workaholic writers.

The job of writers is to write stories, but writing your story is not their job.

Therefore, learning how to pitch a journalist, how to build a relationship with writers covering your startup and how not to mess up a story already in production is a critical skill for anyone looking to grow their business.

This guide is designed to help bridge the gap by covering relationship building, how to determine newsworthiness and the logistics of exclusives and embargoes. In addition, we’ve published a companion piece that lists and analyzes 16 DON’Ts that can suddenly find your committed story in the trash can.

The master list of PR DON’Ts (or how not to piss off the writer covering your startup)

Building relationships should always take precedent

The single greatest secret of building any venture, actually, the greatest secret of life, is that relationships are everything. We live in a free world, and no one is obligated to do anything for anyone. Venture capitalists aren’t obligated to write a check, partners aren’t obligated to sign a deal and customers never have to buy your product.

So it is strange, then, that when it comes to working with journalists, so many founders lose their relationship-building mentality and treat writers as an afterthought or someone to refer to the VP of Marketing. You don’t hand your top investors to your CFO, and you wouldn’t hand off your top customers to your VP of Sales. So neither should you hand off your top journalists to someone else.

Over the course of building a business, you should identify and cultivate a short list of writers who will regularly cover your startup that you, as CEO, have a direct and personal relationship with. Like any new relationship, time may be measured in years and not hours in order to build. The first story from that writer may not come for a long period of time, and you may offer far more than you receive, but eventually, reciprocity will kick in.

Relationships never guarantee coverage, of course, but they can guarantee that a writer will look at a pitch, or chat with you, or give you feedback on how to position a story better. Every quality relationship you build will be a valuable investment in the future of your press efforts.

Newsworthiness drives your success

Here is the hard, cold reality: There are a lot of damn startups out there. In any given week, there are now hundreds of fundings, thousands of people switching jobs, many, many partnerships announced and monstrous new products released. Popular journalists in this industry can get upwards of 500 emails per day clamoring for their attention. Yet, the bandwidth for writers and publications remains mostly static.

No one and no publication can cover it all. And so, to get your story out there, you have to focus on the quality of your news.

Newsworthiness is in the eye of the beholder. Every editor and writer has their own standards, their own taste of what they are looking for. Some writers focus on funding announcements and want to cover those in real time. Others focus on new product launches or features.

For instance, I like to write about (generally technical) startups that are creating new markets or movements. And so I covered Gremlin, which is popularizing the concept of chaos engineering to improve software reliability; Jask, which is driving toward an autonomous security operations center; Packet, which is offering hardware-as-a-service in the data center; and Tidelift, which is changing the economics of open-source projects. I like a news hook, but I also want a meatier story that requires some level of context and explanation. That’s my taste, and it probably isn’t shared by too many others.

It’s really important to target journalists with stories that they are going to want to write. That’s why relationships are so important! If you have built them, then you already know what they like. But even if you don’t have the right contacts, you can start to go through the back catalog of a writer and see if you can discern a pattern to their reporting. Do they cover early-stage companies or late-stage companies? Do they cover a specific industry or geography? Are they completely random? Pitch the story to as close to the right person as possible to maximize success.

If you are offering an exclusive, it should be for the story, and not some component of the story. No one wants an exclusive infographic.

When we talk about newsworthiness, there are a couple of key moments that tend to get our attention. Fundings, new product launches, pivots, key exec hires and new partnerships are — at least for TechCrunch — probably the ranked-order list of newsworthiness. There should be some “hook” for every story that you pitch; never ever just pop into a writer’s inbox with “Hey, random idea for you, why don’t you write about, you know, us today…. because…. well, because.” The news hook helps frame the story, and also gives a sense of urgency.

Remember also that newsworthiness is a relative judgment, and your news is going to be placed against everything else happening in the world that day. Your new seed funding round may be the most important news in your world in a year, but from a writer’s perspective, it might be number 200 on the editorial calendar. It’s really, really tough to get those early funding rounds and launches covered these days. If you fail to attract attention the first time around, don’t burn bridges, but work to make the pitch more compelling for the next round.

The logistics of exclusives and embargoes

Perhaps the most annoying thing for writers to deal with is the piss-poor execution of exclusives and embargoes. Getting this right can save a lot of time for all parties involved, and ultimately lead to better stories.

Sometimes, exclusives and embargoes are used together…This is a reasonably frequent if shitty tactic.

Journalists get stories in two ways: either they go out and seek information and report on scoops, or they wait until people come to them with stories. In the tech world, most journalists do a combination of both.

When founders or PR folks come to writers with a story, often they will use one of two mechanisms to get their attention. One is the exclusive, where the story will be conveyed to exactly one journalist. By offering a monopoly to a writer, that person gets to break the story and receives credit for having a story that no one else does.

Exclusives are often offered because the newsworthiness of the story is weaker. Few reporters may be interested in covering a small seed funding round, but an exclusive might make it just a bit more tantalizing and help meet the newsworthiness bar. Perhaps the greatest mistake a lot of inexperienced founders make is assuming that an exclusive suddenly amps up the value of a story. Maybe it adds a bit, but if the story itself is boring, an exclusive to a boring story isn’t exactly much better.

If you are offering an exclusive, it should be for the story, and not some component of the story. No one wants an exclusive infographic about a fundraising announcement.

The other approach is to embargo a story. This is where a startup will select a date and time (always include a god damn time zone, folks) for when a story goes live. The point of using an embargo is to provide data, information and interviews ahead of the actual news being broadcast, so that journalists have time to write better stories.

The proper way to send an embargo to a writer is to first send an email asking whether they accept an embargo, and then following up with the embargoed story once that acceptance has been returned. A reporter’s inbox is on-the-record, which means if you just send the news over (even with an embargoed date and time), that journalist is fully within their rights to just write up the story (that said, most writers probably wouldn’t do that, but why take that risk).

Embargoes are not exclusive, and so setting up an embargo allows you to connect with multiple journalists, all of whom may cover the story at the same time. This is particularly useful in contexts where you have multiple constituencies (startup talent, big company customers, overseas investors) who read different publications.

Timing the delivery of an embargoed story is an art, not a science. You want to give writers some time to digest the news, schedule interviews and also write the story. On the other hand, if you send over the news too early, it can easily get lost in the thicket of other stories that need to be written first. My advice is give at least 2-3 days notice but probably not more than 5-7 days, unless there is something particularly complicated (in-person demos, required travel, etc.)

Now, sometimes an embargo is broken by a journalist either purposefully (very rare) or more likely because of a mistake (often due to time zones — which you did include in the email chain right?). When an embargo is busted, you should immediately contact all writers who were covering your story to let them know. They may already have written the story and it is sitting in their CMS, and they can hit publish and get that story out there pretty much on time.

Sometimes, exclusives and embargoes are used together. A PR firm will offer an exclusive to a story at say 8am EST to one outlet, and then offer an embargo to a couple of other outlets at 9am EST. This is a reasonably frequent if shitty tactic. If you are going to do something like this, transparency is key. I have good relationships with PR firms that will explain these situations to me, and often I can be accommodating of reasonable requests here. But don’t screw me or other writers by not letting us know the context.

Practice makes perfect

Crafting great stories and selling them to journalists is a skill that is absolutely practicable. Learn how to improve on your pitches, get feedback from peers who can help you avoid obvious flaws and learn what makes a great news story great. Much like pitching VCs for an investment, pitching journalists for coverage gets easier the more times you do it. And the better you build the relationships with everyone involved, the more likely you are to find the success you are looking for.

The master list of PR DON’Ts (or how not to piss off the writer covering your startup)

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