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

When it comes to working with journalists, so many people are, frankly, idiots. I have seen reporters yank stories because founders are assholes, play unfairly, or have PR firms that use ridiculous pressure tactics when they have already committed to a story.

There is so much bad behavior that I thought that it might be time to write up a list of “DON’Ts” on how not to work with journalists.

I compiled this list by polling TechCrunch’s entire writing staff for their pet peeves when it comes to working with PR folks and founders around startup pitches. The result was this list of 16 obnoxious annoyances.

The interesting thread that connects all of them is that these DON’Ts are almost universal across the staff — few of these annoyances seemed to be merely personal preference. Avoiding these behaviors won’t guarantee coverage of your startup, but they certainly will help you avoid killing your news story before it even gets considered for publication.

DON’T change the capitalization of your startup multiple times

SEO is important, and so there are rules about how to capitalize things to maximize your exposure on Google and DDG. That’s important to get right, but for the love of god, figure out what the hell you want your startup’s name to be before you reach out to the press.

For the earliest stage companies, I would say about 30-40% of the time I get an email from the founder asking for changes to how their startup’s name is capitalized after I publish a story. I always verify the capitalization on the website (usually but not always by looking at the copyright), and so this is purely a problem on the startup’s side. Please, just figure it out ahead of time and make sure every place on your website and briefing materials has the name consistently.

DON’T subscribe anyone to your startup email updates without asking

This seems self-explanatory (and possibly even legal given GDPR and other unsolicited email laws), and yet, every day, I am signed up for roughly half a dozen to a dozen mailing lists which I never requested. If I have never met you, never written about your startup, don’t even cover your industry, why, why, why would you think it is acceptable to add me to a distribution list to get weekly updates on your business?

The only companies that need mailing lists for journalists are listed on a public exchange and have words like “Apple” and “Alphabet” in their name. It makes sense to use mass broadcast tools like an email mailing list for companies that have multiple news stories per day and potentially thousands of journalists covering them. But if your startup has been covered by three people, just email them and cut out the list.

DON’T allow your PR firm to schedule your interviews

Image by Colorblind Images LLC via Getty Images

PR firms want to retain the relationship with the journalist and shield their clients from directly working with writers. And so when a writer commits to a story and wants to interview the founder, there is this strange game of telephone that is played in which the journalist will give time availability to the PR rep, who then sends it to the VP of Marketing, who then sends it to the executive assistant, who then asks the founder of a company if they want to do that time. Hilarity often ensues, but what doesn’t ensue is a published article as the email chain becomes infinitely long.

If you’re going to do press interviews around a news story, reserve ample time to schedule interviews, and ensure that principals are talking to principals. If you don’t want to schedule these meetings yourself, then reserve time and allow your PR to schedule those hours on your behalf. No games of schedule telephone.

DON’T pitch multiple journalists at the same publication without telling them

Newsrooms, understandably, are reasonably decentralized places. Reporters are out in the field finding stories, not spending oodles of time coordinating their stories with their counterparts around the world. And so when founders pitch their story to five people simultaneously and separately without telling anyone, it creates an enormous amount of waste — and ultimately puts you on our blacklist.

Instead, reach out to the single writer who you think is most relevant at a publication. If you don’t hear back after a reasonable period of time (and no, an hour is not reasonable), then go ahead and pick one additional writer to reach out to, and mention, “Hey, I reached out to Danny Crichton with this news but didn’t hear back, so wanted to reach out to you instead to see if you were interested.”

Some PR firms think that is unwieldy, and will tell you privately that the only way to get your news article out there is to carpet bomb every writer at a media company with separate emails. Trust me: these firms have a reputation, and their stories are written up far less often than if they weren’t involved at all.

DON’T badly personalize an email

The corollary here is that since you are sending to a hand-selected group of people, you should never send an email to “Dear Tech Journalist” or “Dear TechCrunch Writer” or “Dear [First Name].” Obvious, but it happens to most of us everyday. Get your basics right.

Don’t do this (from an email received today)

DON’T demand in-person meetings if they aren’t required

Everyone is busy. So don’t demand an in-person meeting if one isn’t required. You are always free to offer to meet in person and grab coffee. But don’t pretend that we need to see your sweaty WeWork in order for us to write a good story about your startup.

The caveat here is when there is some sort of physical demo. Maybe you are an AR/VR company or an autonomous vehicle startup (in which case, DON’T crash the car and harm the journalist inside). It’s okay to condition a story on actually using the product of course, since the experience is what the story should be about anyway. But for everyone else, a call or email will suffice.

DON’T ever write a same-day follow-up email (or follow up twice)

Photo by skynesher via Getty Images.

Journalists get a lot of email, sometimes hundreds of emails a day if they are popular and well-known enough. Every email is a burden in this context, but that’s okay. It’s our communication medium after all, and it is a required part of doing our jobs.

Don’t make that job harder by following up on an email just a few hours after you send it, even for breaking news. Journalists take meetings, they go out to lunch, and believe it or not, they even write stories. That means that their email may not be read for several hours at a time. There is honestly nothing more annoying than getting into your inbox after writing a long-form story only to find some PR rep or founder has written “Did you read my thing???” on a thing you haven’t even had time to read yet.

The vast majority of journalists I know are very adept at email. If they are not responding (and many don’t respond), it’s not because they are incompetent, but because they are not interested.

Now, it is true that stories get lost in inboxes every once in a while. At TechCrunch, we will often talk about this internally as a form of mea culpa. But such situations are exceedingly rare. Completely throwing a number on the board, but I’d say 1 out of 300 pitches are messed up this way. And so, don’t ever follow up on the same day you sent in a pitch, and only if you really must, follow up exactly once a day or two later.

DON’T follow up an email with a phone call or voice message

The flip side to email follow ups is that you should never, ever follow up an email with a phone call. I know it might be surprising to learn, but the world runs on email, and certainly the journalism world does. At least once or twice a week, someone will email me a pitch, and then proceed to call me and leave me a voice mail with language like “Hey, just wanted to follow up to see if you read that email I sent you like 10 minutes ago.”

I don’t know a journalist who wants or needs this. I also don’t know many journalists who effectively use a voice mailbox in this way these days. There is absolutely no need to do this.

DON’T ask for corrections on things that are accurate

Let’s say you finally get that story you wanted published, and you read it, and you find out that you don’t like a sentence, either because it positions your startup (or you!) in the wrong light, or perhaps it makes an awkward inference. Don’t email the journalist asking for a correction.

A “correction” has a very specific meaning. It means that a fact was wrong in the story, and there is an objectively correct fact that should replace it. Corrections can include things like the dollar figure of a round was mis-written, a name was misspelled, the startup’s name wasn’t capitalized properly, or the headquarters city listed was wrong. I, as I expect all journalists to honor, will always make these corrections and make them as quickly as possible. For instance, I corrected this story because I didn’t understand that Bill Gates was personally involved with a startup and not specifically the Gates Foundation. Totally fair, mistakes happen, and we fix them and move on.

What’s problematic is when people ask corrections for things that are interpretations, or syntheses, or analyses where the writer’s judgment was used in assembling the words. Feel free to respond back with details or other evidence or complaints, but don’t call it a “correction.”

DON’T use pressure tactics to get a story out

Image by Johner Royalty-Free via Getty Images

As I mentioned in the counterpart to this piece, relationships are everything, as much with the press as with every other facet of building a company. Don’t burn a bridge with a writer by trying to use intense pressure tactics to get the outcome that you want. Don’t make threats, or yell at writers on Twitter, or demand to speak to an editor. There is no world in which a threat to a writer is going to magically turn into high-quality and positive press for your business.

DON’T use bad news pegs that are irrelevant to your startup

News “pegs” are ways to connect your individual story to a wider narrative that might already have an established audience of readers. For instance, a major data breach might be the perfect time to pitch a data protection startup to a cybersecurity writer (with the caveat that every other startup is thinking the same thing). When a big acquisition is made, the target’s competitors will often reach out to writers to talk about the competitive landscape and build momentum for themselves.

But don’t abuse this function to absurd ends. If Apple introduces a new iPhone model, don’t use that as a news hook to pitch a new line of hair products (“Apple’s new iPhone has a gorgeous new camera, which is why it is crucially important to use NoFrizzNewCo’s hair products to make your hair shine, which was launched today”). Irrelevant news hooks are worse than not having a news peg at all.

This advice also holds true when referencing a writer’s previous work. As my colleague Lucas Matney wrote me as an example, “I really enjoyed your story about ‘Intel stock pops 3% after Q4 funding,’ would you like to write about my vape pen startup?” Logic will get you far.

DON’T reference coverage in other publications

Every publication has its own audience and motivations. What is good for the New York Times or TechCrunch is not going to be the same as what is good for Wired or the Wall Street Journal. We each have our own goals, and we select stories to serve the readers of our own publications.

So don’t write a caustic email saying that we should write a story “As seen in Forbes.” You are not just implying that that particular publication is more prestigious than the one you’re pitching to, but also intimating that the story has already been published elsewhere, which is a death sentence for any pitch.

DON’T forget photographs

Every story on the web is going to be published with a photo, since photos are critical for distribution on Google, Facebook, and other aggregators. So don’t come to a journalist with a story, have that journalist agree to write a story, and then fail to follow through with images of your product, team, founders, etc.

Have a variety of photos ready to go, and try to provide different photos to different outlets covering your startup so that there aren’t six articles on the web covering the same news story with the exact same photo like a bad example of a North Korean newspaper.

Send these by email, or even better, include a link to a Dropbox with all the photos organized into a single level of folders based on type. Also make sure that you own the copyright to your photos, and that any required photo credits are clearly labeled (for instance, if you used a professional photographer). Writers care about citing other creatives.

DON’T schedule your embargoes for weird times

Image by Westend61 via Getty Images

No one is reading funding announcements at 2am EST on a Sunday. And yet, I regularly get embargoes for the strangest times.

Writers hate embargoes that aren’t timed well, since that means their pieces won’t be read by as many people. We aren’t slaves to the traffic gods, but ultimately, if we are going to write a piece, we would rather publish it when people are awake versus when they are sleeping.

Most embargoes in the tech world are set for 8 or 9am PST. Some PR folks will attempt to strategize and move the embargo time around to try to have a story published outside the deluge at the beginning of the day. However, the heaviest traffic to news sites happens during the morning commute. Most embargoes are set for 9am because the most readers are reading then, and they will consume the most number of articles as well. Don’t over-strategize here.

If you have a reason to launch a story in the dead of the night, be forthcoming. If the news is about opening a Japan office, then say you chose 1am EST so that it hits in Tokyo at the right time. If there are reasonable reasons, most people are accommodating.

DON’T claim you don’t have competitors

Tech journalists cover companies for a living. We see it all, and we all have tools to figure out the companies in a market. So if a writer asks you about competition, be ready to explain how you compare to other companies in your space.

You are hiding nothing from us by pretending that you don’t have competitors, or that Google doesn’t have a competing product. When founders say something along those lines, I generally intensify my description of the competitors in my stories, because it means that the founder isn’t confident of their position in the market.

Your story is your story, not the story of others in your space. But you don’t need to avoid talking about them in order to have your story come out well.

DON’T ever use the term “content opportunities”

Writers are lovers of the English language, so please don’t bastardize an already bastardized language even further.