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How To Win Friends And Influence Journalists
Reporters Offer Netpreneurs Tips For Working With The Press

(Washington, DC — October 19, 1999) How a startup gets press sometimes seems as arcane as how it gets funding. Why are some businesses covered over and over again while others can't seem to get through the door? A panel of working journalists helped shed some light on the mystery with practical advice for the more than 350 netpreneurs who attended this morning's Netpreneur Program Coffee & DoughNets meeting.

The comparison between getting press and getting funding is a more accurate one than some netpreneurs may imagine. In both cases, the first thing you need is a good, clear story. VCs call it the elevator pitch—a thirty-second explanation of what your company does and why it will be successful. For journalists, the story is everything. "If I have one tip to give you," advised Susyn Schweers, Associate Editor at Washington Business Journal (WBJ)  "it is to find what is unique about your business. You all have a unique story to tell and you need to pinpoint what that uniqueness is. That's what we look for in a story, something different than what we get pitched all the time."

Most journalists aren't technologists, any more than most VCs are. They want a story that their readers can care about and relate to, not descriptions of routers and switches. As Daniel Pink, Contributing Editor to Fast Company magazine explained, "Is spending 20 to 25 minutes learning about your company, reading your story, is that going to make that reader's life better when the experience is over? If it's not, the best written press release and the craftiest PR person aren't going to get you there."

In the business pages, where most netpreneurs are looking for coverage, Marlon Millner, Assistant Managing Editor for dbusiness.com, said that it often revolves around a key question: How do you make money? It's a question that every VC asks, and Millner uses it as a tool to cut through the hype and techno-babble to reach the core of the story. After all, according to Millner, the proverbial next big thing, whatever it is, will make lots of money. When a netpreneur can tell that story clearly, he or she will get a reporter's attention.

Shannon Henry, Staff Writer for the Washington Post and author of its weekly Download column , agrees, "To me one of the worst pitches I can get is, 'We are doing a lot of really great stuff and the E-commerce business is really hot and here are some numbers from Forester.' I know the E-commerce business is really hot, and it's great that you are doing cool stuff, but tell me about it." She recounted the example of VarsityBooks.com whose PR manager would call Henry periodically with updates on what the company was doing. One day, she called to explain a new program that would give students equity in the company for acting as a sales force on college campuses. "Immediately," said Henry, "I thought, 'That's interesting.' That's something that shows how this technology culture is changing. It was a good example to me of something unusual and different."

The VarsityBooks example points out another essential element of working with the press that's true of the rest of the business world—relationships matter. Just because your recent press release wasn't covered—no matter how important you thought it was to the future of the Internet—consider it the beginning of a relationship, not the end. Journalists are always looking for new stories, for experts they can call on for comments and for leads on other topics. Reporters change their jobs, beats and interests, so stay in touch—but do it politely, professionally and without being a pest. Unless you want to be one of those people who elicits nothing but a groan, "You have to pick your moments," advises Schweers.

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Part of forming a relationship, whether with reporters or VCs, is knowing their interests and responding appropriately. You wouldn't send a software business plan to an angel who only invests in real estate, so why send a security product press release to an Arts & Entertainment reporter? Your first job is to read the publications and know what they cover. At a large newspaper like the Washington Post, which has over a dozen business and technology reporters, that also means knowing their beats. As Schweers put it, "We are Washington Business Journal. We only cover Washington. We only cover business. You would be surprised how many people don't get it."

And make sure you consider all of your opportunities. For example, county and community newspapers which are focused on covering local news and businesses. As Millner said, "We all read each other. We are all looking at other sources to see what we might have missed."

The panel was moderated by Andrew Sherman, partner at the law firm of Katten, Muchin and Zavis and a former journalist himself. The four panel members represented a spectrum of media, from the monthly feature magazine format of Fast Company, through the weekly WBJ, daily Post and real-time dbusiness.com. They discussed and answered audience questions about how their interests differed, and even more about how many things are the same, regardless of medium. Issues included how new media technologies are changing journalism, dos and don'ts for working with the press, predictions for the biggest regional story of the year, what makes a good PR person and another topic that has parallels to the funding game—due diligence.

According to Pink, "Due diligence is essentially our job. I don't think it's a far cry from a venture capitalist." You may not have to give away all of the revenue numbers and other tightly-held information, but, according to Pink, "If you are worried that I'm going to do due diligence, then maybe you need to wait a couple of months before you talk to me."

As dbusiness's Millner put it, "We are living in a world where people are beginning to blur the lines between media and marketing and public relations. I don't do marketing. If you get good press, it's because you have a good story."

Copyright 1999, Morino Institute. All rights reserved.

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