Win Friends And Influence JournalistsReporters 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 pitcha 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
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
The VarsityBooks example points out another essential
element of working with the press that's true of the rest of the business
worldrelationships matter. Just because your recent press release wasn't
coveredno matter how important you thought it was to the future of the
Internetconsider 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 touchbut
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,"
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 gamedue 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
Copyright 1999, Morino Institute. All