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how to win friends and influence journalists:

netpreneurs and the press

Sometimes getting press coverage can seem as arcane a science as getting that first influx of funding. In many ways, the two processes are actually not all that different from each other. What do reporters look for in a story about Internet business? At this Morino Institute Netpreneur Program Coffee & DoughNets meeting held October 19, 1999, a panel of journalists explained how netpreneurs can increase their chances of getting editorial coverage and building relationships with the press.

Statements made at Netpreneur events and recorded here reflect solely the views of the speakers and have not been reviewed or researched for accuracy or truthfulness. These statements in no way reflect the opinions or beliefs of the Morino Institute, Netpreneur.org or any of their affiliates, agents, officers or directors. The transcript is provided "as is" and your use is at your own risk.  

Copyright 1999, Morino Institute. All rights reserved. Edited for length and clarity.  

mary macpherson: the headline

Thanks very much for coming this morning.

Almost a year ago today, the study Toward A New Economy was released by the Potomac KnowledgeWay which informed us that the number of workers in the Information/Communication (InfoComm) cluster in this region had surpassed the number of workers in the federal government. It painted a picture of how our heritage in telecommunications, systems integration, computing, content and the Internet would define our future, and that certainly seems to have played out.

Last week we read in the New York Times ("Information Superhighway Roars Outside the Beltway," 10/12/99) (that the number of technology workers here— 475,000 —is the greatest concentration of those workers in this country and probably in the world. In Shannon Henry's October 17, 1999, article in The Washington Post, "D.C. Region Leads Nation in Net Access", we learned that according to Arbitron, we are the most connected community in the country. Almost 60% of the adults in this region are online. As our technology community grows, its press coverage continues to grow as well, both expanded coverage in the publications we are used to reading and in new publications starting up.

This morning we have a panel of journalists working in this space to talk about getting press coverage, including Shannon Henry, business and technology staff writer for The Washington Post and author of its weekly Download column; Marlon Millner, assistant managing editor in Washington for dbusiness.com; Daniel Pink, contributing editor at Fast Company magazine; and Susyn Schweers, associate editor at Washington Business Journal.

It's now my pleasure to turn the microphone over to our moderator Andrew Sherman. Andrew is a partner in the law firm of Katten, Muchin and Zavis, and a former journalist himself, including former Washington bureau chief for Business Age, contributing editor to a wide variety of magazines and author of nine books on entrepreneurship and business growth.

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andrew sherman: the lead

I'm actually Peter Jennings. I have assumed the role of a corporate lawyer just to keep a low profile.

Today's attendance, over 350 people, is evidence of the fact that the only thing more exciting than money for the netpreneur community is being in the spotlight. We can always count on the Netpreneur Program team. They have done a great job in the past few years keeping people on edge, and now we get a chance to turn the tables and ask reporters and journalists some questions. I think we will enjoy that.

We'll begin with each panelist spending two to three minutes giving background on themselves, talking about their beats, explaining how they interact with entrepreneurs and offering a few tidbits of advice. Then, we'll move on to Q&A. Please write your questions on the index cards you will find in your chairs, pass them to the front and we'll add them to those we received earlier through email.

Dan, would you start us off?

panelists: the story

Daniel Pink, Contributing Editor, Fast Company

I'm a contributing editor at Fast Company, which is, I hope, a magazine that many of you have heard about, if not read. It's the 1999 National Magazine Award winner for general excellence, launched by two refugees from the Harvard Business Review who thought there needed to be a new magazine for people like you who are inventing a new world of business. Alan Webber and Bill Taylor are two of the most creative people in journalism in the entire country, from my perspective. The idea is to write about the most intensely interesting and creative people doing the most amazing things, and to write about them in a way that offers readers something they can put to use in their own lives. It's service journalism with a brain—not the "ten best places to get a slice of pepperoni pizza," but "five ways you can keep your best employee." I pitched that story about pizza. It didn't work.

I've been with the magazine since 1997. Within the things that the magazine likes to cover, I, as a writer, especially like to cover ideas before they are safe and people before they are famous. I'm very proud that I did what I think is the first article about Melissa Moss, the local entrepreneur who started the Women's Consumer Network. I would be ashamed if I did the 101st story about Jerry Yang.

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I think that sometimes writers, editors and journalists are a little bit mysterious and intimidating, so what I want to tell you today, which has never been mentioned before in public, are the three secrets about writers. We can talk about what to put in a press release and whether you should hire a PR firm later, if you want, but if you know these three things that other stuff will fall into place. Since it is a secret, I'd like you to just keep it in this room, between you and me.

Number one, writers are egomaniacs. Think about what I do for a living. It is a titanic, colossal act of ego. My job isn't really to do anything, like you guys. It's simply to say stuff. I get paid for it, and I expect people to listen. If you think about it, I have stuff to say, I intrude into your home and beckon you to listen to it. The most telling thing about it is, if you look at almost any print journalist's articles, at the very top, in type bigger than almost anything else, is our name. "By Daniel H. Pink." Who else does that? I had a cheese Danish for breakfast. The guy who made it didn't squirt in frosting, "By Joe Smith." If you understand that it's really a colossal act of ego, you are partway to making a good pitch.

The point is, if you are going to pitch to a journalist, read some of his or her columns. Know what people write. Know what areas people work on. It's very, very easy, but I cannot tell you how many times in my experience that this has been honored more in the breach than in the observance. I'll give you an example. I wrote a story called "Free Agent Nation." I run a Web site called Free Agent Nation. I'm writing a book called Free Agent Nation. My email address is Dan@freeagentnation.com. Somebody once pitched me a story to which I replied, "Thanks, but no thanks." He emails back and asks, "FreeAgentNation.com, is that a local ISP?" No, it's pretty much how I spent my life the last two years." If he had taken 30 seconds to look into that, he wouldn't have made that mistake.

Was that a major ego bruise? Yeah, but more important, that guy's credibility is now in question. If he doesn't take 30 seconds to check me out and figure out what I'm about, well, I wonder what he is doing. I wonder about the market research for his product. I wonder how good he is about finding the greatest employees he can. If you recognize the fact that writers are egomaniacs, you are one-third of the way there.

The second rule is, writers have really, really hard jobs. Think about what I have to do. It's a little bit different for a magazine journalist who writes 6,000-word pieces. I am making an unreasonable, extraordinary demand on complete strangers. The magazine comes to your house with my name on the top of the article, and I'm asking you readers to drop everything and spend 20-25 minutes reading what I have to say. Don't take care of your kids right now. Don't make that call to a customer. Don't call a venture capitalist. Spending that time with me is more valuable than anything else you can do right now. That's a pretty sizable promise. If I don't deliver on it, I'm screwed. This is, to my mind, why most magazines fail and why most articles go unread. With that in mind you have to ask yourself, "What is my company doing that will help keep that promise to a reader, then deliver on it?" Is spending 20-25 minutes reading your story and learning about your company going to make that reader's life better when the experience is over? If not, the best written press release and the craftiest PR person are not going to get you there.

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The third secret is, for all of their solitariness, writers live on relationships. We live off of our contacts, our networks, our early warning systems, the people we meet at conferences like this, the people we have interviewed and who don't get into stories, the people we have interviewed who do get into stories and the people who we thought about doing stories about. For a writer, all of these people are like a massive search engine that helps us figure out this world.

If you are smart and doing amazing stuff, I want you to be part of that search engine even though it may not have a payoff to you tomorrow. A mistake that a lot of people make is that they will pitch a story and, if I say no—which I do 98% of the time—they will say, "Well, that's the end of the relationship." In fact, that's the beginning of the relationship. Who knows? Six months from now I may become interested in your aspect of E-commerce, remember speaking to you and give you a call. People move. You may be with a different company in six months. My head might be in a different place. Be available in a gentle kind of way. The very best PR people have perfect pitch in this regard. They know how to stay on your radar screen without getting in your face all the time. It's a very helpful skill.

Start building a relationship through an email, "Hey, great article. Did you ever talk to so-and-so?" That is a great way to get things going, especially for a magazine like mine where the deadlines are far away. It takes me months to get a story into the magazine. Another thing to keep in mind is that I have to pitch my editors. I can't tell you how many times I'll pitch a story to Alan and Bill, and they say, "What, are you crazy? Who would want to read that?" Then I'll wait six months, pitch the exact same story and they will say, "That's a great idea!" Well, the same things happen with writers, too.

Susyn Schweers, Associate Editor, Washington Business Journal

Well, I'm pretty sure that Marlon and Shannon and I can leave right now and you would have pretty much all you need from Dan, but I will try to tell you a little bit about Washington Business Journal and what we're looking for. I'm an editor, so I am one of the people reporters pitch stories to, but our relationship is much more give and take than a lot of relationships.

We are a 17-year-old weekly and we also have an online presence. We rely on our reporters to be out meeting people like you and getting your stories. We editors are more like sounding boards. We talk reporters through the story and make sure they have the right perspective because, as a weekly, we are looking for more depth and meaning, more perspective than a lot of dailies and online news outfits have time to do. Get to know our Technology reporter, Jennifer Jones, and our New Media reporter, Matt Schwiebel, who covers a lot of technology as well. Get the paper and look at the kind of stories we do. Look at the people who are doing those stories and get in touch with them.

We look for all kinds of stories. We have a special tech section every week, but we also cover various other industries, such as retail, health care and real estate. If your company fits into any of those other categories, in addition to being a tech company, that's an opportunity as well. Get to know the reporter who covers that beat.

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If I had one just one tip to give you, I would advise you to find what is unique about your business. I'm sure you all come here to talk to each other because you have a lot of similar issues, but you all have a unique story to tell. You need to pinpoint what that uniqueness is because what we look for in a story is something different from what we get pitched all the time. We don't want to hear that you started your business in the garage, then worked into the bedroom and now you are going to move into an incubator. Probably half of you, maybe more, have done that same thing, so it's not an angle to go with.

Read what's out there. Read all of our publications and find out what part of your story is not being told. That's what I would suggest is the area you should go with when you pitch your stories to reporters at the Washington Business Journal. Dan said that he says, "No," to 98% of the people he talks to. I try not to say, "No," because I think that everybody I run into can be useful as a future story or as an expert some day. I say, "Not yet." I hold on to your business card and pass it on to a reporter. Maybe some day, down the road, you'll get a call, so it doesn't mean the relationship is over. It means you should keep an eye out, maybe keep bugging us. By bugging us, I don't mean call every day and I don't even mean call every week. I get a lot of calls every day, and, frankly, I groan when I hear certain names or see certain letterheads when they come every day like that. You have to pick your moments. Pick something unique and news-breaking and choose that time to get in touch with us. Probably the best way for all of our reporters would be to use email because that allows us to get back in touch with you when we are off deadline.

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Marlon Millner, Assistant Managing Editor, dusiness.com

Good morning. I'm going to try to give you the 180-second or less version of this. I'm with dbusiness.com. We are a time-sensitive—you might even say real-time—business-to-business news and E-commerce portal. I'm an assistant managing editor for our Washington, DC, and Charlotte Triangle sites.

I want to use a story Shannon wrote last week as an anecdote, because it was about a guy I have seen at about 20,000 events and never wrote a story on him. The reason is, although you are young in your startups, you have to have something that's real and not imagined. We do the same due diligence that VCs do, that service providers do and that other businesses do when they want to partner with you. We are expected to do that if we are going to cover you effectively, so come at us with that. Don't come at us with the hype on the press release; come at us with the same hard facts and figures that you would bring to someone you wanted to do business with. They, like us, want to know what's real and what's fake.

I would also echo what's been said before. It's ridiculous for you to call me up when you don't read dbusiness.com—if you haven't signed up for our email alert and you don't know what the site is. If you don't read it, who do you expect to read it?

We are living in a world where people are beginning to blur the lines between media, marketing and public relations. I don't do public relations and I don't do marketing. I'm not here to make you look good. If you look good, it's because you have a good story to tell. Now, my job is not to make you look bad either, but it goes back to doing due diligence and asking you tough, hard questions. When you won't talk about revenues, when you won't talk about partners, when you won't talk about the value today or anything, well, I won't write the story. That's the bottom line. You have to be forthcoming.

We have three ways you can talk to us. There is "on the record," which means you stand by what you say and put your name with it. There is "on background," which means I'm definitely going to verify it, but I'll take your word and I won't put your name on it. Then there is "off the record," which I won't use. Typically, that means, "I'm going to tell you, but I don't want you to use it." If you don't want me to use it, I don't want to hear it because I don't want to be tempted. It's important that you understand that because oftentimes you are in a situation where you say, "I'm close to something, Marlon, but I can't tell you right now." Well, you can tell me and say, "Hold that until we nail down the deal, or until the letter of intent is in my hand and my signature is on it." I understand that, and you have to understand that there are ways to communicate information without your name being plastered all over it, but we will check and verify the information.

The last point I would make, since you are Internet-based companies, is to look at those formats that are on the Net. Do you know about c/net? Do you know about Hoovers.com? The same portals you want to use to conduct business, you ought to use to find your news and information. Do you get Netpreneur News each week? I read these things as well as the Washington Post and Shannon Henry's Download column and the Washington Business Journal.

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Shannon Henry, Staff Writer, The Washington Post

I'm Shannon Henry with The Washington Post. Marlon mentioned a story I wrote recently about a company that had some problems. I will write about companies that have problems because this Internet business is a moving target. The race to get venture capital, to figure out your idea, it's all something that's big, moving, exciting and revolutionary to watch, read and write about. I don't know if I would have ever predicted the success of America Online. If I had said five years ago, when I was covering AOL for Washington Technology, "I don't really think they are going to do anything. I'm going to stop covering this company because it's a proprietary Internet system. Everyone else wants to get on the Web, so what is this company going to do? I'm just not going to write about them." That would have been too bad.

Sometimes you have to think, "This person has an interesting idea. It may not go, but let's talk about how they are looking for money and, perhaps, not finding it. Maybe we'll understand why the venture capitalists aren't investing in it."

I write the Download column for The Washington Post which appears on Thursdays, part of the Tech Thursday section we launched about a year ago. I also write stories during the week, probably two or three stories, especially in the Monday section which also has a lot of technology coverage. I really would love to hear some of your comments and criticisms on Tech Thursday because it is a new project for The Washington Post and we take it very seriously. This is big business in Washington. The economy and the culture are being changed because of the technology growth here in the region.

In the Download column I try to go a little bit beyond the average news story. It's a little "insidery." Hopefully, you can still read it if you're not an insider, but it's about the people, deals and events in the technology industry here. If I can somehow show what this culture is like in Washington, then I'm accomplishing something. I think of it as a chronicle of what is going on here and how it's different from what's going on in Boston, New York or Silicon Valley. Not better or worse, but different.

The other column in Tech Thursday is called ".com", in which Leslie Walker writes about the national E-commerce business. If you have a company that is outside of the Washington area, I would pitch her for that column. We have other features as well. We have 10 tech reporters, some across the country focused on other areas, still it's very important for us to be focused on our backyard.

Here's one really good bit of advice for dealing with people at The Washington Post. If you want to email anybody, and that's the best way to get in touch with us, it's the same format for everyone—our last name, first initial @washpost.com, so I'm henrys@washpost.com. This may be the best bit of advice I can give you. Our fax machine is a complete mess and we change the phone numbers every now and then. I'm not joking. Although it sounds cruel, we do. Voicemails just clog up, but email is a great way to say, "Hey, I have this really exciting thing." It's written down so I can take a look at it later. I have your phone number and your email address there to get back in touch with you.

When you pitch stories, I suggest that you be very specific. There are a lot of interesting companies doing a lot of interesting things, and, 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's some numbers from Forester about it." I know that the E-commerce business is really hot, and it's great that you are doing cool stuff, but tell me about it. One example I use is VarsityBooks.com which sells college textbooks online. Their PR person is just wonderful and for a long time she would call me and say, "We are doing this really cool thing..." Well, it was like what a lot of other people were doing. She'd call and call and call. She was just diligent. It was a "not yet" kind of company, but then she called and said that they had gotten 500 college students to sell for them as grassroots marketers for their site. They were going to bring them all into Washington and offer them equity in the company. That's unusual. Immediately, I thought, "I have never heard of that before. That's something that shows us how this technology culture is changing." You remember your first job. You probably didn't get a piece of the company, especially if you were a college student. It was a good example of something unusual and different, and I'm very interested in the unusual, even quirky things going on in the technology community.

[continued]

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