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how to win friends and influence journalists:
netpreneurs and the press

page three of three | previous page

Mr. Sherman: How many people in the audience have questions that they haven't written down? Why don't we take those now.

Mr. Kraft: I'm Harold Kraft with AllSoldOut.com. Marlon, you mentioned that you read 200 press releases a day, which seems kind of like torture. Of the three methods of getting a press release in front of you—business wire, my issuing you a press release or hiring a PR firm—how effective are they?

Mr. Millner: Well, I would say the majority of the releases that I'm reading now are from email to me from services like Business Wire or PR Newswire. Those are the ones where I tend to read the first paragraph, and, if I haven't been caught in that first paragraph, delete, it's gone. Those that come from an individual, typically a person that has reached out to me previously via email, phone or an event such as this, I'm more inclined to read all the way through because it's a one-to-one email. Email, certainly, is the best way. The wire services I use as backup to keep track of quantity, but in terms of quality, it's where you meet people one-on-one and make the connection. If you follow up with that, I think it's much better.

Mr. Won: My name is Eric Won with Corbett Technologies, an information security firm—the dark part of the industry. Shannon mentioned earlier that from time to time you report bad news. Over the past few months, at least in our segment of the industry, we have seen an escalation in bad news. I have a couple of questions associated with that. One is, are you "sleuthful" or slothful about getting the bad news? How do you get that information? Unless you are HotMail or AOL, you are not going to hit the front pages. Second, to what extent is there a possibility for damage control since the work we do is always confidential?

Ms. Henry: You have noticed a lot of bad news stories in information security lately?

Mr. Won: I don't notice any stories, which is great, but from where I am, I do see the escalation going on.

Ms. Henry: Well, our job is to report what's going on, and sometimes I talk to people in the Washington region about the bad news stories like lay-offs or somebody getting fired or a company that fails. These are all part of the legitimacy of the Washington region as a technology center. In Silicon Valley they have more of a culture that failing is okay. From the Silicon Valley CEOs and venture capitalists that I've talked to, having three companies fail and starting a fourth one is a badge of honor, in a way.

Our job is to write what happens. We are not making up the bad news stories. If we are ignoring them, we are doing a disservice to our readers and to the technology culture here because we are trying to open a real window into what's going on. We have a responsibility not to hype things too much, but not making things seem too dire, either. It's not so much that we are always looking for something bad, but when something bad happens and we know about it, we will write about it.

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Mr. McClintock: I'm Tom McClintock of the Daily Drill (http://www.dailydrill.com). A few years ago when we put together our prototype I decided that we needed a PR firm. I've since wondered whether or not I picked the right one. I went with one of the big New York firms as opposed to a small independent, and I thought maybe some of you could give at least some anecdotal insights into how PR people play into your lives. Is there an inner circle that you go to for a story idea? Are they just for backup or are they noise that you try to get rid of?

Mr. Millner: They're noise. It's a good question, but, seriously, I would say that I think we are all a little different. For those of us who are local, I think a local firm is much better than a New York firm. I understand that many of you need to pitch beyond the region, to pitch the breadth and depth of press—technology, small business, all of that—so you have to bear that in mind when you weigh your decision. For me, however, I know that there are public relations professionals based in Greater Washington and those are the ones I call. When the folks from New York contact me, I wonder how they found me down here. I know that dbusiness.com has written about the Daily Drill. We got a release, but I don't know if it was a local release or how that happened. In terms of trying to flesh things out, I tend to call local people. I don't tend to call New York analysts and I don't tend to call New York VCs, unless you have gotten funding from a firm that's not based here or you have a relationship with a company that's not based here.

Mr. Pink: If I get an email from the CEO or VP of Business Development of a company, versus an email from a public relations firm representing that company, I will respond more quickly and take more seriously the piece that's not from the PR firm. That's because a lot of these PR emails and press releases are these falsely customized things where they say, "Dear Daniel," and then paste in from another email. The trick will be revealed later on at the very end. "Thank you, Steve, for your time."

Ms. Henry: We just got one of those.

Mr. Pink: There are many PR firms that do offer great value for small startups and for people whose area of expertise is not the press, but you can probably live without them.

Ms. Schweers: Regardless of which way you go, make sure you or your PR person can explain what you do in English. There is no faster way to turn off a reporter than to connect a bunch of techno-speak all in a row. As Shannon said, most of us are not technologists, although some have a little more experience than others dealing with technology. If you explain to us what you do and how it works, in English, you are going to get a lot farther, regardless of whether you do it yourself or you hire somebody to do it for you.

Mr. Pink: The PR firms sometimes err on the opposite side. Some of the tech companies will give you this explanation that just hurts your head to listen to. You have no idea what the heck they are talking about. Here you are, still trying to figure out why you have to hit "Start" to turn off your computer. Then you have the PR firms—not all of them—who give you this vapid stuff like, "Hey, Dan, this is an E-commerce play." It's an assortment of vapid and empty lingo and you just want someone to say, "Here's what we do." Not that there is any magic to it. If you are sitting on a bus talking to somebody and they ask what your company does, you should be able to say something like, "We sell rutabagas online to people who want root vegetables delivered to their door." Great.

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Ms. Henry: Although I hate to generalize, we have all had such bad experiences with PR firms. I don't think there is any reporter who hasn't. There are also bad reporters and bad lawyers just as there are good reporters, good lawyers and good PR people. Some of the best PR people call only when they know that they have a great story, whether it's their client or not, which is really cool. There are three or four PR people in this area who will say, "Hey, I have noticed this unusual trend, and I wonder if you've seen it?" I will say, "Oh, yeah, who are you representing?" and they will say, "No, no, I just thought you would be interested." That is how I've built good relationships with some PR people, those who really have a concept of what a good story is. Just this week I got a message from a New York PR firm representing a certain company, one of the biggest technology companies in Washington. The person said, "Maybe you have heard of this company. It does this,"—which wasn't even right—"and they're going to be in your town."

I called back—I'm not joking, and I hope I'm not being so close to actually reveal who this was, but it's one you will all know of—I called back and said, "Well, I am already in their town and I have talked to their CEO many times. I'd love to hear whatever this news is." They admitted they had never seen The Washington Post. They were asking me what the Monday section looked like. Just talk to the PR people a lot before you hire them, and talk to their other clients.

Mr. Pink: For someone who does that for a living, it's just unforgivable. Why should anybody pay you and why should I listen to you? When someone who is trying to start a company shoots off an email that says something a little bit off, I can understand that, but not someone whose job it is do this. I get the same kind of thing because I'm based here in Washington. The magazine is based in Boston and I'm the only person in Washington. The Fast Company Washington bureau is the third floor of my house. People who are doing these tours of Boston write, "Dear Daniel, we are going to be in your town." It must be the same person or maybe they have some kind of macro they use when they hit the F8 key. I'm thinking, "I'm glad that you are going to Boston. It's a lovely city, but I live in northwest Washington, DC." It's the PR firms that do that, not the companies. If a PR firm makes a blunder like that, I actually think it's really unforgivable and it damages their credibility. If a company does that, I'm much more forgiving.

Ms. Henry: I agree. If you get the email from the CEO you are much, much more likely to respond.

One really bad thing you can do at The Washington Post is to pitch several of us at once, because it really confuses us. If you pitch Leslie Walker and Mark Liebowitz and Peter Behr and me, all of whom have completely different jobs even though we overlap sometimes, I'll say, "Hey, I'm doing such and such a piece," and they will say, "I have that, too." Then we think, "Okay, they are blanketing everyone." We get very confused and say, "Forget it." Some people will never call you back because of it. I'm not as bad about that.

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Mr. Sherman: What are some of the more unconventional techniques that people have used to get your attention and how have you reacted to these techniques?

Mr. Pink: The most unconventional technique is to tell me about something really, really cool and interesting that would make a great story.

I have to tell you, you get this stuff with maybe a baby shoe attached because it's about some kid's gift. I don't care. Save your money and put it into your business. Tell me a great story and tell it to me by email, which is free. That's very unconventional, believe me.

Ms. Schweers: Don't send the junk.

 

Mr. Sherman: OK, no baby shoes. Tell us please, what story are you proudest of and what story do you wish you had never written?

Ms. Schweers: I moved here from Kansas City where I wrote a story on a restaurateur who had opened up this enormous brew house. He had contractors from one end of the city to the other and a very expensive lease. He skipped town and was accused of trying to set fire to another brewery. It was a very interesting story about a small business owner who cheated a lot of people in the city from neighbors to the landlord to contractors. He owed millions of dollars. I thought it was a great story because it taught lessons for anyone who was leasing space to someone. It was just a sexy story. I have never written a story I wasn't proud of.

Mr. Millner: Gosh, I don't know. I guess there are several stories, especially toward the latter end of my tenure at the Business Journal. I don't write any more, I edit. I'm definitely proud of all the work that Ray Bolger puts out. I did a story in February of this year on diversity at investment banks. That was not technology-related, but it started with me going into a conference and it mushroomed into a full-blown story addressing the issue of minorities and women at regional investment firms here in the Greater Washington area. I'm very proud of that story and I'm very proud of the story that I did on Blackboard.

Reporters make genuine mistakes and I think we do deserve to get slammed when we do. I think the story that I'm embarrassed about occurred when I was an intern at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. People always tell you that you will get that chance to do the story on the front page. I came in and worked one Sunday when there had been a plane crash. They said, "Marlon, we need you to go out and cover this plane crash." I ran out there. A guy is dead, there is blood and there are cops and ambulances. The public affairs guy for the National Transportation Safety Board gets up and starts explaining what happened. I wrote down the make of the plane, and went back to write the story. I write about the crash of a twin engine plane and it ran on the front of the Local section. People started calling in saying, "Who is this idiot? That's a single engine plane. Even an average person knows that." I felt ashamed and horrified and said, "I'm not writing anything anymore about planes." So, just forgive us because those mistakes do happen. I was definitely embarrassed after that story.

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Ms. Henry: I'm proud of TECHcapital which is not really a story, but I helped found the magazine and was its editor. That was a great experience, to start something from nothing and build a magazine. Making it look good, sound good, be interesting and different while covering a region that wasn't covered as well as we had thought.

As to stories, we did a technology series in The Post in December that I'm very proud of. It had three parts. The first was a day in the life of different tech workers. We all write about CEOs, but we wanted to talk to the systems integrator who sits in front of the computer all day about what's happening in the culture that has emerged here. The second part was how it all happened and the third part looked forward to the future, with the focus on what the angel investors and venture capitalists do. We won an Associated Press award for that series, which I'm very proud of. We don't really publicize our awards very much, but that was very nice.

 

Mr. Sherman: The last question for each of the panel members. What's the biggest tech story of the year so far in the region, and what do you predict for next year?

Mr. Pink: As a trend writer, to me the biggest story is how the new Washington is displacing the old Washington as an engine of the economy, and even more interesting, as a cultural force. That is the big meta-trend story of this region. For next year, I think it's going to be the displacement of old Washington by new Washington. I really have no idea. That's the thing that makes it so incredibly interesting. What this landscape will look like six months from now is pretty unpredictable, which makes it fascinating to cover and to be a part of.

My final tip is my email address: dpink@fastcompany.com. Now, one word of warning on that. I'm actually on leave for the next couple of months to finish writing a book, so talk about long lead times. Around the turn of the century I'll be back in action writing magazine articles, so keep me in mind or send me an email if you have something going on now; that's how I like to get stuff, and thank you for your time.

Ms. Schweers: Well, I don't think I'm actually appropriate to comment on the next tech story since I'm an editor of many areas, but I would have to say that our biggest tech story, from a breaking news standpoint, would probably be one that that Jennifer Jones broke a couple of weeks ago on Intel opening a data center here. It was followed up by a $140 million investment that is yet another step in solidifying the area's reputation as a tech hub. We followed that up in the current issue with a trend analysis piece on these data centers that are locating here and the real estate that is needed. It wound together a number of different beats and spoke to how intertwined technology is with other industries. It was an interesting piece and it probably will continue as a trend that might be something to watch.

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Mr. Millner: I think the biggest story of this year, coming from my perspective covering banking and finance at the Business Journal, is the exponential growth in capital that has been placed in the region—people not going to Silicon Valley or Boston or London or Saudi Arabia to raise money, but that money flowing into the region and being managed by people who are based here.

Linked to that, in terms of the story for next year, I won't take credit for this but from talking to one venture capitalist, there is a sense that the public market is closing as the graduation for a company, particularly for Internet companies. You are not going to get these astronomical values. There are still some companies going public that have 200%-300% pops when the IPO is completed, but more often than not it's a much softer rise and a much quicker descent. We will continue to trade in this tight range. I heard Richard Kripps, I believe that was his name, talk about the disparity between large caps and small- to mid-caps, that at least the indexes were going to trade in a range, and we've seen that. We've seen how the Dow has stayed in this 10,000 range, between 10,2000 and 10,800 or 10,700. Moreover, a lot of the big technology companies give an illusion of growth while everybody else is kind of going to hell in a handbasket in terms of the market.

So what's going to happen? I mention all that to say that in the 21st century people are going to be paying attention to how you continue to fuel the growth. The new economy is not detached from the old economy and we all have to work together. If everyone else is struggling, if resources are shifting and if the public markets are not an option, well, there is a lot of money in here and a lot of it's being funneled out. As the economy becomes tighter, will we continue to see technology companies—and Internet companies in particular—grow exponentially above and beyond what the rest of the economy is doing?

Ms. Henry: I continue to be fascinated with how Washington is becoming more of a two-industry town and I think that's going to happen even more over the coming year. Mary mentioned the story we had in Sunday's paper on the Arbitron study that almost 60% of people in the Greater Washington region are connected to the Internet. That demographic area includes a lot of Virginia and Maryland, a little bit of West Virginia, and a tiny piece of Pennsylvania. More people are online here than anywhere else in the country. More than in Silicon Valley. We are talking about people, not companies. It has an intertwined effect. The technological advances here in businesses have driven it, but also that "information junkie" culture here in Washington has encouraged a lot of people to be online. That's fascinating to me. How does that affect this region? How does that affect this economy? I think these are real questions for the next year.

Mr. Sherman: As we thank the panel, I'd also like to thank the Netpreneur Program team who work so hard to bring these programs to us.

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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.  

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