5 Ways to Get Your Startup Noticed By the Media

Everyone wants media coverage -- it can boost sales, attract investors, and give you something to post about on Facebook. The problem? Everyone wants media coverage. That means you're competing for attention with hundreds of other companies every day. As a journalist who writes about tech and business regularly, for outlets like The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian, I get pitched about 50 times a day. And those are the pitches that make it past my junk filter, which is highly tuned to filter out press releases or anything that seems like a form letter. 50 a day, and I'm not even close to being "the" tech reporter at any of these places.

Pitching effectively to the media requires a decent understanding of how the media works, which most people don't have. Why should they? Unfortunately, most startups also don't have cash lying around to pay a publicist, much less a public relations firm, for their know-how.

Photo: From file

In the interest of helping you out and, maybe, improving the quality of pitches that arrive in my inbox, I wrote a detailed guide to how the media works, which you can get here.

But to get you started, following are my top five tips, in no particular order:

1. Editors are important. Freelancers are your best friend. Okay yes, I say this as a freelancer, but hear me out. I’ve been on staff at various publications, too, and here’s how it works: If you’re on staff and you find a cool product or company to write about, you write about it once and only once, ever. As a freelancer, if I think a topic is interesting, I look for every possible angle on it and try to sell as many variations of that story as possible.That's how I maximize the investment of my time on a story. So, yes, it is still important to build relationships with editors -- they are influencers, that one article they write will still be useful to you, and besides people move around all the time in the media, so you never know what they might be doing next. But also learn which freelancers cover your space and get to know them. They will likely appreciate your effort, and if they’re interested in what you’re doing, they’ll get you many more hits than an editor ever could.

2. Be hypercritical of your own story. Your story is boring until proven otherwise. The fact that your company exists is not a story. No one cares about your political leanings or how you got funding or whether your product targets tweens or grandmas. We care about whether your story is interesting. To put a finer point on it, we care about whether your story is interesting to us. And by that I don’t mean “to us, the liberal media.” I mean figure out what I actually write about and how, and pitch me something that fits. That means, I write for the WSJ’s small business section, so don’t pitch me your Walmart story. It means, I’ve covered cleantech for years, so don’t come to me with your “we just put solar panels on the roof of our headquarters” story.

Bonus tip 2b. Remember: You're not entitled to media coverage. I hear people complaining all the time about not getting the media coverage they think they deserve. And my response is always the same: Why do you think you deserve media coverage -- out of the 1,000+ companies pitching a story today, how does yours stand out? Here's the thing: no one is biased against you. Journalists today are expected to generate about 5 times the number of stories they ever have, in the same amount of time, for half the money. And freelancers? We want to be able to use your pitch, truly. So give us something we can use.

Photo: From file

3. Pitch me like I pitch my editors. Contrary to popular belief, journalists—and yes, even bloggers—don’t get to just write about whatever tickles their fancy. We generally have to sell our editors on the idea, even if we’ve got a regular gig going. When I’m pitching a new editor, here’s what I do: First, I read the last few months of content for the particular section I’m going to pitch. I do this both to make sure they haven’t recently run something similar and to get a feel for what they cover and how they cover it. Then I compose no more than two paragraphs that summarize the idea, why it’s perfect for the publication and why now is the perfect time to cover it. Get a writer you know to send you a few of their successful pitches. This is what your PR pitches should look like—not exactly, of course, but pretty close.

4. Stop worshipping at the altar of print media. For whatever reason, people still think of print coverage as the ultimate feather in their cap. In fact, a lot of journalists have the same bias. Writer friends of mine will routinely ask each other “Oh was that for print, or online?” Also print media pays more—usually a lot more—than online, which is strange because it costs more to make and has fewer readers, but hey, I didn’t make the system I just work in it. At any rate, for a company, I’d say hands-down you’re getting more out of an online hit than a print piece. So stop riding your publicist’s ass about not getting you in the print edition of TIME and thank her or him for the mentions in various Time.com blogs. You may not get a photo of yourself in TIME to frame for your office, but chances are those blog posts will be read more and pay back more over time than that one print hit will.

Photo: From file

5. Don't send everyone the same pitch (and don't just send a press release). It's almost impossible to gain any traction these days with a formulaic pitch or press release that you send to every editor or writer on your media list. It takes more time, but you're going to have to tailor your story a bit to the person and the outlet you're targeting. Or at least the genre of publication you're targeting. So maybe you don't have 20 different pitches, but you have three: a tech angle, a business angle, and a lifestyle angle, for example. But honestly, five well-written pitches that have been researched and targeted to specific publications are likely to pay off much more than a blast sent out to hundreds of contacts.

Bonus tips on etiquette. Avoid these basic blunders:

  • Don't be overly casual or personal in your greeting unless you actually know the person you're pitching.
  • Avoid CAPS and overuse of exclamation points
  • Don't pitch something that might be personally offensive to someone (example -- a journalist friend who has had various struggles with fertility and written about them extensively gets pitched not infrequently on books or products related to parenting.)
  • Don't harass people -- Follow-ups are fine. Tweeting at someone 20 times is not.
  • Don't assume that because I say "This is interesting, I'll take it to my editor," that I am promising you coverage. This happens a lot and is very annoying. Given those 50 pitches I'm already sifting through daily, the last thing I need is someone being childish about how I "promised" them press that I'm now not delivering. Even when a story has been assigned, written and filed, editors change their minds all the time. Or publications fold without running every story they commissioned. I get it -- you had your hopes up and now you're disappointed. So am I, because if the story doesn't run, I generally don't get paid. If you're cool about it, I will do everything I can to get your story published elsewhere. If you're a jerk, I will block your email.