Of all strategies growing businesses are interested in learning, skills for getting yourself and your company into the press is perpetually at the top of the list. To that end, today I’m outlining the basis steps every entrepreneur can take to achieve a solid level of PR exposure even without consultants or PR agency support.
1. Research Your Target Publications. First on the list is to create a target list of the places that would be most appropriate or beneficial for your company to appear. Choose at least 10-20 key targets. At least some of your choices should be based on being the publications your customers most often read (or would respect) such as Associations in your field of service or niche industry publications. But you can choose some targets based on their credibility factor as well. Acing for top U.S. outlets such as the WSJ, New York Times and Forbes is fine to consider, but could take a great deal of creativity to conquer and be based on something other than a profile of your company itself, such as a write up on popular new cooking apps, or a feature on which industries fared best in the midst of an economic fright (like food storage), or unique ways founders have started a business. Then set aside at least a weekly time (if not daily) to read—scan the types and style of article your company would fit into and hone the reasons your pitch would be irresistible to their readers.
2. Research the reporter(s) you’d like to pursue.If you participate in classical music performance, for example, who in the publication reviews this kind of events? Where else might you fit, such as ways to create greater appreciation for music in children, or hidden talents among community members, or entertainment opportunities the community may not realize it has. Note the storylines and the kind of tone and style and idea the various reporters use and get familiar the ones who seem to fit your area best. Get to know them by offering up shares and comments of their pieces on Twitter, while tagging their names. When you have an idea you think is fitting, send them an email or Tweet.
3. Think value add. Before making a single pitch, train yourself to let go of self-interest and think purely about the aspects of your story that would be interesting and helpful to readers. Too many reporters are plied day after day with requests of “I started out homeless and now I own a company! I deserve to be profiled!” “How would this be of vital use to our readers?” the reporter will ask (or be thinking). “They should be inspired by what I’ve done,” is a terrible answer. Yes, you may deserve huge credit for what you’ve accomplished, but promoting you is the last thing a reporter would be willing or wanting to do. Where is a bleeding need you could answer or something really helpful or interesting the reporter’s audience can’t wait to read? This is the approach you should take in devising your pitch.
4. Make you pitch short, sweet and to the point. This is an area where founders may have a giant advantage over the majority of PR professionals who tend to write lengthy pitches over wrought with detail, then mass pitch the impersonal (and non-fitting) entreaty to every reporter on the target list they’ve spend hours to define. Make your subject line interesting and specific, such as “Story idea: unusual approaches for creating a one-person business worth $1M or more.” Then quickly offer your idea and note, based on what the reporter has recently written, the reasons you believe the idea may be interesting for them, and offer up the kind of things you can provide them as help. Be sure to offer real help—more background you can send or questions you can answer via email or invite them to get briefly on the phone to gather additional help. Do not close with “can I set up a time for a phone interview with our CEO?” Remember, you are a virtual stranger and under the guise of help should not be giving a work assignment to an already busy and even overworked reporter who has no obligation to take his or her assignments from you. Let the reporter know how to reach you. If the writer doesn’t bite, you can perhaps Tweet to them, once, or can pick up the phone in a day or so to give them a call.Do not, at all costs, adopt the informal protocol among many PR professionals, that allows you to “circle back” 2-3 more times to ask if they’ve had the chance yet to consider your request. At most perhaps one Tweet and one attempted phone call is it. If they don’t respond, clearly the idea or the timing isn’t right, so move on.
5. Call at a time that’s convenient. While an email pitch is best first thing in the morning or at the end of the afternoon (or perhaps even the evening, when the reporter is away from the crush of dozens of inquiries and noise), a phone call is best timed for late morning, mid-afternoon or the final half hour of the day. Over time you will learn the working style of the various reporters. They will appreciate your mindfulness of these clues, such as “I reserve the final half hour of my day to review voicemails and respond to pitches,” or “We are actually too busy to ever respond to those calls. Email is better.”
6. If the reporter doesn’t pick up, leave only one message. And listen to their voicemail. If the reporter doesn’t pick up, listen to their voicemail message in full, as it will often yield valuable clues such as “my beat is now XXX. Coverage of music events is now covered by XXX.” Or they may say “please don’t leave a message on this line as I will not hear it,” or “I am travelling from July 1 – 15th. If this is an emergency, you can text my cellphone at XXX-XXX-XXXX.” If a reporter leaves a cell number, you should absolutely save it, but use it only in the case of an urgent situation in which you are sure they would welcome the text or the use of their cell. If you leave a message, you should leave only one, for the day, and should not attempt to call again every hour.
7. When you speak, be productive. Some PR people I’ve known make a practice of “buttering a reporter up” with small talk when they call. I disagree. Clearly you called because you wanted something. You should do yourself and the reporter the favor of letting the first words out of your mouth let them know what it is—that you’re hoping your story idea may hold merit, and to see if they may agree. If it’s not a fit, what kind of idea would they welcome? Or is there another part of the publication that would be a more ideal fit? After you’ve discussed your idea, if the reporter is in the mood for a catch-up visit, by all means you should chat. At that point, it is clear your interest is genuine, as opposed to an effort to warm them up for an “ask.”
8. Does the publication accept contributed materials? Particularly in the current crush of journalism needs and diminishing resources, perhaps there is an opportunity for you to participate by offering help in the form of a completed column or article. If this is a possibility, listen and read the publication’s guidelines carefully. Study other contributed articles on the site that fared well. Note that you will not see examples of self-promotion, but that successful stories will teach a lesson or will have an interesting idea to share. You will be more successful if you are willing to share true information about your struggles (as opposed to only your successes), as it is far more interesting for readers to learn what you did to turn your hardest challenges into an eventual win, or to hear relatable ideas for strategies they could learn from as well.
9. Don’t underestimate the lowly press release. Interestingly, some of the entrepreneurs I’ve encountered who’ve done the best job of getting themselves into stories have failed to complement those activities by publishing press releases as well. Press releases should be written in the same style as a compelling case study article (What happened? Why is it important, and what should we know and do as a result?) Think “evergreen” in developing a release that will be relevant and interesting over many seasons of time. For example, “How to lead like Steve Jobs” would be a far more interesting release than “Please come to our webinar on Wednesday” or “Our VP of Marketing has won a prestigious award.” Press releases, posted on a reliable wire service with both push and pull capability, are an opportunity to receive instant SEO traction in a piece in which you control every word.
10. In the words of my friend Steve Sims, (the author of “Bluefishing: The Art of Making Things Happen”), be interesting. Early in his entrepreneurial career, Sims felt disingenuous when a Florida publication insisted they illustrate his success by having him pose in a tux next to a private plane. He winced at the resulting coverage. Not only did it run entirely contrary to his personal brand (a whiskey drinking biker), but he noted the person he saw in the photo didn’t come across to him as anyone he’d want to know. So he learned early, the press is a giant window of opportunity to be covered, but not unless he could be relevant and actually interesting for reasons such as how he landed his first big contract, or how he landed an illustrious banking position in Hong Kong (and then managed to lose the job within his first two days in the role). Who wouldn’t want to know how he came to do multiple projects for Sir Elton John.
If you haven’t yet begun your PR efforts in earnest, these 10 steps will give you a foundation to start. If your first bid for a story doesn’t succeed, as long as you are respecting these principles, you should shore up your courage to try again and again, especially in your earliest stages. Before long you’ll be achieving press like a pro.