Ever see a story in TechCrunch about a startup and wonder: how did that happen? Will Nevius, Head of Communications at Canaan Partners, shares an overview of the steps involved.
Below is an overview of the steps involved. NOTE: startups are different. This is all general advice.
Why is press valuable? First, you can send the link to your mom. And that feels nice.
But more importantly, it is a tool for high-growth startups to build out a brand. Establishing awareness is not like turning on a lightswitch… it takes methodical work. Each story about the company is like a brick in the wall — you’re telling the story of the company and doing it proactively, before others can. It’s like an insurance policy. But reporters are not there to do your bidding (hi reporter friends) — I’ll talk about that more below.
On a tactical level, press helps with SEO, recruiting, investor awareness and in many cases, customer acquisition.
Ok, so we’ve established you want press. You’re thirsty for fame. Now what?
Let’s break it down to three steps: plan, do and amplify.
Planning has two parts: write something and find someone (a reporter) to tell.
First — write something! People spend too much time in meetings talking about what an announcement or launch or news moment should include. One person (ideally the founder) should write the narrative on paper. It’s a forcing function and makes the conversation much more specific.
On format: I recommend a blog post — around 600 words long. It’s much easier to tell a story and use normal-people language. Reporters appreciate this. Press releases are dated. That said, for certain sectors — SAAS, biotech, deep tech, etc — issuing a press release may also be of value (SEO, awareness). Some more traditional industries expect a press release but don’t rely on it as a vehicle to flesh out your messaging.
What should your blog post and narrative include?
- What problem are you solving?
- What is your (hopefully unique) approach/tech/etc to solve this problem?
- Why is this viable? This often includes info about the team…
To dig a little deeper on this… Founders often go too quickly to the solution — that’s the exciting part! — but the diagnosis determines the treatment and your first job is to convince a reader to agree with that the problem is.
Here are a few examples that do this well:
- Announcing Apex.AI — We are building an operating system for autonomous vehicles that is designed to never fail
- nTopology — Software That Keeps Pace with Engineers
- Papa — We raised $10 million and are partnering with multiple health insurance plans to cure the loneliness epidemic
That’s an overly simple overview — how to write a good blog post is a good subject for future posts.
Next, find a reporter who GAF. This is harder than you might imagine. First, there’s a ton of money sloshing through the system — financing isn’t as sexy as it used to be. On top of that, many newsrooms are shrinking and reporters are often under pressure to post constantly and drive traffic. Again, this is a whole separate issue…for another day. But what does it mean for you? Make your news as appealing as possible.
A few ways to do that:
Don’t make it about funding. Per above, money is no longer a differentiator. Make it about everything else — though the funding can still serve as a bit of a hook.
Give it to only one reporter and *tell* them they are the only one. This is called an “exclusive” and I’ll explain more below on how to offer it.
Play with some tension — any tension! Reporters do not exist to reprint your press release. They are in the business of news collection: previously unreported information, shifts in industry dynamics and yes, even controversy/scandal. Have other companies tried to solve this problem and failed? Say that and be prepared to answer why you’re different. Is a certain industry entrenched and preventing innovation? Say that and back it up with data. Anyone wants to be a “thought leader” but no one wants to say anything controversial/interesting. Don’t be a Boring Betty.
Build in ample time to reach out to journalists. Maybe pick an ideal launch day and work backwards from there … three weeks? You need to allow time to find a reporter who’s interested…. Do an interview with them … and then (most important!) they need to have time to write the story. Want to hear a reporter laugh? Tell them your startup is announcing their financing tomorrow morning at 6am the afternoon before.
Make a list. Remember applying for college? This is the same. Pick a reach, likely and safety reporter. But in this case, “safety” isn’t the right word — any story is a win for an early-stage company but certain reporters have a wider reach or more experience with your industry. Brutal truth: there’s a non-zero chance no one will bite. And that’s ok! You’ve done the hard work of articulating the value of your company in a concise way. Still go through the amplification steps below. Sharing that blog post is gold. Also, flag the round for Pro Rata, WSJ Pro VC, StrictlyVC and Term Sheet. Each of those newsletters includes a list of recently completed financings and investors read them daily.
Oh, also have a good pic of the founding team (1–3 people) and/or the product. The reporter will ask for this. Ideally not just staring blankly into the camera… (ie, if you’re a robot company you should def have a robot in the picture).
Ok, now you have a blog post and a reporter crush. The next step is to send an email. Something like the below:
Hi XXXXX, hope you’re doing well. I am a founder of [COMPANY], a [WHAT YOU DO…].
Next week we are announcing a Series A, led by [FIRM] with participation from [FIRM/ANGEL/ETC].
If you’re interested in covering, you’d have the story exclusively.
It’s interesting because….
- Data about the industry…
- The industry is broken because…
- Exec from [Company X] just joined
If you agree to the embargo, happy to send you a blog post with additional details. Best, NAME
A few things to note:
Embargo. This is an agreement that information shared will not be posted publicly until an agreed-on time. More info here. NOTE: to emphasize the point, embargoes are an agreement. Both sides need to agree (ie, saying “sending this to you under embargo” doesn’t count).
What information to share. Given the above, sometimes it is tricky to decide what to include in your pitch email. Technically anything you say could be tweeted or shared. That said, you’re balancing risk and reward. My bias is to share the key nuggets because the risk of not doing that is a reporter will just ignore you. Now… this might lead to a reporter making fun of your pitch on Twitter. Yes, reporters are snarky…but they also are inundated with these emails. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
If they say yes, congrats! Share the blog post, propose a time for the embargo and set up a time to chat.
Relationships. Yes, it’s ideal to go through a previously existing relationship with a reporter (and yes that means you need to build those relationships in advance). It’s like anything — they’re already familiar with you and your work. Your investors may be able to help with introductions. However, a well-targeted pitch is also effective. Look at a reporter’s clips. What are they interested in? Find someone who’s passionate about your subject. It’s all about that match.
Interviews are another area where there are lots of things to say. For now, here are basics:
- PRACTICE! Like, a lot. Ideally, have someone ask you questions and force yourself to stay in character to answer them.
- Shorten your sentences. Yes, no one wants to be a soundbite robot but the reality is there’s not much space in news articles. If your sentences are too long, a reporter will not quote you.
- Go in with an agenda. Answering whatever questions a reporter asks is not enough. What are the three most important things you want to convey? Don’t get off the phone until you say those three things.
Again…I could fill Medium on this topic… but that’s for another day.
Ok, at this point you have a blog post, an interview with a reporter and a time when the story from that reporter will go live. Here are some other things to do.
Give people a heads up. Have a board? Other investors? Employees? Give them a heads up an announcement is coming. They are some of the best champions for the company and you want to bring them along for the journey. Remind people to not share anything before the embargo time.
Post the blog. Make sure you have a place to post the blog you provided to the reporter. Do you need to add a blog to your website? Schedule it to go live at the same time the story goes live.
Make it easy for people to share in the moment. For employees, maybe send out an email suggesting they share the blog post. Tweets and LinkedIn posts from current employees are gold for recruiting.
Send a thank you note to the reporter. This is one of the most important relationships for your early-stage company. Don’t hound them but make it clear you appreciate them taking time out of their busy day to take an interest in your company.
What happens next? Figure out your next news moment and start planning. Product launch? Key exec hire? Major partnership?
Ok … 1600+ words. Woof. Still too long but that’s an overview. Please share with founders who might find it helpful! :)