Every startup wants to be the belle of the media ball.
But what do you do if the press just aren’t biting? It’s all the worse if they’re lavishing attention on the competition.
So why do media latch onto certain topics, personalities, companies and brands? Given that reporters, with varying degrees of editorial oversight, have discretion about what they cover, the $1M PR question is how to become the object of a media love fest.
There’s no simple answer or formula, else we’d all be famous for 15 minutes. You can start to get a sense by tracking their stories: reading between the lines, unpacking sentiment and bias and tuning in to their social media conversations.
Or you can read this. I share some rules below, based on my many years of experience helping startups launch and grow with PR. The tips reference examples from technology and politics.
The Power of Brand
Build a strong and admired brand, and the media will beat a path to your door — or at least spend less time dodging your pitches.
It’s hard to overestimate the importance of brand. Witness the media fascination with Trump, or any of the big tech players (of course, the coverage is not necessarily fawning, with either of the above examples).
The brands become a muse that pay dividends in terms of earned media coverage – often with no discernible hard news in sight.
The obvious question for a B2B startup is, exactly how can you achieve this? It often requires a long-term campaign that exposes the market to your news, content and thought leadership. Consistency and quality are incredibly important for building brand and growth. You need to be interesting and relevant, and make sure your news and content show up where your customers are.
It’s Good to Be King
Another way to earn media adulation is to become a category king. Consider those that define a space: Salesforce.com (enterprise SaaS), WeWork (coworking), Slack (business messaging and collaboration), Airbnb, Uber, etc.
Please note that these companies were not necessarily the first in each of their areas – they just successfully staked ownership and became synonymous with a category.
It’s a strategy defined in the book Play Bigger (written by principals of the eponymous consulting firm), which entails framing a problem from a customer’s POV and then lighting a fire, bringing product development and marketing resources to bear to educate and conquer a space. I discuss the concept further in this post.
Category kings take the lion’s share of market and media coverage.
Be a Leader, Not a Follower
Building a strong brand or becoming category king both demonstrate leadership, an attribute valued by media. This may sound obvious, but we hear from many companies that are coming to PR late in the game after being eclipsed by the competition. Their idea of a PR battle plan is to get into the same articles. It’s a desperate and losing strategy, as chasing this elusive media tail sets you up to be a follower.
I have a saying for those who pine for the same press attention. “Thou shall not covet another’s cool, or coverage.” You need to forge your own path and buzzworthy appeal.
The Importance of Novelty
“New” can be newsworthy, which gives an edge to tech startups as well as new faces on the political scene. But it is not just newness that resonates. It helps if there’s rich storytelling potential with many possible angles.
For example, writing for Politico, Jack Shafer explained Why the Media dumped Beto for Mayor Pete.
“A budding candidate like Buttigieg… gives reporters and editors a sense of discovery … [and is] an endlessly writable event. Think of Buttigieg as a newborn just delivered to his newsroom parents, his every grin and wink and grimace worthy of endless analysis and discussion, and you begin to fathom the press corps’ fascination with him.”
Ride the Right Topics
So, you don’t (yet) have a stellar brand, are not a category king, and do not have a product or company that has much intrinsic novelty. Are you out of luck? Not at all.
You can hitch your PR wagon to topics in the news that do have rich storytelling potential.
E.g., consider the Huawei saga. It’s a story about the Trump administration’s efforts to eject the Chinese gear from networks here and in Europe. There are so many angles, and frequent updates, so it is easy to see why journalists swarm it. Will Trump succeed in unseating the giant, which dominates the market? What about the implications for the US and global economies? How would such a move affect networks and consumers? The tension builds with each new development. It’s like a bingeworthy Netflix series.
Huawei undoubtedly is not amused. But if you’re a small vendor of telecom orchestration software, like our client, the tale is an opportunity to educate journalists about the tech implications (for carriers and end users) and telecom gear market and get quoted as an expert.
It would otherwise be hard to get attention from top tier media. But we got interest and interviews from Reuters, WSJ and many tech trades by newsjacking the Huawei story.
Show Up, Continue the Story, Prove Viability
You can’t play the novelty card forever. At some point you need to deliver and prove that the company has legs to continue to interest the media. The Politico article mentioned above goes on to say:
“There are two problems with generating political buzz through news coverage, as O’Rourke can tell you. The first is that it’s hard to sustain… Having told a candidate’s story, reporters grow bored unless he presents evidence of his viability…”
It is also important to fan the flames of initial interest. From the same article:
“The secret to Buttigieg’s publicity run was no secret, wrote Matthew Yglesias in Vox. Like Molly Bloom in his favorite novel, Ulysses, he can’t stop saying ‘yes’—to media invitations.”
Another story in Politico by David Freedlander covered Mayor Pete’s PR playbook and the work of Lis Smith, the woman leading the charge. David writes:
“If you read through the many… profiles… of…Pete Buttigieg in the past several months, it’s hard not to notice just how many reporters happen to have had personal encounters with the candidate… Buttigieg’s rise from unlikeliest of contenders to actual top-tier presidential candidate has been fueled… by his astonishing success courting the press.”
The Democratic candidate was the first to go on Fox News in this campaign cycle. Clearly, the fearless, aggressive campaign is working for him. Bringing the idea back to the world of B2B tech, I can share an example that shows the benefits of not being shy with the media. The strategy turned lemon into lemonade.
Our client, which I won’t name for obvious reasons, became the subject of a media firestorm about user privacy lapses. They were featured in a big TechCrunch exposé, and other publications started to pile on.
The company wasn’t the only one in their space to have this kind of vulnerability. By being the focus of the article, the good news was that TC implicitly positioned them as a leader – and soon some of the biggest media outlets started asking for interviews.
We went on the offensive, distributed a written response and eagerly took all interviews. Their statement was covered by over 20 outlets, including Business Insider, The Verge, and Mashable. The company’s CEO spoke with a wide range of business, tech and broadcast media, including The Atlantic and CBS.
Articles with a more positive spin started to emerge, and the company has been solidly established with top tier media. We can come back with news and stories that show how the company is evolving, leading, responding to concerns and delivering benefits to customers.
The media are mercurial, and it’s not always easy to know where they are going, or to interest them. But as I hope you can see from these tips, there are ways to boost the odds of getting impressive media attention for your company.