Susan Johnston Taylor

Susan Johnston Taylor has covered business and entrepreneurship for publications including The Boston Globe, Entrepreneur and FastCompany.com. She’s also a regular contributor to the money section of USNews.com.

Many bootstrapped startups handle their own public relations rather than outsourcing it to an agency. Thanks to services like HelpaReporter.com, entrepreneurs can land major media mentions on their own. Still, many don’t understand how to pitch journalists and generate media coverage.

Here are several strategies to get started.

Make it newsworthy

The first rule of generating media coverage is nailing the news hook. Hiring a new CTO or reaching 10,000 Instagram followers is exciting for you, but it’s not really news to the broader public. Instead of pitching the aspects of your startup that you want to brag about, ask yourself, “Why should readers care?” If you can’t answer that question, go back to the drawing board. Some examples of news hooks:

  • Upcoming holidays or seasons. Do you have a brand new app that can help holiday shoppers save time and money? Or a product that should be in every beach-goer’s bag this summer? Keep in mind that for monthly magazines, you’ll need to pitch at least six months in advance. The lead time is typically shorter for newspapers or websites.
  • Pop culture and current events tie-ins. Whether it’s a new movie or a pending court case, think about how your company ties into these developments and offer expert commentary. However, be careful about using a tragedy like a murder or a natural disaster as a news peg, as this can backfire.
  • Broader trends. Consider how your startup fits into the big picture. Maybe you’re part of a new breed of personal finance apps or perhaps you’re addressing users’ need for faster cloud computing options. Pitching yourself as part of bigger movements or trends is more appealing to journalists than a pitch for a pure puff piece.

Use plain English

Tech startups in particular love using jargon to make their companies sound important. But a lot of times these confusing phrases don’t actually mean much, especially to the audience of a consumer website or magazine. Write press releases and company descriptions in clear language so that there’s no confusion over what you do. Avoid puffed-up terms like “industry-leading,” “disruptive” or “breakthrough.” These terms are so overused they’ve all but lost their meaning.

Know what the reporter covers

General assignment reporters cover a broad range of topics, while others focus on a specific niche or beat. Get to know what journalists cover by reading their work. That way you can pitch stories that are relevant to them. A journalist who primarily covers politics probably isn’t going to write about your new line of fitness trackers. Follow (but do not stalk or incessantly contact) relevant reporters on social media so you can stay current on their needs and what they’re writing about.

Get professional-quality images

They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, so most editors want photos or other images to accompany stories. Some national publications have the budget to commission photos and send a photographer, but many outlets—especially online—don’t. They’ll rely on photos taken by the writer or submitted by the startup, so you’ll want photos at the ready.

Many media-savvy startups have a section on their website where reporters can download high-resolution company logos (suitable for print), headshots of its founders, screenshots from the app and other relevant images. Alternately, keep these images in a DropBox folder you can quickly send to reporters by request.

Respect deadlines and boundaries

When a journalist tells you she needs photos or answers to her questions by end of day Friday, she means it. You’re likely juggling a million other things, but waiting until Monday to respond could mean getting cut out of the story. If you do not have the bandwidth to respond yourself, delegate the response to another competent person in your organization.

In a similar vein, remember that a journalist reports to an editor and publisher, not you. You can control what is published on your own blog and social media channels, but you cannot control what others write about you. Some publications have fact-checking departments, but in most cases, you won’t get to review the story before it’s published. Ask to correct any factual inaccuracies, but don’t quibble over more subjective details.

Have spokespeople available

If you want to frustrate and alienate a reporter, try sending an enticing press release and then ignoring his requests to schedule a phone interview and get more information from a company spokesperson. Most reputable news outlets will not rely solely on canned quotes from a press release; they’ll want to dig deeper and include some quotes other outlets don’t have. Excuses like, “everything you need to know is in the press release” or “our CEO is out of the country” will not fly. If you must send out a press release when the CEO is away, have other spokespeople ready to comment.

Follow through

If you promise to send photos, arrange an exclusive interview or confirm a statistic, make sure you actually fulfill those promises. Failing to follow through may get the story killed and damage the odds of the reporter covering you again in the future.

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