The media to the entrepreneur: Why should I cover you?

After the pitch for startup money, an entrepreneur has one more important pitch to make – to the media. He or she has to sell the media on the idea that his or her business is the one – and the only one – that’s worthy of coverage, more worthy in fact than other startups. With both yourself and competitors vying for media coverage you need to know how you – and only you – can become a reporter’s go-to source. This public relations professional has wise and winning advice.

Perhaps it’s because of the intense, single-minded focus that comes with the territory, but many would-be entrepreneurs think that once it’s built, “they will come.” In fact many will say to themselves, “I’ve got a great product (or service) and it’s going to fill a niche or trump any competition already out there.”

Now, there is nothing wrong with such thinking; in fact, if you’re going to succeed you absolutely need to fly in the face of reality and not be held back by the seemingly impossible. But the fact is that most entrepreneurs – even those who may be your competitors – are thinking the same thing. However, there is one thing that can differentiate you from such competitors, or more important, create an instant awareness and buzz about your business. That one thing is effective media relations.

Whether you need to raise capital, generate demand or gain credibility, media coverage is essential.  And as is so often the case with a startup, especially one seen as an upstart, it’s probably the only marketing activity that you can afford. Moreover – and here is where your single-minded focus works to your disadvantage  — you think that just because you have something new and unique, it must therefore have news value.  Any reporter should be interested in covering it… right?  Well, not necessarily.

While you may think your idea or business is a headline story, there’s a strong chance that an editor will not.  One reason is that on any given day there are probably 100 other entrepreneurs fighting for the same media space. There’s lots of competition, which is why you need to know what you’re doing when you’re trying to sell your story to editors and reporters. In fact successful media relations is much like a successful business plan. Differentiate your business clearly and make your value proposition a compelling one, and the media – and customers – will discover you. I have helped numerous entrepreneurs win coverage for their new businesses, and in this article I will suggest tactics that will drive the media to cover you – rather than drive them away, and that will prevent them from seeing your business as just another “me too” venture.


How do I get to the Wall Street Journal?

There are two ways to get media coverage – direct and indirect. Many companies, big and small, take the direct approach of putting out press releases, one after the other, touting their message du jour, and expecting their public relations company to chase it all the way into a story.  If it’s big news, like company earnings or Microsoft announcing a new version of Windows, it’s undoubtedly going to get coverage.  But for every such story that makes it into the news, an editor will have thrown out dozens of other competing but less scintillating releases.  The press release saturation method is tried and true, and some media pickup will happen at some level.  But for the most part, it just keeps the wire services in business.


Maximize your opportunities for the right media coverage

The other mode is less direct and takes far more ingenuity, but, as with other approaches that require smarts and execution, it results in a win more frequently. It goes something like this:  In order to persuade an audience of anything, you have to bring your constituents (in this case, the media) back to you – you have to build an offering around what they want. And the cold fact is that this may not be exactly aligned with what you want.  Not yet, anyway.  

Take the retail business, for example.  In this very difficult economy, when consumers have been focused on the necessities rather than impulse buys, in a market where consumers have become highly empowered through the Internet, merchants have had to become far smarter at figuring out what their customers want, and in devising their offerings around those “wants.”  So, going back to the media, even if your goal is simply to get direct coverage for what you do, it’s in everyone’s best interest to figure out what reporters need and how to give it to them. That way, a level of engagement will be established hat will go beyond getting them to write about this latest product or service, or what the company’s message is.   While we want to meet the threshold of what is news, we also want to go beyond it.

In this mode, you should view the media as your customer.  Reporters work at their discretion and at the direction of their editors.  They are not in the business of providing a service, other than presenting information to their readers, viewers and listeners.  What that information consists of and how it’s presented is entirely up to them and their criteria for what’s news.  In short, they are under no obligation to write about what you present to them, even if you think it’s new and brilliant, even if you’re paying a hefty retainer to your PR company to place a story for you.  So where does your unique offering fit in?

The press relations strategy becomes a matter of asking not what the reporter can do for you, but what you can do for the reporter.  If you take the indirect, subtle, handcrafted approach of stepping back, looking at a broader media landscape, understanding what is being covered, and then figuring out how you fit into that bigger context, you’re already steps ahead in gaining a reporter’s ear.  And if you can figure out a way to provide useful information to the reporter, the stage at Carnegie Hall is not so far a reach.   


Become a subject matter expert

Some 20 years ago when I was fairly new to PR, I had a client whose product offering was a therapeutic medical device – a portable lumbar support that kept the spine in motion, for use in a car, or a chair in your office or home.   The idea was to move the spine and prevent it from locking into any position for any length of time.  This device made it possible to sit or drive for longer periods of time, with less backache.   

The inventor was a practicing MD who also taught at a prestigious university.  He decided to commercialize his product, and formed a company to do so.   Our charge was to get press for the device. We succeeded. The coverage we secured included that holiest of grails, four column inches in The Wall Street Journal.  Getting that took a great deal of work – a lot of blocking, tackling, and calling on different reporters until we connected with the one reporter who thought the story had merit.    

Great? Yes.  But could coverage have been better, more widespread? Having now spent a career working with experts in a wide variety of fields from retail to energy and from finance to technology, I’d say yes, definitely.  I now see that we could have gotten a lot more mileage by getting this doctor out more broadly, as a subject matter expert.  At the time, we were going directly for publicity only for the product itself. If we had focused as much on his knowledge and credentials as an expert in back pain, we could have gotten him much broader coverage beyond his product. He could have spoken about back pain and appropriate theories and therapies that relieve it, to a much wider audience across a broader range of publications, each time, pointing to his key finding, namely, that keeping the spine moving gently is therapeutic and a proven preventative measure.  That commentary would have been right on target, directly supporting what his lumbar device did.  

That doctor was just the kind of expert source reporters would want to speak to. In engaging with the media around his concept, each time he was quoted as an expert, his credentials and company affiliation would have gotten cited.  And with any adjacent topic, even his invention could have gotten a mention. This is a great example of how indirect press can be every bit as powerful as direct press, sometimes more so – because if the article didn’t mention the device, no harm done Today, when in two strokes of a Google search on the expert, you’d be cruising the doctor-entrepreneur’s web site. 

So often, it’s all about timing and what’s going on outside of your world that can be the catalyst for generating all kinds of media interest – and coverage — in you. Not long ago, we were helping another technology start-up publicize its face recognition technology.  At the time, the company had one fairly obscure installation in the financial services sector, where it was being used to verify the identity of people who were cashing paychecks at special ATMs.  But the technology’s most powerful potential was in the domain of border control, electronic passports and identifying bad guys.  The inventor was that all-too-rare combination of math genius and humane communicator.     

Hard to fathom now, but the technology itself, lacking customers and installations, was an extremely hard sell to the media.  Again, with a lot of persistence, we were able to get The Wall Street Journal interested. It wrote a sizeable story about it.  But the engagement was still an uphill climb.   Then, 9/11 hit and we realized that we were working with exactly the right expert to talk about ways the nation could step up its counterterrorism and border security efforts.  It didn’t take long before our entrepreneur was a repeat guest on all the major networks and cable shows, and a great source for print reporters we were helping, not so much talking about his technology, but serving as an expert looking at the country’s security from a much higher level.   He was ubiquitous presence in the media, and made a tiny company look absolutely huge. I’d like to think it played a significant role in the company’s ability to effect a tail-wagging-the-dog acquisition of a much bigger company, and reverse merge itself into a public company.   A couple of years later that merged entity got bought out by an even bigger, private equity firm.  Clearly, the right kind of media exposure can yield dividends beyond selling the product. It can help the entrepreneur sell the whole company.

Fast-forwarding to my current practice, I now realize that a client who brings a new product, service or technology might be the starting point. But I’ll rarely take that narrow an approach, which is to focus on the technology itself.  Last spring, we took on an international payments technology startup. This was based on our experience in the credit card and payments industry.  The startup’s offering was a software plug-in that reduces the transaction cost of making small payments by credit card or other electronic payment methods. It’s a solution that benefits all the players in the payments ecosystem, and is being test-driven in Europe. It also speaks to the cutting edge of what is going on right now in digital payments – namely, that people would like to be able to pay for items on the run — such as their coffee or newspaper or taxi ride — with their mobile device rather than with cash.

With some sense of what media conversations were already going on in the world of digital and mobile payments, we didn’t reach just for press on the tech solution itself.  We put the company’s CEO out as an expert source on a number of payments issues, all related to his solution.  Among other positive outcomes, this resulted in The New York Times tapping into his expertise, providing coverage at a level that couldn’t have been attained for a company at that early stage level. By positioning and offering him as an expert, it mattered less that the company didn’t yet have a U.S. presence or a U.S. customer. 

If you can set yourself up as a source of information where your knowledge forms concentric circles of expertise around the product or service you want to publicize, particularly if there’s a large or thorny issue in the particular field, you can turn the tables and become a repeat customer for the media. We’ve found that when we’ve helped a media outlet with one story, it often comes back when it’s working on the next story, usually for an expert opinion on a similar idea, trend or event in that field. So, you create a multiplier effect when you focus on becoming the expert, rather than simply focusing on the product or service.  This translates into seeing your name or your company’s name in many more articles that map to your expertise, so that even if it’s a product you’re ultimately trying to plug, that expertise informs or supports the product.


Mining for the singularity

How you gain positive media attention is only limited by your creativity, time and ability to execute.  The scope of this article is limited and can’t possibly cover all strategies and tactics, such as becoming a compendium of market research, data and analysis, or executing a social media plan.  But if I were to distill it into one bigger notion, it is that each media opportunity is a singularity, and that it usually takes some digging to find that singularity. By this I mean that each case has a unique portal, a unique way in, and that you have to discover where the keyhole is. That particular entry point is the match that you make between you, your company and its product or service and the reporter’s needs.  The singularity could be a new idea, but more likely it’s a new way of looking at an old idea.  While it’s news that the media covers, the catalyst for constant, steady and positive media presence is more frequently what resides adjacent to that news.  That’s the puzzle we’re trying to unlock daily.