PR Mistakes Startups Make

When it comes to working with journalists across the board, so many people are, in all honesty, ignorant. Time and time again, I have seen reporters retract stories because founders are unfair or PR firms that are overwhelmingly pressuring. There is so much bad behavior around that I thought that it was high time to write up a list of definite “DON’Ts” on working with journalists.

Here is how to avoid killing your news story dead before it gets published.

DON’T change the capitalization of your startup more times than is actually necessary 

SEO is essential. To maximize your exposure on Google and DDG, there are rules that you need to follow with regard to capitalization. That’s important to get right, but a quick suggestion: Finalize your startup’s company name prior to reaching out to the press. About 30-40 percent of the time, I receive an email from the founder asking for changes to how their startup’s name is capitalized, and this is after the story has been published. Plan it out ahead of time. It’s important every place on your website and briefing materials has the name consistently across the board. 

DON’T subscribe anyone to your startup email updates without asking 

Every day, I find myself signed up for roughly half a dozen mailing lists which I don’t recall signing up for. It might be irksome for some, especially for those who have never written for your startup, to be added to a distribution list to get weekly updates. The only businesses that need mailing lists for journalists are listed on a public exchange. It makes sense to use mass broadcast tools like an email mailing list for companies that have multiple news stories per day and could, potentially, have thousands of journalists covering them. But if your startup has been covered by a couple of people, it might be best to keep your list short.

DON’T allow your PR firm to schedule your interviews 

PR firms want to preserve their relationship with the journalist and shield their clients from directly working with writers. When a writer commits to a story and wants to interview the founder, there is a strange game of telephone that is played. Journalists will usually give their availability to the PR rep, who then sends it to the VP of Marketing, who then forwards it to the executive assistant, who then asks the founder of a company. The chain is sometimes too long for an article to be published. If you’re going to do press interviews based around a news story, reserve ample time to schedule interviews and ensure that principals are talking to, well, principals. If you’re keen on keeping a PR team, reserve time and allow your PR to schedule those hours on your behalf. No one actually wants to win telephone games.

DON’T pitch to multiple journalists from the same publication without informing them 

Newsrooms are reasonably decentralized places. Reporters are out in the field uncovering stories rather than spending heaps of time coordinating their stories with their counterparts around the world. When founders pitch their story to five people simultaneously and separately without transparency, it creates an enormous amount of wasted time. It can even put you in their blacklist. Try to avoid this and instead, reach out to the single writer who you think is most relevant for your topic at a publication. If you don’t hear back after a reasonable period of time, you can pick one additional writer to reach out to. It’s important to mention that you previously got in touch with another writer but didn’t hear back. Some PR firms think that is unwieldy and will tell you clandestinely that the only way to get your news article out there is to carpet bomb every writer at a media company with separate emails. Best to sit this advice out, go with your gut, and work with one writer at a time.

DON’T badly personalize an email 

The corollary here is that since you are sending to a hand-selected group of people, you should never send an email to “Dear Tech Journalist” or “Dear Writer” or “Dear [First Name].” Obvious, but it happens to most of us every day.

DON’T demand in-person meetings if they aren’t required

Ultimately, don’t request an in-person meeting if one isn’t needed. You are always free to offer to grab a coffee, but if it isn’t required for the journalist to see your startup, best to skip the meetup altogether. The caveat here is when there is some sort of physical demo. Perhaps you are an AR/VR company or an autonomous vehicle startup. It’s okay to condition a story on actually using the product of course, since the experience is what the story should be about anyway. But for everyone else, a call or email will be fine. 

DON’T ever write a same-day follow-up email

Journalists get hundreds of emails daily. Going through it is a lot of work, but it’s part of the job. Be considerate, and don’t follow up on an email just a few hours after you send it; even for breaking news. Journalists take meetings, go out to lunch, and write stories. Their email may not be read for several hours at a time. The vast majority of journalists I know are very adept at email. If they are not responding (and many don’t respond), it’s not because they are incompetent, but because they are not interested. While stories do get lost in inboxes every once in a while, situations like those are exceedingly rare. Completely throwing a number on the board, but I’d say 1 out of 300 pitches are messed up this way. And so, don’t ever follow up on the same day you sent in a pitch. If you really must, follow up a day or two later.

DON’T follow up an email with a phone call or voice message 

The flip side to email follow-ups is that you should never follow up an email with a phone call. Email makes the world go round, especially in the journalism world. At least once or twice a week, somebody will email a pitch, and then proceed to call and leave a voicemail. I don’t know a journalist who wants or needs this. I also don’t know many journalists who effectively uses a voice mailbox in this way these days. Trust me, there is no need to do this. 

DON’T ask for corrections on things that are accurate 

So you finally get that story you wanted to be published, and you read it, and you find out that you don’t like a sentence. Take our advice: Don’t email the journalist asking for a correction. A “correction” has a particular meaning; that a fact was wrong in the story, and there is an objectively correct fact that should replace it. Corrections can include misspelled names, miswritten dollar figures, our wrong headquarters city. All journalists should always make these corrections and make them as quickly as possible. However, it’s not right to ask corrections for things that are interpretations, syntheses, or analyses where the writer’s judgment was used in assembling the words. You can respond back with details, evidence, or complaints, but best not to call it a “correction.” 

DON’T resort to pressure tactics to get a story out

Relationships are everything, as much with the press as with every other facet of startup promotion. Don’t burn a bridge with a writer by trying to use draconian pressure tactics to get the outcome that you want. Don’t make threats, yell at writers on Twitter, or demand to speak to an editor. There is no world in which threatening a writer is going to magically transform into positive press for your business. Be nice.

DON’T use bad news pegs that are irrelevant to your startup 

News “pegs” are ways to connect your individual story to a broader narrative that might already have an established audience of readers. For example, a significant data breach might be the perfect time to pitch a data protection startup to a cybersecurity writer. When a major acquisition is made, the target’s competitors will often reach out to writers to talk about the competitive landscape and build momentum for themselves. However, don’t misuse this technique to absurd ends. If Apple introduces a new iPhone model, don’t use that to pitch a new line of hair products (“Apple’s new iPhone has a gorgeous new camera, which is why it is crucially important to use NoFrizzNewCo’s hair products to make your hair shine, which was launched today”). You run the risk of looking too desperate, which isn’t a nice image for any startup.

DON’T reference coverage in other publications 

Every publication has its own audience and motivations. What is suitable for the New York Times may not always be suitable for Wired or the Wall Street Journal. We all have our own goals, and we select stories to serve the readers of our own individual publications. With this, writing a caustic email saying that we should write a piece like Forbes or The Washington Post isn’t the way to go. You are not just implying that a particular publication is more prestigious than the one you’re pitching to, but also intimating that the story has already been published elsewhere. This is a death sentence for any pitch. 

DON’T forget photographs 

Every story on the web is going to be published with a photo, as photos are vital for distribution on Google, Facebook, and other aggregators. When you approach a journalist with a story, provide them with the accompanying pictures for the writeup. Give them as many options as possible too, so you don’t see the same images across the internet. Send these by email or include a link to a Dropbox with all the photos organized into a single level of folders according to type. More importantly, make sure that you own the copyright to your photos, and that any required photo credits are clearly labeled. Writers give much importance to citing other creatives.

DON’T schedule your embargoes for weird times 

No one is reads funding announcements at 2 am EST on a Sunday. And yet, I regularly get embargoes for the strangest times. Writers hate poorly-timed embargoes because it means their pieces won’t be read by as many people. We aren’t slaves to the traffic gods, but ultimately, if we are going to write an article, we would prefer to publish it during the waking hours. Most embargoes in the tech world are set for 8 or 9 am PST. Some PR folks will attempt to strategize and move the embargo time around to try to have a story published outside the deluge at the beginning of the day. However, the heaviest traffic to news sites happens during the morning commute. Don’t over-strategize here. If you have a reason to launch a story in the dead of night, be forthcoming. If the news is about opening a Japan office, it makes sense to choose 1 am EST because it hits in Tokyo at the right time. Be reasonable with your requests; you’ll get a higher chance of being accommodated.

DON’T claim that you don’t have competitors 

Tech journalists cover companies for a living. We see it all, and we all have the tools to figure out the companies in a market. If a writer asks you about competition, be ready to explain how you compare to other companies in your space. Be honest, and don’t lie about not having competitors. When founders say something along those lines, it means that they aren’t confident of their position in the marketplace. Your story is yours, and yours alone. But you don’t need to avoid talking about them to have your story come out well. 

DON’T use the term “content opportunities” 

Short piece of advice: Writers are lovers of the English language. Please don’t bastardize an already bastardized language even further by debasing it as “content,” a very vacuous, and insulting term in the world of writing.

Leave a Comment