It’s a lot of work to research, pitch, schedule, facilitate, and follow-up on a media engagement. And sometimes you only get one shot to make the most out of an announcement. So let’s talk about how to do it right!
I was fortunate to be able to hire a killer PR team at Zoom, so I didn’t do a ton of direct media relations in the past couple of years. That said, it's largely a matter of thoughtful, respectful communications, which never go out of style. And to double check my work here, I pulled my friend Tanya Gillogley, who co-writes an awesome Substack on media relations – thanks Tanya!
Without further ado, here’s my top tips to set yourself up for a successful media engagement.
Determine your big-picture media strategy
Depending on your goals – attention for a specific event, general brand building, creating a platform for an executive – your media strategy will vary widely. Perhaps you have a solid piece of news and a killer spokesperson. In the context of your larger announcement strategy, this may be a good opportunity to offer a tier one exclusive (just giving one reporter the story or interview in advance in hopes of a positive, long-form piece) and then follow-on with a wide pitch or press junket on the day-of announcement. Perhaps you are trying to get someone to notice your brand-new start-up but you lack a hard-news angle. This is a case where you might decide to widely pitch journalists on your executives as subject matter experts (more on that later). For the executive platform, you might explore opportunities like podcasts and well-respected blogs, which you normally wouldn’t target for an announcement. So in short, have some general idea of your goal and what media strategy you want to employ before you start pitching.
Forget the generic media lists
It’s better to send just 2 or 3 solid, well-researched pitches than 100 bad pitches. Bad pitches hurt your company’s brand with the media, as well as your own brand as a comms professional.
If you follow journalists on Twitter (and I’m hoping you do if you’re in PR), the top pitch complaint you’ll see is under-researched, generic pitches. These maligned pitches tend to misidentify the journalist’s current beat (the topics or companies they cover) and suggest the journalist write a story that is of zero interest to them. This is unacceptable given that most journalists are very clear and public about their beat.
Here’s what to do so you don’t make this same mistake:
First, search on Google news – Who has covered your topic or space? Who are your company’s competitors and where have they been placed? What outlet’s readers overlap with your target customer? This should give you a journalist short list.
Now deep dive into your short list. Review:
Their Twitter bio and feed
Their last five stories
Their bio on their primary media outlet’s website
Their media outlet’s audience
How your pitch might align with their reporting (“I saw you have covered generative AI, I am working with a VC in this space that can be helpful for your ongoing reporting…”)
After researching, take a step back and be honest with yourself: does this pitch fit their beat? If this journalist covers fintech and you’re a fintech company, that’s a promising start. But if they work for a tier one publication and cover later-stage consumer fintech, and you are a seed-round B2B fintech, this probably isn’t a good target for you, at least not right now.
Now, staying in the honesty zone: are you giving them a killer story wrapped up with a bow? There’s pitching a big news event like a major fundraise, and then there’s pitching with no “hard news.” A six-figure seed round from relatively-unknown friends and family, a feature or product from an early-stage company, a “hot take” that your relatively-unknown CEO wants to share. Sorry, but you’re going to have trouble getting these in print. So slow down. Focus on building relationships instead of getting a certain number of media placements under your belt. If you’re lacking hard news, but think in the long-run your company will fit that journalist’s beat, it’s better to either offer your executives as subject matter experts on topics the journalist is already publicly asking about (again, check their Twitter!) or offer intro meetings so they can get to know your company with no expectation of immediate coverage. On the other hand, if this is a killer story — big funding round for an extremely innovative, high-growth company; a big move (investment, company, etc) from a well-known person or entity; an executive that has become a hot commodity; and so forth — congrats, you’ve got something to work with here. But you still need to write up a coherent pitch and provide relevant materials (well-written press release or one-pager, and so forth). And even if you’ve got a hot item to pitch, remember to conduct yourself in a way that shows that you’re here to build long-term relationships (see “comms common sense” section below).
And finally a quick sanity check: is this a good time for a pitch? Is it election week AND Elon just set Twitter on fire? Is it Dreamforce? Is the journalist on maternity leave? Maybe wait a bit or pick a different target. Tough times of year also vary by region. Europe basically shuts down in August, Australia in November and December.
Communications common sense
You’re a comms professional, so let’s use our comms common sense here. First of all, be online and responsive, especially if you’ve just sent out a pitch. If the journalist asks a question or needs a resource, respond to them the same day (or better yet, the same hour). They’re always on some sort of deadline! I recently saw a journalist complain that a company had pitched them, and when the journalist responded to get more info, they discovered the pitch was from a bounce-back “no reply” email address. The journalist gave up and didn’t write the story. Don’t do that!
Second, ensure enough time for yourself and the journalist. If you are pitching an exclusive and aren’t sure if there will be any takers, consider that you may need a couple weeks lead time. You email your top choice journalist, they’ll may take a day or two to respond. If they’re a no or no response, then you need time to email and hear back from your second choice journalist, and perhaps a third choice. And then the journalist will need a few days to interview your executives and write up the piece. So, in short, you need time! Really push your internal stakeholders to give you enough time to be successful. Often non-comms colleagues just don’t know this timeline, so it’s up to you to educate them.
Prep your spokespeople
Spokespeople say the darndest things. Here’s a few key points to remind them of before they sit down with a journalist:
The facts of the announcement in-and-out, including the top three messages they should get into the journalist’s head before they part ways.
Reasonable takes on the topics du jour. Make sure you look at the week’s major events. Your spokesperson could be asked their opinion on everything from border control to whatever nonsense some celebrity has gotten themself into. Make sure they are aware of the top few events of the past week and feel prepared with mildly intelligent or reasonable takes. (FYI, in my opinion, informed takes include: “As a CMO, I’m honestly not the most informed source on military strategy in the Ukraine” -- they don’t have to know everything.)
Clear understanding of “on the record” (you can print this with my name), “on background” (you can print this, but don’t use my name/title; expect something like “a source close to the company”), and “off the record” (don’t print this at all, or sometimes / more realistically, you might print this as a general concept, but do not ever associate it with me or my company). The spokesperson should know that everything is assumed to be on the record, and that going on background or off the record should be discussed before, not after, they make a statement.
Don’t make “unreasonable” requests. Legit journalists will find the following requests unreasonable and borderline insulting:
No recording – many journalists use recording to take notes
To see the story before it runs, although you can remind them you’re available if they need to fact check
To see the questions before the interview, although you should have some general sense of topics
Remind them of the answers to the tricky Q/A they might face. If your stock is down, if another executive just departed your company, pending law suits -- these might not be germane to the topic at hand, but the reporter could ask about any of them.
On a related note, there may be some things about your business that you just can't talk about publicly. So your spokesperson should know when (and how) to end a line of questioning. You are here to get a message across and the journalist is here to publish a story, and if they can find some tension to make that story more interesting, all the better for them. So first of all, get ahead of that by introducing tension that is good, or at least neutral, for you. Maybe it’s competitive, maybe it’s legacy vs. new ways of doing things. Second, they might ask a question repeatedly in different ways if they sense you’re evading the answer. Give the spokesperson specific phrases such as “I don’t have that answer right now, we’ll come back to you on this by tomorrow," "I'm just not the best person to answer this, it's not my area of expertise, let me take it back and try to get you more information," or “I’ve pretty much said all I’m going to say on this topic, I’m more interested in discussing [bridge to better topic]” so they feel empowered to shut it down. (And you, PR pro, perk up and jump in when you need to.)
Follow up appropriately
The goal is to build a long-term professional relationship with this journalist, so If your engagement results in a neutral or positive experience and coverage, I think it’s appropriate to thank the journalist for their great/thoughtful/insightful/etc piece and express that you and/or your executive enjoyed the conversation. It’s important to walk a fine line here so they don’t think that you think they did you any favors (see below re: not being your mouthpiece), but being gracious rarely hurts.
After a piece comes out, sometimes the spokesperson will ask you to get something they don’t like in it removed or changed. This is tricky business. If it is a factual correction (“They spelled my name wrong,” “They have an outdated revenue number”), it is fine to ask the journalist to make the change. They typically can-do for digital pieces within a day. If it’s not strictly factual (“They over-emphasized our fulfillment challenges,” “It’s not fair that they dwelled on our outage earlier this year,” “They shouldn’t have let that competitor’s quote go unchallenged”), you’re probably out of luck. You have to explain to the spokesperson that you can’t just go rag on the journalist with non-factual complaints. Say it with me: the media is not your mouthpiece, they do not want your feedback. If it's really important, you could try something like, "We take some issue with this one section of the article. Would you be willing to insert a response from us on this matter into your article?" But generally, it’s better to try to build the relationship and get a better piece next time, or work with other media instead if you feel you can’t trust a certain journalist to be fair. (And really think hard on "fairness." Negative doesn't always mean unfair.)
So, there’s plenty to think about when engaging the media, but a little common sense and thoughtfulness goes a long way. If you need help strategizing your pitch or prepping those little scamps we call spokespeople, give me or Tanya a shout!