PR Playbook: The Real Truth. How to Get It. What It Means


Are your pitches to the press getting ignored? You’re in the right place. Ed Zitron, founder of EZ-PR, moderates a panel with Erica Lee, CEO of Strategiclee; Sarah Frier, reporter at Bloomberg, Colleen Taylor, editorial director at Y Combinator, and Matt Weinberger, tech writer at Business Insider. The five discuss everything from pitching strategies to what to do with a less-than-charismatic CEO.

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Special thanks to Jason Lemkin of SaaStr for putting on this conference and giving us the chance to publish these summaries.

In a nutshell:

  • Your startup isn't newsworthy just by virtue of it being a startup.
  • Sell a narrative: your product taking on the big establishment, your CEO overcoming hardship, a broader trend that your company fits into.
  • Don't take rejection personally, but do be courteous of a journalist's time.

Q: What metrics matter when pitching to a journalist?

Weinberger: Year-over-year growth doesn’t really matter. 200% of one is two.

Taylor: Staff numbers are pretty important, and easier to disclose than valuation or revenue. But if you can’t disclose numbers, ask why you’re looking for press in the first place.

Frier: The more numbers you can give, the better - platitudes aren’t going to catch a reporter’s eye. If you can’t give numbers, give customers or stories like hurdles you’ve gone through or challenges you’ve overcome.

Lee: If you know customer behaviors, that’s a great story.

Q: What do you do when your founder isn’t all that charismatic?

Frier: Entrepreneurs often underestimate how smart they are about things unrelated to their business - recruiting, fundraising, all these things that tell a story and fit into a trend. Even if you’re not charismatic about your business yet, you’re still interesting and talking about things that matter. You can serve as a resource as part of a larger story.

Lee: Very few people are born to be on stage. You can find more than one spokesperson, and have each one speak about what they’re passionate and knowledgeable about. And most importantly - train your spokespeople. CEO’s should be drilled in media relations.

Weinberger: Everyone has something they’re passionate about. You don’t need to be charismatic, but if you’re interested about something, that enthusiasm will show through.

What founders have been pretty boring personally, but good to write about?

Taylor: The best conversations are the ones that aren’t so focused on an individual story. Think of it as a relationship. Ryan Hoover of ProductHunt is a great example - he came up to Taylor and made himself available as a helpful resource. People can be scared of the press, but don’t be. Just relax.

Q: What about founders who are overly confident and aggressive?

Frier: One of the worst things they can do is go to the press asking for something, along the lines of “If you could write about my amazing company now, that’d be great.” Instead, do favors for the press. Offer insights and resources on stories people are writing about, or pitch really great stories (not products).

Lee: It’s not a journalist’s job to cover you. They’re doing a job and you aren’t a requirement for them. Dress well, show up early, and be courteous. Remember that they’re doing you a favor - you aren’t entitled to coverage.

“Don’t hold the journalist hostage. They’re not going to tell you you’re fabulous or cheerlead for you.” - Lee

Zitron: He’s been seeing a lot of founders who say, “Well, Facebook was on TechCrunch and we’re also social. Why aren’t we being covered?” You have to have a unique story.

Lee: If you’re a jerk, you’ve lost a relationship. Done. So put your company in the best light, and take things seriously.

Weinberger: He hates pitches that list prior media coverage as a reason to write about the company. It’s a clear signal that the company doesn’t have anything new to say.

Lee: “News” actually means “new.” You can’t just pitch the same old thing over and over. Sometimes, you can only pitch two or three people - and when something’s on your website, well, it’s old. At that point it’s not going to get picked up.

Taylor: Be upfront. If something is an exclusive, honor that relationship.

Frier: Don’t get frustrated if a conversation doesn’t turn into a story. Maybe there isn’t enough meat to your pitch to actually have a story, but it’s good for relationship-building.

“We love exclusives - they help us sell the story to our editors.” -Frier

Q: Let’s talk about momentum releases.

Zitron: If you’re pitching something as an exclusive, make sure it’s actually exclusive. You can’t put lipstick on a pig.

Weinberger: You can’t just say something is a fresh story because you have new numbers. You can quickly lose trust by inaccurately billing something as an exclusive.

“Think as a human. Ask yourself, ‘Is this news? Is this actually important?’” -Zitron

Q: Would you rather hear from a CEO or PR specialist?

Weinberger: He sources his news from events - trends, app store numbers, that kind of thing. But all things considered, he’d rather hear from the founder or CEO. Also, in outreach emails, provide context that might be useful for a broader story.

Taylor: It’s important for founders to be able to talk about what they do. You wouldn’t outsource engineering in the early days; don’t outsource storytelling in the early days either. The point when you hire a specialist is when you simply don’t have time

Frier: The benefit of a PR specialist is industry knowledge - someone who knows what’s been written and can have existing relationships. But the ideal is for founders to email about a story she’s written and offer insights about it. If you see a story that can fit your narrative, go ahead and reach out to the journalist.

“It doesn’t all start with the press. If you don’t get a reporter to bite, write a blog post, start a thread on Reddit, or post on Twitter. The press aren’t the only gatekeepers." - Taylor

Weinberger: No amount of cold-pitching will help if you don’t have something that resonates.

“Make us notice; make us care. There’s more opportunity for that than ever.” - Weinberger

Q: What’s the best way to get in touch - email, phone or something else?

Weinberger: Never use the phone. It’s intrusive and strange.

Zitron: Don’t call or email reporters on weekends.

Lee: If you hire a PR person, you’re hiring their existing network. Invest in getting to know the press

Weinberger: If he takes texts or calls from a PR person, it’s because he already has a relationship with them. In that case, he’ll actually read the pitches - and even if he doesn’t cover all or even most of them, the relationship will endure.

“How you react to a ‘no’ says a lot about you and the relationship you’re trying to build.” -Weinberger

Q: How should you use social media to get press coverage?

Zitron: Founders would ask him if he wanted to meet at CES to cover their products, but he almost always passes. He doesn’t think it’s a good way to get in touch.

Lee: Never tweet at a journalist after 5:00.

Frier: It can actually be helpful to meet at conferences and events, in a low-key way. Don’t try to pitch reporters, but approach them as human beings.

Q: How do you take something dull and make it stand out?

Taylor: As much as numbers and tie-ins are important, you should be able to turn your product into a broader story that’s part of the real world. When you’re deep in the weeds, you can lose perspective quickly. Take a bird’s-eye view on how your product affects your life as a real person.

Frier: Consider the overall industry - are you a competitor to a well-known company like Oracle? Can you turn your pitch into a story about how you and three of your competitors are taking on Microsoft?

Lee: Try to add an element of “impending doom” - reporters can turn that into “my readers need to know this because…”

Q: What’s the worst pitch you’ve got?

Frier: I got a pitch for a helmet that turned into a purse. But the worst ones have a lot of flowery language that doesn’t really mean anything.

All: Templates are really obvious. You can’t automate effort.

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