All too often, startups try to keep details of their company under wraps, dodging media requests, and only start pushing out key messaging when the business is public facing. Sure, there’s a time and a place to keep secrets about your business development efforts, but there’s also a way to engage potential customers early on, while maintaining a level of privacy about the specifics of your product. To do this, you need to leverage earned media.  

Encouraging publications to write stories about your business is an effective and affordable way to put your product or service in front of your target market and boost credibility early on.

But don’t jump in too quickly. There are key pieces you’ll need to have in place and journalism guidelines you must understand before sitting down with your local news outlet. Having a grasp of these rules will help your company make the most of the interview, and get your message out there as you want it conveyed.

Pre-media outreach must haves

Regardless of where your company is at – from ideation and iteration, to corporate innovation – having a website up and running that accurately reflects your brand is key. At minimum, you should have a one-liner that provides clarity on what your company does or is hoping to do; this can be vague, and in the early stages, it should be, so there’s some wiggle room to pivot.

Even if you’re still in the creation stage, purchasing the domain for your company’s website and having (at the very least) a one-liner about your solution on that domain is essential. It will save you the headache of rebranding if you can’t get the address down the road. Do the same for social media handles, even if you don’t plan on using them right away.

Your website, at least in time, should explain what your company does, who is on your team (even if it’s just you right now), products, services, price, pain points you aim to resolve, and ways to get in touch. Having an active and up-to-date website provides supplementary facts for the reporter to reference and piece throughout the article or news segment accurately and objectively; it also makes the interview process more efficient because the journalist won’t need to ask about or confirm specific details. Instead, they can ask interesting, human or experience-focused questions that add colour and personality to your brand, as well as the story.

While having a website is essential, you don’t have to build a website and add all of the copy at one time. Adding and reviewing key messaging on your website is a process that should be ongoing and grow alongside your brand.   

Some other items that are nice to have pre-interview include a headshot or team photo (in case it’s a phone interview and the reporter is unavailable to take a photo), and a professionally designed logo to add credibility. Articles with nice, high-quality images are often selected as main features in newspaper layouts, which helps you receive more attention in print and online. If you’re strapped for cash, consider contacting a student of photography and/or graphic design who is trying to build their portfolio; the professional exposure and real-world opportunity may be enough to have the work completed for free or at a very low rate, providing you credit them accordingly.

Know your message; know your story

Before you start talking to news outlets, set some time aside to really contemplate what you want to say and who from your company should say it. Key details about your company should already exist on your website, emphasizing key marketing messages and pushing potential customers through the sales funnel.

As the voice of the company, you want to drive home a narrative that is exciting and will draw people in toward the business. Make note of any exciting, shareable milestones or moments that shaped your company’s growth or idea; some examples include how you came up with the business (was it a weird fluke or a funny story?), where you met your business partner, previous roles and how they led to this endeavour, or any interesting pieces that maybe caused you to pivot or better your product. Just remember it’s not a sales meeting, so spend less time upselling and more time speaking about the human experience and impact you hope to make.

Regardless of the narrative you choose to present, remember that generating buzz around your business can begin with a founder focus instead of a product feature, by creating a relatable or intriguing narrative that articulates what the pain points are, and why it’s so important to resolve them. This is especially true for companies that aim to resolve a significant community, societal or sector-specific issue, painting yourself as a thought leader, game changer and someone whose business everyday consumers should keep an eye out for.   

Keep the tech specs to a minimum

Where most of your work to date has likely been quite technical, remember that journalism articles are written with a Grade 10 literacy/comprehension level in mind, so that the information is accessible and easy for the average reader to understand.

With that in mind, know that most people are not highly technical or understand the complicated elements of how your technology works, nor do they need to. Unless you are being interviewed by a tech-focused publication that is asking for the hardware or software specifics, know that high-tech terminology does not often translate into an exciting story, nor does it captivate the average reader. Worse yet, the journalist may not understand, and could very easily misrepresent your business or product.

What the average reader does understand, however, is that starting a business takes courage, and a lot of dedication. Driving the human experience and making your idea approachable and understandable, while presenting a high level description of your technology, is key.

When to reach out – content and timing

Earned media can be a bit of a fickle beast: when you are seeking media coverage, your press releases may not get picked up for no reason, other than that it was a busy news week and it didn’t make the cut. On the flip side, it seems journalists come around the most when you don’t have anything particularly newsworthy to share.

If you’re approached and don’t feel like you have anything to share, don’t be afraid to ask what their focus is. They may be looking to chat for a business feature, or want to include your voice as a thought or opinion leader on a particular issue or topic. Your safest bet is always to confirm what they want to discuss and in the early stages, avoid anything overly contentious that could come back to bite you.

If you’re about to launch your product, host an event, have recently received funding, or have a huge milestone under your belt, reach out to local media to share your success. It’s a great way to start building the relationship, and invite them to celebrate your wins.

Because it can take time to develop relationships with reporters, and you are never guaranteed a response, always research journalists and their respective beat so that you, at the very least, are sending releases to the right person. That person, if you keep them on the journey with you, will be the best, objective storyteller for your brand and will heighten your credibility immensely.

Keep in mind that each press release should have only one piece of news; there is only one headline for a story and you don’t want to miss out on exposure by putting two stories out as one. That said, it is still important to have all of your key messages in your back pocket and three, less significant, additional pieces to tack onto the story. This is important because it ensures that the journalist and their readers can keep an eye out for said developments going forward. These three pieces should be very small bites of information, like upcoming event dates, or product features you’re considering. They should never be so significant that they could become the story.

With respect to timing, sending a release on Tuesdays or Wednesdays are usually the best time; many editors don’t work on weekends and spend Mondays catching up on emails. By Thursday, releases get lost in the weekend news cycle and on Friday, everyone is winding down for the weekend. Also, earlier in the day is always best because the reporter can be the first to publish the story – with plenty of time to make their daily deadline.

No Comment

If you are contacted for a comment on a topic or issue that may be overly contentious, or you just don’t want to participate in the public conversation, you can always say, ‘No comment.’ This is perfectly fine, but remember that they can still publish that you’ve said, ‘No comment,’ and readers can perceive it as they choose – often it’s received as dismissive, or that someone is hiding something. Use this option wisely.

If you’re experiencing a public relations crisis, saying ‘No comment,’ instead of getting ahead of the story often makes matters worse instead of better. It is an option, but use it sparingly. In some cases, you may be better off providing a very neutral statement stating your disinterest in participating in the public conversation because you don’t have an opinion on it, don’t feel qualified, or provide some other rationale for not participating.

But, if you are experiencing a public relations crisis, and are approached about it and dismiss it, that becomes the story. Hire a PR consultant to help shape the narrative, inform the journalist that you are working on a statement, and follow up with that as soon as possible. It’s the safest bet to ensure you aren’t caught off guard and say something you regret later.  

On the record versus off the record

Speaking with a journalist about your business can be a wonderfully exciting experience, but it can also leave you with your foot in your mouth, or frantically back-peddling if you don’t understand the concept of off the record.

In Canada, recording a conversation is legal and requires the consent of only one party in this circumstance; it is not legal, however, to record individuals by means of hiding a device without the speakers’ consent. In this case, for the sake of accuracy, most journalists will record your conversation, transcribe it and then write the article. That keeps them accountable and adds a layer of protection if a subject is – for some reason – unhappy with the article. As a courtesy, they may ask you if they can record first, but know that they don’t necessarily have to, which is why understanding this protocol is key: unless you clearly state that something is off the record during a conversation with a reporter, anything and everything you say in an interview with a journalist is fair game.

So knowing what you want to say and what you absolutely do not want to say is essential. Because you will be speaking about your company, it’s easy to get really excited and open up about every detail – don’t. Stay within the confines of your key messages and don’t for a second think that the journalist is a friend you can confide in. While they do share in the excitement of your story and enjoy covering your company at each stage, speaking with you and crafting an interesting or unique story ahead of their media competition is what drives journalists – especially in a time when job cuts to media outlets are increasingly common and each reporter is trying to stand out.

Journalists work on deadlines and often turn around several stories in a day to publish for the next day’s paper, or to meet their online publishing schedule. If you happen to slip up and mention something unintentionally, you have a very small window of time to remove that from the article; that small window of time is in the few moments that follow, by stating, “That’s off the record and cannot be included in the article,” and the reporter will comply with your wishes. You may even stretch that window far enough to the end of the conversation, but remember, if you don’t say, “off the record,” anything goes.

By the time it goes to press, you won’t be able to retract it, so be careful what you say, and ensure your team is clear about who can speak with media as the official spokesperson. Generally, that person should have had media training and understands how the process works.  

What if they got it wrong?

Maybe you misspoke or they misconstrued what you said and now there’s false information printed about your company. Of course, it depends how serious the misinformation is, but you can – and should – always ask them to change the online version and issue a correction in their next edition.

But, pick your battles. If it’s significant and they won’t make the change, contact their editor as the next step, but always start by going to the reporter first.

Note that publications don’t like to issue corrections, but the role of media is to report accurately and fairly, so they should comply with your request. If you’re prepared and well-versed in your key messaging objectives, you should never get to this point, anyway.

That said, journalists may, as a courtesy, send you a copy of the article ahead of publishing it. That’s a rare opportunity to correct the copy; journalists are supposed to report objectively and shouldn’t provide you an opportunity to spin the story or edit it to make you sound better. Usually, and especially if the interview was recorded, the journalist will go to press without your approval – that’s standard practice.  

Other items:

When you meet a journalist for an interview, always come prepared to have your photo taken. If they don’t take your photo, offer to submit one.

You can – and should – always ask the reporter to keep a hard copy of the article for you to pick up; be sure to save a digital version and add a link to the story on your website and social media channels. Tracking your clips will help document your growth and can be a great talking point with investors.

A reporter will always ask if there’s anything you didn’t cover during your conversation; that’s your opportunity to share additional talking points to keep the reader looking for more information down the road.

You can also ask the journalist to add a link to your website for more information about your company. That’s where having a website and social media handles becomes pertinent.  

Finally, be humble, professional, and don’t ever trash-talk the competition. On the flip side, don’t be afraid to name drop key supporters – be it a person or organization – who helped you get to where you are; that provides the journalist a supplementary source for the story, and additional voices lends more credibility to your brand or business, and that’s the point of this, after all.

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