I must admit that when I assumed the position of PR manager (among my other roles) at Hotels.ng, I barely understood what PR meant. ‘Public Relations’ or ‘Press Releases’? The sweet irony here is that I was coming from a background as product manager/community manager/team lead/chief editor for a big-deal PR platform, and every day I had to sift through pitches and ready-made press releases and decide which ones went live and which ones got killed. In a nutshell, I knew how to handle PR, but not create PR.
Startups more than most businesses require the occasional-yet-sustained buzz, and if they can solidify their relationships with the press, they can always let the world know whenever they have something fresh and exciting to announce. Press is good for saying ‘hey, we’re open for business!’, ‘hey! We just created this nifty tool to solve this pesky problem!’, ‘hey! We just hit this milestone!’, ‘hey! This big-shot VC just invested in us — hooray for business model validation and liquidity!’.
The problem, of course, is that ‘press’ is ostensibly a marketing channel, and every channel gets flooded with time. It gets clogged with subpar content, terrible value propositions and the receptiveness of the audience drops. This drop in audience engagement is bad for the journalists in charge of press coverage, the content platforms distributing news and the startups looking to get word out. Everybody loses when the pitch is bad and this is why any self-respecting PR platform highly discriminates against bad press.
With the help of people like Jessica Hope, Hotels.ng has caught the attention of international — CNN, TechCrunch, Forbes — and local press several times already. It might look like a fortuitous occurrence, but if you saw Mark Essien’s StartUp South talk it would become clear that as with every other branding strategy, getting the press to talk about you is a deliberate process.
‘We have a plan for getting in the press,’ Mark says. ‘Everyday we sit down and ask ourselves, what do we want to tell the press today?’. That is how to think about the press: journalists want to cover useful information related to their beat, and you should either give them that information or not at all.
Reporters wince and tear out their hair whenever a spontaneous ‘release’ lands in their inboxes. They continue to complain about the terrible pitches they release yet very few people tend to listen to them. I am outlining below the steps to sending out press releases that would make reporters your friend:
Learn to Pitch Instead of Writing a Full Release
Trust me on this one: reputable reporters prefer to write the story than to have you give them an already-made angle and a 700-word manuscript with flowery words from every C-level person in your company.
If you have a good potential story on your hands, send it to the reporter asking them if they might be interested in it. Provide data if it’s a data-driven report and let the magic happen from there. You need to pitch this to a journalist specifically interested in the sort of news you’re publishing, which brings me to my second point:
Understand the Reporter — Always Understand the Reporter
You can go from ignored to ‘hey — interesting pitch! Can we talk about this some more over the phone?’ if you do a little bit of sleuthing. You see, reporters have beats and they have specific interests. They are not homogenous, interchangeable fingers clacking out the same news across board. If you read any reporter long enough, a pattern begins to emerge and you’ll begin to see what they like writing about. Osarumen of TechCabal, for example, is an Apple aficionado so if you hypothetically had an iOS app that needed a review piece written, he might be hypothetically more inclined to write about your app than, say, someone who fancies the finer points of the stock market.
My personal recommendation is to select specific publications and specific reporters and read their posts for a while. Read at least 10 pieces per writer. Discover their sweet spots. Craft content designed for them. Sit back and measure. You should experience more success than when you send those ‘To whom it may concern, Dear <insert recipient name>’ emails.
Your Subject Line is Your Tux At The Dinner Table
Everybody’s simply getting more mail every day — I have about five email addresses and they’re all swamped. Reporters get more mail than most people, I imagine — they’re the public-facing side of every media outfit so you must always remember that your pitch to them is one sock in a bag of socks. You must do everything to be noticed. As it turns out, most times you will never get past your email subject line before the reporter hits ‘select all’ and ‘delete.’ Put a lot of thought in your email subject line. Aim to cause them to pause and consider, then shrug and say ‘lemme see what this person is on about.’
Ride On An Older Story
If you can provide new insight into a recent story someone is covering, there’s your greenlight: journalists always love a fresh scoop on an ongoing story. This rarely happens, but if you ever find yourself holding new insight into a trending/developing story, shoot! And make it count.
Reporters Are Human, Too
Instead of seeing reporters as hibernating receptacles, to be reactivated whenever you need to push some news out, see them as what they really are — human beings with keen interests and personalities. Engage with them on their social media profiles and on Twitter on topics they are interested in. Comment on their stories, @ them on Twitter, share their links. Offer them news tips, yes, even for industries/events that don’t directly relate to your business.
There you go!
This is by no means an exhaustive guide, but I can vouch for its efficacy — we use a similar set of methods at Hotels.ng. You must always tweak your process, leverage on your previous contacts to make more contacts, create a press calendar and a sturdy documentation process.