Recently, a CEO was venting to me about how he routinely pitches his business to reporters, but nobody writes about him. So I told him the five words that, harsh as they are, all entrepreneurs need to hear: Sometimes you’re not the story.
But good news: You could be part of the story.
Every month I use this space to explain how I make editorial decisions. I do this because entrepreneurs frequently want press, but they don’t often understand how journalists think -- so part of my job, as I see it, is to demystify the process. And this distinction, between being the story and being part of one, is critical. I get it: You want the big showcase, the feature, the photo shoot. And you should! But the truth is, we run very few of them. Only six stories in our December issue focus solely on a single company. The bar for a profile is incredibly high -- I’m looking for that perfect mix of timeliness, an interesting company, a founder with a compelling and relatable story and know-it-when-I-see-it intangibles -- so simply pitching yourself or your brand isn’t the most direct way into this, or probably any, publication. I have to say no to pitches like this all day, every day.
But here’s the thing: I am always looking for surprising, fascinating and compelling stories. Maybe it’s an entrepreneurship trend or a budding industry or a major challenge that business owners are working to overcome. You insiders know that stuff best -- and it’s what I want to hear about.
That’s why I told the CEO to reframe his pitch. Don’t make it about him. Instead, write a reporter some (far more detailed) version of this: “Hey. Here’s this really interesting new thing happening in my field; it’s important and not enough people know about it. I’d be happy to share details about how it impacts my business.” That’s an email every journalist wants to open. The resulting story may not be the big, splashy feature you wanted -- but truth be told, you may have never gotten that anyway. This at least gets you press, and you can build your profile from there.
An example from this very issue: Earlier this year, someone pitched me a company that makes escape rooms. Maybe you’ve seen one open recently in your city; they’re like rooms full of puzzles. I said no -- there are tons of these companies, so why would I focus on one? But a few months later, I was talking with writer Ashlea Halpern and we got to wondering how hard it is to open a trendy business -- you know, a company whose concept is hot, but it’s only a matter of time before the buzz dies down? So Ashlea started making calls and gained some great insight, and soon we had an interesting story about a lot of businesses we’d have never profiled individually. And we included a few escape rooms.
(By the way, some numbers: She reached out to 25 trend-chasing entrepreneurs; 17 got back to her for an interview, and seven were quoted in the resulting story. “Sometimes you talk to an entrepreneur and they won’t tell you anything anyone can learn from. It’s as if they think you’re going to give away their trade secrets,” she tells me. None of those made the cut. “The best interviewees are the most transparent. They talk actual numbers. They’re willing to admit mistakes and explain, in detail, how they overcame them.”)
Publicists sometimes seem to have broader coverage in mind. I routinely get emails that ask, “Are you working on any stories about…?” and then list some broad category, like health apps or food companies, that their client is in. (One recently asked if I was “working on any stories about unique CEOs.” I mean, what am I going to say -- nah, only writing about middle management now?) This is like throwing a dart in the dark. You might get a bull’s-eye, but it’ll be dumb luck.
So if you want a better shot at coverage, don’t ask what a reporter or an editor is working on and, maybe, don’t even tell them why your company is the most amazing thing they’ve ever heard of. Instead, tell them what they need to know -- and how you’re a part of it.