Dear Startups, Please Don't Do This to Journalists
A step-by-step guide for entrepreneurs on how to become more media-friendly and interact efficiently with the press.
As a business journalist from the Middle East with an entrepreneurial stint, I used to see Europe as a utopia where startups and the media are immaculately professional and work in perfect harmony.
However, after moving to Europe and interacting with founders from different European countries, I realized that wrong practices and gaps in understanding have no borders.
There’s no guidebook out there to help entrepreneurs and journalists navigate the intricate labyrinth of their relationship, but I believe the learning curve can be shortened with some hands-on tips shared by both sides.
So I’m here to offer my observations as a journalist to European founders who’d like to shape a tension-free, healthy, and long-lasting interaction with the press.
When a journalist or a media writer is approached by a startup, the first thing they usually do is to check the company’s website. Here’s what you can do to make their life easier:
Write a short, straightforward bio for your company. Most of the time, there’s no need to be intentionally ambiguous, get philosophical, or use technical terms when presenting your company.
In a few sentences at the top of your home page, explain clearly what you’re doing and save the journalist the hassle of having to decode your mission and vision.
You can use the About section of your website to talk about your personal journey and the aha moment that led you down the road of entrepreneurship. While you’re at it, make sure your LinkedIn profile is updated as well. LinkedIn is another primary destination for media representatives who want to find more information about you.
Go for a simple web design. Startups getting creative with their web layout is understandable when they’re a creative design studio or a player in the gaming space. But it makes no sense why a mechanical engineering startup or a cybersecurity solutions provider would like to push the reader down the rabbit hole of finding the Products and Services page of their website.
Make a media kit available on your website. Having a press kit not only makes you look professional but eliminates the need for the writer to go on an endless search online for your logos and photos online, most of which are of poor quality or subject to copyright.
Provide both an email address and a contact form. Make a contact form and an email address available on your website to respect both those who want a shortcut to reach out to you and those who prefer a different method or need to send an attachment.
Write in English, too. A sizable portion of startups have not yet translated their non-English website content into English. Consider adding a language switcher to facilitate international readers’ access to accurate information about your company.
Keep your brand name consistent. It’s confusing when you spell the name of your brand in all caps on your website and use a different version on your social media platforms.
Now, let’s discuss a common scenario where a journalist requests an interview with a startup founder to pen an article. The following are some thoughts about what makes members of the press excited about interacting with and writing about you and, more importantly, encourages them to contact you again in the future.
Before the interview:
- Check your email frequently: As a business founder, you may not have time to respond to your emails. If so, hire someone who can help you keep the lines of communication open.
- Don’t make the journalist run after you: Give an exact date for the call instead of making them follow up with you several times. If it’s an email interview, send them your answers within a reasonable time frame.
- Ask for topics, not questions, in advance: The most successful entrepreneurs are the ones who know their business and industry inside out and can answer any relevant question off-the-cuff during a live or pre-recorded conversation.
- Also, there’s no shame in not having all the answers. Especially if it’s not a live interview, you can easily get back to the journalist later with additional information and more accurate statistics.
- Let the journalist send an invite unless they ask otherwise: You sending an invite for a call sometimes complicates things. In some contexts, it even comes off as controlling. Ask the writer if they will send you an invite or want you to send them one.
During the interview:
- Don’t bring your press officer to the meeting: I personally see no point in having a third person in the background watch two adults talking—unless something like a legally binding deal is going to come out of the meeting—and consider it a sign of low self-confidence. But if you prefer it this way, at least inform the journalist ahead of the interview to prevent an awkward moment.
- Choose a quiet place: Finding a quiet place for the interview not only shows your respect for the other person but also minimizes distraction and makes the transcript more accurate.
- Be brief and concise: Keep your answers short and sweet and avoid making comments that do not add any value to the discussion.
After the interview:
- Be patient: Some interviewees send too many follow-up emails even when they’ve already been respectfully informed by the journalist that it may take a few weeks before the article goes live. Please don’t be one of them.
- Don’t interfere in the editorial process: I wish I could tell all businesses: “The harder you try to protect your image, the more fragile you look.”
- It’s fair to ask for a draft to be shared with you in a PR context, but journalism is different than paid promotional material development. Do your due diligence on the journalist and the publication they work for and put your trust in them if they have a good track record.
- Tolerate mistakes: A factual mistake, a typo, or a misquotation in a published article is not the end of the world. Don’t treat it as a matter of life and death. Writers and editors are human and can make mistakes, just as you do.
- Praise the writer publicly: If you’re happy with the published piece, give the journalist a shout-out on social media or send them a thank-you message and CC their boss. A well-deserved show of appreciation can do wonders and will make you stand out in the long list of interviewees. That’s where the seeds of a lasting relationship are sown.
Finally, my ultimate advice to startup founders is this: Read the timeless book “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie. It can improve your communication skills in all areas of your life, not just when dealing with the media. It’s an investment that will take you very far.