How to Build Lasting Press Relationships for Your Startup
Deep inside Apple headquarters, there’s a giant boardroom. It’s mostly empty except for three things: Wall Street Journal reporter Walt Mossberg, Steve Jobs, and a mysterious object, covered like a magician’s set piece. With the kind of drama only he could muster, Jobs rips off the cloth, revealing—just for Mossberg—the newest Apple product.
This is startup PR at its best—no press releases, no gimmicks. Jobs was, admittedly, a master media manipulator, but you don’t have to be to steal his strategy. It’s brilliantly simple: Cultivate personal relationships with journalists you like, and then tell them a story so good, they can’t pass it up.
It’s the same approach I used for my own startup when I didn’t have enough money for rent, let alone for expensive PR retainer fees. When other founders ask me how I manage to get coverage over and over again from publications like TechCrunch and The Washington Post, here’s what I tell them.
Build your press network now, even if you don’t need the press yet
I got introduced to the press almost by accident: One night at a tech meetup, well before I had a working product in the App Store, I met a writer from TechCrunch. We became fast friends, and though I didn’t know it then, she would eventually give my startup our first big break on the site.
The moral of the story? Build your press network like you build your investor network—one human to another. Journalists aren’t so different from the angels or VCs you’re courting: They want to be optimistic about your startup. They want to find the underdog, the hidden gem worth investing time in. That, in the end, is what makes for a good story.
On the flip side, their inboxes are just as full of cold pitches—but if they already know you, you’ll cut straight to the top. With that in mind:
- Get out there. Go to tech meetups (Gary’s Guide is a great resource for New York-based founders.) Or, take a cue from Tim Ferriss and volunteer at events where journalists are likely to be. Find the people you genuinely enjoy spending time with—some of them will inevitably be writers.
- Change the scenery. After the event is said and done, hang out on a personal basis. Keep the shop talk to a minimum. Psychology says people tend to trust us more more if we find common ground and show concern beyond our own interests.
Ask a favor of a friend. Even if your journalist buddy can’t write the story for you, they can introduce you to another journalist who can.
Couldn’t you just as easily scrape together a hit list of emails to cold pitch? Well, yes. There’s no doubt the batch-and-blast method works. But if you want an open door to coverage—not just tomorrow, but for years to come—real relationships are your best bet.
Give them something newsworthy
The demand for interesting content is relentless. Writers are cranking out articles at lightning speed—and your job is to deliver to their inbox, as if by magic, a great story that practically writes itself.
The prerequisite, of course, is doing something great. Maybe you hit a traction milestone. You launched a new product. You hired a big executive. In my case, it took hitting $2M in seed funding to make it onto TechCrunch for the first time. Whatever you’re pitching, make sure you can prove some kind of validation: After all, why should a publication stake its reputation on a company no one else cares about?
Once you have a good story and a journalist buddy willing to give it a chance, it’s time to refine your pitch. Here’s the basic anatomy we use at Roomi:
- Lead with the problem in the first sentence. Bonus points if you know it’s a problem your journalist friend has personally struggled with in the past.
- Follow with your solution in the next sentence or two.
- Then, answer the question, “Why is this important now?” with a few key bullet points.
Finish off with a clear ask. Something as simple as “Do you think this could be a good fit for X column?” will do nicely.
Give them a story only you can tell
Tech publications can help you reach your future investors, advisors, and team members. But when you want to reach your users, it’s worth looking outside the startup world.
These days, we’re doing just that at Roomi: Rather than pitching milestone stories to tech bloggers, we’re pitching data stories to lifestyle ones. With nearly two years of data under our belt, we’re able to tip journalists off to trends in shared housing before anyone else—like the NYC neighborhood millennials most want to live in.
As you start thinking about expanding coverage for your startup, take a hard look at your assets. What can you offer the press that your competitors can’t? For instance:
- Remarkable marketplace listings (like AirBnb)
- Your business learnings, especially if they speak to a wider trend (like Spoon University)
Or maybe—getting meta here—your own funky approach to PR (link Thinx)
This is a win-win: You get coverage, and your journalist friend gets a story with substance, not just a puff piece.
To be fair, press isn’t always the top priority for us at Roomi. Product, customer service, and traction come first, hands down. But every now and again, you’ll need to hire team members or raise capital—and that’s when press can be a powerful force multiplier. If you’re wondering when and where to start, here’s my advice to you: No matter what stage you’re in, build your network of journalists now. When your startup needs it most, you’ll already be halfway to press coverage.