Press can make or break your company; and it good press can be pretty damn hard to come by when hundreds (thousands, really) of companies are vying for the attention of the TechCrunches, Bloombergs, and Forbes of the world. If you want your pitch to get heard, take notes from these PR mavens: Ed Zitron, founder of EZ-PR; Colleen Taylor, editorial director at Y Combinator; Erica Lee, CEO of Strategiclee; Sarah Frier, reporter at Bloomberg; and Matt Weinberger, tech writer at Business Insider.
As this session’s moderator, Ed asks the important questions to shed light on what to do, and what not to do, when it comes to getting your company into the spotlight. What can you share with the public if you’re not able to provide solid numbers just yet? Is it better to hear from a founder or a PR person? Is it a good idea to call reporters and journalists directly on their cellphones? What’s the proper etiquette when tweeting at people in the press? And are you doomed if you’re not a naturally charismatic person?
Warning: This is the unvarnished truth on how to (more importantly, how not to) engage with the press and what your PR firm can (and cannot) realistically deliver.
Check out the full transcript below!
Ed Zitron: Lovely intro. Big hand for our house band, Friends with Zenefits.
Too soon? Welcome to the panel. I’m Ed Zitron of EZ-PR, because I can’t come up with a better name. I’ve done enterprise PR. I’ve done all sorts of PR. If I list all my clients, you’ll just get annoyed, so I’m going to pass you on to my far more talented panelists made up of fantastic journalists, editorial people, and of course, one of the best people in Enterprise PR.
Start with Matt Weinberger here from “Business Insider.” He has worked at Computerworld, and he’s of course covered all sorts of enterprise stuff and a lot of folks and developers. Developers?
Matt Weinberger: Yes. Developers, developers, developers, and developers.
Ed: Colleen, of course, here, formerly of TechCrunch, that’s where many of you will know her from, and, of course, Y Combinator. Editorial director, I believe?
Colleen Taylor: Editorial director.
Ed: Lovely, and thank you. I will desperately need that soon. Of course, Erica from Strategiclee. She has had clients and NVIDIA, Algolia. And of course, Fastly, and finally, we’ve got Sarah Frier from Bloomberg. Thank you all for coming. I’m so sorry in advance.
Matt, we’re going to kick off with you, because I can see you. There’s something, a poison, within most clients I actually have, but also most clients in general. Metrics. I’m sure you, as founders, have all had this thing where you’ve thought, “You know what? The fact I’ve got 10,000 of one very innocuous thing, that’s very interesting.”
Matt, what metrics actually matter, and more importantly, do not matter to you?
Matt: I would argue that Metric’s “Combat Baby” is probably the essential metric. No, for real. The metrics that really matter, we like revenue, we like growth. The thing that drives me nuts as a reporter is you say, “We’ve grown 5,000 percent year over year.” It’s like, “Great, but you didn’t exist this time last year.”
Twice of one is two. A thousand times zero is still zero. Give me something else to work with.
Ed: I pitched him that. That was me, talking about my agency.
Colleen: I always like to ask, a number that you can give pretty easily without revealing too much about your company, I think staff numbers is interesting. Obviously, user numbers are always important. If you can’t say user numbers, you need to rethink that. Maybe you’re not ready for press yet.
Obviously, the holy grail is revenue or evaluation.
Ed: Please, just use revenue.
Sarah Frier: The more numbers you can give, the more excuses you’re giving to the reporter to actually care about your company and your story. If you’re not giving numbers, then you have to give other reasons why we should care about what you’re doing.
The emails we get often say, “This is the best in class solution that’s ahead of the rest of the companies in its field. We’re disrupting things. We’re innovating.” That means nothing. It doesn’t tell us what you’re actually doing or you’re actually building.
If you really, really can’t give any numbers, at least tell us who your customers are, or tell us some stories about hurdles you went through, times when you thought that things weren’t going to working out and then they did.
We’re trying to tell stories here. If you give us something, even if you can’t tell us your revenue because your board is like, “Absolutely, no way. It’s not time for that,” tell us something that makes you real.
Erica Lee: I’ll tell you there’s one thing that everybody has. If you have a company, you know a lot about what your customers are doing. Sometimes, we talk about data mining and getting down. We do it for marketing, but we don’t do it for PR. If you know customer behaviors, you may not be able to say, “Hey, Cisco is doing XYZ,” or, “So and so is doing XY and Z with my product.”
But if you know that they’re across the board in your data, your customers are doing the same thing, there’s no reason why a journalist is sitting back going, “Yeah, I know that this CRM does…Everybody thinks this is the greatest thing.” You have to expose those kinds of numbers.
I like to say, if you can’t tell your customers, you can’t tell…There’s a stage. You can’t tell the stuff or you don’t want to because again, 100 percent growth over just starting is useless.
Ed: It literally…
Colleen: But then I think you also have to ask why you want press, then. If you’re not ready to talk about all of these things, what do you want to talk about other than the fact that you exist and somehow you think that press is a good thing to get.
Erica: Right, like what’s the purpose?
Colleen: I think that if you think that press is going to be the thing that gets you to that next level or makes it so that you have good enough numbers that you’d finally be ready to share, you really need to rethink that because people have this idea that they’re going to get a spike like it used to be.
You get Techcrunched, and then you get this spike. I think that still happens, but you can’t use that as a plan for your launch strategy. If your launch strategy is so united with getting press, I think you need to rethink your launch strategy.
Ed: So say your founder is not as beautiful and interesting as say me, or Stewart Butterfield…
Colleen: [laughs] I think I laughed too hard.
Erica: You didn’t need to laugh that hard.
Ed: My protoge, I taught him everything. We’ve never met. Anyway but say that you don’t have that kind of electrifying founder. You don’t have say, Jason Lemkin or you don’t have someone who’s very poppy. I know, Sarah, you’ve been on air with Jason. What do you do if the founder is boring? Do you still want to hear from them?
Sarah: I think that one thing that entrepreneurs often underestimate is how smart they are about other things that may not even relate so much to their current product or business, but their recruiting environment right now, or how hard it is to raise a series A, or any of those other things that tell a story that fit into a trend that maybe even if you’re not super charismatic about your business yet can still get you out there in Bloomberg or TechCrunch or wherever, talking about things that matter to the startup environment.
Then suddenly, you’re searchable on Google. People who are looking for whether they should work at your company see that you have been quoted somewhere, and you’re helping tell a larger story. You’re being a resource basically.
Erica: I just want to put a little reality check in here. Very few people, like Jason is one of them, but very few people actually are born ready to be on the stage.
Ed: Yeah, so how do you get them there?
Erica: You do a couple of things. You find more than one spokesperson. You find out what they care about and what they’re charismatic about. It doesn’t have to be like you said about the product, but maybe it’s the fundraising process, or maybe it’s I really like meetups so I’m working with engineers and this is how I develop my teams or HR, whatever it is.
Then you say, “OK, this is your sweet spot.” Any time we want to talk about that, that’s what you’re going to talk about. You over here let’s do this. The other thing is train. I can’t explain it. I actually had someone say, “I’ve been trained a million times and I’m just, I’m not good at it so I’m not going to talk about my company.”
If you’re the CEO at some point in your life, you’ll have to be on Bloomberg, hopefully, and you’ll have to talk intelligently about your business. It’s not OK to say, “I’m not comfortable.” You’re going to have to learn. It’s something that’s the most important thing in your career.
Matt: I would also add that there’s something that everyone is passionate about. Finding that thing can really turn someone. They don’t have to be who’s charismatic or not. They don’t have to be Ryan Gosling, who is the most charismatic person I can think of off the top of my head. They don’t have to be Ryan Gosling. They don’t have to be intensely charismatic.
They don’t have to be drawn to you. You don’t have to be drawn to them. You don’t have to go for a beer after work, but no one gets into data analytics unless they find something really interesting and really captivating about getting into looking at spreadsheets and finding touch…
On the pitching side, knowing that someone is passionate about that one thing, finding that thing that they can speak to.
Not just about their own company, but the thing that they can speak to passionately, and eloquently, and be articulate about, and maybe open my eyes up as a reporter to something that maybe before I didn’t understand, that’s just as valuable as providing me a really good charismatic interviewer where we spend the whole time laughing and giggling.
There’s something to be said for that.
Sarah: If you need inspiration just look it like the transformation of Mark Zuckerberg. The beginning of Facebook everyone really criticized him for being robotic. He had some instances on stage where he was really sweaty looking. People are not born good at talking to the press.
Now he’s doing public Q&As all the time. He’s really getting more out there. He’s writing up things on his Facebook wall to try to get people aware of what he’s thinking about. That’s really a difference from even two or three years ago.
Matt: To your point, but what he’s been talking about on Facebook and whatever, on his Facebook post and his Q&As, is stuff that he’s very passionate about. That’s what let him turn a corner from talking about metrics, talking about growth, and growth, and growth and to things that he like actual things that he feels very strongly about.
Ed: That naturally leads into what other founders have stood out that have actually being great. Let’s not think of the obvious like Mark Zuckerberg. What has made you, in fact, who was been potentially quite boring, but being worth writing about and the opposite.
Colleen: Some of the people who’ve been great are just easy to talk to and that it’s not so focused on getting the current news out. It’s important to just think of things as a long term relationship that you’re having with reporters or with the press, because that will pay off in the long run. One person who stands out for me recently is Ryan Hoover of Product Hunt.
I’m sure you all know him. He’s just been around for the past few years. I remember it was a 6:00 AM flight at SFO. This is, I think, before he’d even started Product Hunt, he just came up and introduced himself to me. I was going on a personal trip somewhere and he was like, “Hey, I just recognize you from TechCrunch.” He’s just a nice guy who’s around.
He’s just been around, and easy to talk to, and really friendly, and happy to provide information about Product Hunt, or about what’s going on in the space. He’s a great person. It’s important for anyone whether you’re a founder, or you’re a PR person, or a marketing person who’s handling a founder to not restrain the personality too much.
Don’t be too afraid of what they might say. Unless the person is a real jerk, [laughs] then maybe you should rethink being a jerk. I think that people sometimes…
Colleen: I don’t know. Get some counseling or something. Mostly, you don’t have as much to be afraid of. Sometimes people are so afraid talking to the press and really think that they’re going to be out to get them to get a gotcha quote or something. I don’t think that’s normally the reality. I think it’s better to loosen up a bit.
Ed: I hate to play devil’s advocate, my lady. I’ve found with enterprise founders, and not insulting anyone, I hope. If I am, fight me, I don’t know. There’s a great deal of founders that are more err towards the other side which is, “I’m so bloody good.”
Ed: Would you say that that is the worst thing they can do?
Sarah: Honestly, I think one of the worst things that they can do is go to press and say, “Hey, listen, you know, we’re pretty awesome and we really need to raise a round right now. So if you could write a story about us right now, the timing would be so great.” No one needs to do you any favors.
You need to come across as doing a favor to the press by offering your great insight and having things that they actually need to tell the stories that they want to tell about the industry. If you go at it, that’s one of the worst things I’ve seen is people who think that they’re owed a great story about their company, because it’s convenient timing for them.
Erica: There’s something that’s going on in the last couple of years that I want to say. Unfortunately I’ve been doing this for dogs years. There was a time when you didn’t let an executive go on stage before you sat him down and we were just talking about this. I have a slide in my speaker training, which is first, don’t hold the journalist hostage.
Most likely, they’re not going on be working on your product or using your product next week. They are not going to tell you how fabulous it is. They’re not going to cheer lead for you. Then the second thing is be human, and be respectful of, they are working. This is a job. They aren’t doing you a favor. A million other people are pitching them.
I think that you have to take PR seriously. I’ve seen some very lazy interviews. Please get dressed. I’m wearing tennis shoes, so I can’t…I always wear tennis shoes. There’s Barkley, at least. Please show up early and on time. If your hair is wet, I know you just woke up. There’s just a seriousness about it.
Don’t tell the journalist that, “I don’t really have anything else to say because I’m hungry.” There is a reason that you’re here. There’s a job that you have to do, but more importantly, they have a job to do. I think they’re like, “We’re a great company. You should be covering us, because you’re supposed to.” Attitude that needs to kind of reverse.
Ed: That’s exactly what I’ve been seeing a lot of. With one current and some former clients where it’s this approach of just, “Well, they were on TechCrunch.” That’s Facebook; that is literally Mark Zuckerberg. “But we are social.” Mate, it’s 9:00 AM and I started drinking at eight, I know, but still please stop.
Seriously best advice to founders, death is certain…we’re all going to make our way to the grave eventually. More importantly, you are not better than anyone unless you can prove it, seriously. Otherwise, you are born to fail. Of course have the cockiness you need to.
Say where you actually excel, but if it’s 9,000 percent growth of hedge related products you have, but you’ve never given a single hedge related product statement before, I don’t know why you’re selling hedges. Then it’s just gobshite. It’s nonsense.
Erica: I also think it’s about relationships. You wouldn’t bump into someone on the street and say, “Hey, let me tell you about my product aggressively.” You wouldn’t act the same. I remember, I did a panel on social media.
We all do our crazy stuff on Twitter, but someone said, “The one thing is that if you’re a jerk on the Internet, or you’re a jerk with somebody, the Internet never forgets.” I was like, “Same thing when you walk into a party in public, they never forget that.”
It’s the same attitude, the same respectfulness. You want to put your company in the best light. Take it seriously. That’s the most thing, it’s not a laid back event.
Ed: Anything to say on the subject, Matt, or…?
Matt: Just to all of that and speaking to founder arrogance and all of that. My least favorite thing. This is a huge pet peeve by getting pitches increasingly, it’s you need to write about us because CNN, and ESPN, and TechCrunch all wrote about us.
I’m like, “So you want me to write a story that people have already read three times, and you don’t have anything new to add. You just want to be able to add the Business Insider logo to your website. Do you just want to send me the article you want so you just cut off the middle man?”
Ed: Can they do that?
Erica: Can we talk about news, like what is news?
Ed: Yeah, seriously.
Erica: I don’t know if anybody notices, but news actually means new. You can’t keep pitching olds. You have to send out news. Sometimes that means that you can only pitch two or three people with news. Then if you put it on your website first, it’s officially olds.
Understand why you’re sending out what you’re sending out and who you’re pitching it to. There might be a feature editor that can do something slower. I don’t know. At TechCrunch, you guys’ jobs. You’re trying to break news, right?
Colleen: Right. I think not a crying wolf is really important. You want to be able to trust when someone does come to you with something that it is something new and that it is an exclusive if you say it’s an exclusive. One other CEO, I was just thinking about you asked, Josh McFarland who was just on stage before this.
He was the CEO of TellApart that’s just this amazing enterprise company that I probably heard from him three times, maybe. The entire time that TellApart, because they ended up selling. Each time there was really was some impressive numbers, and new news, and they had just moved to a new office, and just hired a hundred more people, and they were doing all these big things.
Every time I heard from him, it was great. Otherwise he’s too busy building his business to be calling me every day and saying, “Can you write about us?”
Ed: Question. Did you run all of those stories?
Colleen: Probably maybe three out of five.
Ed: That’s valuable for you all to know. Even if you have the best relationship in the world with a journalist, it’s just not…Never expect them to do everything. You can give a percentage likelihood.
My esteemed PR veterans in here, please fight me, but also I really do encourage you to not over-promise your clients. You need to be honest and respectful, because these people do not work for you.
I actually found this that’s worth knowing as well. They are not here, Erica might, but writers don’t work for you. It’s scary to face that fact, because you thirst endlessly for the press.
You desperately want them to write about your very special child. Your large son is live and now we must write about it, but you’re not actually doing the right thing.
Even if you have a great relationship with someone, you might swing and miss sometimes. Don’t get pissy.
Sarah: One thing I’d add to that, though, is there might be times when you pitch news, and we’ll take the call, and we’ll do the interview, and we’ll think, “That’s really interesting. That’s good background for a story I’m working on down the road,” or, “Maybe I’ll slip that in when I write a more thematic piece about this.”
The founder gets…We’ll try not to surprise you by not writing it, but don’t always expect that every briefing call will turn into a story. Sometimes we’ll take the call, we’ll be interested, but there won’t be enough meat there to write something right now.
But, we still know you. You still built a relationship. It’s still valuable down the road. In those cases, don’t be frustrated.
Also, don’t pitch something that’s not ready yet. I’ve had some situations where people have come to me with exclusives. We love exclusives. That’s really helps us sell the stories to our editors if no one’s heard of you.
But then the person said, “Can we delay it a couple of weeks, because we need to clear out the bugs before we launch it.” “Oh, can we delay it another couple weeks?” “Can we delay it another couple weeks?”
Then I got a call the night before they wanted to launch it saying, “Hey, can you put your story out at 6:00 AM tomorrow?” I was starting to think that this product maybe wasn’t happening, so no, I hadn’t written the story yet. After all that work, they didn’t get anything out of it.
Ed: On the subject of exclusives though, this is also going to move into a specific point I want every founder to hear. You say exclusive, you can’t put lipstick on a pig, though I’ve tried. The momentum release. Let’s talk about the frickin’ momentum release.
Matt: I got a pitch recently. It was promised to me as an exclusive, “You’ll talk to this company. It’s great. They have blah, blah, blah just joined the board. They have all this money.” Whatever.
I take the interview. It was a great interview. I’m getting super excited to write it. I Google it to confirm someone’s title, and right there on the board of directors is the person who I was writing, “Blah, blah, blah has joined the board.” There on CrunchBase was that funding round.
I email the guy. I’m like, “What about this was exclusive?” He goes, “Oh, yeah, well, those momentum numbers are new.” The momentum numbers are like, “We increased active, engaged users 300 percent in 18 months.” I’m like…
Ed: I hate you.
Matt: Yeah, “I hate you. Thank you for wasting my time.”
Matt: Now, and to your point, when that happens and that guy shows up to my inbox periodically going, “No, seriously, this is an exclusive.” I’m like…
Erica: Never again.
Matt: “Let’s discuss the meaning of the word. You keep using that word.”
Erica: I do think there’s a couple of things. Can we talk about a little bit of timing? One, if you do an interview, it may just get bumped because somebody has earnings, and I think that might be a priority or somebody raises a ridiculous round.
It doesn’t mean that your story will never get written, but just add a little bit more meat to it after this cycle goes away. I want to throw out the bump there.
Also to actually look at the events that are happening and figure out where the journalist is actually going to be.
Ed: Think of it as a human, “Is this news?” Try and take your ego, put it in a box and say, “All right. Is this really important to the world?” Within the world of X reporter and Y Reporter.
But on the subject of founders, who would you rather hear from, a PR person or a founder? Starting with you, Matt.
Matt: I’m joking, but I’m also not, because lots of the best stories are the ones where I see an app in the app store, and I’m like, “That’s cool. I wonder what the deal with this is,” or everyone’s talking about this on Product Hunt or on Twitter or whatever.
Ideally I love hearing from founders because it’s a PR person’s job to say… and I’ve gotten this pitch before, I see you’re writing about Microsoft databases, are you interested in writing about our new line of light bulbs for art galleries?
It’s like a word generator. It’s word salad. But when a founder reaches out and they say, “Hey, full disclosure, I’m the founder and CEO of this company, and we are solving this problem that you called out in a piece, and we think that this fits in well.”
At least from a technical perspective, from a product perspective, from an overall storyline perspective, first off, it’s good to hear from the founder, because then I have that contact. Second off, it’s more likely than not, even if I end up not taking the briefing, it’s perspective I didn’t have, and it’s almost guaranteed to be relevant.
Ed: Colleen, from your days.
Colleen: It’s important for founders to be able to talk about what they do. One thing that we always say at Y Combinator now is that you wouldn’t, especially in the early days, outsource the engineering of your product.
You wouldn’t say, “Oh, we’re going to hire an engineer to make the product.” You’d make the product yourself, whether you’re technical or you hire some engineers. You shouldn’t, especially in the early days, outsource the storytelling of what you’re building.
Obviously as you get larger as a company, then you hire someone like Erica or Ed to help you out, because you have other things that you’re working on, but I think it’s so important that the founder is really the best person to tell their story.
Ideally, as a founder, you’re better at telling the story and talking to a reporter than even Erica or Ed or your PR person is. Founders first, I think.
Sarah: It depends on the information. PR people add something to the equation by being aware of what you’ve written in the past and having followed you and what you’re interested in. They might give you something that’s a little bit more relevant.
But I really do enjoy getting emails from people after they’ve read a story I’ve written and they’re a founder, and they’re saying, “This story you wrote on LinkedIn today was actually really interesting, and here’s what I think about it.”
Then I might say, “Hey, actually do you want to hop on the phone about something else? I think you might be good for that.” Then we build a rapport that way. It can be a good, spontaneous relationship building exercise to, when you see a story that actually sparks something in your mind about the next step of this news or a broader point, to go ahead and email the journalist.
You never know what opportunity that might open up.
Colleen: One thing I think that’s interesting that Matt had mentioned is the way you’re getting stories is by seeing what’s going on on Twitter and seeing what people are talking about and seeing what’s bubbling up on Product Hunt and these other things.
That’s important for founders and people who work at companies to remember is that it doesn’t all start with the press. If you don’t get a reporter to bite on a certain product you built or a certain milestone or something that you have, you can write a blog post and put it on your company blog and put it on Twitter, or put your product on Product Hunt, or put it on…start a thread on Reddit, or wherever.
These things will bubble up. Right now there are so many different opportunities. The press aren’t the only gatekeepers.
Matt: Make us notice. Make us care. There’s more opportunity for that than ever. No amount of cold pitching and cold emails and Ed especially cannot make me care about anything. If you don’t have something really good that resonates with people, we’re not going to care in the first place.
Going to Product Hunt, getting people engaged, that makes us notice. That makes us care, I would say.
Ed: I put this to, predominantly to you and Sarah, you have a PR firm or you’re on your own, founder, and you have your office and five people who hate you already. Wife left you. Very sad story.
But nevertheless you have to still pitch your product. What’s the best way to get in touch? Email? Phone, maybe?
Matt: Never the phone.
Sarah: Never the phone.
Matt: That’s a personal rule. Some people feel differently. It feels really weird to me to get a call, because it’s like I’m at Safeway and my phone rings, and I’m sitting there trying to figure out if it’s a better deal to buy a 16 ounce can of peas for $2.99 or an 18 ounce for $3.50.
I get a call from you like, “Hey, are you interested in our new SQL database running on Amazon EC2?” I’m like, “Not in the best of times, and certainly not now.” Personally, I say never call.
Sarah: I have a different reason. It’s because if you’re working on a breaking news situation, if you’re chasing a tip, if you’re trying to cover something that just hit and your phone rings, that’s your source calling you back, or at least you hope.
If you answer that call, and it’s like, “Hi, Sarah. Just hoping you would have a minute. Did you get my email? Hey, we’re really hoping you might be interested in meeting with this person.”
Just send me another email. I understand that I am not the best at answering emails, because I get hundreds of them, but send it again and again. I might still not look at it, but if you catch me on a slow Sunday when I’m looking at my phone for anything to do.
Ed: I’m going to stop you there. Don’t email reporters on the weekend. Don’t call them, either, but especially not that. You just said something. I’m trying to save you.
Sarah: [laughs] I’m saying if you catch me in a slow moment when I’m actually looking through my email for, “What did I miss this week? This week was so insane.” Sometimes I’ll miss invitations to really great things. Sometimes I’ll miss great conversations or insight.
Colleen: I missed the Beastie Boys last night. See the email…
Sarah: Me too! But it was earnings week for me. You’ve got to keep trying.
Erica: It’s not a one time thing.
Sarah: It’s not a one time thing.
Matt: It doesn’t mean that if I don’t answer your email, A, it doesn’t mean that I won’t answer your next pitch. It’s not personal. It’s not a referendum on you or your pitching skills. I just can’t see or answer everything.
But conversely, recently I got a pitch where twice a day for five solid days I got the, “Did you see this email? Did you…”
Ed: Did you get that thing I sent you.
Matt: “Did you get the thing I sent you?” Plus the voicemail. At a certain point, cut your losses. I am not interested. I am not going to write the story. I get that I didn’t email you back, and I am deeply sorry about that, but I, too, am not great at email. I’m just not that into you.
Ed: Are you actually sorry, as well? Probably not.
Erica: Can I speak to that, though? We asked about the PR person contacting you versus the founder. When you hire your PR person, you hope that they come with a few relationships with media that they know.
The other thing is, as PR people we have to learn, especially with startups or young companies, that these relationships are important to you and your career. I have to let it go.
If I introduce you to Tom Henderson at Network World and I get you in his face, Tom knows who I am. That’s not a big deal. He’ll know who I am for the next 10 years, but you need to invest in knowing the press.
You have to invest in taking the time to know what you write about versus how you’re not at TechCrunch anymore versus what he writes about, and please stop emailing her.
Ed: Actually, stop emailing me.
Erica: If you are sitting down with your PR person, they should be saying, “OK, here are your top five people that actually care about you. When we go back and have big news, we’re going to make sure we contact them.”
They’re our “Always” list, but the relationship at some point has to go to the spokesperson. I can’t hold onto it. I can’t keep it away. Hopefully, after you’ve gotten on the phone, I’m the person who follows up, and makes sure it goes to fruition, but the relationship has to go beyond me.
Colleen: When I was TechCrunch, I definitely got calls from you, and that was fine. If you say, “No calls ever,” that’s actually not really true, depending on the reporter. Matt definitely never wants a call.
Matt: There are very few, but there have been times where I’ve given a PR person my number, because we were having an in person coffee meeting or something. I regretted it basically instantly, that kind of thing.
There are some PR people, I text with them, I call them. That’s because we’ve been working together at this point with that particular PR person for three, four years, however long it is. At that point, it’s like I’m not going to take all their pitches. I tell Ed, “No,” all the time. All the time.
Ed: Outside his house, in the bathroom.
Matt: That’s right. It’s awful. I don’t know how you found where I lived. Anyway, but no, but at the very least, when Ed pitches me, because Ed and I have this relationship, I read the email. I take the call. I read it, and 90 percent of the time I say, “No.”
I at least read it. I take it seriously. That’s something that gets built from the relationship. Also, understanding that sometimes there will be an answer, and sometimes the answer will be no is also part of building that relationship. How you react to a no says a lot about you and the relationship you’re trying to build.
Ed: What about social media, though? What about hearing from founders in social media? I registered for CES as media to cover it from PR and marketing standpoint. I had thirsty founders up and down my tweets, which is not a good place to find me, by the way. I will throw you to the wolves. It’s horrible.
Seriously, these founders would come to me, and be like, “Hey.”
Erica: “Want to come and see my product?”
Ed: “You’re pretty. You want to go somewhere?” It’s like, “You want to meet at CES?” Like, “No.” That’s literally, “I have a colonoscopy I have to be at, otherwise definitely.” Social media, though. Tweets, bad? Facebook, bad?
Matt: I don’t know. I feel like there’s a fine line. There have been some good stories I write from Twitter, but they’re usually like, “I am actually adding to this conversation,” and others that are just like, “Haha, I, too, love Kanye West. Here, here. Take my pitch about something not related to anything.”
There was one time it was just the biggest swing and a miss. I was talking about actually Kanye on Twitter, you remember this, and this guy was like, “Haha, does this mean that if I give you a pitch that’s about Kanye West, you’ll write it?”
I’m like, “You know what? That is a bold claim, given that I write about enterprise IT. If you can do that, then I can guarantee I’ll at least get on the phone.” They pitch it to me, and it’s like, “This is the CEO I’m representing. He loves Kanye West, too.”
I’m like, “Nope. We’re done.” Just be careful. “Tread with caution,” would be my advice. Add value, for lack of a better term.
Ed: What would you say?
Erica: First of all, I would actually stay away from tweeting directly to a journalist after 5:00 PM, because it seems like a good idea after a couple of beers, and it’s just not the right thing. If you want to engage in an ongoing conversation that everybody else is a part of, that’s OK.
Pitching your product after three glasses of wine is just really annoying. Think about it like dating. Are you that guy that comes in, and runs up to the girl, and goes, “Girls!”
Colleen: That’s how I met my husband, actually.
Erica: [laughs] Yeah, I know. Are you that rude person just throws up, or says, “Hey, babe.” You know that credit card commercial where he’s like, “You’re back”? Nobody really wants that experience. Again, journalists are people, too.
They have jobs to do. They have personal life. They have kids. Ask them nice things when you get on the phone with them, like, “How are you doing? How do you feel?” Little things like that, it would be nice to actually just ask yourself.
Ed: “How is your human life?”
Erica: Yeah. “What do you do on a regular basis?”
Sarah: I want to throw in something crazy that I actually think it’s good to meet in person at conferences, and dinners, and other events. If you cold call me while I am trying to break news on something, I will have bad feelings about that, but I probably won’t remember your name.
If you meet me at an event and say, “Hey, listen, I just really want some advice on how to get a story into Bloomberg, because, I really like the work that, Brian Womack, or Jack Clark, or you do. What would be the best way to do that?”
People who come to me informed about stuff, with good questions, and wanting advice, I’m always happy to help people. The time when I’m at an event, or when I’m at a conference, that’s when I’ve blocked off some time to just be open to new people, new experiences, and new pitches.
Matt: If I’m at event, I’m there to learn something, basically. I’m there to get a deeper understanding. I love, if it’s a technology that I don’t fully wrap my mind around, or if it’s an event, it takes a lot to get me, and I imagine you, away from your desk. That’s just the nature of breaking news.
If I have made the time to be at an event, I am there to be met and met with, and I am there to learn, basically. That is a great time to come up, and talk, and be a human. Don’t network. Just have a conversation.
Ed: There’s an alarming amount of founders and PR people, but they fall into the same category of that they’ve just learned to human. Like they’ve got out of their chrysalis and into their human suit, like in “Men in Black,” but they don’t seem to have quite got the human thing.
It’s like, “Hello, fellow humans. I have not drunk the sugar water yet.” That actually goes into some quite natural, because speaking naturally is important, of course. Let’s start with you, again, Matt. Actually, tell you what, no. You.
Ed: No, Colleen.
Ed: How do you take something like a CRM, or customer happiness, something quite, just on the surface, to average people, that is quite dull, what makes something like that stand out?
Colleen: You have to start from what it means, and how it’s used. As much as it’s important to have some numbers and different things that you can tie in, because everyone likes a headline, you have to say, “Oh, you know, every time you buy a product online, every company has to use this one thing.”
Or, “Every time that an airline does a certain thing, they use this software to do this thing.” There are always ways to tie it back into the real world. I know that, when you’re a founder, or when you’re at a company, you’re so in the weeds that you just think about your product in a very different way.
That’s why it can be helpful to meet with a PR person, or talk to somebody else about it. Just taking it from a further out point of view, and seeing how this affects my daily life as just a regular person.
Sarah: She hit on the head. You want to be able to explain it in context, but also the competitive landscape. Like, is this a threat to Oracle? Is this taking share away from Microsoft in this product? Help the reporter put not the name of your company in the headline, but the name of a bigger company that people actually want to hear about.
Maybe you’re one of three companies that are doing this, and they can write a story that’s a Microsoft story instead of a tiny company story that will actually get wider reach. You might not like being thrown in with a bunch of competitors in the same story, but do you want people to read the story? Probably.
Colleen: I also think it’s important to not get super petty about being lumped in with some other people, when you think, “Oh, they’re not really our competitors,” or, “I can’t believe that they put us in the headline with that thing,” or whatever.
Try to sit on your hands, and not email the reporter, and get mad at them because they tied you in with something that’s not exactly true. In a lot of cases, any press is good press. You don’t want to be petty, and think of this relationship as a long term thing.
Erica: I want to add a couple of things to this. We talked about it’s got to be something new. It also has to be something unique. You have to be able to say that, but your audiences are completely different.
Again, Bloomberg’s audience, who cares about Bloomberg, and who cares about TechCrunch, and who cares about Network World, those audiences are different. You may have the same story, but you have to tailor it for who actually reads the publication.
Ed: And even the different reporters at these publications. Matt is not the same as Matt Rosoff.
Erica: [laughs] Right.
Matt: That happens more often than you would think, yes.
Erica: What I’m saying is that you don’t come out, and you say, “I have news. Let me just email the last person that I just talked to.” You have to sit down. People ask me, “How hard is PR?” PR, it’s a full time job, but you have to sit down and plan before you start. Don’t just start spamming the world with your one little piece of information.
Ed: Don’t spam anything. Seriously, they know.
Erica: Most of the time, I like to sneak in something that I call an impending doom. Again, I am not the user of your product, but the users of your product should be worried that if they don’t use your product, they won’t get this value. They won’t achieve this thing. They’re missing out on that thing. Their competition will do something.
With every message, I like to have what I call an impending doom. These guys, they get that. Like, “Oh my god. My readers need to know this because they will fall into a pit and die, and there’s a thing at the bottom and…”
Ed: Sometimes very literally.
Erica: Yeah. [laughs]
Ed: One final because we’re technically at time, but apparently, Jason gave us an extra minute. I’m just going to say, Matt, tell me probably the worst pitch you got. On the phone, in person.
Erica: It can’t be mine.
Matt: Oh, man, no. Oh, god. This is a loaded question. Come back to me.
Ed: Sarah, come on.
Sarah: The other day, I got a pitch for a helmet that turned into a purse.
Sarah: I’m not sure why they pitched me that.
Colleen: But for city bikes.
Sarah: Oh, really?
Colleen: Wouldn’t you think? That’s actually a great…Sorry.
Sarah: They should have pitched her.
Colleen: I always worry about those city bikes. I’m not just carrying around a helmet, so I wouldn’t actually just go rent a city…
Sarah: OK, maybe I overlooked it, but I was in the middle of…
Colleen: Go back, and look at that pitch. I would buy that purse.
Ed: Was it a Y Combinator company?
Sarah: In all seriousness, I think that the pitches that are probably the worst are the ones that put a lot of flowery language that doesn’t mean anything in the text. Then you read the email, and you’re like, “This doesn’t make any sense to a human. I don’t have time to think about it. Moving on.”
Matt: The worst pitches that I get, just generally speaking, are the ones that try to pull something from my Twitter, or my Facebook, or my whatever, and are like, “Hi, Matt. If you’re not too busy playing ‘Fallout 4,’ why don’t you read this pitch?” Then a bunch of a copy and pasted text.
Those drive me up the wall all the time, just because it’s like, “Thanks for putting in the absolute minimum amount of effort.”
Ed: “I have met many humans in my time, and they like activities.”
Matt: “How are you enjoying baseball?”
Colleen: Once I got, “To whom it may concern, how are you? I hope you’re doing well.”
Sarah: Sometimes they do have fill in the blank. There must be some PR auto generator of pitches.
Erica: There is not.
Sarah: “Dear Sarah, I read your recent story, quote, story that has nothing to do with the product.”
Matt: Those are bad.
Sarah: “I was wondering if you would be interested in,” totally off topic thing that I would never cover, because I just don’t cover elementary school software. You have to just actually make an effort.
Matt: You can’t automate effort.
Ed: I’m calling it there. Thank you so much, everyone. Thank you to the wonderful panelists.
Colleen: Thanks. Thank you.