Most entrepreneurs I know think that when they achieve success, fame will follow. And now that I have made the transition from business to academia, I can also say that my academic friends think that big discoveries automatically lead to big press.
They're dreaming. Ralph Waldo Emerson was wrong when he said, "Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door." The reality is that even if you did, no one would find you. To be known, you have to have a great story and tell it to the right people.
I've co-founded two successful software companies. In the first, we grew into a $100 million revenue machine in five years and pulled off a successful initial public offering. But it seemed as if no one had ever heard of us. Out of frustration, we used to joke that we should change our motto to "We've never heard of you either."
So when I started my second company, I made it a point to understand how the media work and to focus as much effort on public relations as on other aspects of the business. The result? Over a period of four years, we were featured in over 1,000 articles across the globe. Customers did beat a path to our door.
A Compelling Message
What's the secret to getting attention? In theory it's pretty simple—you have to have a compelling message then make sure that the right audience hears it.
But what does this mean in practice? You should start by creating a short press release or one-page summary of what you want to say. Be sure to focus on the right audience. You may find your own products very interesting and expect the world to share your interest. But this is rarely the case. Others aren't usually interested in you, but they may be interested in how your product affects them.
Highlight how your offering is different from everyone else's, why it matters, how it's going to make a difference in the world, and why anyone should believe what you say. At the same time, forget the buzzwords and keep your message simple. Technical jargon doesn't make you more credible and neither do exaggerated claims.
Find the Right Journalists
And while you may want to talk about every single feature, too much detail dilutes your message. Just highlight the few things that differentiate you. Write the release or summary as you would want it to be told and make it interesting. Once you have a solid pitch, your next step is find the right journalists to pitch it to. Read dozens of online and print publications to identify who may be interested.
While everyone wants to be in national publications, you are going to be up against stiff competition if you go after them immediately. Instead, start small. Identify the trade publications, regional newspapers, and industry Web sites that are likely to have the most interest in you. Find out who covers your beat or specific topic. Journalists are always looking to be the first to report on a topic of interest to their readers, or to present a new aspect of a hot trend. Read other stories by the same journalists and get a feel for what type of stories they write. Make sure that your story is relevant to their beat.
Customize your pitch for every journalist you think would be interested and write them or call. Most publications list e-mail addresses on their Web sites and provide phone numbers for their editors. You'll be surprised to find that most journalists do respond to such messages. They may not be interested in you at first, but may include you in a future story. Journalists are always looking for fresh ideas and sources.
Become a Trusted Source
If you do get an interview, listen very carefully to what the journalist is interested in. You will want to talk about yourself and your product, but that may not be what you are being called about. The journalist may be doing a totally different story and want to get your perspective. Your goal is to become a trusted source and build a relationship so you can be at the center of future stories. I can't emphasize enough: Be sure to tell the truth because journalists will pick up on spin and hype.
To increase your chances of being included or featured in a story, give the journalist a news hook. Find some way to tie what you do to the big news story of the day or current trends. Don't forget, the goal is to create a story people want to read. So make your pitch relevant to current events and reader interest. Also be sure to have an opinion and express it. Being provocative and honest is always a good way to get attention and to be quoted. Don't say things that you will someday regret, but don't hesitate to express your feelings and your belief in the message you are communicating.
Also, don't forget to make yourself available. Journalists usually have tight deadlines and need answers fast. If you want to get press coverage, you will have to make yourself available within a short time of getting a call.
You can hire a PR agency to help you with all this. Some are very competent and know who to contact and what to say. But I've always had the greatest success and built long lasting relationships with journalists I've contacted myself (see BW Online, 4/9/07, "Effective PR on a Limited Budget").