In the early days of founding and leading my real estate crowdfunding startup, I wore about 15 different hats. I handled everything from product development to HR. I was also writing all the press releases and pitches for the company, reaching out to reporters and networking with editors, both in person and remotely.
It’s no easy feat being your company’s publicist and spokesperson, but many startup leaders don’t have any other choice than to go this route. Early on, there’s often little or no budget to hire an agency.
This can present a great opportunity because you begin to build your own personal Rolodex of press relationships, but there’s a delicate balance between pitching your business and being a CEO whose role is to be visionary about your company and your industry. In our case, I had to handle everything myself.
So how do you approach reporters in a way that it’s mutually beneficial and builds a relationship over time? Here’s how I did it:
Reporters have inboxes full of unread pitches, and yours could easily land in the spam filter or slush pile. If you don’t know what a particular writer covers or his general coverage area, you’ll waste everyone’s time by approaching the wrong writer. You wouldn’t pitch a business story to Better Homes and Gardens, would you? So don’t pitch a real estate story to a travel reporter, or a business story to a science editor.
Also, don’t assume your company alone is story worthy. When you get in touch with a reporter, have a unique angle with new information. Many publicists make the mistake of opening with, “I saw you wrote about crowdfunding. You should cover my company, too.” Give a reporter something fascinating off the bat, something meatier, and something not already on his radar. “My company does X” simply isn’t a story. If he’s already written about a topic, at the very least, he needs a new angle and new sources.
The very best publicists offer story ideas that don’t necessarily pitch their clients because reporters remember a solid lead and appreciate a favor. Be an indispensable resource in your space rather than focused only on trying to promote your own brand. Your media contact will be much more likely to remember you–and your startup–the next time he needs a source for a relevant story.
Ask a trusted colleague if she knows any reporters who are particularly open to pitches, or any reporters she likes and trusts. Like anything else, having a referral works both ways. When I have a referral, I know who I’m approaching. The reporter knows if I come referred by a mutual friend or colleague, she should give me the benefit of the doubt.
Or, to put it another way, treat reporters like the overworked, busy human beings they all are. If someone doesn’t reply to your initial pitch, try another angle. Especially if you’re cold-calling with no introduction, know when to stop following up.
People don’t want to be bogged down, and many won’t reply to blind pitches. When you’re striking out, ask colleagues if they know any reporters who are looking for new story ideas. Building rapport takes time, and it won’t come from repeatedly sending unanswered follow-up emails. It comes from a genuine connection and mutual interest in a topic or specific industry.
Everyone has a boss he’s trying to please–including reporters. Give writers ideas about new issues cropping up in your space or field of expertise, even before he knows there might be an issue or trend to report.
Schedule in-office meetings at major publications you hope will write about your company, and with those that cover your industry. This shouldn’t be limited to the city where you’re based. If you aren’t based in New York, where 90% of major magazines are published, plan a trip to the Big Apple.
Before you arrive to meet the staff at a particular publication, send a dozen personalized emails to staffers you’d like to meet, from interns up to top editors. Know who works at the publication and who is a freelancer. (You should, by the way, connect with freelancers, too. Just don’t assume they’ll be on-site when you show up at the office.)
It sounds simple, but many sources forget to say thank you once a reporter has covered their company. Say thank you, and you’ll be remembered for next time. If you’ve gotten a lot of press, spread out your note writing so it doesn’t seem like an overwhelming task. I try to send one a day.
Part of our early success with the media had to do with being at the right place at the right time. Crowdfunding is a hot topic, and we are uniquely positioned in both crowdfunding and real estate. But the real trick to getting in good with the press is knowing what reporters want and how to give it to them. We’ve done that since the beginning, and it’s enabled me to build the kind of long-term relationships that will keep our name in the papers for months and even years to come.
—Jilliene Helman is CEO of Realty Mogul, the largest online marketplace for accredited investors to pool money and crowdfund pre-vetted real estate investments.