Startup founders are often the biggest cheerleaders for their companies, but that doesn’t mean every startup CEO is a natural at speaking to the press. No matter how polished a founder might be at talking to customers or meeting with investors, working with the media is a whole different ball game.
Giving interviews can help expand your company’s reach and introduce your brand to new audiences. But without the right approach and careful planning, press interviews can be full of missed opportunities and misunderstandings—or just sound like a spoken-word press release.
Keep in mind that members of the media have a different job and agenda than your company’s investors, parters, and customers. Journalists have no interest in promoting your business–they’re there to get a contribution on a story and show how your company’s experience fits into their larger narrative.
This means you need to think fast but also keep it brief and easy to understand. Be prepared to answer questions concisely and stay “on message.” Keep reinforcing the points you most want to get across and see mentioned in the final news coverage about your business. Don’t meander, go off topic, or be evasive.
Journalists can tell if you’re trying to lead them astray or fill the interview with self-promotional fluff. And the more skilled the reporter, the lower your chances of getting away with it. Remember that your role is to help the journalist get a better, more accurate story.
Journalists are notoriously strapped for time. If a journalist has agreed to talk with you on the phone, that probably means they’re on deadline and only have 15-20 minutes at most. This isn’t the time for a lengthy presentation deck like you might share with an investor or a captive audience.
So with that in mind, what’s the most important thing to say? Be ready to sell your idea in a way that makes it as hard-hitting and headline-worthy as possible–without sounding so grandiose that you’re liable to get called out on it. If you could sum up your product announcement or company mission in a short, 30-second sound bite, what would it be?
For startup founders that haven’t had much experience interacting with the press, even answering a few questions can be daunting. You don’t want to fumble your words and have your company cast in a bad light. Reporters and editors are often a bit skeptical–it’s their job to be!–but don’t lose your cool or take it personally.
The conversation can get frustrating if reporters move to a completely different topic and take the interview in a direction you didn’t expect, deeper with their questions, or even pursue an angle that doesn’t align with your goals. Whatever you do, don’t get defensive. “No comment” is never the right answer.
Try to keep pushing ahead and articulate your view of things, especially if that differs from your impression of the journalist’s. Don’t just repeat the same contentions–elaborate and argue them compellingly. Try to answer the questions you wish they had asked, while still acknowledging their concerns.
Even if you’re confident your startup has a groundbreaking idea or business model, you might find that the major media outlets are reluctant to write about you. Think carefully about which ones might be most likely to share your story, even if they aren’t the most recognized names in news. Sometimes you need to start small and build a network of relationships with reporters, bloggers, and editors before you can build the momentum to secure coverage with the biggest-name outlets. And make sure your messaging and media strategy is on point before pitching the biggest names in news.
As Brooke Van Natta, a public relations professional who works with early-stage entrepreneurs recently told me, “I work regularly with startups that are launching out of the gates and want to shoot straight for the Wall Street Journal. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of having your messaging straight and preparing for these larger conversations.”
The bigger the publication, the more pressure. As Van Natta says, “You really only have one shot to make that first impression with these business reporters. The goal is to build a genuine, authentic, long-term connection–because you never know when you’ll be launching another company. These relationships are worth their weight in gold.”
Navigating the world of media relations is a different challenge than the daily work of running a startup, but with some careful planning and preparation, you can make sure that your company’s story gets told accurately and energetically. It really comes down to pursuing your own goals without losing sight of the media’s.