In my job I talk to CEOs and founders of healthcare and tech companies every day about their communications, media and public relations strategies. When you have a young company, getting a journalist to write something about your business is oftentimes seen as a major milestone. It’s an important source of third-party validation, serving as a way of indirectly communicating to potential partners, clients or suppliers that your company is a serious business. If you are getting ink, you must be worth paying attention to — or so goes the thinking.
However, media attention can be a double-edged sword. Once you are on the media’s radar, you better have the goods to back the bluster.
Too often I find myself talking to start-up founders who think that they deserve to be interviewed by Bloomberg or featured on CNBC, and I caution them to make sure they are ready for primetime. It’s called the ‘hotseat’ for a reason; once the studio lights turn on, you can easily find yourself at the mercy of an interviewer who likely feels he has been given carte blanche to ask you about anything, no matter what was agreed to with the producer beforehand. Fortunately, most interviews don’t play out that way, but they can – particularly if the interviewer senses an opening, a perceived weakness, or if his BS radar starts flashing red during the course of the interview.
It is in this context that media attention for start-ups or early-stage companies should be thought of as an accelerant to be used in the final mile or two of a marathon but usually not as a turbo boost on Mile 10; if you are close to where you need to be, a well-placed story in a key trade magazine or a profile piece in a national outlet could serve as the vector that helps close a key distribution deal or gets a VC that is already leaning favorably to a ‘yes.’ But used too early, media attention can at best become a distraction to the executive team and at worst, erode a company’s credibility.
With that in mind, here are my top five rules for early-stage companies and startups as they contemplate seeking media attention:
1. Be sure you are ready for primetime.
This is by far the most important rule. If you have an e-commerce website that has been growing by word-of-mouth or on social media, and then, suddenly, your site is featured in a national outlet, traffic could spike 10x, 100x or even 1,000x. Is your site ready to handle the increased traffic or will it break down and create a terrible first-time user experience for all these new potential users you could have captured? If you are selling a product, is your supply chain ready for vertiginous growth, or will you be forced to inform new customers that product delivery will be delayed by months as you scramble to meet demand? Respect the power of media and tread cautiously, or as I tell clients, “make sure you have your act together.”
2. Understand who you are trying to influence with media coverage (and what you want them to know or do.)
Oftentimes I talk to CEOs who want their companies to be profiled on CNN or USA Today, but unless their product has a heavy mass-consumer bent, coverage in outlets such as these may deliver a lot of “empty impressions.” Typically, B2B companies have a very small circle of people they need to reach; it’s usually a bunch of mid-level procurement specialists and a handful of business leaders and executives at the companies they are trying to sell into. In healthcare, for example, usually the number of people in the whole world that will ultimately influence the success of a B2B product will usually fit into a hotel ballroom. Or maybe even in Conference Room B. Placement in a key trade publication followed by a targeted social media campaign on LinkedIn may be much more effective in reaching the people you really need to get to than a piece in a national publication.
3. Line up third-party references.
Congratulations. A reporter from the LA Times wants to talk to you about your start-up. The problem is that at the end of the interview, she asked to speak to several of your customers and partners. Then begins the mad dash to reach out to see who is willing to talk on the record and say nice things to a reporter who is on deadline. Don’t put yourself in this stressful position. Before you agree to make yourself available to the media, get aligned with key references so that you can easily offer them up to the reporter or interviewer on the spot.
4. Have media support materials ready.
When you decide that it’s time to make news, make sure you make it as easy as possible for a reporter to write a favorable story about your company or product. Make sure you have an easy-to-navigate media or press page on your website with access to press releases, company information and stats, head shots of key people, product shots and hero images, vectorized company and product logos, hi-res video b-roll, and other information and resources that will make the reporter’s job that much easier.
5. Identify key spokespeople, make sure they are aligned on messaging, and get them media trained.
Personality matters. It’s imperative that the individual speaking on behalf of your company or product has personality, comes across as engaging, and obviously knows the product inside and out. It’s a little more manageable for a print or online article, but if there is a video or audio component to the story — something that is increasingly common — make sure you put your best face forward. You may have a product that will save lives, but a boring spokesperson will make people tune out.
Of course, these five rules are just a few morsels of food for thought – more like a starter than an entrée. Think of them as a few basic considerations CEOs of young companies should take into account before embarking on media outreach.
For over 30 years, Tunheim has been helping clients navigate an increasingly complex media landscape. If you or your company would like to discuss your own media strategy or goals, I encourage you to reach out me directly at email@example.com.
Arick Wierson is a six-time Emmy Award-winning television producer and served as a senior media adviser to former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg during his first two terms in office. He is a business development executive and partner of our company’s founder, Kathy Tunheim, in the annual Manova Global Health Summit. Arick is also a nationally recognized journalist who writes regular columns for CNN, The Observer, and Worth Magazine and is a frequent contributor to outlets such as CNBC.com, Vice, and the New York Daily News, among others. You can follow him on Twitter at @ArickWierson or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.