How to get press coverage if you’re a founder

In my years covering Silicon Valley at places like the San Francisco Chronicle, I met many startup founders who desperately wanted coverage. They knew that media attention would help spur adoption of their product, attract investors and employees, and lend credibility to their fledgling enterprise.

As a reporter, however, I saw those companies in a catch-22: I was more likely to write about their product after it was adopted, after big money investors climbed aboard, after the enterprise established credibility.

Sometimes a public relations firm sold me on the story. More often, it was something else – the relationship I had with the publicist or with the founders themselves, or the credibility they established elsewhere.

In today’s media landscape, many companies also flourish without playing that traditional game. They act as their own media outlets, garnering attention and credibility through their use of company blogs (like this one!), a strong social media presence, and thought leadership pieces on sites like Forbes, Mashable, TechCrunch, and other more narrowly designed verticals.

I’d like to offer up some thoughts here on getting media attention. I’ve crowdsourced some great advice (thank you, HARO!), and I’ll also give you some tips and links for more information.

The Pros And Cons Of Hiring A PR Agency

Let’s face it: PR agencies can help get you the attention you crave, but they also cost money. I checked with a number of startups and with PR folks themselves, and got a range of opinions on the subject.

The Pros

“Agencies have relationships and should know how to get attention in several different ways,” said Ronjini Joshua, owner of the Silver Telegram, a PR agency. “PR professionals also do a lot of research that takes time and resources that you may not have.”

“The time for PR firms is when you’ve crossed a certain threshold of media activity on your own,” said Karan Gupta, CEO/Founder of Mammoth, one of those attention-seeking startups.

“Some press outlets ignore PR, relying more on direct contact with founders. However, PR firms can help get companies access to media they would find it difficult to connect to themselves, e.g.: TV spots, the Today Show, Good Morning America, etc.”

One of my favorite takes came from Andrey Nikishaev, founder of Kudos, who said hiring a PR firm allows entrepreneurs to just sit and drink smoothies while the publicists do all the work. Of course, founders will probably find something else to occupy their time, but his point about outsourcing the job is well-taken.

Damian Hamp-Adams, CEO of Rocketseed, put it slightly differently: “Depending on the seed capital and budgetary constraints, it is worth looking at a PR firm (if you can afford it). Any founder or startup team should be focused on new business as the primary focus.

Where do leads come from for new business? Depending on your industry… PR. So, one could say that this question poses something of a chicken and egg scenario.”

The Cons

“Personally, I would stay away from public relations agencies. They are generally staffed by young, inexperienced professionals who worked their way up as interns, having never spent a day inside a newsroom,” says writer Richard Kelleher.

“Look for, ahem, people like me,” experienced writers who can provide compelling content. (This point gave me a meta-moment’s resonance: Gigster hires writers like me to produce content to attract startups to the site.)

My friend Adrian Lurssen, a cofounder of JD Supra, said he’s hired PR firms a couple of times and never felt he got a decent return on investment.

“The old model was based on a very select understanding of who’s influential,” he said. “It was the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal; then it was Wired, Mashable and TechCrunch. Now there’s a wider scope of what influence is.”

“Now you’re appealing to pockets of people through a Medium post or a YouTube video. At the end of the day, do you need to pay an organization money to do that? Or can you just form relationships with the Robert Scobles of the world and, through the quality of your work, have them mention you?”

“In this world, it’s about engagement and relationships,” Lurssen continued. “If you’re a CEO or founder, you are your own PR machine. You have to form your own relationships. You can’t pay someone $10,000 to do this. I’d use the money to create brilliant content for PR purposes, but I wouldn’t get a PR firm to do it.”

(Of special interest to me: Lurssen’s company, JD Supra, offers exactly that sort of platform to lawyers – the lawyers create the content, and JD Supra makes sure it gets noticed in the right places across the Web. Often that content gets picked up by major media outlets.)

The Other Routes

You could hire other sorts of agencies that combine old-school PR with more modern methods.

“More traditional PR firms tend not to focus on SEO,” missing a big opportunity, said Brett Bastello of Inseev Interactive, a digital marketer in San Diego. “Find an SEO company that integrates a PR-style approach with SEO and link building efforts, so you can get the best of both worlds.”

Building Relationships

Often the best way to ensure coverage is to establish yourself as a journalist’s trusted resource, rather than pitching specific stories. Then the journalist will think of you when working on other stories. Reporters are human; they typically enjoy talking to people. So don’t always be pitching, but just get a conversation going.

Susan MacTavish Best is one of the best publicists at this sort of thing; I’d always meet with her clients, and found that even if I didn’t do a story on their company, they were often a good source for a larger trend piece that I’d write a month or two down the line. (And she throws a great party, where I can always count on getting more story ideas.)

Be Creative

Consider different ways to get attention. Lori Cheek started Cheek’d, an online dating site, and used some guerrilla techniques to get press mentions, from wearing angel wings to a Dublin web summit (and getting in a front page photo on the Irish Times) to the time she mailed “a lone black Cheek’d card in a plain black envelope to one of the main editors at The (New York) Times. A few weeks later, we were featured on the cover of the Style Section and coined as ‘the next generation of online.”

Be Real

Sebastien Dupéré, owner of Dupray, which sells steam cleaners and steam irons, advises personally interacting with people who you have already done business with.

“Ashton Kutcher will not be your friend online, nor will Kim Kardashian,” he said. “But the local bakery owner will. Your sister, best friend and family will. You need to do whatever its takes to get a base. This base will allow you to successfully publish content while tapping into the networks of that base.”

As you ponder those ideas, you may want to take a look online for other ideas and inspiration:

Follow that advice, and I look forward to reading about your startup somewhere soon.

Dan Fost

Dan Fost is a veteran journalist who was a staff writer at The San Francisco Chronicle and has had pieces published at the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and many more. He's written two books about the San Francisco Giants and is passionate baseball fan.