MEDIA ROUNDUP: Cautious media eyes tech start-ups

With the economy rebounding, the media is ready to look at tech start-ups again, but many outlets are being a lot more guarded in their coverage.

With the economy rebounding, the media is ready to look at tech start-ups again, but many outlets are being a lot more guarded in their coverage.

It's not quite 1995 again, with a flood of business publications all battling each other to be the first to tout the next revolutionary product, business model, or visionary CEO. But with the economy, and especially tech, on the upswing, the media are once again willing to look at tech start-up companies, albeit with a far more skeptical eye. "Nobody, including the media, wants to operate in a world of pessimism," notes David Paine, CEO of Paine PR. "But you have to recognize that this time the media is going to be a lot more thoughtful about what they will write about, and they will be doing their homework." "I don't think start-ups have been tainted by the red letter to the point where reporters won't cover them unless they have a big brand name," adds Susan Butenhoff, president and CEO of Access Communications. "If there's a meaningful business out there, and it's something that's actually different, then there's lots of interest." Less space for tech Many of the reporters who witnessed and, in some cases, cheered on the start-up mania of the 1990s are still around to cover new emerging companies, but they're a lot more cynical now. And with the demise of such outlets as The Industry Standard, combined with the fact that most newspapers have rolled back or completely ended their dedicated tech sections, there's simply less space for start-up stories. "Reporters out there are stretched pretty thin, which means you must come up with a better story if you want your start-up to get any heat," says Jackie Townsend, president and CEO of San Diego-based Townsend Inc. "The days of just throwing a press release out there and people picking it up are gone." "Covering start-ups for start-ups' sake is over, unless it's someone who has some cachet, like [Netscape founder] Mark Andreessen," Butenhoff adds. "For a lot of start-ups, their best hope for coverage is to be part of a category story, so we look to drive a trend story with the expectation that it won't be a profile." Lisa Zwick, EVP and MD of Golin Harris Orange County, says about 40% of her client list is start-ups, and notes that she recently had some success pitching the story of a woman who launched a tech start-up with no venture capital funding. But Zwick notes, "The journalists have seen it all, and they've heard it all. I had an editor tell me, 'Unless the company is bleeding or gushing money, I don't want to hear about it.' So you have to have a really unusual item or a proven track record." Stephen Jones, co-managing director of Alexander Ogilvy's global technology practice, says reporters are doing a lot more research on their own before even committing to a start-up story. That means not only is the courtship of the reporter a lot longer, but the journalist is far quicker to pass on a story if he can't find vendors willing to support the start-up's claims, he says. Relating to reporters The tools for reaching reporters with start-up stories have changed, as well. The lavish press event emblematic of the dot-com era is now considered tacky, and while tech-industry conferences are coming back, fewer reporters have the budget or the inclination to travel since 9/11. But busy as they are, reporters are making the time for meetings with a start-up's CEO or key executive, Zwick says, adding, "Desk-side briefings provide that opportunity to look into the whites of their eyes when presenting a company." This time around, start-ups and their PR firms are also taking more time to court potential customers, along with financial backers, and that's led to a reemphasis on trade magazines. "In the '90s, the trades covering start-ups were losing their raison d'etre because the general press was covering so many emerging categories," Butenhoff notes. "Now the trade media is back playing a major role." This new uptick in start-up coverage is occurring primarily in print and online media, with only a minimal amount of support from one of the mainstays the last time around - financial-news networks, such as CNNfn and CNBC. "They've returned to their focus, and unless you're a publicly traded company, you don't have much value to them," says Butenhoff. Pitching... tech start-ups
  • While the buzz is once again beginning to grow for start-ups, forget the "entrepreneur-CEO-as-visionary" angle for now and focus instead on helping reporters generate testimonials from satisfied customers of your start-up client
  • The bar is now a lot higher for getting coverage of start-ups, so make sure you not only manage your client's expectations up front, but that you also don't begin pitching until your client has a track record
  • Nobody wants to get fooled again, especially business reporters, so don't over-hype your client

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