The fast track to being taken seriously

Strategic outreach can help startups gain attention and respect from the business media.

Strategic outreach can help startups gain attention and respect from the business media.

For a startup company, mainstream business-media exposure means connecting with a multimillion-member audience. It can increase highly targeted awareness and help pave the way to additional funding or even acquisition. One of the major challenges startups face, however, is getting the business media to take notice - and take them seriously.

"It's often a vanity thing, a fantasy in the CEO's mind of being on the cover of Forbes," says Dave Black, VP and co-founder of Voce. "The first question you have to ask when you're a startup: Is the business press the best vehicle [for us]?"

When the answer is "yes," the next point to consider is that generating "that coverage takes a lot of time and a lot of resources," Black says, especially since the startup will fight for space with established companies. If a startup takes the business-media route, he explains, "it must find a way to position [itself] against the conventional wisdom."

One way to do that is to "pick a fight with the category leader," says Schwartzman & Associates MD Eric Schwartzman. "If you have a company that you think has some product that is going to be competitive to any category leader," positioning that startup as a more progressive alternative can be "a great way to get noticed."

But even before contemplating tactics, he says, keep in mind that business reporters are likely to be wary of "next big thing" stories, no matter how wonderful they sound.

"Skepticism is high, and it should be," adds Laura Beck, MD at Porter Novelli in Austin, TX, the firm's designated startup office. To capture the mainstream business media's eye, she says, "Pick your battles. You don't want to be the boy who cries wolf."

When the time is right, Beck says, approach the press not only with client representatives, but also third-party sources - real-end users, customers, and industry analysts, for example - each pre-briefed and set to comment.

A standard rule of thumb among PR firms pitching business media for startups is to position its executives as experts, available to comment on significant business issues and trends, which also helps with building reputation and legitimacy.

"It's obviously important for them to really understand whom the reporters are covering their space and the types of topics they like to focus on," says Jonathan Zaback, manager of Burson-Marsteller's US media practice. Then, startup company executives can establish themselves as industry thought leaders, he says, and targeted "reporters start counting on [them for] expert commentary. That creates a very robust relationship."

The online siblings of traditional business media, too, can be incredibly valuable outlets for a startup company, Zaback adds.

Sites such as Forbes.com, The Street.com, and dot-com versions of mainstream newspapers like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times "will obviously be read by C-level executives," he says. "They're great because information has to be refreshed on a more regular basis, so there's more opportunity to [secure] a story."

Another way to make an unproven startup newsworthy is by positioning it as relevant to a bigger-than-business issue, says Kevin McLaughlin, principal of Resound. In recent work with reusable-bag startup Earthwise, for example, the agency tapped into environmental concerns, and even partnered with national nonprofit EarthShare to launch an annual National Reusable Bag Day at merchants across the country.

"We said, 'Here's where Earthwise fits in," McLaughlin says. "These things worked together to create a compelling business story."

There is one other way to place a story in the mainstream business media, says Bonnie Harris, president of Wax Marketing. "Just ask them the kinds of stories they look for."

In Harris' experience, reporters like to find companies that haven't received a flood of coverage and uncover unique, human-focused angles within them.

"A lot of startups lead with quality-of-service and new-product angles," she says. "Frankly, for the business media, that's really not that interesting. Look for what really differentiates you."

Technique tips

DO

Position startup-client execs as industry thought leaders

Consider a CSR approach: Address bigger-than-business issues from the outset

Attend trade shows and conferences. They can be great for networking, product pitching, and brand building

DON'T

Overlook traditional press' online offshoots

Fear exclusives: A big hit in The Wall St. Journal or Financial Times can speak volumes over 20 mentions elsewhere

Fall back on the usual business angles. Look for what makes each startup stand out

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