Monday, October 5, 2009

Knock, Knock: Sharing your Story with Media & Analysts

The recent MassTLC 2009 Innovation unConference (Twitter: #masstlc) was jam-packed with fascinating impromptu sessions across a wide range of technology subjects.

Given the presence of hundreds of startup and early-stage tech entrepreneurs, my long-time friend & colleague Mr. “Almost Ubiquitous” himself Adam Zand (Twitter Maven @NoOneYouKnow) and I moderated a session called “PR Improv” featuring experts who could give feedback and tips to startup execs on “how to pitch their stories to press and analysts.” Joining us as an “enlightened” PR person was Bobbie Carlton—Boston-area tech PR veteran (Twitter: @bobbiec ) and Partner of Mass Innovation Nights.

For a 360 degree perspective—Doug Banks, Editor of Mass High Tech (@ eDougBanks on Twitter), and Judith Hurwitz, President of Hurwitz and Associates—longtime industry analyst who tweets as @jhurwitz) played journalist and analyst from hell (respectively).

The format:
As Master of Ceremonies, Adam tapped some entrepreneurs to be guinea pigs in interactive sessions simulating a briefing between their company and either a journalist or analyst. Entrepreneurs included senior execs from Jazkarta, Lassa Partners, and StylePath.

How it worked:
• Entrepreneurs gave a verbal overview of their company, described why they thought it is newsworthy and interesting.
• Our team of critics then gave feedback on how to hone their message
• Internalizing what they’d just learned--- the execs next tried their “pitch” on the influencers—presenting direct in person to either Doug or Judith.
• The experts then gave back constructive criticism

While the 1-hr length of the PR Improv session wasn’t long enough to provide any kind of detailed feedback… all of the Media/Analyst/PR experts were honest and direct in their feedback (pro or con) and a number of helpful tips were put forth. Here are some of them:

Top Tips on Story-Sharing (from Media, Analysts, PR Pros)

Effective engagement with analysts and members of the press is an ongoing, 3-step process:

I. Prepare
II. Connect
III. Follow-up

I) Prepare
Do these important steps before reaching out to anyone:

A) Refine your Story
• Describe what your company does in plain English.
• What do you build?
• What problem do you solve?
• Do you save time, money, do something that hasn’t been possible before?

This verbal company overview is in fact the "story" of who you are and why you’re important. Practice telling it out loud until it sounds natural and un-rehearsed. (You’ll use it again and again).

B) Research, Research, Research
• Determine which analyst firms, media outlets, blogs, other influencers are focused on your market.
• Visit their websites and read their work.
• Find out who are the most appropriate reporters or analysts covering your area. PR agencies can be helpful here (as they have prior contacts and databases tracking who does what, where).
• These are the people you should first approach.
• Don’t e-mail or call anyone until you’ve read some of their work, know what’s important to them.

II) Connect

Remember--- Media and analysts are deluged with hundreds of unsolicited e-mails and phone calls each day. Put yourself in their shoes--- respect their valuable time and their expertise. Neither of them likes to be “pitched”

Here’s the reality of what you need to to launch a connection:

You: “Knock-Knock”
Journalist: “Who’s there?”
You: “It’s Me”
Journalist: “So what!?”
You: “Let me share my story with you…”

While a professional PR agency can be a helpful facilitator in setting up a briefing—YOU'VE got to be the storyteller.

Approaching Press or Analysts (without an agency)

A) Make the connection
If you’re telephoning press or analyst out of the blue, start with a succinct sentence saying who you are and why you are calling them:

“Hi my name is Jane Smith, I’m from a Boston-area company called Great Ideas… I’ve been reading your coverage of the Idea software industry and was wondering if you have a couple of minutes for me to give you a quick overview of who we are, what makes us interesting. Is this a good time to talk?"

If the journalist/analyst on the other side of the phone/e-mail link/table isn’t ready, willing and able to connect with you when you go to them--- be respectful. If it’s not a good time--- ask when and how they’d like to be contacted and get back to them later.

B) Introduce yourself/your company to them by sharing your story

If the analyst/journalist IS available now —it’s time for you to succinctly summarize “who, what, when, how, where and why” you’re relevant to them.

Thanks… I’ll try to be brief. Visiting your website I notice that you’ve written often about SUBJECT, TOPIC, ISSUE, MARKET” (you may want to mention a specific article they’ve written). Reading your article, inspired me to call you today."

"My company (say the name slowly) is directly involved in the SUBJECT, TOPIC, ISSUE, MARKET you’ve written about. COMPANY NAME is... (deliver your short story).

Tips on Telling Your Company Story:
• KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid)
• Describe your value proposition in plain English
• Avoid Three Letter Acronyms and meaningless superlatives
(“best-of-breed”, “state-of-the-art”, “next generation”, etc)
• Speak with enthusiasm and passion about your team, your offerings

C) Start a dialogue, keep the conversation going
After you’ve very briefly told the influencer about your company, engage them and ask them some questions:

• Does what COMPANY NAME is doing sound interesting to you?
• Can I tell you more about what we do? Who’s getting value from our products/services?

Tips from the pros:
• Keep the conversation going by giving succinct, honest answers to questions.
• Use examples and details (including any numbers or facts) that support your value proposition and are evidence of your progress.
• Anticipate tough questions you may be asked and have good answers.

In November 2007, PR 2.0 Nabob Brian Solis wrote: “The Pitch is Dead
At the PR Improv two years later, Luke Ryan from WHDH-TV concurred:
Don’t pitch the press,” have a civil conversation – said Ryan.

Judith Hurwitz is of a similar opinion: “Often I don’t want to see another mind numbing PowerPoint presentation, just tell me about yourself.” (Paraphrase).

Six More Tips:
While there are lots and lots of blog posts on effective “media and analyst relations,” here’s six other tips that came out of the PR Improv (for spokespeople who want to connect with press and analysts):

1) Be Honest
• Never lie or exaggerate. You might caught in your lie. Your lie can show up online and work against you. By keeping your interactions with analysts and journalists honest (even in tough times), everyone wins.
• Reporters and Analysts have strong bullshit filters: Don’t exaggerate or misrepresent yourself.
• Shun the superlatives (e.g. “the leading X, Y of Z”)
• Describe who you are by communicating your “Differentiation with Distinction”

2) Acknowledge Competition
• Don’t say “we don’t really have any competition”
• To a journalist that either means: you’re hiding something, you’re na├»ve, or you don’t compete in a big market.
• It actually helps to mention competition and position your offerings relative to your competitors. Stories mentioning several companies in a category or market are written far more often than articles focused on a single company.

3) Provide Validation
• Third-party validation of your idea, business or product is essential to establish credibility and interest with the influencers.

Examples of Third-Party Validation:

a) Brand name customers that you can reference by name.
b) A favorable opinion from a third party analyst (reporters like to go to analysts for their unvarnished take on the company, the market)
c) Listing of your investors or well-known board members
d) Highlights of the past experience of the founders (did you and your colleagues work anywhere memorable)?

Since Mass High Tech focuses on businesses in Massachusetts--- Doug Banks mentioned that he likes to hear a company’s “family tree” (e.g. lineage to respected Mass-based companies)

4) Become a Good Source
Quality relationships between companies and the analysts, media and bloggers take years to evolve but can be destroyed in an instant through un-professional behavior. Treat press and analysts with the respect they deserve:
• Read what they write (on an ongoing basis)
• If you come across something they’d find interesting--- send them an e-mail or a Tweet (even if it has nothing to do with you/your company)--- that’s the difference between a reliable, impartial source and a “Flack”
• Connect often—via e-mail, Twitter, LinkedIN, in-person
• Give: Ask them how you can be of help to them in their work.

5) Be Cautious
• An important reminder: the media’s business is to break stories before others.
Share news with them as early as you can with them but be sure there’s a mutual agreement about any embargoes, “off-the record” comments.
• If you’re a private company you don’t have answer any questions about revenue or sales.
• To be safe--- don’t say anything that you would hate to see in print.

6) PR goes beyond Media and Analysts
• With the social Web--- you now have the ability to share your messages, content, ideas directly with those who matter most to you--- those who will find you relevant.
In the fast-moving Web-age, PR is increasingly about putting the “public” back in public relations.
• Invest time and resources in an informative corporate blog to share your stories and demonstrate your expertise.
• Get your thought leaders to blog themselves.
• Use social media like Twitter, Facebook to spread your word.
• Remember that social media isn’t a one-way-street. Be sure to follow comments to your blogs and Tweets and respond promptly to them.

Long Live “The News Conversation”

The Pitch is Dead. Instead---let’s foster mutually beneficial dialogues between newsmakers and those who are expert at understanding, explaining and delivering real news. Interactive dialogue is about sharing, giving, and receiving.

The interaction and ideas shared at the PR Improv session at #masstlc were invigorating and encouraging. At the same time some of the questions from the audience showed that only a handful of business leaders have the time, skills and experience to interact in a mutually advantageous way with analysts and the media.

Done right--- a professional Public Relations program is a strategic and valuable necessity for technology companies. Bad PR strategy, tactics and execution can really damage a company’s brand, impact momentum, and even hurt the bottom line.

These websites provide excellent examples of PR gone wrong. They make for informative reading and some tragic-comic anecdotes. I encourage you to visit, read and learn these three:

Bad Pitch Blog:
Pro PR Tips:
(From vet journo Rafe Needleman of CBS Interactive, formerly Red Herring)
Dear PR Flack:

There were lots more comments and lessons learned at the PR Improv—too many to share here. I’d welcome your comments, tips, perspectives, lessons learned, stories…

Let’s keep the conversation going.

1 comment:

  1. I attended this session. Patrick and Adam helped smooth out the pitch while Judith and Doug played themselves as critical listeners.

    It was like a 60 minute workout. Fast, sweaty (if you were on the hotseat) and certainly got you in shape for the main event (a live pitch where you don't get to make mistakes - or they cost you).

    Fun time and very well done.


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