A wise person once said that it’s a good thing that dreams evolve; otherwise we would all be ballerinas and firemen. I like that quote a lot and think of it often, especially when I find that certain things I once long desired suddenly no longer hold that same allure. Granted, many of these things were material in nature (Steve McQueen’s ’68 Mustang Fastback from ‘Bullit‘, a certain Zegna suit I thought looked stunning, a gold top ’58 Gibson Les Paul) but others were dreams and notions of experiences I wanted or things I hoped to achieve. As time goes on, some of those early goals and fantasies fall victim to age, wisdom and practicality. There are certain things in life like attending Burning Man or running with the bulls in Pamplona that, if they are done at all, must be done while one is young and irresponsible. Some years ago I might have been intrigued with the idea of, say, going to Burning Man. Now, the idea seems preposterous to me. Maturity means many things; one of those things is coming to the conclusion that doing something silly and gratuitous is no longer in the cards and, frankly, being perfectly OK with that.
Certainly, on the spectrum of dreams a significant one for many is the ambition to found, launch and run a start-up company. Many dream, but few actually do. For those who have made the leap to put careers, family finances, and reputations at risk to pursue that dream, few things in life can compare to that visceral, terrifying and yet incredibly rewarding and energizing experience. The odds are long and the resistance from friends, family and financiers–especially early on–can be formidable. Once success begins to appear like a possibility on some level for the entrepreneur, however, curious things start to happen to a company and its founders. Calls start getting returned, prospective partners and investors suddenly appear on the doorstep asking for a meeting, and media outlets sit up and take notice.
It’s this last one which can be the trickiest. Most start-up founders, even the first-time ones, learn fairly quickly how to handle inquiries from venture investors and strategic partners and how much information to volunteer and when to volunteer it. In short order, a strategy typically gets formulated around such inquiries and a point person or team is deputized with fielding incoming requests. But on the media front, it never ceases to surprise me how few companies put in place a clear strategy for how to work with media. Sure, an outside PR firm or consultant is sometimes retained to field queries and follow up with press releases on new products, but there rarely appears to be a coherent strategy underlying the relationship the company has with the media at large. This can have serious, sometimes fatal, consequences for a young company.
It goes without saying that a sea change is afoot across the media landscape. Reports in the news about tony newspapers fighting for their very survival and the increasing influence of alternative media such as blogs are now a daily occurrence. This splintering of media has created a host of new opportunities for companies to promote their story but it has also raised new concerns and new challenges heretofore not seen by the technology/business/financial industrial complex. While I welcome a lot of these developments as healthy for the long-term outlook of media and its interaction with young companies, I advise company founders to keep in mind a handful of pointers when interacting with media.
1. Flattery will get you nowhere: Let’s face it, as a start-up founder, getting that in-bound call from Joe or Jane Reporter at Very-Famous-Business-Periodical is flattering. In some cases, you have spent years trying to get others to listen to your company’s story and for you to be taken seriously. Now, perhaps, you are just beginning to have some early success (say, you closed a large venture round or a big strategic partnership) and the media is taking note and wants details. Be careful. Reporters are good at what they do, and to be any good at what they do they need to excel at catering to ego and flattering their contacts in just the right ways to get them to spill the beans and provide fodder for their stories. Don’t fall for it. After the glow of getting that call from the big name business periodical wears off you need to regain your composure and realize that that reporter is focused on one thing – getting the story. For that reporter, whether that story ends up being flattering to you or your company is often besides the point.
2. Remember the Joe Friday rule: A colleague of mine at another fund gives fairly harsh counsel to his portfolio company founders about how to handle inbound, unsolicited calls from media outlets – talk to media like you’re taking to the cops. Be civil and cooperative but be a little on guard. Like speaking with a police detective investigating a matter, you never know what the media knows, what they don’t know, and what they are trying to piece together from outside tidbits of information. You would not want to unknowingly volunteer information that would put you at the scene of a crime being investigated, my colleague would argue, even if you had nothing to do with it. In that same way, because few reporters would ever openly reveal the angle the story is going to take, it is your responsibility as the company’s senior executive to divine why the reporter is really calling you and whether the spin their story will take is going to suit your company’s interests or needs. While reporters do call company executives to get basic information about the market or to talk ‘on background’, reporters also call when they are already “working a story” and that story already has a clear angle or point of view to it. In those cases, it is critical to understand what direction that story is heading and determining whether or not you want to participate before providing too much detail that could come back to haunt you later.
3. When Off The Record means OFF THE RECORD. Perhaps we have all seen too many episodes of Dragnet or Lou Grant re-runs, but people love to toss around jargon from industries they do not work in. I suppose it makes them seem in the know or worldly. At one time of another we have all seen someone play lawyer on People’s Court or in real life, only to watch as the judge comes down hard on them for butchering civil procedure and basic legal concepts. Don’t make that mistake when talking with reporters. If you want something to be ‘off the record’ make sure that is well stated and that the reporter agrees. If there is any ambiguity, get the reporter to confirm it in writing. Also, don’t confuse ‘off the record’ with ‘on background’ or with a host of other journalism concepts. They mean very different things. Like in the legal world, if something is divulged without clear rules about the use of that information certain privileges are considered waived. In other words, it’s hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube.
4. Understand and recognize bias.A pet peeve of mine with respect to many of the changes afoot with media is the perceived loss of true objectivity with so many outlets. The explosive growth and influence of the blogosphere has really shaken up mainstream media to the point that many big media stories now get their start in the blogosphere before being picked up by mainstream outlets. This has had the effect of forcing mainstream media to play catch-up…and they hate to play catch-up. It has also had the effect of making mainstream media appear slow, ponderous and too conservative is developing news stories. This has had some bad outcomes, in my view. The least attractive has been the increased ‘editorializing’ of news information by mainstream media, news wires, and trade publications. While one would expect a clear point of view from a blog (such as Adventure Capitalist) it really has no place in a news-oriented periodical or website. However, it seems that too many news outlets are no longer content with reporting news — they now want to make news themselves or even be the news. This presents tremendous conflicts, in my mind, because news wires and trade publications serve a clear and necessary purpose for the markets they cater to. For many start-ups, it’s critical that news about their latest venture round be reported accurately, and without editorial, at a well-read industry news wire. Such information is critical because it signals the market about the financing, advises investors and partners about the company, and sends a thinly veiled message to competitors. If that information is then disassembled by the news wire pubication itself and it is ‘editorialized’ in some fashion — postively or negatively — it can have a chilling effect upon the market.
As such, it is incumbent upon start-up founding teams to research the many different media sources that serve their industry in particular, and the tech/venture/business market in general.
5. Be a Source.This is an old bit of advice, but still relevant in todays 24/7 news cycle. Reporters are human. They have deadlines, they have bad days, they have work pressures, etc. They also like people who give as well as simply receive. Seek to develop rapport with good, active reporters who need a go-to source on story ideas in your field. Once a deadline is looming on a piece, a reporter may reach out for a quick sound bite or contrasting view just to round out the article. You want to be that source. Ever notice that it’s the same dozen or so people quoted on every article about Yahoo/Microsoft/Google? Sure, sometimes they have well-paid PR hacks to get them quoted in those pieces, but just as often the sources themselves have simply internalized this point and developed good go-to relationships with reporters on deadlines.