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Seriously, startups, especially early stage startups, should NEVER issue press releases. You’re not a Fortune 500 company who has to deal with: a) SEC regulations, b) beat reporters who actively follow the company, and c) scores of employees, customers, and vendors who need a unified message from the company. Early stage startups don’t have the sort of reporting and disclosure problems that public companies have, they aren’t usually closely followed by specific reporters and they don’t usually have terribly complex internal and external messaging requirements.

The reality for startups is that reporters simply don’t pay attention to the hundreds of press releases that show up in their inboxes each day. You don’t have to take my word for it; Dan Lyons, a tech journalist covering everything from supercomputing to smartphones and has appeared as a guest on CNBC, MSNBC, CNN, BBC, Bloomberg, Fox Business and NPR, and has written for the New York Times, GQ, Vanity Fair, Wired and the New Yorker, explains,

I have a confession to make. When I was a reporter at Newsweek, I received literally thousands of press releases via email — and I deleted almost every single one of them without even opening them. […] Every morning, I’d find 50 or so messages in that Newsweek account, almost all of them press releases, virtually all of them things I did not care about. I’d glance through the subject lines and then zap them all (I’m pretty sure every other reporter does essentially the same thing).

Ever hear of Twitter? As a startup, they never issued a single press release. Not a single one. Despite this, the company never suffered from a lack of press. Most startups spend a lot of time thinking about their PR needs and not the needs of the reporters they hope to get coverage from. Put yourself in the reporter’s shoes. His job is to find ‘exclusives’. He’s constantly following leads, cultivating sources and generally looking for news no one else has ever covered. The fact that you drafted a carefully worded press release and emailed it to hundreds of reporters is PROOF that your ‘news’ is NOT a scoop. Getting press is actually really easy but requires a little planning and legwork.

The first step is to determine what you are hoping to accomplish by generating press for your startup. There are scores of reasons you might want coverage including the recruitment of potential employees or team members, downloads of your hot new mobile application, attracting new customers, attracting new investors, or merely to improve your own personal image. Whatever your reason it is important to realize what you’re trying to accomplish before talking to a reporter about your startup. Rationalize everything against this goal. If a particular interview doesn’t meet this goal – DON’T DO IT.

Once you’ve figured out the why the who will be pretty easy. If you’re trying to attract new investors it might make sense to focus your efforts on targeted trade publications while it might make more sense to focus on consumer-focused publications if you were trying to attract new customers. For example, most venture capital professionals involved with early stage tech investing tend to read TechCrunch, VentureBeat, The Deal, The Dealbook, VentureWire, PEHub and Term Sheet. Your first job is to start reading each of them and pick a favorite writer. This reporter will be your ‘contact’.

Now that you’ve determined the why and who it is time to talk about the ‘how’. This is the hard part – it should take you months to execute on the how. First, I’d attempt to connect with each of the reporters you’ve identified. Start by following them on Twitter. I’d recommend using Twitter’s list feature to create either a public or private list of the reporters you’re going to start working. For example, Robert Scoble of RackSpace made his list public here as did the Huffington Post. Like the reporter’s tweets. Retweet the ones you really like. Comment on their stories occasionally when it makes sense. Mention them in your tweets when it makes sense. Then over time, you can start connecting with them on LinkedIn, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest and so on. Eventually, you should be able to get their email and/or cell phone number.

Once you’ve built a certain rapport with a reporter start thinking about how you can help them. This is key. You’re in the startup world. Your friends work for other startups. You know a lot more than you think. Ask your friends if they have any news they’d like covered in the press. Most have something going on that is newsworthy. Pass along these scoops and story ideas to the reporter (hint this is a good way to get them to give you their real email address or cell phone number). The ratio of scoops/ideas to coverage requests should be four to one – offer four scoops/ideas for each story about your startup you’d like them to cover. Once you proven yourself as a reliable and fruitful source of information for a reporter you’ll be surprised how quickly they get back to you. Ironically, your connection to the reporter will actually make you more popular with your startup friends as you’ll be able to help them secure the sort of coverage they want for their companies.

Ideally, you’re cultivating several of these relationships at the same time. The hard part will come when you want coverage for your startup. Giving an exclusive or a scoop to one reporter when it is someone else’s news is easy, but how do you secure the broadest coverage for your news item without harming your newly cultivated relationship? In my experience, I’ve found it helpful to ‘bank’ a few smaller stories to include with my major stories. This way I’m able to offer ‘exclusives’ to multiple reporters at the same time. Each can have a unique piece of information a reader won’t be able to find in a different publication while allowing me to get my bigger story out to the largest possible audience. I use a whiteboard and list all of the possible story ideas and determine which ideas best fit each particular reporter – this becomes their ‘exclusive’. I then usually draft a simple outline or list of the important facts that I’m hoping they’ll cover.

One week before I hope to pitch each reporter I send out a quick teaser. Perhaps a text or an email suggesting I might have a story for them. Once I get a response I suggest that we talk the following week and set up a time to chat. During the call I give the basic pitch, offer them the exclusive ‘item’ if they agree to write the story and ask them to hold it until a certain date. Offering them the exclusive is absolutely the best way to ensure they actually write the story – without the exclusive they’ll get busy on other stories and push yours to the next week. They’ll want to publish their story as soon as humanly possible as to not lose the scoop to someone else. Then I follow up with an email that includes the outline/list that reflects what we talked about. Good reporters take copious notes, but verifying them by looking at your outline will give them more confidence in their story.

Make it is as easy as possible for the reporter. Think about how your news fits into a larger story or trend in the industry. Come up with a few headlines and perhaps a three or four sentence blurb that puts your news into this larger context or trend. Include the title and blurb at the top of your outline/list. Have several professional photos taken of yourself, your team, and your product. Make sure you have the license to the photos (you can share them with the reporter if they don’t have time to send out a photographer). Finally, if you’re pitching television reporters you might seriously consider spending a little money and have a video crew come out and video interviews from yourself, your key team members and b-roll from your product/service. It is unlikely that a television reporter would use this footage (regardless of quality), but providing the video to them will do two things including showing how well you and your team look on camera and providing them b-roll ideas (i.e. they’ll likely use your art direction as inspiration).

The biggest mistake I see startups make when it comes to PR is getting it too early. Unless you’ve got a real need for the press you’ll be smart to keep your news under your hat. For example, let’s say your company just raised a $500,000 seed round. You’re excited and know that you could get several reporters to write about your funding story. Why bother? To start it is unlikely your product is ready for primetime so attracting customers would be a mistake. Funding stories are the best way to attract new investors, but in this case, you’ve just closed your round and you need to focus on execution not funding raising. What if you sit on the story for three to six months when you’ve launched your MVP and you’re preparing for your next funding round? Wouldn’t that make more sense? You’ll likely be looking for additional team members, you’ll want to increase downloads/customers/whatever, and you’ll be looking for additional investors. The story will be just as good and you’ll be able to add the new twist that you’re raising additional capital.

One last parting thought is that you should own your story and your relationships and resist the temptation to outsource these to a PR firm. Wait at least until you’ve raised your Series B to engage an experienced firm (I like Scott Baradell at Idea Grove).