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Spreading the News

Shannon Henry, Journalist and Author

Why one story lands on the front page of the newspaper and another in the editor's wastebasket can sometimes seem to only be explained by figuring out the alignment of the moon and the stars that day. It shouldn't be that hard.

If you're an entrepreneur and ready to pitch a story for your company or product, the most important thing is to research and understand the publication you are targeting and the individual reporter. Then, you must be interesting, honest, and available to talk. There's an added bonus in offering an "exclusive" because reporters like to be first with a story.

Let's go through these ideas. First, just as you wouldn't go into a potential merger meeting or venture capital pitch without getting to know the other side, you must study the publication. Gather a stack of the newspapers and magazines you want to target. Subscribe online to influential blogs and newsletters. Read them regularly and understand their missions. Who is their audience? Is it the right one for you? Get to know the features and what days of the week they run. I would often advise new companies to suggest The Washington Post do a "Startup" feature on them, knowing the regular writer of that column was always looking for new companies to profile.

As you're getting to know the publications, also become familiar with the people covering your industry or company. As you understand a particular reporter's style, you will see what he might look for in a story. In the seven years I wrote "The Download," a local technology column for The Washington Post, you might have noticed I loved to break news—about deals, hires, big decisions in companies.

But I also liked unusual tech culture stories about people and events that helped define the Washington D.C. region's technology community. One thing I didn't do in the column was write stories lacking a local angle. Still, companies in other parts of the country who hadn't done their research pitched me every day.

To make pitching stories easier on yourself and the reporter, find out the e-mail system of the publications you are interested in. For example, most reporters at The Washington Post are lastnamefirstinitial@washpost.com.

The next step is to be interesting. That means understanding your story and being able to tell it well. Reporters need a "news hook." The hook is obvious when there's a big deal involved, a merger, or a public stock offering. But a hook can also come from timing and from other events in the industry. The Post isn't likely to do a big story on a wireless phone company's latest gadget, because it's too promotional. But a story about how high school kids around the country are suddenly all using a new wireless technology to call their friends (using that company's technology, along with other firms) could find its way to the front page. Again, what is interesting will be different for each publication. But for mainstream press, ask yourself "Is this a story I would tell my friend over coffee or a beer?"

Now that you have a fascinating story, you also have to make sure you are absolutely honest. There is nothing like misleading or lying to a reporter to destroy a budding relationship. Realize this reporter may cover you in good times and bad (years of covering AOL and WorldCom come to mind). Become a trusted source.

Next, even if you have a world-changing story and a great, honest relationship with a reporter, someone at your company needs to be available to talk. Most reporters like to hear directly from the CEO, founder, or chairman. Invite the reporter to your office or to someplace that "shows" the story you are trying to tell. Reporters need visuals to illustrate the story with words and photographs.

Especially for daily newspapers and online news sources, being first with a story is lifeblood. Reporters love unprecedented access. Do not pitch five different publications the same story at the same time. Besides being interested in different things, none of them want to rehash what everyone else is writing about. Even if it's a story they all have to cover—the merger of AOL and Time Warner—for example, pitch with different inside stories like: the timeline leading up to the merger, the last meeting of the two top executives or the tale of how it almost all fell apart.

Make sure when pitching you also don't e-mail bomb entire staffs of publications with the same story. It looks desperate and they will all likely ignore it. Offering an exclusive is a great carrot to a reporter. Many will work with you on timing of the story. But you need to be upfront and honest. If the news appears in a competing publication first, you will have a big challenge ahead to repair that trust.

This may all seem like a lot of work while you're busy running a business. But a relationship with the press—in good times and in bad—will help your company in countless ways.

© 2007 Shannon Henry. All rights reserved.

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