Why and how to build relationships with journalists

Why and how to build relationships with journalists?

Slush, the world’s leading startup event, is approaching. During the first week of December, Helsinki turns into the epicenter of entrepreneurship and journalists from all over the world are flying in to meet with investors and the founders of emerging startups and break the news on tech companies and product launches. But with thousands of startups looking to share their stories with the world, how do you make sure it’s you and the startup in your portfolio that gets picked up by the media?

In September 2021, San Francisco Agency together with Maria 01 hosted a webinar for VC investors about attracting media attention to their fund and to their portfolio startups. After great discussions we still received plenty of questions that we didn’t have the time to answer during the webinar, so here are answers to some of the most popular questions!

P.S. You can check the recording of the webinar here. But first, keep on reading!


Why do PR and build relationships with journalists?


PR is one of the most effective ways to attract attention from a bigger audience and build your brand recognition. Your own channels will never reach as many pairs of eyes as a good story on a respected media will get. Especially attracting attention from international, global investors is much easier if they have spotted your fund or your portfolio companies in the media.

And well, public relations literally is relationship building. Not just with your audience, but first, you need to establish a trusting and working relationship with the journalists you want to work with. The chances of your story being a success is heavily reliant on the right journalist picking it up. Investing time and effort into those relationships is massively important.

How do you start building those relationships then? Even when there are no upcoming announcements or stories to tell, engaging with journalists that cover the beat of the portfolio companies can benefit down the road when an announcement is pending. This means taking the time to research and regularly check on the kinds of things your target journalists are writing about. Commenting on their social media and articles (including DMs) will help build a relationship and common understanding – so that you approach at the right time, in the right way, and show real interest in the subjects they and their audience find important.

Earned media is exactly that – “earned.” No one cares about the “friend” who only comes and talks to them when they need something. Every VC should build relationships with journalists over time, and those relationships will pay off for both you and the journalist who is regularly looking for sources for their stories, when the time is ripe.


How can a VC get through to the earned media? What kinds of stories and news from a VC are interesting for the general public?


VCs need to share more about the human impact they are making with real stories about the entrepreneurs and societies they affect. One technique is to imagine a world where the work of the portfolio company or any company they interact with is changing things for the better. What are the small, emotional stories of what is being enabled by the investments they are making?

We have a tendency to talk about the funding round sizes so that operations and scaling can take place and we can “go global.” But why does it matter? Working with the entrepreneurs to dig out the inspirational vision of the company and concrete examples of the steps they have already taken to get there is critical.

VCs can also work to get known in a specific industry or topic area by regularly sharing original stories and comments that get them known for their expertise. Leading panels and speaking at events will often get a VC noticed by the press. So take on as many opportunities to speak publicly on impactful topics as possible. Making the VC industry more transparent and discussing the problems, opportunities, and room for improvement are also good topics to attract the media.


How and through which channels should a startup or VC manager approach journalists when he thinks there is a great story to tell about their business?


If possible, try and learn your journalist’s preferred method of contact. Active journalists are usually also on Twitter, where they might share their prefered method of contact – usually it is email, but some do accept pitches through Signal, Twitter DMs or phone calls. Also look into other social media channels, e.g., LinkedIn and their messaging service.

Most importantly, don’t bombard them through several channels simultaneously. If you send your pitch in an email, wait a few days to give them time to respond. If you don’t hear back from them after following up on email, you might want to consider calling their office number or sending them a Twitter DM. Journalists are always hungry for good stories but are extremely busy, so don’t forget to follow up! If ultimately you don’t hear from them and decide to move on to another person, it’s often good courtesy to let them know you’re contacting another journalist at the same media outlet to avoid “double pitching.”

If you invest in building the relationship with journalists, with time, you will most likely become the source the journalist reaches out to when they want to write a story and get insights on the topic you have positioned yourself to be a thought leader on.


How has the game changed in the past couple of years and where is it going?


There are more players in the startup field than ever – both startups that get funded and investors investing in those startups.

It used to be that funding announcements of €1 million were enough to get a decent amount of attention from the press. Now even announcements of €2 million are difficult to pitch. This means the originality and relevance of the stories pitched must be even more compelling.

We also very often forget the human impact of the investment when talking about it. Every journalist is looking to emotionally connect with the readership, no matter the industry. This is what gets more people to read and share the articles. Without a human element to the story, this is difficult.

The media landscape is competitive. We have to redefine who our competitors are, as companies all around the world will be aiming to get the same media coverage as you.


How to go beyond a traditional press release?


VIP pitching is the answer. At San Francisco, we regularly pitch to 10-30 researched and specific media for each release in a systematic way. Personally sending a tailored email or calling a journalist and sharing something that relates to their beat greatly increases the chance for an interview and a wider story on the subject. In each pitch, we personalize and tailor the email to show we understand their beat and have done our research – normally sharing something specific that references their past work or recent postings.

You can also sign up for services such as Help a Reporter Out (HARO) or Qwoted to get inbound requests from journalists for stories. It takes a bit of practice to incorporate them into your workflow of checking these opportunities, but they are a smooth path to getting your name out there.


How much money should one use for media relations?


We often get the question: “How do I calculate the ROI on PR?”

Start by asking yourself: how much money would I be willing to spend to get the next big LP or GP on board? What about exit possibilities for my portfolio startups?

As earlier mentioned, PR is one of the most effective ways to attract the attention of the ones mentioned above. And very often, those emotionally evoking, timely, newsworthy, and interesting stories are not easy to dig up.

Time is money. At the San Francisco Agency, we usually spend 25 to 50 hours per client per month creating content and pitching to journalists, depending on the case. Also, a company needs to be ready to follow up with journalists and be available to fulfill last-minute journalist requests for an interview.

One press campaign takes ideally about six weeks.

  • 2 weeks for creating the content
  • 2 weeks for pitching to VIP journalists
  • 2 weeks of follow-ups and social media posts after the embargo is lifted

To say it shortly, PR is not cheap, but it pays off. If it’s at the core of your marketing strategy to use PR, do hire a separate PR manager. Marketing and PR are completely different beasts, and both need more than one person can do reasonably. If you’re unable to hire someone to do it in-house, it’s always possible to reach out to PR agencies and have them handle all the hassle.

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