PR for Founders: How to get Media Coverage for Your Startup

We sat down with four amazing media members to learn how startups can get their attention. Read our four biggest takeaways on how startups can build relationships with the media and get coverage.

October 23, 2020

One of the most frequently asked questions we get at the AC is:

How do I get media attention?

We get it. You think you have a great story and you want everyone to know about it. You just need the connections or workforce to make it happen.

But is it really that simple?

One of the toughest challenges in building a startup is creating an initial reputation. With relatively few customers, low brand recognition and little capital to bolster your image, startups often rely on alternative outlets and inexpensive tactics to get early traction. One of the best and most obvious ways to do this is by getting your company featured in the news.

If you’re thinking “Great. Sounds good. Just one small question: …How?” you’re absolutely not alone. That’s why the Accelerator Centre just held a session called Meet the Press that featured an expert panel of media pros to help entrepreneurs learn how to get media attention and coverage with Tony Grace of CTV Kitchener, Meagan Simpson of BetaKit, Josh O’Kane of The Globe and Mail, and Terry Pender of The Record. The event was moderated by our very own Marketing and Communications Mentor Ellyn Winters-Robinson, who is also the President and CMO at Ignition. Needless to say, we learned a lot. And we’d love to share the biggest takeaways with you.


Great. Let’s go!

Takeaway #1: Don’t expect that your pitch or release will always be picked up by every outlet or even any outlet. It often won’t be.  

Bummer? For sure. True? Absolutely.

Due to the shifting economics of news and how it is consumed, newspapers across the country have experienced a significant collapse in their business structures in the past 15 years. Sequential rounds of newsroom layoffs over the past decade have put many journalists out of work, forcing many to look for jobs outside the sector. Multiple findings by the Canadian Media Guild indicate that the number of journalists working in Canada has rapidly fallen.

COVID-19 amplifying media closures, layoffs, wage cuts: a "mass extinction"  effect - Medicine Matters

Tony Grace of CTV explained that news agencies look different than they used to. They’re smaller. They have to do things differently. But the fundamentals are the same. There’s still an appetite—news outlets are just stuck competing to be chosen from an always-expanding buffet.

The panel of journalists all shook their heads sadly that, yes, often times great stories don’t make the cut. It’s just not feasible to tell every story.

So it’s possible that your news to share is awesome, but not quite “newsworthy” enough to make the cut. But it’s also possible that your news isn’t actually…well, news.

Takeaway #2: Make sure your story is actually newsworthy. Bonus points if it ties in with the current news cycle (the BIG stories that have the public’s attention).

“It’s news so it has to be new,” smiled Meagan Simpson of BetaKit.

The seemingly simple sentence struck a cord with everyone watching with its meaningful message.  

There are key things that make a story newsworthy:

  • Timeliness: News stories grow old in a hurry. For (most!) stories to be newsworthy, they have to be about something that is happening right now.
  • Proximity: Where is your startup located? Where did the story take place? Where are you from? Where do you live now? Did any institutions help you along the way? Where are they? These are the localized media outlets your story will likely work well for. The more home-grown you can tailor your story to city-based outlets, the better. The Record, for instance, is typically keen to cover Waterloo Region-based stories. The more connections you have to one place, the stronger the likelihood of getting your news picked up there will be. Have multiple connections to multiple places? When you pitch your story, make the connection to the community crystal clear.
  • Impact: Ask yourself: “Does this matter? Will people outside of your organization care?” If your gut tells you no, it’s probably not newsworthy.
  • Novelty: Is your story unusual? Are you trailblazing in an exceptional way? Make the uniqueness of your story known.
  • Conflict: This one (hopefully!) doesn’t matter much to your startup, but when discussing what makes something newsworthy, we have to include conflict. Does the news you watch largely seem negative? That’s because bad news stories capture audience’s attention like nothing else. If your startup is helping in a crisis, for sure make that clear during your pitch.
  • Human Interest: Catching a glimpse of somebody else's life is appealing to people. Great stories typically have a human focal point. This is a bit of an extreme example but to drive the point home, if an empty building burns down, it likely won’t matter much to most. But if someone’s home burns down and leaves a family homeless, a large percentage of people in the same area will want to learn more. The human connection makes for human interest.
  • Prominence: To put this simply, people are most interested in well-known people. That’s why we see so much coverage of celebrities. The more popular you become in your industry, the more likely you are to be covered in industry news. The more prominent you are in your city, the more likely you are to be covered in city news. It’s definitely not a deal breaker if no one in your business is prominent, but it certainly helps if they are. Use it to your advantage.
  • News Cycle: A news cycle is how the media describe the stories that are in the rotation. Right now it’s the pandemic. 20 years ago it was 9/11. The news cycle is something to be very aware of. If what you’re doing is connected to the news cycle, it’s automatically more interesting. If what you’re pitching can add to that conversation, it’s going to rise to the top of the pile.

Take Away #3: Learn how to explain your tech to media members in simple terms. Think of it like an elevator pitch.

“If you have someone in your organization who can explain in one sentence what you’re doing and why it should be news today—it goes to the top of the pile. Brevity is the soul of wit. Keeping it simple. Keeping it focused. Keeping it short. That’s what matters. If you can have someone on a weekend to speak to a news story, that could give you an edge. Timing can be your friend in a 24-hournews cycle. Be willing to pitch whenever and however you need to.” -Tony Grace

The panellists agreed. Be aware of the news that you’re sharing and how you want to share it. If you can touch on as many newsworthy points as possible from Take Away #2 in a concise manner, your story will likely be picked up.

“The big things are the who, what, where, when, and why in a news story. Bullet those things in an email. That’s not a bad way to talk in terms of a way a journalist will quickly understand,” shared Ellyn.

Take Away #4: PR is a long game. Do your homework and foster relationships.

Read the journalists work. Read the publication. Get a feel for the types of stories the journalists write. Reach out accordingly. Most media outlets will have websites that have author pages that share who the journalists are and what kind of stories they write. Use these to your advantage!

“Reading the publication is really, really important,” nods Josh O’Kane of The Globe and Mail. “We don’t see ourselves as a promotional wing. We’re not out there to promote stuff. We want to make a snapshot of the news that day.”

“Reaching out in advance is key,” adds Meagan. “Connect with myself or someone on my team. Make that connection. When you do have news, it’s a lot easier to ramp up stories because we have that connection and I have that familiarity. Make sure you’re prepared with what you want to share.”

Forming and maintaining relationships with the media can end up saving your precious capital, too. When asked if it’s worthwhile to spend money on newswire services, Meagan said, “From my perspective, as long as you reach out to me before hand, and I have the news release anyways, I don’t need it on the wire.”

How do you make the initial connection?

“An email subject line that reads story pitch for newstartup gets my attention,” shared Terry Pender of The Record.

Or maybe you don’t have news right now. That’s okay. You can still research and find reporters who you believe will care about your startup and its mission. Ultimately, they’re who will run your stories.

The more time you put into media relations, the more time they will likely put into covering your startup. And let’s all remember Ellyn’s final words during the panel: “BCC is not your friend.”

Hungry for more startup tips? Sign up for our newsletter and check out The Accelerator Program page to learn more about Canada’s #1 private business accelerator where you can work directly with expert mentors like Ellyn.    

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