A Healthy Dose of Fear is Appropriate When Dealing with the Press

This past Friday I read Ben Huh’s post entitled Don’t Fear the Press. He writes:

I often see very puzzling behavior from some entrepreneurs when it comes to dealing with the press and media.  Either they are desperate for it and would kill to get a press write up, or they vilify the press and hate them for whatever happened.

As far as I am concerned, there are two ways to behave towards the press: 1) Treat them with respect and make sure you are open, real, and fair. OR 2) Shut up and let them know you’re not ready to talk about it.

Despite the fact that I generally think Ben Huh is a genius and he’s proven to be far more adept in garnering great press than I, I’m going out on a limb and saying that I think this simplistic, bimodal approach is bad advice for most in the startup world.

My interactions with the press – both mainstream and tech-centric – suggest that more critical thinking, a strategic approach and, yes, a healthy dose of fear, are all smart ways to approach press interaction.

Over the past decade, I’ve encountered dozens of horrific examples of startup->press   interactions, but would have to get permission to write about the most egregious ones. However, I can share a few that have happened to me:

•  Substantive changes of clear, obvious, precise details around a story.  This TechCrunch piece on Moz’s funding says we received $1.25mm, but the correct amount was $1.1mm. It misspells the name of the investor (“Ingition” instead of “Ignition”) and doesn’t mention that $100K of the financing came from Curious Office. Even after repeated emails, they never bothered to update.

•  Writing completely fabricated stories based on “a tip from a trusted source,” without any fact-checking. This Venturebeat piece  (which, rather than issue a lengthy redaction, has been replaced by an entirely new version) originally noted that our company had raised money, which we never did. The story had our business model wrong (said we did consulting), our employee count wrong, our membership numbers wrong, our revenue wrong… You get the idea. The reporter could have visited our website to learn any/all of these things, or emailed any of our team members, but chose to hit publish in hopes of getting a scoop. Even after the edit, there’s still errors in the piece (which I noted in the comments… still no update).

•  Manipulating headlines and story arcs to create a far more dramatic, negative piece than the truth warrants. In this piece by Business Insider, the writer strategically chooses elements from a blog post and substantively warps it to their particular perspective without ever speaking to sources. The original headline was even changed (~30 minutes after publication if memory serves) to be more attention-grabbing and negative. The result is a piece that places complete blame for the situation on the entrepreneur/company (aka me, so obviously there’s some bias to work around here), which isn’t the takeaway I’ve heard from 99% of folks who know the details.

•  Cherry-picking small details to create a story based on the journalist’s vision (or what they were asked to write) rather than discovering the truth and sharing that. For this very brief BusinessWeek profile, I had a lengthy email interview to fill out along with a ~30 minute chat with their reporter. The details of the final piece weren’t entirely negative, but they were bizarrely curated fragments of my responses/conversation.

•  Using casual conversations in non-work settings to craft stories.  I was at a bar in Seattle a few years back for a tech event when a man interrupted a conversation I was part of but not actively  contributing  to. He clarified a few details, drank the rest of his beer with us, struck me as friendly but a bit  aggressive, and left soon after. The next day, elements of that conversation appeared in a tech publication. I was shocked, as was one of the other parties involved in the conversation. When I talked to one of our investors about the situation (who was also at the event), she knew the journalist and apologized for not giving me advance warning (she presumed I’d known who it was).

In my experience, this type of coverage is not unique. Entrepreneurs and marketers I talk to are constantly surprised with the huge deltas between what they discuss with press vs. what gets written.

Here’s the clincher – you CANNOT blame journalists and media for this. Or rather, you can, but it won’t do you, your startup or those who consume media any good. We all (myself most definitely included) need to learn how to interact with the press effectively.

Below are some recommendations I’d have for entrepreneurs going down the path of journalist interaction. This advice generally assumes a “worst case scenario” :

Know Your Preference: No Press or Wrong/Biased/Negative Press?

Much of the time when the press covers your company or project, the results won’t match your expectations or ideals. If publicity about your work is strategic and useful to the company, some amount of inaccuracy/negativity is affordable. But you should know the balance ahead of time. Far too often, entrepreneurs presume that press is a good, desirable commodity and will suffer unduly to achieve it. The truth is that with a few, relatively rare exceptions, press will not make (or break) your startup.

Have a Clear, Compelling, Unique Message to Share

The press is looking for a story. Something that will draw attention and receive reactions and responses or, at the least, fill their pageview quotas. If you don’t have a worthy story to tell, it’s up to the journalist to find it for you. That is almost never ideal and often the source of entrepreneur unhappiness with the press. Strategize about what you want the piece to convey and then stay on message. Take the  parable of the blue cup to heart – consistency, repetition and simplicity are keys to effective communication with the press.

Ask Questions About the Journalist’s Motivations

Before you begin the “taped portion” of an interview or reply to a question-laden email, consider asking three questions of the interviewee: #1 “What’s the focus and goal of the piece?” #2 “What are you hoping to get from my contributions?” and #3 “What’s your fact-checking process?”

The first two will help you better understand whether you want to participate (for example, I’ve turned down interviews/contributions with 4 major publications in the last few years because their answers to the first two suggested that they wanted to frame SEO as a black hat/negative/manipulative practice).

The last one will inform you as to the source’s professionalism and quality. Great journalists fact check and great publications employ fact-checkers. I’ve only talked to two in my career, but both of those pieces were head-and-shoulders above the average. Inquiring about fact-checking can be a powerful psychological motivator – reminding the journalist that you (and their readers) have an expectation of accuracy.

Study Your Target/Interviewer Beforehand

You’d never go into a potential investor’s office or a bizdev partner meeting without background knowledge. So why wouldn’t you research a reporter or journalist? If you get an email, phone call or inquiry, type their name into Bing (or that other one) and get the skinny on where they’ve worked, what type of stories they write, the quality, etc. This can help inform how (and whether) you approach the conversation.

Consider Your Words and Phrasing Extremely Carefully

That clear, compelling message you want to deliver is constantly at risk of being gobbled up by  minutiae, irrelevant details and rabbit holes the journalist hopes will make the piece more sensational/viral/interesting. Their goal is not to help you promote your startup, it’s to drive eyeballs and build their career.

  Four out of five times your message doesn’t help them achieve those goals, so you should anticipate that they’ll push you to find another angle. It’s not so much that you need to be guarded or restrict yourself from answering questions, but rather that, like great politicians and orators, you want to guide the answer back to your message. This is hard. But I’ve observed entrepreneurs who can do it effectively and the results are remarkable (e.g. Nirav Tolia of Nextdoor is a master).

Email Interviews are Great; Phone Calls/In-Person is Riskier

When reporters contact me, I always request an email interview. It’s dramatically easier to control the message carefully, communicate clearly and ensure that both parties have a reliable transcript.

Most journalists, however, will push hard for a phone call or in-person meeting. Human beings are much less able to control communication, recall their exact words or avoid awkward questions thus giving the journalist far more flexibility and effectiveness to achieve their goals (“Wait, did I really say that? I guess I might have…”). .

Just remember, email is entirely to your advantage, verbal communication is the opposite. Use caution and discipline and you’ll usually be fine, but also keep in mind that your physical traits can be interpreted (or misinterpreted). Just think how many times you’ve seen a phrase like “He seemed uncomfortable when I asked if…” in the press. Whether you actually are uncomfortable is entirely up for debate, but the journalist can now frame the response the way they’d like it to appear.

Pretend Everything is “On the Record”

I’d encourage entrepreneurs to speak to the press entirely “on the record,” even before the formal transcript begins (usually via a recording device). Everything you say is fair game. The early “banter” and random discussions before you “get down to business,” can become just as much a part of the story as what’s on the tape. And don’t forget that your handshake, your clothing, your demeanor, your office decor and your “off the record” banter are likely to impact the piece. Read most interviews or profiles and you’ll see this color commentary time and again.

Beware Later Questions and the “Followup”

There’s a common technique I was unaware of until recently that’s apparently taught in journalism school (or it was when my wife attended). It’s sometimes referred to as the “followup” and leverages a particularly powerful psychology. I’ve had two professional journalists use it on me – here’s how it works: At the end of an interview, the journalist thanks you, mentions when they’ll next be in touch and then says “oh, and one more thing…”

That one more thing is often a pointed and potentially high-consequence question they’ve been saving until your guard is down. Both journalists who used it on me asked the same style of question – “what does Google think of your activities?” I now know better than to think this is an off-the-cuff request. They’re seeking the dramatic wedge issue and know that this timing plays expertly into receiving a less-than-prepared answer. In my case, since we make software for professional marketers and SEOs, they’re hoping to find a conflict angle (thankfully, there isn’t one).

Don’t Be Afraid to Call Journalists Out Publicly

If you are the  recipient  of inaccurate, misleading or unduly negative press, don’t be afraid to call out the journalist and publication directly and publicly, but do it as warmly and professionally as possible. The comments are best (and nearly every publication has them now). Address the journalist directly, thank them for writing the piece, then list the factual inaccuracies and provide any citations you can to back up your claims. Don’t get petty or nasty. Don’t insult them or imply they didn’t do their research (even if they didn’t). You need the press on your side.

These tips are odd for me to give, since my company and personal philosophy focus so much on transparency generosity in sharing. However, my experience with the press has taught me to be careful, be focused and be strategic. I’m happy to forego mainstream press coverage in favor of telling the whole story honestly and openly rather than having a bias applied to the small part that appears in a media publication.

Here’s to hoping that in the future, great journalists prosper (IMO, Danny Sullivan is the gold standard in the technology world) while those who don’t live up to such standards find other pursuits. In the meantime, entrepreneurs should approach the field with suitable preparation.

p.s. I should make it clear that not all journalists behave in ways I’ve described above. Like any field, a few bad eggs can color the whole bunch. My goal with this piece is to suggest tactics that can help entrepreneurs prepare for the worst case. Fingers crossed, you get the high caliber folks and don’t need to worry about many of these scenarios.