Best Press Practices

Last night I addressed a group of venture capitalists and entrepreneurs, as part of a “VIP” kick-off dinner for today’s MIT Venture Capital Conference. Speaking in such settings is always preferable to speaking at the actual conference, since everyone laughs at jokes that aren’t terribly funny when heard completely sober.

The crowd wasn’t right for me to simply replay a talk I had given earlier that morning — on why private equity didn’t actually experience a “Golden Age” – so instead I felt it best to talk about me. Not me the individual per se, but people like me (reporters) vis-à-vis people like you (biz folk). For all the schooling that investors and executives receive, there is precious little discussion of how to best interact with the press (in your favor, not in mine).

So I played out three scenarios: (1) Company/Firm has some “good” news it wants to shout from the rooftops. (2) Company/Firm has terrible news it wants no one to hear, but a reporter has it anyway. (3) How VCs and their portfolio companies should handle VC funding announcements. Here’s an overview of my main points:

Good News Scenario
Begin preparing to disseminate good news long before you actually have any. If you wait, it might be too late to generate sustentative coverage in what you consider to be the most advantageous forums. Pick three publications that you would most like to appear in (magazines, blogs, trade newsletters, etc.). Then begin cozying up to a specific reporter at each. Go out to lunch or have a beer with them. Maybe drop them a tip about something else happening in the market. In other words, gain their confidence and, to a certain extent, their friendship. There will never be a formal quid pro quo, but it will go a long way toward getting coverage when the time comes.

Also, pick your reporter wisely. Veteran “name” journalists have the best followings, but it also can be hard to get their attention. Conversely, cub reporters don’t have as much sway, but are eager to find stories and cultivate stories. It’s a coin flip. Consider this all to be the media equivalent of due diligence. Finally, if you are hiring an outside PR firm to do this “due diligence” for you, here is the first question you should ask: What relevant reporters do you know, and how well do you know them? Get specific. Anyone can compile a spreadsheet of contacts.

Bad News Scenario
Rip off the bandage quickly. Your reflexive reaction may be to obfuscate, deny or issue no comment. But such a strategy often leads to drip, drip, drip stories that go one for days or weeks. For Wire readers, think back to VSP Capital or the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation. I’ve got to write a column each day, so it makes my job easier if I don’t always need to learn a brand new back-story (also makes it easier to read). If you rip off the bandage quickly, you’ll have a VERY bad day. But it’s just one day. If there’s nothing left to add, then there’s no way for me to write that second column.

Also, please note: If a reporter calls you about a scandal at your firm or company, you are probably the reporter’s last call. Don’t think that a “no comment” will just make it go away.

Funding News Scenario
If you’re going to talk about the funding publicly, do it as quickly as possible. Don’t let someone like me find it in a regulatory filing, and then preempt your whole press strategy. It just makes your life difficult for no reason, and doesn’t let you control your own message in the least.

If you are an early-stage company that wants to remain stealth, then make sure you really are stealth. Don’t talk about your company on your Facebook or LinkedIn account, or give a talk to your old biz school about what you’re up to. If you want to be stealth, do it for real. If not, get at least a vague announcement out there on your own terms.