These are the words that open Felicity Cowie's brand new book, Exposure: Insider Secrets to Make Your Business a Go-To Authority for Journalists.
‘Hey! Why wasn’t that us?’ is the question founders ask themselves when they read a headline about their competitors in the news. Media coach Cowie addresses this feeling of missing the boat and reveals in actionable steps on how to attract that press coverage you need and deserve.
We had the pleasure of interviewing Cowie, a journalist with more than three decades of experience under her belt and a recognized expert in media relations. Read on for some great take-aways for your business.
Felicity Cowie: Media relations is frequently muddled up with public relations and that is very unhelpful for businesses seeking media coverage. Fundamentally, media relations is about working with journalists. Whilst the intention is to ultimately reach the public (be it customers, investors, talent or the world at large) via media coverage, it’s critical to understand that in all media relations work your audience is journalists. And journalists are under no obligation to do what you ask. You have no rights to approve or request changes to their work otherwise it wouldn’t be the independent third party endorsement which makes it so valuable. So media relations is about understanding how to best work with journalists and preparing for that collaboration to get the coverage you want.
Felicity Cowie: An entrepreneur is always the expert on their business. They have an authentic founder’s story to tell about the essence of their business whilst it’s unfolding and journalists are looking for good stories. So there is a common goal. Journalism is not a dark art. It’s a very long-established and hierarchical industry with strict rules and non-negotiable deadlines. By investing in enough media relations skills, entrepreneurs can successfully collaborate with journalists.
Felicity Cowie: The main reason start-ups fail is that they run out of money before they define their solution and find a market for it. So it’s really important to shoot down this misconception of ‘small’ or niche being any sort of problem otherwise you’ve got an internal conflict where a business is trying to define its niche whilst worrying about being ‘small’ at the same time. The truth is that journalists have two tests of what makes a story - 1) Is this new? 2) Does this affect a lot of people? So no matter how niche or small what you do, if it meets those two tests then you are newsworthy.
Many solopreneurs look at their calendars and their energy levels and think they haven’t got the resources to work with journalists. And that can be a very fair assessment. Whilst media coverage is free, there is an investment of time and risk involved in opening your business up to journalists. What if you go for it and then don’t get the coverage you want? It’s a key reason why I wrote Exposure. I wanted to put an affordable tool into the hands of founders to help them assess the risks and benefits of media coverage and then to give them shortcuts to go for it if or when they are ready.
My book features five examples of early-stage businesses who’ve gained media coverage and which aggregate my direct experiences of working with the ‘small’. The most important thing for any business to consider, no matter its size, is what could my business gain right now from media coverage I cannot get any other way? If your answer is ‘nothing’ then don’t bother. But if, for example, you have got a pop-up shop opening in a week’s time and you are nervous about whether footfall and flyers will bring in enough customers then an article in the local paper could help you. Not only will it put you in front of your local audience but it will give you valuable content to put out on your own social media channels plus post on local channels.
There are actually advantages to starting your media relations whilst ‘small’ and a newcomer in your sector. You have novelty value as a fresh voice and perspective on a current ‘scene’. Many entrepreneurs create businesses to solve the problems nobody else is solving. And if you put getting media-ready into the guts of your business from the start then when you are ready to approach journalists, or if they suddenly contact you with a great opportunity, you have a huge advantage.
Felicity Cowie: I was absolutely delighted when one of today’s leading venture capital investors, Eileen Burbidge MBE, wrote the foreword to Exposure. She says, ‘Founders are always inundated when starting or scaling their companies and seeking out media coverage may seem a vanity project whilst forsaking investing time in the early team or product. However, these efforts aren’t mutually exclusive and often what’s needed to help develop a stronger talent pipeline or customer acquisition funnel is, in fact, media coverage and establishing the company’s position as a thought leader, expert and innovator in its field.’
I would say that investors and journalists are similar in that they are both pitched a lot. They are both constantly assessing ‘why this business/source and not this one’. So all the work you put into pitching journalists is also of value when preparing pitches for investment. The key first lesson I teach businesses is to be able to describe themselves in around 50 words before going anywhere near journalists. Having this short description which answers critical questions for journalists (and other humans) makes it much easier to pitch to investors too.
But the other key benefit is that with media coverage you have proof to show investors that you are capable of cutting through the noise. Not only do you have a solution of interest but you have the skills to expose it positively.
Felicity Cowie: What a great question! I think people understand when they pitch to investors it’s critical to come up with some detail on Total Available Market (TAM). So they will research who will buy their solution and then, crudely, calculate the cost of their solutions multiplied by this market to indicate the potential value of the investment they are offering. News journalists are deeply uninterested in helping businesses make money, seeing this as a threat to their own key value - their independence. However, a strong test of a potential story is considering how many people it affects. So if you can pitch yourself as a source and story of interest to large numbers of a journalist’s audience then they will seriously consider ‘investing’ in you. Researching this also helps you come up with meaningful media outlets to target.
Felicity Cowie: Working with the media always poses risks to your reputation. If journalists don’t get what your business does and they misrepresent it then you are stuck with coverage which fails to deliver what you wanted to grow your business.
There is a concept called ‘anchoring bias’ and very broadly it argues that people rely heavily on the first piece of information they are given about any new subject. Then interpret newer information from the reference point of that anchor, instead of seeing it objectively. This is very true of journalists. So what can happen is you get coverage but your business isn’t described right. But now that’s out there as an ‘anchoring’ point. Journalists frequently pick up a story from another and take it on further but they too will be affected by the ‘anchoring point’ of the original story.
The only real place you have any control over any of this is right at the start of all the media relations you do for your business, the way you put together the description of your business as a source. Entrepreneurs are the only people who know their businesses well enough to unpack the information for this description. It’s not about being a good writer, you can easily get a copywriter to polish up what you create. It’s about you the entrepreneur owning and DIYing this fundamental part of the process upon which all media relations success turns.
Felicity Cowie: Journalists are extremely risk-averse so what they love is content they can trust - content from a source they can understand who is well-positioned to tell the story it is telling.
Boring is traditionally defined as a lack of stimulation, but I don’t think that quite nails its meaning during the pitching process. Journalists have this reputation for needing constant stimulation and excitement from stories but what I think they crave more is for something to be useable; for a pitch to open a negotiation. And the reason it can get ‘boring’ to listen to a poor pitch is that you can’t see enough in it to even start a negotiation.
Due to this incorrect reputation as story thrill-seekers, I think when people pitch to journalists they’re so worried about not being ‘exciting enough’ for the journalists that they attempt to stimulate them with what they think will appeal to them, such as celebrity involvement, really left field ideas for launches or extreme headline figures from quirky surveys.
It’s not the right sort of stimulation. What journalists want is enough information to stimulate a negotiation about the story. For example, if I got pitched a story claiming ‘90% of people believe in aliens’, I’d be extremely skeptical about it. The figure would seem so far-fetched I’d hesitate to follow it up. However, if the same story was pitched along the lines of ‘there’s been a sharp increase in the number of people who believe in aliens’, I’d be far more interested in exploring the opportunity because now we have what might be a trend and I’m curious about why that has increased. What’s happened in the world to condition this shift? And who the heck is monitoring this and why?
I think if you’re pitching journalists and can see that your key challenge is to open a negotiation with them this can transform how to pitch, making you much more focused on the value you have and want to bring to the conversation.
Felicity Cowie: It’s really important to understand that when you pitch a story to a journalist they will need to go and repitch it to their colleagues and editors. Often several times. I can’t stress enough that media relations isn’t about identifying journalists, taking them out to lunch and ‘building relationships’ with them. That is the way journalists can get represented in fiction because they are often used as devices to move a plot along. But it’s not the real world.
Journalists struggle to leave their newsrooms which are usually incredibly short-staffed. Team working isn’t just an aspiration - you are dependent on the next shift to turn up so you can handover and go home. Journalists take holidays, get sick, move to different jobs with very different remits. When I worked at the BBC, part of even one shift might be a combination of planning and then on air work. And rotas flip you around planning for the next day shifts and being responsible for hourly headlines. So I had sources I loved working with but if they contacted me on a non-planning shift I wouldn’t have the mindset to listen to a pitch.
Even if you work for a tiny media outlet or are a sole blogger, but with a decent-sized and engaged audience, you still have to consider any pitch in relation to your wider agenda which is to meet the expectations of your audience such as hitting your deadlines, giving them sources and stories they value.
Felicity Cowie: Yes. I include guidelines on these timelines in the Media Toolkit section of Exposure. And I go into some detail about how journalists work with time to help businesses gain that insight for themselves. Because when I ‘crossed the floor’ from working as a journalist into being a media relations troubleshooter I was absolutely astounded at the different cultures. Journalists are all bound by deadlines and at the mercy of information which is a living and constantly changing energy. This underpins the logic behind all of their key processes.
It is easiest to find out about editorial calendars and planned news agendas from people who want your money! So the advertisers, rather than the journalists. Phone calls and emails/messages with journalists are usually very short. But advertisers will have all the time in the world for you. You are under no obligation to buy and you have every right to ask for editorial calendars and as much information as you want about the outlet when considering spending budget on advertising. And there are advantages to paid advertising. You can control exactly how it appears and you can be creative with this. A paid advert can take the form of a Q and A or a column from you.
Felicity Cowie: You should always pitch with a press release and always include a quote in your press release, ideally in your third paragraph. It usually should come from the business figurehead, the person the buck stops with. If you put out a press release then a journalist will have every right to get in touch and ask to interview the business leader. But if you’ve already done that for them then you save time and give them the chance to quote you in your own actual words you chose to send out. Your quote can be emotional and express views. It’s the only place in a press release where you can be ‘salesy’ and overtly push your own agenda, the actual reason you are bothering with all the hassle of getting media coverage. You want to keep it short so that each sentence could be used in its entirety, saving the difficulties of missing contexts.
Providing good quality photographs can definitely help your chances of getting coverage because they give your story ‘at a glance’ to a busy journalist. And they also give the journalist more options. So when I worked on local papers I might not want to do a big story on a pitch but I could do a short picture caption with a good image. But only send your best and most relevant photograph with your press release, not a selection or something you know isn’t great but ‘will do’. It won’t.
It is also a good idea to offer ‘gifts’ at the end of your press release. What I mean by that is to end it with a line like ‘For interviews, more photographs and case studies please contact [give an email address which is monitored]’
Felicity Cowie: Don’t go near any journalists until you can describe what your business does in around 50 words. And prepare for your interview by asking yourself, and any other key people in your business, what are the worst questions I could be asked and form answers to these questions so you have them ready. You can always say something. And always have a press release in play. This can serve as a ‘map’ to help keep your story on track. I go into more detail on all of this in Exposure because the purpose of the whole book is to get entrepreneurs prepared to deliver what journalists expect. But that gives my top three absolutely crucial actions to take.
Felicity Cowie: The real value of media coverage lies in its power as independent third party endorsement. But sometimes people get so caught up in the consuming process of getting the coverage, and then the follow-on coverage this can trigger from other media, that they struggle to maximise its value. So you really need to find ways, or extra help, to make sure you put all your media coverage on your website and social media channels as close to publication as possible. This generates word of mouth buzz and enables sharing. And will give you powerful backlinks to boost your search engine rankings and help you gain verified status on your socials.
Make it as easy for yourself as possible. Just have one web page titled ‘In the News’ and store all the links there as they come in. Link all your social posts directly to the media outlets. Be aware that many outlets put their content behind paywalls. That means that your link to your story may only show a headline and top paragraph before viewers are asked to sign up or pay to see more. To manage these expectations you can indicate there is a paywall in your link.
Keep an archive of your coverage so that you can bring it back again and again. Media coverage holds value for years.
Felicity Cowie: The most efficient way to work is to pick between 10 to 15 media outlets as your top targets and to prioritise them. You want quality not quantity. If you get a strong piece of coverage it can attract further media attention and more opportunities for interviews. It is very time-consuming working with journalists and most entrepreneurs already have a lot to do. So look at your diary, think about the time you have got available for demanding journalists. They will be interested in you when you are at your busiest, when what you are doing is newest and of most interest to the most people. You may only want to put out one story a quarter, even less. Look across your whole year ahead, when is it most useful to your business to get media coverage? Your focus should not be on what’s possible, everything’s possible, but what is most useful for the growth of your business?
Felicity Cowie: We now live in what I think of as an ‘accountability economy’ where customers have gained the capabilities of investigative journalists to access information. They can scrutinize, share or expose, make or destroy any businesses with a few taps on their mobile devices. In this new world, actions speak loudest, and businesses need to walk the walk and talk the talk. At the same time.
Felicity Cowie: I suppose bluntly not knowing the ‘rules of engagement’ and Exposure lays bare those rules. When I was a journalist I thought it was obvious that if you wanted media coverage as a business you would be clear on what your business did, why you were pitching a story, what your story was. And that you would understand that a press release was an invitation so you were up to be interviewed and to meet deadlines. When I moved out of newsrooms and into the corporate world I was absolutely shocked at how little these ‘rules of engagement’ are understood.
Felicity Cowie: I get most excited about founders who are working on really positive human endeavors. The main reason I quit news and went into the work I do now is that I got so dispirited covering all the hardest and most painful parts of the human experience. But I would add to that that my ideal founders are the ones whose businesses already meet the two tests of what makes news. They have something new and meaningful to offer and either proof or enough self-awareness to back this up.
For founders who want to secure media coverage, Felicity Cowie's book provides the comprehensive knowledge you need, including an actionable Media Relations Toolkit.
Follow the latest PR hacks from our experts.
Press coverage in business media as a game changer for startup success.
PR and growth experts reveal the best tools suitable for DIY PR