Editor’s note: Rand Fishkin is the CEO and co-founder of SEOmoz, a Seattle-based firm that develops software for search engine optimization (SEO). In a recent blog post, he explained why companies (particularly startups) should maintain a healthy dose of fear when working with the press. He also offered some advice, which we’ve reprinted with Fishkin’s approval. Do you agree with his recommendations?
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 page view 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?
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 four 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 about 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 business development 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. Nirav Tolia of Nextdoor
, for example, is a master.
Email interviews are great; Phone calls and in-person are 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, while 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 he or she would like it to appear.
Imagine 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 décor, 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 “follow up.”
There’s a common technique I was unaware of until recently, and it is apparently taught in journalism school (or it was when my wife
attended). It’s sometimes referred to as the “follow up” 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 he or she will 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 the journalist has 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 SEO professionals, 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 and 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—in my opinion, 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.