Startup founders and even small or local businesses want to know how to get free press, or what we public relations folks call “earned media.” The process is quite simple in theory: Trade value you have for value a journalist wants. Starting as a PR outsider, I saw the grotesque way the industry worked and found a better and more human way.
Obviously, this is a deep rabbit hole, so I’ll be linking to other pages on this site that address specific issues in detail. All those links will open in new pages. I encourage you to add those to your reading list.
How journalists find stories
Journalists find stories the way you’d expect. They ask contacts, watch social media feeds, look at public reports, read government data, read data from survey and polling companies, check out research from Universities and they get tipped off about stories.
Many founders or business owners incorrectly believe their job is to simply find “the news” and report it. That’s not their job. Their job is to present engaging content their audience will read. The mere fact you are doing something new doesn’t qualify you to get free press or earned media. Not to mention, you likely suffer from the founder-baby bias and don’t have the unique story you think you do.
Because journalists actively seek engaging stories for their audience, how to get free press is all about helping them meet their goals. If you think this way, you are on better footing than even most PR companies who are basically spam factories these days.
PR companies spam journalists.
If they’re operating correctly, PR companies get press for their clients by pitching the right story to the right journalist at the right time. Sadly, few actually do this. In reality, they use their client’s budget to spam their databases repeatedly. The databases can easily be purchased, and there are companies like Meltwater and others that maintain databases for PR companies.
Obviously, journalists don’t like this spamming activity and will block addresses that do it. When this happens, however, the PR company creates a new alias, or assigns a new person to keep spamming. When that inevitably results in their domain name being added to the globally-shared spam database, SORBS, they switch domains and start again.
Because I’ve previously written for The Washington Post, Harvard Business Review and The Wall Street Journal, I’ve seen identical emails from completely different people. It’s like spam whack-a-mole.
If caught, the PR company just apologizes about the aggressive employee (who may not be real) or at worst, fall on their sword to protect the client. Clients often have no idea their PR company acts this way. When PR companies claim they have “connections,” they typically mean they have a database of names they spam. That’s it.
If this sounds stupid, you’re right. If you hear PR companies publicly discuss their strategy, they will openly acknowledge why spamming is a bad strategy. But behind closed doors, they will engage in this activity time and time again because real PR work is hard and takes a lot of time—time clients don’t have.
How to get free press … the right way
To get free press, the best strategy resembles a matching card game, not pitching one story to thousands of people. In the famous card game Memory, children match cards by flipping them over one at a time. Each card has a twin. This is the same principle of proper pitching.
You and/or your company has a deck of “stories” in your company, and the various publications and journalists have a deck of stories they’re currently wanting to write about. Understanding how to get free press is about matching the right story to the right journalist.
Learn more about how to get a journalist to cover your story
How to generate story ideas to pitch to journalists
Because there are thousands of journalists covering thousands of different beats, you will be more effective if you develop thousands of different angles that can be a resource. Every founder or CMO typically thinks their most obvious angle is a new product or their company’s overall story, but that’s the least compelling for their audience, and it’s a limited strategy.
After you inevitably pitch the “look at our new innovative thing” approach and get ghosted, then you may learn it’s important to have thousands of stories you can pitch—stories that will align with current and future news trends and stories that will align with various readers and consumers of the news publication you want to work with.
The easiest way to do this is what I call the PR pizza pitching method. Instead of pitching how great your pizza is (BORING), pitch as many creative angles as possible, giving you more opportunity to hit the right journalist “match.” Here are some super obvious ideas to pitch:
- how the crust is made
- where your tomatoes come from
- the story behind the recipe
- how your pizza oven was made
- the best re-heat strategy for cold pizza
- the local vegetables you use
- the hormone-free
- grass-fed meat you use
- the sustainable practices you utilize
- your carbon footprint reduction
- your EV pizza delivery vehicles
- inspiring stories your employees want to share
- your fight to end hunger
The bottom line is: pitch any story you think readers, viewers, listeners, or watchers will want to learn about. And when you do pitch that story, tell the journalist why you think their consumers will love your story. Aligning stories with media consumers is how to get free press.
Learn more about the pizza pitching method.
Writing the perfect pitch email
After you have identified which audience your story is for, which publication writes for that audience, and who is best to pitch… how do you actually write the perfect pitch email? The perfect pitch email is short, concise, respectful and focused, but it also follows some pretty straightforward rules.
You can ruin your chances if you pitch a story at the wrong time or if the pitch resembles a previous story that a particular journalist received. Believe it or not, people make crazy unprovable claims all the time, so you have to pitch something unique and make any claims easily and quickly provable. If this sounds complicated, then just follow the FART method.
Make sure your pitch is Fresh, Accessible, Relevant, and Timely. Briefly, a fresh pitch is a unique story told in a way that hasn’t been told before. An accessible pitch has facts and figures, reports, videos, studies, data or qualified sources who can vouch for the story. A relevant pitch is highly tailored to the journalist who receives it, and is custom-made for its consumers. A timely pitch is on the heels of major news that aligns with your brand or respects the season it’s pitched in. A tech pitch in the month of October (dubbed tech-tober), when Amazon, Google, Samsung and Apple are launching new products is likely a non-starter.
Learn more about the FART method.
How to get free press.
If you’re a founder or CMO, understanding how to get free press starts first, by finding which publications, radio shows, TV shows, newspapers, podcasts or magazines your target audience consumes. Second, finding the journalist or influencer who already has their attention. And third, GIVING that journalist something valuable they can use to interest that audience. It should feel like a true collaboration and trade.