When I launched my blockchain startup Falcon Global Capital in late 2013, getting in the media was our immediate primary objective. We needed trust and credibility, and we viewed gaining that as mission critical to our success.
Like most founders, I started with “DIY PR.” To me, it seemed pretty easy — journalists write about cool companies, and we were, like, seriously going to change the world — how hard would it be to just tell them what we’re doing and get some media attention? I spent a few weeks writing pitches and doing outreach. But in the end, we had nothing.
So we brought in the “big guns” and hired a highly rated tech PR firm to help us. After a strong kickoff call, the executives that brought us on faded into the background and we were stuck working with interns to try and accomplish our PR goals. After 90 days, we had nothing to show for it. No media, no credibility, and even worse, $20,000 of limited capital up in flames.
That was when I decided I couldn’t rely on someone else to do it. I needed to figure it out myself. And so I read every book, blog post, and how-to guide I could find. I listened to every podcast, watched every YouTube video, and worked through all of the courses that I could get my hands on.
Then I started executing on what I learned. In less than a week, we had our first big feature story on Business Insider. Then I was on Fox News and CNBC. Over the course of the next 9 months, my full-time job became getting media coverage and doing media interviews.
We also managed to make it into the mainstream media when Falcon Global failed and Bloomberg announced our demise. While we did become good at developing strategies to get in the media, the business model was flawed and doomed from the start.
Like most founders do after they fail, I started to think, what’s next? I didn’t have much time to think. The same day that Bloomberg announced we had failed, multiple entrepreneur friends reached out to me with the same core message: “Your company may have sucked, but you were great at getting media coverage. Can we hire you?”
I said yes — and ever since then, we’ve been offering what we did so well for ourselves as a service to other companies. Over the past 4 years, we’ve worked with 160+ companies, created over 5,000 pieces of content, and had over 3,000 media hits in outlets like the Today Show, 60 Minutes, Vice News, and WSJ.
This isn’t meant to brag or make us look cool — if it was, I wouldn’t have admitted that my startup failed. It’s meant to provide context around the lessons I’m about to share. LinkedIn is full of blockchain and ICO “advisors” pumping out content. And while some of their “advice” is interesting, 90% of it is complete bullshit and actually goes against everything we’ve learned and seen work over the years.
The goal of this post is to take the lessons I’ve learned as a founder of a blockchain startup, combined with the lessons I’ve learned over the past five years, and share what I’ve seen work. The good news is, to be totally honest, there is absolutely nothing proprietary about what we do.
Anyone can do it. It’s not rocket science. You don’t need fancy software, and you don’t need to hire an expensive PR firm. You just need to put in the time, effort, energy, and most of all — the hustle.
And it all begins with having the right mindset.
Part 1 — Getting Your Mindset Right
Every time you come up with a potential media story and begin to do media outreach, you need to have these three core ideas in mind.
#1: Realize No One Gives a Shit About You
While that’s a tough reality to accept, today everyone is a startup founder with the next big idea that’s going to transform/disrupt/reinvent an industry that’s “ripe for disruption.” It’s a crowded and noisy space, and simply having an idea and working hard does not mean the media will care about what you are doing right off the bat.
Companies (and especially founders) often make the mistake of thinking what they are doing is a bigger deal than it really is at the time. This is 100% understandable — it’s your baby/project/team/vision. I’m not saying that what your company is doing is insignificant. It’s just that the media is being pitched by passionate startups all day long, most of whom say (and believe) that they will be the next Facebook, Google, or Uber. If you are spending every hour of the day working on building your company and company vision, it’s understandable that you will develop tunnel vision around what you are doing.
This is what leads to so many companies wasting time, money, and resources on announcements about a new hire, rolling out of beta (for a second time), or a newly signed partnership. If you’ve just hired Tim Cook as your new CEO, that’s a big deal and is newsworthy, and if you’ve just signed an exclusive partnership with Amazon, fire up the media outreach.
But if not, just stop. Journalists and their readers don’t care. They want to be told stories that educate them, inspire them, and entertain them. Announcements about new hires and partnerships do have a purpose, but they shouldn’t be what your media strategy is built on because they will rarely result in significant coverage.
While there are exceptions — admittedly, some companies do get lucky or have a great story that happens to catch that day — this is all about mindset and betting on logic instead of emotional conviction and chance.
Having a mindset that the media will instantly be interested in your solution sets you up for failure and prevents you from thinking about ideas that will connect with the media and their readers.
#2: Have Empathy (and a Soul)
I promise this isn’t a filler point. While it may sound like fluff, this is probably the most important component to media success.
To start with, take a step back and have some empathy for journalists and editors. Every day, they wake up with hundreds of intrusive and oftentimes totally unrelated email pitches from startups and PR firms hoping to spam their way into a story.
According to a study by Fractl, 8% of journalists get pitched more than 100 times per day, 11% more than 50 times per day, and 40% more than 20 times per day. That’s a lot of cold email.
How do you like receiving cold emails? Especially ones that are unrelated to what you do? You can’t blame journalists for openly mocking the bad PR pitches they receive. After all, a person can only handle so much spam.
So before you click that send button, take a step back and put yourself in their shoes. If you were getting the pitch, would you cover the story? Would it stand out from the other 500 pitches you received that week?
Then take an even further step back and think about what journalists and editors care about — their readers. Would their readers really find the story you are pitching interesting? Would it add value? Would it educate them?
Doing this is obviously challenging. But the more you can remove yourself from the stories you are pitching and put yourself in the shoes of who you are pitching and who their readers are, the greater your chances of success.
#3: Accept That No One Trusts You
Earlier this year, news broke that Sierra Leone had just used blockchain technology in their national election. It was covered by outlets like CoinDesk, TechCrunch, and Business Insider.
There was just one tiny issue with the story. It didn’t actually happen.
While there were some truths to the story, overall, it was inaccurate. Outlets that had covered the story had to update their stories, other outlets piled on covering the false story, and even the Sierra Leone government had to formally respond.
The media has been burned too many times by startups “leveraging blockchain.” Journalists and editors have seen and heard it all. Every day, their inboxes are full of pitches from more ICOs and startups with the same exact message.
“We’re using blockchain to disrupt X industry. The industry is worth $X and if we capture just X%, WE WILL BE WORTH BILLIONS.”
Because of all the bad actors and bullshit in the space, more so than any other industry, you need to make trust and credibility your number one priority. Every time you perform outreach of any kind, you need support material that shows you aren’t the same as all the other companies flooding their inbox.
You need to show a real product and real customers, and that your product has a real chance at solving a specific problem in the industry.
Feeling nice and depressed yet?
My advice so far is to accept that no one trusts you and no one cares about what you are doing.
While it’s depressing advice, perhaps it’s the reality check that will set you up to be more successful. It may also be the foundation you can build on top of to break through the noise and get your company in the mainstream media.
Now that you have the right mindset, here’s what you can do to make successful media coverage happen.
Part 2 — How to Get in Mainstream Media
#1: Have a Real Business
This probably doesn’t apply to everyone reading this, but due to the amount of conversations I’ve had with blockchain startups, I felt this was a necessary point to include. If it doesn’t apply, bear with me for 200 words — or skip ahead to point two. If it does apply, please listen.
If you are pre-product, pre-funding, and pre-customers, you have way bigger problems to solve than scoring some mainstream media attention. Just as I learned with my company, which was all over mainstream media, it doesn’t actually mean anything if you don’t have a good product or service behind it. One big media hit will not be a game changer, and it can actually be a major distraction in the most critical phase of your company — the “actually build something” phase.
Three or four years ago, before thousands of other companies were “leveraging blockchain,” you could get away with throwing the blockchain buzzword in and scoring some press. But if you’re in the earliest stages of building your business, you are wasting your time.
Go build a product, go get some customers, and then come back and start aiming for media coverage. Until then, focus on building a company that offers a real solution to a real problem.
Here’s a simple pre-mainstream media pitching checklist. Do yourself and the media a favor and check these boxes before you begin media outreach:
Once you’ve checked all those boxes, you’re ready to dive in. If they’re still unchecked, please stop reading and go build a real company that adds value to the world. This post will still be here after you’re done!
#2: Don’t wait for news. Create it.
What most companies do: Most companies spend their time waiting for news that they think will be a big deal — but normally isn’t. They delay proactive media outreach because they think they have nothing to share with the media and will just wait until they do.
Why this is dumb: To begin with (and circling back to my earlier point of no one giving a shit about what your company is doing), most of the time that big news you are waiting for isn’t really that big of news. Second, consistency and momentum are the top two most critical traits of a successful media strategy.
You can’t expect to come out of your Silicon Valley cave, drop some news, make a huge splash, then crawl back in until you have some more news to share. While you’re away, your competitors will fill that news cycle and you will be starting from square one every time you come out.
What you should do instead: Don’t think about what company news you have coming up. Think about what news you can create.
Think about what stories would be interesting to an outlet’s readers and the industry. Think about the conversations currently taking place that you could add something of substance to. Think about how you could educate your target readers.
By shifting your way of thinking, you’ll gain the ability to be more proactive.
Data-Driven Creative Ideas:
Internally, we call this process “mathmen over madmen,” and nearly every big idea we’ve ever executed has come from following this process. It works because it enables you to develop creative ideas based on concrete data, as opposed to operating on your gut instinct of what you think will be interesting.
First, use a tool like Buzzsumo.com to see what topics are trending. Tools like Buzzsumo allow you to enter a keyword or domain and see what topics are getting the most traction on social media.
For example, if I search Bitcoin and look at the top stories from the past week, here’s what comes up:
You can also search based on the outlet. For instance, if I enter coindesk.com and search for their most popular stories in the past year, these are the results:
As you do this analysis on different keywords and outlets, you’ll begin to notice what’s already popular and being talked about. From there, you can come up with either ways to build on top of those ideas or use them as inspiration to develop something similar.
You can then take those ideas and produce…
#1: Research Reports Develop a research hypothesis that you think would be insightful and interesting, and then run a survey with the goal of generating a piece of educational data-driven content.
For example, if you have a blockchain startup in the mortgage industry, run a survey of 1,000 mortgage professionals to better understand their perceptions and views of blockchain and the problems they think it can solve.
Then take those insights, package them up, and release the findings to the media — “85% of Mortgage Professionals Are Open to Using Blockchain Solutions.”
The goal isn’t to make your company the story. You are making the report and its findings the story, then providing your expert commentary to interrupt what that means for the industry.
#2: PR Stunts I’ll start with a warning: PR stunts are a high-risk way to generate coverage. They typically are expensive and can often get out of control if you haven’t thought them through. Also, if you don’t commit, they can fall flat. But as we all know, high-risk means high reward, and if you can pull them off, you can generate more media coverage then you can imagine.
When you pull off a stunt, you need to think through every possible way it could go wrong. You need to put yourself in the minds of the people who will interact with the stunt to understand how they will respond. You also need to make sure the stunt supports your company’s overall vision and business objectives.
For example, for one of our long-time partners, we arranged a satirical protest at Consensus in NYC , where we hired 100 paid actors and formed a group called Bankers Against Bitcoin.
The protesters represented the hypothetical bankers that could be put out of business by blockchain. As conference attendees entered the event, the protestors held up their signs and chanted, “Hey-hey, ho-ho, Bitcoin has got to go!”
We had staff handing out flyers directing people to the Bankers Against Bitcoin website, which consists of an open letter from our partner’s CEO clarifying it was a joke — but also reminding bankers that it will soon be the reality if they don’t adopt blockchain.
The campaign went viral. But more importantly, it supported what our client believes. Our client’s mission is to bring more people into the blockchain ecosystem and this campaign helped get that message in front of a larger audience.
#3: Newsjacking The term “newsjacking” was coined by David Meerman Scott in his book Newsjacking: How to Inject Your Ideas into a Breaking News Story and Generate Tons of Media Coverage. Here’s how it is defined:
“Newsjacking is the practice of aligning a brand with a current event in an attempt to generate media attention and boost the brand’s exposure. Companies create related blog content and social posts to instantly reach a wider audience. While newsjacking began as a PR technique, it has expanded into inbound brand marketing and digital content practices.”
To see what this looks like in action, let’s say another crypto exchange just got hacked. As soon as you hear the news, you should start your outreach to any journalist that you think will be covering the story. Reach out to them and share your insights into how the hack occured, how it could have been prevented, and what the hack will mean to the industry overall. Offer to get on the phone and answer their questions about the state of crypto hacks and offer to be there as a resource or to simply provide an answer via email that they can use in their story.
What you are doing is watching for breaking news (fortunately, there is always a lot going on in the blockchain world!) then doing targeted outreach to journalists that you think will be covering it and offering a unique opinion or perspective for their story.
Many companies and PR firms now follow this practice. So to stand out, you’ll need to make sure the commentary you provide is unique and offers a different perspective from everyone else.
#3: Become the Ultimate Resource
What most companies do: We often see companies that are so fixated on their own company and what they do, they completely miss one of the core aspects of media relations…the relations part. We’ve seen companies turn down opportunities to speak with outlets like WSJ because the conversation was about Bitcoin regulation but they are a Bitcoin wallet. They didn’t see how having that conversation would tie back into what they are doing.
We also see companies turn down media opportunities because the outlet is “too small” or the journalist doesn’t have a big enough following.
Why this is dumb: Having this view is extremely narrow minded.
First, the ego that some companies have is nearly comical. Thinking you are too good for an outlet that covers your niche but isn’t the biggest? Let’s think logically about the idea that journalists often move outlets. The journalist you just blew off for one outlet could be at CNN next year, and you’ve missed your chance to build a relationship early on.
Second, going back to the point about empathy — put yourself in a journalist’s shoes and consider two scenarios:
Startup A: You’ve never heard of them before and they just cold emailed you about upcoming news that actually looks interesting.
Startup B: You’ve chatted with the founder a few times and they’ve given you some insights for stories you were working on and connected you with a few other experts that have helped with stories. They’ve just pitched you with news and it actually looks interesting.
Which would you choose? It’s pretty obvious that startup B has a far greater chance of getting coverage. But it’s important to note that being a resource for the media doesn’t guarantee coverage and you shouldn’t do it with that expectation.
There is no agreed-upon transaction taking place where you help with X stories and you get X coverage in return. Instead, it’s based on logic. The more chances you have to engage with journalists, the more you can prove your credibility and expertise in the industry and the stronger the relationship will become.
We had a client talk with a TV correspondent for CNBC four times before she eventually included him in a piece. That piece wouldn’t have happened if he’d shunned the previous conversations or asked if she was going to write about him. Instead, his focus was on adding value and being a resource with no expectation of getting anything in return.
What you should do instead: You need to stop thinking about that big story and start thinking about how you can help support journalists as they do their job. Think in terms of what value you can offer them, what resources you can connect them with, and what you can do to help make their job easier.
Be sincere in every interaction you have and treat it just like you would any other relationship you are building. Your driving objective should simply be: How can I add as much value as possible to this relationship?
I’ve pitched stories to journalists that have nothing to do with client projects simply because I think the story deserves more attention. That should be how every pitch you send feels when they read it.
Lastly, you should say yes to every single opportunity to engage with the media that comes your way, regardless of who they are or what they cover. If it’s anything remotely relevant, take the opportunity.
#4: Build a Foundation
What most companies do: Every company wants to be on the WSJ and Fox News, for obvious reasons. But if all of their energy goes toward this goal, they miss out on good opportunities along the way. They also miss out on a chance to build a foundation that sets them up for long-term sustainable success.
Why this is dumb: In order for your strategy of getting in those mainstream outlets to be successful, you need to be consistent. If you are focused only on the highest tier of media possible and don’t put any effort into anything besides full feature stories in the largest outlets, it’s very unlikely you can do that on a consistent basis.
One of the key target outcomes of a successful media strategy is to become top of mind — for the media, investors, and of course, customers. That doesn’t happen from one story, or even a few. It happens from being in the media over and over again.
What you should do instead: You should view your media strategy as a pyramid that consists of different approaches, and your goal should be to start at the bottom and work your way up. We call this our “foundation of thought leadership development.”
Start at the bottom with Founder and Executive Insights. These are pieces of content published under your founder’s name that leverage your founder’s knowledge, experience, and time on the front lines. These compelling thought leadership articles aren’t selling your company — they are selling your founder’s expertise. And these insights are placed on targeted media outlets that speak directly to your target audience. These pieces are typically called guest posts, op-eds, or byline content. (More on Founder Insights here.)
As you’re doing that, begin building relationships through Resource PR. This phase is all about becoming the ultimate industry resource to the journalists and media outlets in your industry. You can do this by monitoring journalists who write about relevant keywords and topics. Use that knowledge to proactively reach out to reporters and offer to be a resource or to connect them with someone who may be a resource in the future. The key is to focus on adding value without asking or expecting anything in return.
Push out Momentum Announcements on the newswire, and that’s it. While the media likely doesn’t care about a new hire, a product update, or even a funding round, it doesn’t hurt to still push that news out in a press release. The difference is in your expectations — you aren’t expecting for it to become big news and you aren’t burning relationships pitching it. You are simply pushing it out on the wire to have it online and that’s it.
Plot your Mathmen Ideas carefully. These are your big PR campaigns and stunts, and they take a lot of resources. You should aim to do 1–2 of them per year and that’s it.
#5: Start From the Bottom
What most companies do: A lot of companies have a delusional belief that one media hit will change everything. They focus their efforts on the outlets and media experts that have a huge number of visitors each month and skip over the outlets that have low visitor counts and no mainstream recognition. When we ask a company why they want to be in Forbes, for example, they say it’s because that’s where their audience is. Hmmm.
Why this is dumb: Let’s do some math. According to Similar Web, Forbes has 112 million visitors per month, and they publish 400 articles per day.
Depending on your niche, what % of those visitors are actually relevant to you? Then what % of those users will happen to be on the site at the exact moment your article goes live?
The answer, of course, is miniscule. And that’s why being in those highly sought-after outlets isn’t always the best place to focus on first. You want to get there, of course, because your target audience will recognize the outlet, but you don’t get there on your first attempt, and you shouldn’t expect it to generate leads magically once you do.
What you should do instead: Instead of thinking about your media strategy from the top, start with truly thinking about where your customers actually are.
If you have a blockchain product for the energy industry, start with focusing all your effort on the outlets that specially and exclusively cover the energy vertical. Do they have a smaller readership? Yes. While Forbes may have 112 million readers, Green Tech Media, for example, only has 800,000. Forbes may look cooler, but if you actually consider where your customers are, there is a greater chance you can reach them through the industry outlets over the more mainstream outlets.
And consider this: Where do you think big outlets get their news from in the first place? Sure, sometimes they are the ones breaking stories. But they also source a lot of their stories, ideas, and quotes from industry media. Journalists at the big outlets do their research just like everyone else, and if they continue to see your name in the industry outlets, it can demonstrate your expertise and increase your chances of working with them down the road.
#6: Create a Niche Conversation Monopoly
What most companies do: Many companies seem bought into the idea of establishing themselves as industry thought leaders, yet are running on an outdated strategy of aiming to be a thought leader for all things blockchain.
Why this is dumb: Four years ago, I was sending emails to journalists with the subject line “Bitcoin 101” and an offer to get on the phone and talk about all the basics. It was highly effective and I had great conversations.
But doing that today would be like launching a strategy saying you want to be a thought leader in marketing. It’s just way too broad, and there’s too many people already established doing the same thing. Besides, these days, many journalists and outlets have a basic understanding of what blockchain technology is and they don’t need to learn the 101 stuff anymore.
What you should do instead: Instead of trying to be a thought leader in blockchain in general, pick the most relevant niche and focus all your efforts on building a “conversation monopoly” around that niche.
A niche can be anything. For example, if you have a blockchain solution for the real estate industry, that could be your niche. If you are a blockchain mining company, mining could be your niche. Or if you are a crypto hedge fund, hedge funds could be your niche.
The key is to identify what is most relevant to you, then put all your focus into owning the conversation. This requires a steady and consistent stream of media coverage and content creation.
Going back to the real estate example, let me put it this way: When someone is Googling about how blockchain will impact real estate, you should own the first page through a mix of content and articles. You aren’t trying to be a thought leader in just blockchain. Your goal should be to be a thought leader in how blockchain will transform real estate.
After you gain control over one niche, it’s far easier to branch out and expand this control to other niches or conversations. The key is to start small. Pick the one that’s the most relevant, then work your way up to others.
Making It All Happen
Getting in the media will always require a tremendous amount of hustle, and if you have limited capital, the last thing in the world you should spend it on is a PR firm. Even if the PR firms cares, they will never care as much as you do about your business and your success.
If you have the runway and capital to invest in your growth, carefully vet every PR firm — ask about their process, ask for references, and ask them to explain in detail who their ideal client is.
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