Last week on the Greymatter podcast, Greylock marketing partner Elisa Schreiber and Greylock director of communications Kaitlin Durkosh were joined by Forbes senior editor Alex Konrad to discuss some of the basic rules of working with the press and PR.
This week, the three explore the evolving media landscape and how founders can approach relationships with journalists as well as public relations professionals and agencies. Also, the conversation dove deeper into how startup leaders should evaluate how their news fits into the broader scope.
As discussed last week, among the first things for founders to understand is who to pitch. Too often, the earliest-stage founders seek first-time coverage in traditional news outlets such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, when they would be better off in smaller publications or trade-specific outlets.
But as the group explores in deeper detail this week, founders today must contend with the increasingly complicated landscape that includes company-directed content (which can take the form of anything from email newsletters and blogs to full-scale brand “magazines” with dedicated editorial teams). The more thoughtful founders are about all of these factors, the better their chances of building a beneficial relationship with the press.
“I think the first challenge for an entrepreneur is that they are so close to what they’re building, and they are so excited about it, that everything that they do is oriented towards this being a huge deal. And so, everything they do feels newsworthy to them. A little thoughtfulness and a little sense of why plausibly the journalist might find this intellectually interesting – or why their readers might – is going to go a long way,” said Alex Konrad.
You can listen to the podcast here.
Alex, you made a comment — I’m going to paraphrase because I don’t remember exactly the quote — but no journalist wakes up and wants to be a part of the marketing plan. That’s not why you guys get out of bed in the morning.
There’s been a lot of conversation out there in terms of whether you should own your own content, what it means to do blogs and podcasts or work with the media to tell your story. My point of view is that it’s not a binary choice, actually. But I would love to talk about this. I’d like to talk about the role of the media and Alex, get your perspective on this as a journalist.
Yeah. So, I think that I would really recommend to startups or even larger companies to have a voice and own their message on some level. That’s not a bad thing, and it shouldn’t be competing with journalism, but it’s not journalism.
We’ve seen a lot of big tech companies, or buzzy ones, start magazines or their own publications, and I think that’s fine. That’s great. If they have fans who are really into that ecosystem, then maybe there’s an audience for it, but they should also be asking themselves for their audiences. It should not be a vanity project. Someone should really want to read about that niche content and remember that it’s content.
I think what journalists bring is a lack of financial relationship that an investor or an employee would have to basically try to tell it how they see it. We are trying to do right by our readers, and we don’t want to share technology with them that we don’t think is good, for example, and say that it’s good. Or we don’t want to say a startup is the next Salesforce, if we don’t believe that it could ever be the next Salesforce, because our readers will be less informed, and we will look silly.
Really, what the journalist has to bring to the table is their reputation. We are putting our reputation on the line every time we go out and say something. And so I just think that’s a different type of article, a different type of perspective, than, let’s say, a really well-done VC podcast where you might have portfolio CEOs on to share very valuable insights. But there are also probably some questions that no one would expect you to ask of that CEO.
Yeah, I would agree with you Elisa to what you said earlier. I think media is definitely one way to tell your story. And then I know Alex already said this, but the role of media is to cover and report on things that are interesting to their particular audience. They don’t have a responsibility to just cover every and any startup and what they’ve been up to.
I think our philosophy specifically at Greylock is we believe that working with media is not really optional. And we always encourage founders to do it. We think there’s a lot of value in having relationships with reporters and using media outlets as a channel to communicate with your key audiences.
I think it’s great to see startups go direct with some announcements because I think they’re being very honest about what they want out of the announcement and who they want to hear it. And so, we don’t have a problem with that. I will read the company blog posts. I will sometimes encourage people just go direct with what you’re trying to say.
But that is just not a news article, and that’s OK. And I think as long as people are just honest about their goals, and what they’re saying, these should not be one or the other. Posting a blog post about your funding news doesn’t mean you’re never going to be newsworthy to a journalist.
I think a lot of journalists prefer to write about tech companies when it’s not dependent on funding news. So, I just don’t think everyone needs to have such a binary this or that mindset.
Yeah, and just to that point, I often see startup founders want to put out press releases and get coverage for every little thing they have going on. So, they hire a new executive, or they win an award, and they think that maybe I should cover the fact that they won this award. And just remembering that not everything you do is going to be news.
And I think one other tactic that I feel like has worked somewhat well is if there are things you can bundle as part of an announcement. So, if you have a fundraise, say you hired a couple of new key executives, you have some business momentum to share, and maybe a couple of new customers that are really exciting that you’ve just signed on, try and save all of that and look for the right moment to package that together and tell that story — versus trying to just submit a couple of press releases over the next few months over the wire, and not actually put those things together and tell a full story.
Yeah, I would say press releases for me are most valuable as a historical record. I will go back and just confirm this is when a product launched, or this was the timeline of funding for a company, but I won’t usually write about a press release as it’s happening.
Alex, in some previous conversations we’ve had, you mentioned that you get the question from founders: How do I growth-hack my relationships with the media?
What’s your response to that when folks ask you that question?
I feel very sympathetic about this question. Because I understand that journalists, including myself, often give what seems like impossible prescriptions here. We will basically say, “Build a relationship.” And then the founder will say, “Great, I’d like to build a relationship.” And we’re like, “We don’t have time for that. No.” That’s how it can feel, I think, to build a relationship sometimes. I totally sympathize with that.
The short answer is that it’s gradual, it’s modular, you build trust, you build a rapport. A lot of my best sources I’ve known for years. It was several years of meeting with me without me covering [them] before Eric at Zoom ended up working with me on a really big, I think, coming-out print cover story about Zoom.
A very obvious company now, but when I was first meeting with them, it was not as obvious that I should be writing about a video conferencing tool. Then when Eric suddenly was someone that everyone wanted to talk to, the journalist that he’d known for a long time was me, and I had a good understanding of how Zoom worked and what its journey had been. That’s to me where the relationship really is beautiful, is where that long trust is built up.
The number one piece of advice I give is punch above your weight. A founder can make a journalist smarter. Just like how VCs are taking meetings and probably thinking about a thesis or a trend, so are reporters.
And so, if a founder can tell a journalist something about a bigger company in their space, or about a trend in their space, they at least are walking away better informed. Even if they’re not going to write about that startup immediately, they may say, “That person really understood this space. Maybe I should use them as an expert in the future.”
I think you get the ball rolling that way. But Kaitlin, I’m curious if you’ve seen that work firsthand, or if I’m giving bad advice.
Yeah. So, when I was at Uber, we used to have this saying that will always stick with me, and I think is just so perfect from a comms and media perspective: “To use a friend you must make a friend.”
So, just having those relationships, offering something, meeting with reporters when it’s not just, “Hey, I need you to cover this now.” Offering to be a source, talking on background with them about trends. Say you’re a company for remote work, how can you offer insight to the reporter that’s maybe doing another story about what you’re seeing, and just offering perspectives that maybe are valuable and that they need, even if that doesn’t mean you’re going to be featured in the story, or going to be even reported on in the next couple of months.
I’ve tried to take that with me. I mean, there are reporters that I’ve been working with for the last seven, 10 years. Yes, they might have switched outlets, or switched beats, but they still keep popping up on my radar, and we get coffee and catch up.
So, just think about your relationship with a reporter, with media in general, for the long haul. Even if you’re an early stage company I’m sure you have big ambitions to either get acquired or maybe have an IPO or maybe Spock at this point. But you’re going to be working with these reporters for a long time. And you want to start off on the right foot and make sure that you’re also helping them as much as you need them or want them to cover your company.
Just another tip, which again, may seem really obvious, but I can’t stress enough the importance of being upfront and honest with reporters. That is just something that matters so much. And you don’t want to be known as the person that lied, or fibbed, or gave bad information.
And then I think this is going to be less relevant to maybe early stage, but as your company gets to maybe their series C, series D, you need to start thinking about hiring a comms person who can help you run all of this stuff internally, and you want to really look for someone that’s going to be your counterpart, that’s going to be a great partner to you, that knows reporters, has a good relationship with the media, versus someone that just can go out and be a pitch machine for you.
I have to say, not to overly flatter, Kaitlin. I do want to say…
She’ll take it, she’ll take it.
Yeah, any founder should look at the alumni network of comms people from companies like Uber or Facebook. These are companies that are not necessarily known to have amazing relationships with the press.
And yet, their former comms people are in very exciting, interesting companies across Silicon Valley, outside of Silicon Valley. They’re all over, and they have really good relationships with reporters. I think behind the scenes the dialogue is much more constant, and it’s more collaborative than you might guess just from seeing a Twitter fight.
Yeah, and these comms people are also going to have seen it all. They’re going to [know] how to pitch positive stuff, how to pitch product news, how to deal with maybe a scary inbound that you’re not thinking about or even a crisis, as you would call it. These people are going to really have the full understanding and know how to deal with various situations.
I just want to give one more piece here, which is there are some reporters, of course, who are hunting for scoops constantly, and they are just trading on information; that is what they are good at, and they specialize there just like everyone specializes in other jobs.
I would just say, if founders are scared of that, they should just be comfortable to say, “Look, I don’t know, or I don’t feel comfortable dishing on that. I’d love to tell you how I see our space or offer something else.”
But just because, let’s say, one reporter at a place known for scoops like Bloomberg is like, “Tell me the next billion dollar funding round.” That doesn’t mean that, A) every journalist is going to be like that, or B) that they’re going to take it personally if you say, “Sorry, I don’t know or I don’t feel comfortable.”
I think we’re all in it for the long game. And so, I think that finding that authentic way to talk to reporters is important. You don’t need to be leaking information about your friend or something like that. It’s not that intense.
I think the TL;DR on this is as follows:
Remember that everybody on each side is human, and that we’re here to develop real trust-based relationships with one another. And that just requires time.
And it requires to not be transactional in that relationship building process.
The flip side of that, which we’ve been seeing a lot, is this concept of basically the tense relationship between media and tech, and you mentioned the Twitter fights that you see, Alex. I think to some degree we hear about founders being scared of reporters or don’t know what to do if a reporter reaches out. Especially if it is a scoop, or it is a leak about the latest funding round or something that they weren’t really ready to talk about.
In that instance, what’s your advice for founders and for startups? How should they think about their approach to relationship building with reporters, if it’s a type of story or it’s a bit of news that they’re not really comfortable talking about?
Reporters are seeking information above all, and they don’t like to feel like they don’t know something. And so, I think if you can’t tell them something, you should try to just be honest, or just consistent about not sharing information.
But I think what really hurts the relationship is when someone clams up, or lies, or misleads, because then there is that distrust for the future. We had a situation where I wrote about an acquisition happening, a large acquisition, and I got the information right. And I reached out to the startup, and they couldn’t say anything, and I didn’t really expect them to.
And after I published the story, they were like, “You got us. Good job. We were not allowed to say anything, but you were right. And when we’re allowed to talk about this, we would like to.”
I was much more likely to say yes to that later conversation because they were honest, and understood where I was coming from that I’m doing my job. They didn’t send me some emails saying, “How dare you ruin our announcement. You suck.” Because they know that I’m just doing the job, I got a news tip, it is my job to chase that tip, nothing personal there.
And so, I just think that empathy or that understanding is going to be helpful. Of course, you should follow the advice of the professionals. If you get an email that you think might be an interview you don’t want to give, you shouldn’t necessarily feel obligated. I’m not advising founders to walk off a plank.
If you get an inbound media inquiry, and it’s around something you maybe weren’t ready to share, it’s OK to be cautious. Just figure out, what does the reporter know? What exactly are they working on?
Did you get an email that says, “I hear you’re a data analytics startup that raised X amount?” Why are they asking? Is it because they are doing a round-up of startups in that space? And then I think once you have all of these facts, you can figure out whether it’s something you have a response to.
You always have to remember that you’re in control of what you share. Though you’re not in control of what a reporter necessarily knows from their own sources and what they’re going to report. So, you just have to balance that and be okay with that and be respectful of a reporter who has their own sources and is able to get information from people that aren’t you.
And then just overall, my philosophy is it’s better to reply with, “Hey, thanks, we don’t have a comment, or we don’t have anything to share right now,” versus just completely ignore and then try and re-engage somebody when you’re ready.
Yeah, the two things that I would say don’t do is, one, don’t lie. We recently had a story about a big company, and we gave them an hour to respond. And they said they would give us a response. And then within that hour, they announced the thing that we were going to be talking about in our article. That basically told us to never give that company any warning again, and that they will play scorched earth with us, which we had tried to go front-door, by-the-book with.
I don’t know if that company realizes it, but no one at Forbes is going to trust them moving forward. And we were very disappointed. Maybe they had a whole plan for how to announce that piece of news. But they could have given us an interview, or they could have just said, “Hey, we can’t talk about this,” and then done the interview with somebody else. But by actively misleading us, they definitely burned a bridge.
And then the other thing I would say is not everything goes as planned. So sometimes you may actually get more coverage or more interest because this news is being announced in a way you didn’t intend. So, it’s always good to check with an expert. But a PR expert like Kaitlin might say, “Well, hey, we wanted to announce this in three weeks or in a month. But if they are going to write an article about it, we might as well tell them what’s really going on.”
OK, so there’s been a lot of interesting conversation on this pod about the balance between earned and owned media. We talked a little bit about the benefit of going direct and how to do that, when to share your story with reporters, when to share your story through your own channels, like your blog or your podcasts. I personally think both are really useful and important. And I also think that they’re not mutually exclusive.
As an example, I write up our weekly newsletter, and I aggregate some of the Greylock portfolio news, press stories where our partners have been quoted. We do our weekly podcast and I hear from reporters and I hear from people that subscribe that they like the newsletter because it helps keep them in touch with what’s happening at Greylock, and it’s a pretty light way to stay connected.
There’s been a rise in newsletters with Substack, and some of the more nontraditional forms of journalism. And some of the traditional outlets are also launching weekly or daily newsletters. I’d love to hear from each of you about how you think about newsletters as an outlet for founders to tell their story. And Alex, maybe we can start with you because I know you just launched the Midas Touch newsletter.
Yeah, I launched my newsletter. The number one thing it taught me is that they are a ton of work. And I’m sure it is even for Greylock where you’re just trying to stay up to date on the portfolio. I know a lot of work goes into that.
For us, we have a mandate because we are trying to be a premium newsletter, that we are trying to deliver content that people would realistically pay for. And we don’t want to write anything that we wouldn’t pay for ourselves. So that puts a lot of pressure on me and my co-writer Becca Szkutak to be always depending on original reporting.
So, we do have a segment where we have some of our favorite articles about the VC industry, both from inside and outside of Forbes. We have a lot of original reporting every week. That is a deadline that is always looming over us, and that beholden feeling that our readers are paying and expecting something really good. It is a lot of work.
So, I think the journalists who also have gone independent with newsletters, a lot of them have said, “It’s both liberating, but it’s the busiest we’ve ever been.” I think it’s just very hard to also be selling and marketing a product while also creating it.
For founders, what I would say is that there’s kind of, in my mind, three different types out there.
There’s the Forbes-type newsletter where sometimes they become articles on Forbes.com as well. And so, you might get wider distribution that way. You’re also getting a different audience with someone like the Forbes brand versus the independent journalists who are all specializing, I think, in different ways.
And so, if you are a social media platform, having Casey Newton and the Platformer write about you is probably incredible. If you’re a new VC fund, Eric Newcomer might make more sense, but I think you really have to know what each newsletter writer is specializing in and why.
Then I think there are the journalism-adjacent newsletters. We have people who are angel investors who write newsletters. We have firms write newsletters. I don’t think those are bad and I think they have a great place in the ecosystem.
But they’re not necessarily going to be the hard news that shows people that you’ve faced the tough questions, which is a badge of honor. And so I think if a startup is going in on a newsletter that is written, let’s say, by an investor, they just have to remember that this is going to be considered by some a more friendly conversation.
But I think it’s still valuable, and I think they all are complementary.
The most success I’ve seen startups have with newsletters is usually in the free roundup types that Alex mentioned.
So, for instance, I recently helped a company in the gaming space announce a fundraise in some of their new customers. And because they were particularly focused on reaching developers in studios, we went after some of the very well-read gaming newsletters, and were able to get links to some to have their full story media coverage in them. And that was really helpful.
I would just add, I think that’s a good point. To plug another newsletter, my fiancée works at a startup called Thingtesting. So, for any consumer, entrepreneurs, I’d recommend they check it out. And I know that their weekly newsletter is a great way for a lot of people to identify new, interesting DTC brands, and they decide which brands go in there. But it is a boost for the brands who are being shared.
And so, if you can be exposed in some way to these newsletter writers, or at least make yourself known so that if it’s a DTC one, or it’s a B2B newsletter, whatever it is in your market. If you’re at least in front of these so-called tastemakers that can also be a great source of new traffic or new customers or new interests in other ways, too.
OK, I want to wrap this up with one last question, which is: What do each of you want founders to know about working with the press? If you had to summarize in a quick 30 seconds, what would be your lasting piece of advice?
Yeah, for me, and for early stage founders, I think it’s so important to remember that there is so much news going on. There are so many early stage companies out there. I’m sure you’re doing really awesome, innovative work. But there’s lots of competition for eyeballs in terms of media coverage.
If you want to work with a particular outlet, or reporter, you really need to be flexible. I always encourage founders when they’re doing outreach, and if they’re giving an exclusive, to be upfront. Hey, we’d like to get it out by, say, the end of March. But we really want to work with you. So let us know if you’re interested in what would make sense for you.
I think just don’t ever let “I’m too busy” be the excuse for a pass.
Kaitlin, you’re giving away my secrets there.
That’s so true.
Yeah. I’m always surprised when I get this question, even though I shouldn’t be, but there’s still the misconception that people get to edit stories in advance. Please know that is not how earned media works. Once you give your interview, and the reporter writes their story, you will not see what that story is going to say until they publish [it] for the world to read.
So, just please, from an expectation management point of view there, you should have a pretty good idea how a story is going to turn out based on the interview, and the reporter’s engagement. But know you’re not going to be able to read and edit that story in advance.
The number one thing I would say is that regardless of what you might see from prominent individuals on Twitter, most people in the ecosystem mean well, whether they’re reporters or entrepreneurs, and I think the relationship is not inherently antagonistic.
Journalists are voting against their belief in companies most often by just not covering your company. We are so busy that if we don’t think that for whatever reason your startup is exciting, we’re probably just not going to write about it at all.
It doesn’t make sense for us to go out of our way to write an article just about how we don’t think that you’re going to succeed. You have to be really big for that to be worth it.
And I’d say the number one lesson is journalists are trained to punch up, not down. Especially if you’re an early stage company, we would be punching down to be going out of our way to kick at you. That is not why we do this. It is not fun for us either.
We are only ever punching because we think it is necessary for our readers, for our society, that companies are being held accountable. But it is not fun to get mean tweets from fans of Tesla or whatever. I don’t write about Tesla, but [that’s] just one with a very active fanbase. We are not gluttons for punishment.
And so, I would say for most founders, you are not that controversial. You are not facing a journalist trying to write some big gotcha piece. If they’re talking to you it’s because they find what you’re doing interesting in the first place.
I think that was a fantastic conversation. Thank you both for being here.Thank you so much for being with us today, Alex. I think many of our listeners are tech founders and tech startup CEOs and hearing directly from you on this topic is certainly going to help their ongoing communications and PR and their approach to the press.
And Kaitlin, I just want to thank you for sharing how we think about comms and PR here at Greylock and how we advise the companies that we back.
Always a pleasure, Alex.
Thank you so much for the insights, Kaitlin. And if anyone wants to keep the conversation going, I am easily found on Twitter and happy to keep talking with both of you about this with any of our listeners who want to join us.
So, you’re asking people to tweet at you Alex. Is that what you want?
I’m just trying to drive that engagement however I can, Elisa.
So, that concludes this episode of Greymatter. If you liked this interview and you want to hear others, please hit subscribe. You’ll be able to catch up on Greymatter episodes you may have missed and you’ll get new episodes delivered directly to you.
You can also subscribe to Greymatter at soundcloud.com/greylockpartners, on Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. You can find new episodes and blog posts every week on greylock.com/blog. And you can follow us on Twitter @GreylockVC. I’m Elisa Schreiber, and thank you so much for listening.
Bada bing, we did it. We did it, team.