Getting media attention can be difficult for early-stage entrepreneurs, so it is important to make the most of whatever opportunities you get. Over the past five years, I have interviewed over a thousand entrepreneurs across all startup stages. Below are my learnings on what early-stage founders can do to maximize the impact of their media interviews.
Ask for a face-to-face interview
There is absolutely no substitute for a face-to-face interaction. It builds trust, familiarity, and credibility. A face-to-face interview gives you a chance to showcase your product and talk about the softer aspects of your business and background. Moreover, in-person meetings are also helpful in gauging the body language and interest of the reporter and it signifies that the conversation is important for you.
In my first few years of covering PayTm, I remember, Vijay Shekhar Sharma had invited me for an in-person meeting to his Noida office where he toured me around his office space, shared anecdotes about the company’s growth, walked me through some key pilot projects the company was working on and introduced me to most people in his core leadership team. That interaction alone had helped me in ascertaining the startup’s focus on innovation, and its culture and values, both creating a long-term impact. In the short term, it provided me with several story ideas.
As a matter of fact, most leading startup founders prefer an in-person meeting with the media rather than a virtual one. It undoubtedly requires a higher degree of preparation and a larger time commitment, but it should be considered as an investment in the prospective relationship and your brand.
Research the reporter and the type of publication
Spend time in understanding the reporter's profile. Go through his/her prior work for cues to the direction in which the interview might take.
Everyone has their specializations, which implies that the kind of questions a financial reporter is likely to ask you will differ from what a magazine reporter probably will. In fact, even at the Economic Times, there are vertical specific reporters, and while some focus on startups, there are others who write on lifestyle, HR, features, etc. So there is no point in talking about company culture with a technology reporter, or to a features reporter about a product launch.
Also, always read through the publication/blog in order to get an idea of the type of stories it features and the demographics of its core audience. Keep in mind that a journalist’s primary audience is the readers and not you or your startup.
Focus on your startup’s key differentiators and highlight your vision
There are some questions, the answers to which need to be pre-planned in your mind before any interview. What makes you unique? How are you different from your competitors? How do you fit into the larger ecosystem? Think about these questions deeply and be crisp while conveying their answers. You cannot be saying too many things at a time- stick to only one or two messages that you wish to propagate. They could be your technology, business model, people, anything.
For example, when Flipkart began operations, there were multiple large e-commerce companies already existing. All of them were still in the nascent stage of the industry evolution when trust played a major role in online commerce. At that time, Flipkart innovated cash on delivery as a service and kept its message on innovation consistent across marketing and PR platforms. Later, when the entire market adopted cash on delivery as a practice, Flipkart started speaking about its superior delivery speed (via ekart), and selection (category expansion). All these aspects come under the wider and consistent vision of transforming Indian e-commerce set up. In the same way, you too should contemplate about your edge!
PS: Being consistent is the key. Make sure you do your research on all your previous articles and are congruent with the numbers, message and data you provide. Nothing makes one lose credibility like inconsistency does.
Know your numbers, focus on the news and reiterate your vision
Things keep changing every day in a startup. It is good to provide a refresher course on the latest numbers, news, and updates before you start the interview.
Most first-time founders beat around the bush, and more often than not, forget to talk about the news. This can be disadvantageous in two ways: one, your story is not carried, or two, a different story from the one you expected is written. To prevent this, build your narrative beforehand by penning down the information that you wish to communicate and ensure that you have all the facts for the story.
Have a list of prepared FAQ’s. It cannot hurt.
For instance, if you intend to communicate fundraising, you should have, and provide, factual information about how much you have raised, your investment, hiring and growth plans- all of which give the story credibility and context.
Don’t assume you’ll be able to handle this ad hoc. Even the world’s most powerful CEOs do this drill.
I would also suggest you reiterate your vision as many times as you can because it helps in building a long-term brand image of your startup. For example, the Ola team, till date, in every press release, restates its mission of building mobility for a billion people.
Lead the interview
Starting the interview with a light-hearted tone, perhaps by saying something colorful (but not inappropriate) about yourself, could help put the conversation at ease and assist the reporter in mapping your personality. This is useful in building a long-term relationship.
For instance, The first time I had met Hari Menon (Bigbasket founder) in person, he mentioned he’s had a great weekend with his family, spending time jamming with his three kids.The conversation (and common interest in music) itself was a great starting point for building familiarity and a lasting association with him. I’d like to point out that these conversations need not be limited to being personal (and it’s better to stick to what you’re comfortable with); You can also talk about current topics in your sector and otherwise, and get the reporter's POV. More often than not, these exercises will aid you in getting a better understanding of the journalist and vice-versa.
Take a minute to give the reporter some background and context about your startup and stage before he/she starts with his/her questions.
As the conversation proceeds, keep summarizing the important points while clarifying any part of the discussion that is vague. Restate your core purpose so that the reporter discerns its significance. As an entrepreneur, it is imperative to let your passion shine forth by focusing on who you are, the business idea, and most importantly, your vision.
Remember: It is you who knows the most interesting hooks of your business, and it is your job to explain that; the media’s role is to just listen and analyze that information. A common mistake that founders make is to wait for the journalist to lead an interview.
Sometimes, when you are into a disruptive business, it may also be helpful to offer to connect the journalist to other people, (industry veterans, investors, your customers, etc.) to get deeper insights into the problem. Then, volunteer to be available and assist with the additional information or data.
TIP: Offer to send across numbers or facts discussed over e-mail - it helps in avoiding errors by both the parties.
The relationship between you and the reporter is an ongoing one and should be seen and treated accordingly. It is not about just one story, but about establishing a mutually beneficial long-term association. Only if you value it, will the other side reciprocate- call it normal human nature.
On that note, here are three things which more often than not, left a negative impression on me:
- Founders criticizing competition or a person in particular; when you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all!
- Journalism is about building credibility and trust. You lie once, and you potentially ruin the relationship forever.
- Being condescending. Tip: When in doubt, be humble!