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With Jon Shieber

Landing press for your climate startup

Getting featured by a reputable news organization, influencer, or trade publication can generate outsized returns for your climate business. Beyond attracting potential investors and customers, appearing in the press will build your credibility and brand awareness among potential hires, the business community, and the wider public. But what stories stand a chance of being covered? Should you hire a PR firm? And how can you navigate conversations with reporters?

Jon Shieber is a veteran in the climate and press communities, having been the editor-in-chief at FootPrint Coalition, Senior Editor at TechCrunch, and a Reporter at Dow Jones. We sat down with him to discuss how earned media (the stuff you don’t pay for) can boost your startup’s reputation, and tips for getting your company's name in print.

Earned vs paid media

With paid media, you’ll pay an organization to run a story about you that serves as an ad for your company. In contrast, earned media means a journalist elects to write about you because there’s a genuinely newsworthy story to be told about your work that will appeal to their readers.

The benefits of earned media far outstrip those of paid media. Your desired audience is much more likely to see the story in the first place, and by appearing in what’s perceived to be an unbiased outlet, the piece will help instill trust in your company. 

And, while ads are very short-lived, earned media will continue to lend credibility to your business and yield results even years down the line.

What are the press looking for?

First and foremost, reporters are looking for a good story, so you’ll need an exciting piece of news to get their attention. The stories about early stage startups that get picked up by the press can be divided into three major themes: the founder of your company is exceptional, the technology you’ve developed is exceptional, or the money involved is exceptional. Ideally, a good story should feature more than one of these elements. 

Another potential story is an undeniably newsworthy moment - either a blunder or a success - that’s so significant it makes a reporter sit up and take notice. Or, there might be a broader industry trend or event that’s relevant to your company, which you can seize as an opportunity to join the conversation and spotlight your solution.

How to get earned media coverage

1. Hire a PR firm 

Public relationships firms can be expensive - you can expect to pay between $5,000 and $10,000 a month to keep a firm on retainer. The results of this engagement will depend on the quality of the firm’s work, and the strength of its relationships with reporters. To maximize your chances of getting the outcomes you want, decide in advance what publications you want to appear in and ask directly what the firm’s success rate is with placing stories with them. 

At the same time, remember the media industry is struggling and journalists’ capacity is limited, so you might have to be patient. Take a long-term view about the benefits of press engagement - the depth of the relationships you build with reporters will only grow. For instance, even if the press doesn’t write up your specific bit of news, the details you share might be used at a later date within a broader piece. What initially seems like sunk costs could pay off exponentially. 

2. Leverage the climate community

If you see that one of your peers was featured in a publication you hope to appear in, ask how they got there and if they can introduce you to the reporter. You could also approach people in the climate community who have press backgrounds, but have now stepped into other roles. You might be able to leverage their network, or you could go as far as asking them to be advisors for your company. But remember that no matter who they connect you with, you still have to meet the basic conditions for a good story, or no reporter will touch it.

What to keep in mind when communicating with the press

Know the difference between key journalism terms

There are three types of conversations you need to be aware of when communicating with the press:

1. On the record

Unless you specify otherwise, all conversations with the press will be considered on the record, meaning everything you say can be quoted in the piece. 

2. On background 

If you tell a reporter something on background, it won’t be quoted or attributed to you, but they’ll still be able to use the information - you might be anonymously referred to as an industry source. You don’t want to abuse this ability, but it’s useful if you’re discussing something relatively sensitive, or you want to be more candid than you would be if you were quoted directly.                     

3. Off the record 

Telling a journalist something off the record means it won’t be quoted or used in the piece at all. This is typically used when there’s a risk of financial or personal harm to the person who’s revealing the information. Engaging journalists off the record is a valuable tool for whistleblowing when you see problems in the industry - for instance, around corrupt investors or executives. If you say something off the record, you have to trust that the journalist will act professionally and treat it as such - if you don’t think you can do that, don’t offer the information in the first place. 

Don’t prioritize prestige

The best platforms for your story won’t always be major publications like TechCrunch or the New York Times. In many cases, it’ll be far more fruitful to place your story in local media and trade publications - think carefully about who the most receptive audiences will really be. 

Reporters don’t work for you

You can’t control earned media like you can paid media. A journalist’s job isn’t to do your marketing for you - once you’ve spoken to a reporter, they’re free to give the story any angle they want. The more you try to shape the narrative or influence the journalist, the more skeptical they’ll be. Never ask to edit the piece, or to see it before it’s published - this isn’t how journalists operate. Offer to do whatever you can to help them write the story, then take a step back.

Jon Shieber is the founder of the media and investment consulting firm, Abstraction Industries. He previously served as Editor-in-Chief and Venture Partner at FootPrint Coalition, the climate investment, media, and nonprofit initiative founded by Robert Downey Jr. In his first life, he spent twenty years writing about global finance and venture investment as a reporter with VentureWire, Dow Jones Newswires, The Wall Street Journal, and TechCrunch.


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