How and when to give a media ‘exclusive’

October 18, 2010, 8:08 PM UTC

Last week I participated in a panel discussion about how startups should handle social media, sponsored by the New England Venture Network (NEVN). Lots of good back-and-forth, including a fairly contentious discussion of whether or not companies should give “exclusives” to certain media outlets.

Leading the anti-exclusive charge was social media guru Paul Gillin, who summarized his argument in a subsequent blog post: “Exclusives make one friend at the expense of making a lot of enemies. I can’t believe they are a good thing for your business in the long term.”

As I did on the panel, let me emphatically disagree.

Giving exclusives still can serve an important function in today’s viral media world, and even may be worth making a few enemies. Were I a startup CEO, here is the process I would follow:

1. Is my news important enough? Not all press releases are created equal. Remember, offering an exclusive does not necessarily mean you’ll get coverage. Think of it as if you’re asking someone out on a date: If she doesn’t find you attractive — or if you suggest a Friday night at Taco Bell– your prospects are markedly diminished.

Examples of “attractive” news could include a new product launch, a new round of venture capital funding or a big client win. On the other hand, few reporters will care that your Ohio-bred CTO was invited to speak to students at Cuyahoga Falls High School.

2. Who should get my exclusive? Assuming you have exclusive-worthy news, the next thing you must decide is which media outlet — or specific journalist — to approach. Your immediate instinct might be The New York Times or Wall Street Journal, since they have giant business audiences (or perhaps CNBC if your product is best viewed via closed captioning). And this may indeed work best, but you first should figure out what your target audience is reading.

In most cases, the goal is to get your news in front of existing and potential customers. You know this population, based on hours and hours of market research. In fact, you probably would be one of them had you not founded the company.

So what are their/your first reads in the morning? It may be the WSJ, but it also might be a certain tech blog or B2B trade rag. It might even be a local newspaper, if your primary goal is to attract new employees (“Primack Corp. has raised $10 million in VC funding, which it will use to hire 20 new employees in its Framingham, Mass. headquarters”).

In other words, the broadest audience may not always be the best audience.

3. How do I approach the publication? Once you know where you want the news to appear, you basically need to “pitch” your news. At this point, you have two choices: Hire a PR firm to help you, or go it alone.

If you have the resources to engage professional help, be sure that the PR firm has an existing relationship with your preferred news source. Ask for examples of the PE firm’s clients getting coverage in that publication. Ask for some details on a particular reporter’s tendencies (do they prefer to be contacted via e-mail or phone, are they likely to ask softball questions or tough ones, etc.). If all a PR firm can do is help you write a cleaner press release, then save your money.

If you choose DIY, then try to learn the reporter’s tendencies on your own (I recommend approaching an actual reporter, rather than a general publication inbox). This obviously can be difficult, so take a look at the reporter’s past articles. Did he write about someone you know? Then perhaps you can get some intel, or even an introduction. If not, try engaging via social media. Follow the reporter on Twitter, and react to something they wrote. Or put some intelligent comments up on the reporter’s blog posts.

Also, beware of assuming that a publication’s best-known reporter is the obvious go-to. Sometimes the “stars” are overwhelmed with pitches, whereas a cub reporter could be searching for something to write (and could spend more time really understanding your pitch).

Finally, check to see if the reporter cares about having an exclusive. Many do, but some do not (preferring long, analytical pieces about news that other people break). Again, just do some research on past writings.

4. Negotiating the exclusive. First thing first: Be sure that you are talking “off the record” until the reporter agrees to the exclusive. Don’t lead with: “Hey, we just got Cisco to buy our system. Would you like an exclusive on it?” At that point, the horse has left the barn. Instead, lead with: “Can I talk to you off-the-record about some big news we might like to share with you on an exclusive basis?”

Once that’s done, be as specific as possible. What information is exclusive, and for how long? Will a press release be issued after the original story is published, and when? Will you give subsequent interviews to other news outlets? May there be another part of the story that you’re sharing with another, non-competing publication, because it’s more specific to their readers?

That specificity also applies to what you ask of the reporter. Be sure that they are going to write about your news. Ask them upfront. Also, ask for what type of placement you might expect to get. The reporter will be unable to give a definitive answer — it’s probably up to an editor — but their reply might give you an indication of how the editor will act (reporters typically know editor interests and disinterests).

5. Handle the fallout. Paul Gillis argues that giving an exclusive can create enemies for your company, in the form of reporters who didn’t get the exclusive. In some cases, he may be right. So be sure to limit the fallout, among other publications with which you’d like to maintain relationships (Note: If your news is big enough, other outlets will feel compelled to write their own stories — lest their readers think they missed it).

Once the original piece runs, reach out to other reporters by offering certain details that weren’t in the original story. Not violating your exclusive, per se, but perhaps there were some interesting data points that didn’t make the initial cut. Or perhaps access to someone (executive, customer) who wasn’t interviewed for the original story.

If you get a particularly belligerent rival, consider lying. For example: “That reporter already had the story, so we had to give him the exclusive.” Perhaps not my best advice — or at least not my most moral — but you probably won’t get called on it. Even if the rival speaks with the original reporter, it’s unlikely the conversation will include: “No, you’ve got it all wrong. I didn’t scoop it, they spoon-fed it to me.”

6. Did it work? Conduct a post-mortem on your “exclusive” decisions. Did your process achieve the desired results? Do you wish you had chosen a different outlet, or approached it differently? What other lessons can be learned for next time?

Remember, the point of giving an exclusive is to most effectively disseminate your information. Some reporters might resent your decision, but only until you ring them up with your next exclusive.