When my daughters were little, I used to tell them horrible stories of growing up in a world without personal computers, more than three television channels, and (the darkest truth of all) mobile phones.
In those prehistoric times, people were forced to live without the ability to instantly talk to anyone on the other side of the planet. The most telling impact was when I would show them old 80s crime dramas and three-quarters of the third-act cliffhangers seemed like they could have been easily solved by a simple cell-phone call, instead of running around trying to find payphones.
Another shortcoming of these dark years was the lack of ability to be informed by any one of hundreds of news sources. Today, some would say that’s not a shortcoming at all: the flood of information, some informed and some otherwise, bombarding us can easily be seen as a curse. And it seems nearly impossible to get word out about your projects within the cacophony that seems to surround us all.
Social Media Is a Bag of Chips
Springboarding off the phrase "all that and a bag of chips," let’s face it: social media is just the bag of chips. Yes, the content is tasty and somewhat addictive, but the value of the content en masse is not terribly substantive.
To be sure, there are valuable and interesting messages out there in social-media land, as clever people have figured out how to really create great content out there. But I would submit that the most social media content is there to inform in bursts—"we released X.0 today" or "I think such-and-such is very cool." Or, most tellingly, social media links to longer-form content that people want to share.
"Traditional" media may seem outmoded and cumbersome, but there is very much a real perceived value in long-form content explain what you and your project is doing. It’s one thing to keep people informed of a project’s daily goings on, but it’s quite another to have your project featured in a well-trafficked media outlet.
So how do you get from the bag of chips to the full-course meal of traditional media?
In many ways, building a connection to media is a lot like building a relationship. You need to start out slow and be ready for surprises.
First off, when reaching out to the media, you should really try to avoid mass e-mails. And by really try, I mean never do this even if you are on fire. Because, thanks to my fantastic ESP powers (or my years of personal experience, take your pick), here’s what happens when a media writer sees a bulk e-mail pitch in their inbox.
"How are you? I am writing to you today because I think you would be interested in—"
This is isn’t done out of malice or contempt, but rather because a reporter has only so many hours in a day to find, research, and write content. They simply do not have enough bandwidth to read yet-another cookie-cutter press pitch that sounds like the last 50 in their inbox. Such blanket approaches are, frankly, lazy and most journalists can spot them a mile away.
Especially—and this used to drive me insane—if the pitch wasn’t even targeted for my area of expertise. I will leave it as an exercise in imagination for the reader to figure out the choice of words I had for any PR person who wanted me to write about a proprietary software application that only ran on Windows.
What do you do then, to get a journalist interested in your work?
Find the Right Writer. If Ms. X is writing about your technology sector, and Mr. Y isn’t, don’t bother Mr. Y. He’s got his own sandbox to play in. Instead, read Ms. X’s articles. You should quickly get a feel for what she is interested in, as well as learn more about what’s going on in your technological neck of the woods, which never hurts.
Pitch Softly. You will want to tune your pitch to the writer. Focus on their recent work and try to point out legitimate connections between your project and their subject-matter specialty. And be cool. "I saw your recent article on high-tech blankets and I wanted to mention the WarmFeet Project, which is also working to solve the eternal problem of cold extremities" is way better than "I saw your recent article on high-tech blankets and I can’t believe you forgot to mention the WarmFeet Project!" Oh, I used to get those all the time.
Be Relevant. Please don’t be the person who tries to shoe-horn what they are working on into a reporter’s area of expertise. The shorthand industry term for this is "_____washing," such as cloudwashing or containerwashing, where some dope sticks a hot buzzword 50 times in a press pitch to try to foster interest. Typically, this will actually foster mocking. Of you.
Look at the problem your project is trying to solve. How are you solving it? How is your solution better than other projects? These are things a journalist will want to know. Tell your story and keep it simple.
Burying the Lede
If you do get a conversation going with a journalist, don’t be surprised if they tell your story in a way that’s completely different from what you expect.
Let’s face it, it’s great if you get a half-hour of uninterrupted time from a reporter and you have an amazing conversation about your project. Now here comes the 1,500-word feature on Cool Technology for Cool People (.com), right? Well, sure.
Or the journalist may take one or two lines from a 30-minute conversation and use them in a broader article where your project is not the main focus at all.
Before your head explodes, keep in mind that this is actually a normal practice in media. Very often, journalists are working on a larger-scale stories about what’s going on in their entire sector of interest. Devoting half a day to writing a single-subject article about your project may not have as much payoff as a multi-source article about a new or changing trend in the industry.
It may seem little consolation, but this is actually a net positive for you and your project. Being recognized as a "source expert" means people who may have never heard of your project will take a look at it. Or, if they have heard of it, another look. Plus, the reporter may keep in mind for more comments on industry happenings, which means more mentions.
Two things here:
Stay in Your Lane. Last week a reporter approached me about commenting on the recent Meltdown and Spectre Linux kernel developments. While I would loved to helped the guy out, the simple truth is, I am not the person to talk to about such a technical issue. (I helped connect him to a better source.) If a reporter wants to talk to me about community, social media, or comic book collecting, then great. The same with you: if the commentary is unrelated to your project, pass.
Don’t Be a Gossip. Look, I’ve been around a while, and I could tell you stories about companies and people in this industry that would curl your toes. And I certainly have opinions about lots of people and things. Sometimes you’ll get a reporter looking for hit-piece stuff on a given tech or person. Be very, very careful here. Don’t be personally insulting. Don’t break confidences. "No comment" is, to be blunt, your best answer.
There’s a lot more to cover here. Media relations is a whole job for lots of people. But here are the five-second crib notes:
Be Reachable. "Hey, I’ll bet the person who runs Project Awesome would be a great person to talk to about my story about the most awesome software ever. If only they had an email or Twitter handle with which I could reach them."
Onboarding is for Media, Too. You want to use onboarding to get new users and contributors into your project, anyway, so here’s reason #582 why making the path to understanding, finding, and using your project as clear as day is important.
Be Concise. Journalists and writers used to have limited physical into which their stories could be published. That’s why journalists write the most important stuff at the beginning of a story, in case a story had to be cut. On electronic media, space is not a problem, but time still is. Focus on what’s important about your project and not the day-to-day minutiae that will get cut like that hilarious time your lead developer—