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Frame your narrative, don’t get skewered

by Leo Schwartz

What’s your worst nightmare? I just had a terrifying dream where I served the Top Chef judges ice cream sandwiches and Padma told me mine was too melty, but I can think of an even worse one. You plan your company’s launch for months, lining up funders, partners, and even a prime article in Fast Company. The day of the launch, you can’t wait to be congratulated from Gmail to InMail, but instead your Twitter mentions start filling up. You even get a concerned call from your mother. You’ve become the next Juicero.

Not to get into the weeds of appropriation (I’m in PR after all, it’s my profession to avoid controversial statements), but even James Damore probably would’ve known that Bodega was making some ill-advised decisions. Generally speaking, boasting that your grand plan is to put beloved mom-and-pop stores and bodegas out of business while stealing their mascot is going to be poorly received. Speaking as a former New Yorker, don’t mess with the bodega cat. Sure, Bodega didn’t explicitly say that was their goal, but their founder was happily quoted: “Eventually, centralized shopping locations won’t be necessary, because there will be 100,000 Bodegas spread out, with one always 100 feet away from you.”

The biggest challenge with PR and media outreach is that unlike other marketing channels, you can’t control your message. Once you send your pitch into the world, journalists have free reign to do what they want. They can misrepresent your company, ignore vital messaging, and even break an embargo. For the most part though, journalists aren’t out to get you. Journalists live in a symbiotic relationship with companies, keeping them in check but also depending on them as sources for content. If you’re smart, you’ll be a lot less likely to get skewered (assuming your company isn’t evil).

The key is in the framing. Bodega’s idea is not necessarily a controversial one. As Nabeel Hyatt pointed out, it could easily be painted as a challenge to Amazon (everyone loves disruption when the target is big, bad monopolies.) It’s not even an original one. We worked with a client named Shotput with a similar idea — leveraging supply chain technology to set up “automated grocery stores” in convenient locations. What was their disruption target? Food deserts.

Frame your narrative. Why do you exist? Where did you get the idea? What are you doing that no one else is? Why are you the first people trying this idea? What do you hope to accomplish in a year? Five years? Think like you’re preparing for a debate or a GRE essay. What are the counterarguments to your business? What could be misconstrued? How would you address concerns like security, or the big one: “Is a $600 automated juicer with machine learning really necessary?”

Once you’ve answered all of those questions, run them by your friends, friendly colleagues in a similar space, people who know what you’re talking about, and people who don’t know what you’re talking about. You also don’t have to always speak like you’re pitching a VC. Figure out a relatable way to explain your business that isn’t “I want to end X industry.” One of the goals of PR is to broaden the messaging of your company to a wider audience — that’s what journalists are great at. Work on developing messaging that will resonate beyond a niche user base of tech bros.

I’m sorry, but I don’t believe that the Bodega founders did surveys in the “Latin American community” and explained their business the same way they did to the Fast Company reporter. If you’re doing a survey to find out if the very name and aim of your business is offensive, you might want to invest in some good user testing.

If you have interviews with journalists lined up, research them. Read their past articles. Figure out what their voice and tone tends to be. If they’re writing about you, they’ve probably written about similar companies in the past. Deconstruct those profiles — what questions do you think they asked? How would you answer them?

At Upbeat, we’ll work on story development with you. We’ll interview you like a journalist would to ask all of those questions and make sure you have good answers to them. We’ll help you create a media brief that is carefully written to ensure it contains the right messaging. Finally, we’ll pitch the story the way you want it framed. Let’s just hope your business isn’t “Two Ex-Googlers Want to Make Ice Cream Trucks and Puppies Obsolete.”

Campaign of the Month

Not every campaign has to be a funding announcement, product launch, or partnership. Data stories are tricky because it can be hard to make them timely, and they don’t always warrant their own article. On the other hand, journalists will often prefer data or insights stories. You’re not asking them to cover some company announcement. You’re actually providing them with content that, if done correctly, they couldn’t get from anywhere else. In the best cases, you’re actually handing them a ready-made headline and article.

Cardiogram is an app for your Apple Watch that helps you check stress, fitness, and sleep. They had the fantastic idea of inviting users to measure their heart rates while watching Game of Thrones through the Cardiogram Habit feature. Cardiogram then broke the data down into the top five moments as measured by heart rate for each Game of Thrones episode this season. We helped them put together a media brief and pitch journalists each week with the results.

With the aid of some great infographics that Cardiogram put together, we were able to place articles in publications from Mashable and Fortune to MobiHealthNews and Apple Insider. Since we pitched throughout the season, we were also able to procure articles after multiple episodes.

How to make a data story successful

*Credibility *Because we were able to play off the novelty of Game of Thrones, we didn’t have to present the most scientific findings. In most cases, you should be able to demonstrate that your data and insights were reputably gathered and interpreted. Provide some context and better yet, well-designed infographics and charts. You should also convey how you were able to collect the data — Do you work with a specific user set? Do you have particular insights into a specific industry?

*Timeliness *Try to find the right time to pitch the data. Not everything will capture the zeitgeist quite like Game of Thrones, but you can still tie your data to a current event or trend. If you have data on gender inequality in the workplace, pitch it when the next Google or Uber scandal happens (so every two weeks). The data also doesn’t necessarily have to be timely. Pitch journalists covering the topic. While they may not be able to write immediately, if they’re well organized, they might use it the next time they’re writing a related story. They’ll also keep you in mind as a potential source.

Uniqueness Again, this one was cheating. Everyone loves Game of Thrones, and this story made for the perfect clickbait. If you can’t produce a dataset about a pop phenomenon, we’ll help you find the right journalists who would be interested in your data. Demonstrate why you’re uniquely qualified to have collected this data, and why your insights say something new. You don’t want to produce the same findings that the journalist has already written about.

What We’re Working On

Journalist call scheduling We’ve added a feature where you can sync your calendar availability with our system. When a journalist visits the media brief, they can click a button that allows them to request a call in one of your available time slots. You’ll receive a notification with the journalist’s name and profile and decide whether to accept or reject the call. If you accept, the call will be added to both of your calendars.

*Why? *One of the biggest complaints that journalists have is that it’s difficult to schedule interviews and get the information they need quickly. We’re removing this pain point by adding seamless scheduling integration into the media briefs, thus creating a one stop shop for journalists interested in writing an article. Because you might not want to talk to every journalist who requests an interview, we also give you the capability to screen the journalist and accept or reject the call.

Note: This was originally sent as our September 2017 newsletter. If you want to receive our monthly newsletter with PR tips and advice, you can *sign up here.*