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Courier Workshop episode 12: Press coverage

Courier Workshop episode 12: Press coverage

Courier Workshop Weekly

Having your business talked about in the right places, for free, is something pretty much every business is after. But how do you go about it? We talk to Jesse Derris, founder of strategic communications agency Derris; Kim Pham, co-founder of Asian food brand Omsom; and Hana Sutch, founder of walking app Go Jauntly, to talk about the tactics to getting press coverage – including tips for doing it yourself or working with a PR agency. File this under 'unmissable'.

AMIRAH JIWA: From Courier, I'm Amirah Jiwa.

DUNCAN GRIFFITHS NAKANISHI: And I'm Duncan Griffiths Nakanishi. 

AMIRAH: And welcome to Courier's Workshop podcast. Every two weeks, Workshop breaks down one essential business topic and explains how it could be useful for you. Our goal is to get you just the right amount of info to help you apply what we're talking about to what you're working on. I'll be speaking to experts with practical tips and founders with relevant experience. 

DUNCAN: And I'll be explaining the essential terms and summarising the key takeaways at the end of the show. 

AMIRAH: This time, we're talking about getting press coverage. So, basically, how you can increase the chances of your brand being featured in magazines and newspaper articles on podcasts or in recommendation round-ups. This kind of organic media coverage is known as ‘earned’ media coverage because you don't pay for it. Earned media is great for building credibility, because the messages are coming from a third party rather than your company, and for driving brand awareness. 

HANA SUTCH: By elevating our story, we're actually elevating our brand awareness and brand equity.

KIM PHAM: We absolutely view earned as a brand awareness driver. 

AMIRAH: Jesse Derris is the founder of Derris, a strategic communications agency that has supported brands like Warby Parker, Everlane and Glossier with their brand and comms strategy. Here's Jesse on the value of earned media and how to use it to your advantage. 

JESSE DERRIS: We focus on every earned channel, so anything that doesn't cost money to go do, frankly. Press and earned help companies increase their enterprise value and increase their emotional connectivity to consumers. And those two things are interconnected. The more emotional connection you build with consumers, the more likely they are to move through their life with you in terms of making purchase decisions. And the more likely they are to move laterally with you as you enter new categories, and the more you build that emotional connection through earned, the more valuable your business is related to its economic performance. If you have no brand, they're just going to rate you on economic performance. If you built the brand through earned, they're going to rate you on that as well as economic performance.

AMIRAH: Can you give an example of a consumer brand that has really built its business using earned media? 

JESSE: We started working with Warby Parker actually before this company existed. I started giving the four founders advice soon after they came up with the idea. They've always done a really terrific job building communications messages that worked both through paid channels and earned channels. And a lot of the growth of the business, early on, was through earned media, and they've sustained their ability to do that because they continue to do things that are relevant. They continue to be true to their positioning and to make products that people find interesting and valuable. They continue to do things that are culturally relevant through partnerships and the way they activate their physical spaces in their stores. And they continue to do – I don't know if the word is ‘interesting’ or ‘empathetic’ – the right things as it relates to both their customers and their employees in ways that lends itself to storytelling externally. They do that stuff for the right reasons. They don't do it in order to tell the story. And I think that's partially why it's so successful. But, for a really long time, we used to say that the brand was a lot bigger than its business because of all those things. I think the business has, in the last several years, kind of caught up. But for a very long time we've said that. 

AMIRAH: And for a startup or small businesses that's looking to punch above its weight when it comes to brand, what do they need? 

JESSE: We think of brands as having five elements. The first is what I talked about at the beginning, which is positioning – so short, positive, highly repeatable positioning. Think about the most effective political campaigns. You want to mimic something that looks like that. The second is – and this is more product-oriented – but it's connected directly to earned media, which is they can only make products that actually ladders up to their positioning. They can't just make stuff for the sake of making it. The third is: you've got to develop some level of what we call a ‘storytelling machine’. And so part of that storytelling machine can tell stories through the product iterations and introductions that you're doing like we just discussed. And the other part is through the things that are non-product-oriented, whether it's your mission or your physical manifestation of brand or partners or collaborators, all sorts of other things. And the fourth is that every brand has a keen understanding of what channels actually work for it. And that's both on the earned and the paid side. 

On the earned side, what you're looking for is engagement. You're looking for clickthrough, you're looking for conversion, but you're really looking for engagement in whatever that channel means. And then the fifth is: every single one of the brands – I said this earlier – that we've worked with, that's succeeded in a really great way, has had both digital and physical manifestations of their brand. So they've figured out some way to show up in the real world in addition to their focus on digital. 

AMIRAH: And then, more tactically, what do brands need to have in hand before they go out and speak to press? 

JESSE: We produce a few different things. I think the first is related to the positioning document, to the positioning, which is a document that lays out what that positioning is. We tend to lead with some level of a mission statement or a vision statement, depending on how you want to define it at the top, followed by between three and four hierarchical messages, your core messages in their order of importance. And so that's the first document, is a messaging document. The second is an old-school press kit – if you really nail it, we're talking five beautiful pages that represent the positioning and the product and the mission of the brand. It's literally something that you can send to people. We live in the 21st century, but people still like to kind of see tangible assets. The word, frankly, is a plan. This could be as simple as a calendar that takes into consideration your positioning and really lays out what your storytelling machine is going to look like and where you're going to go with each story. But really setting down pen to paper an actual plan and operating against that plan is the most important thing once you have the assets. 

AMIRAH: It's super helpful to know what's needed when it comes to proactive press outreach. But how about when brands need to be reactive and respond quickly to something that's happened?

JESSE: I would say that every brand is going to go through some version of crisis, the things that we tell people. Obviously, socio-political, obviously anything involving senior executives of wrongdoing, anything involving product and product formulation or product recalls, anything involving a social media gaffe, etc. It's basically a two pronged approach: number one, write down and capture all of the facts; make sure that you are dealing with every fact that you have access to. And number two: try to do your best to figure out what the end is and get there as quickly as possible. I always think about how phony most of the brands felt when I was a kid and even in my teens and in university – like when a brand would respond or a politician would respond, just how phony it felt. So I tend to advise folks: think about how you would have wanted a brand to respond and just do that, trust in people. But first you have to understand what all the facts are. And, second, you have to understand what you think the end of the story is going to be so that it doesn't dribble out in little dribs and drabs.

AMIRAH: How about when brands are deciding whether or not they should weigh in on something topical or timely? 

JESSE: We advise brands to have a rubric that they can work through quickly that hopefully will give them an objective answer about whether to weigh in on something. Every brand deals with this differently, but a rubric meaning three or four different questions that you can ask when an issue comes in. These are questions that can be: does this matter to our community and the way they interact with us? Does this impact our team? It's various things that will allow you to narrow down the issues you're going to weigh in on, because it does become overwhelming if you start to weigh in on everything. So I think it's important to pick out the categories of things that are the things that you will, as a brand, weigh in on. And so a lot of times less is more. Be thoughtful, be a little bit slow, think about what it is you want to say, and why you want to say it. Make sure that you're saying the thing you're comfortable with leaving out there because certain people are going to respond negatively to it no matter what it is. 

AMIRAH: As Jesse's highlighted, once you have your core brand strategy nailed down, you'll need to develop things like a positioning document and a press kit to support your press outreach. Here's Duncan with a brief message from the sponsor of today's episode, a platform that can help you find freelance, communication or graphic design experts who can help you create these essential assets. 


AMIRAH: Thanks, Duncan. Now that we've learned about the foundations for a great earned media strategy from Jesse, let's hear from some founders about how they got press to work for their brands. Alongside her sister, Vanessa, Kim Pham co-founded Omsom – a proud and loud Asian food brand that launched this May and sold out within 24 hours because of some big press hits. Here's Kim on how having a strong brand positioning is essential to getting press, and how to find the right PR agency to work with. 

KIM: I think as a direct-to-consumer e-commerce brand, I think press was always going to be a part of our marketing mix right off the bat. Really, Omsom was born from this desire to reclaim and celebrate not just Asian flavors, but Asian stories and communities. And we were seeing, on a larger level – just with Crazy Rich Asians and David Chang's programming on Netflix, a lot of the discussion around Parasite – that like Americans, in general, were waking up, not just to Asian flavours, but also to Asian stories. And so we felt like there was a really unique opportunity for a first and foremost Asian-American brand to be a part of this larger national dialogue. And so press was really a big piece of that. 

AMIRAH: How did you set up Omsom so that it could be part of some of these national conversations? 

KIM: When we launched, it was just absolutely core for us that we got our brand positioning nailed down. 

DUNCAN: Definition time. ‘Brand positioning’ is the process of positioning your brand so it occupies a distinctive place in the minds of your customers. 

KIM: Even before we start talking about press releases and physical assets, you need to know what you stand for. You need to know what sort of trends or issues your brand can speak alongside about. So, for us, it was about this rising Asian-American voice and power. It was about this idea of appropriation and food – who gets to be an expert? It was about being BIPOC-run, women-of-colour-run – we knew our beats that felt true to us but also were happening on a national dialogue. So, yeah, getting that, understanding that and mapping that out, I think, is key. 

We had built the business to really reflect our own values as founders. So that's why we have our chef tastemakers. So, for every cuisine that we build a product in, we partner with a chef of that background – they're either immigrants or first-gen like ourselves – and they've really cut their teeth, they have roots in these cuisines and they're really pushing the boundaries of what it means to eat modern Thai, Filipino, Korean, etc. And so, I guess what I mean, not only do we have a story, but we had the mechanics in place in our business to support that story. We weren't just selling a fluff – our chef tastemakers are paid a royalty because we truly believe that rising tides raise all boats; Vanessa and I live and breathe this as individuals in addition to us being founders, because this is a passion that we feel is closely linked to our identities. I think all the pieces have to come together for the story to not only be compelling, but also authentic. 

AMIRAH: Do you have any tips on finding the right agency for your brand and business? 

KIM: Oh, yeah – pretty much only get recommendations from other founders, I would say that's like the number one thing. We spoke to a ton of other direct-to-consumer founders, but also food CPG [consumer packaged goods] founders. The more specialised you can get in terms of recommendations, the better. I think there are a lot of PR agencies that work with the big DTC brands as you know them, but food CPG and the margins, the mechanics, the supply chain of food is very, very different from, say, Away luggage. And so, I think, in the beginning I was like: OK, cool, all recommendations; but, actually, I realised you have to narrow the funnel even deeper by getting specific on industry and things like that. 

We spoke to everyone from super-expensive top tier, tier-one world-class PR agencies all the way down to individual freelancers. And I would say, obviously, at the time when we launched we hadn't raised a seed round. It was literally just Vanessa and I trying to figure it out. And so budget was absolutely very much a real factor. But, to be honest, the number one thing that we really filtered for was an understanding of our story, because it's incredibly nuanced and sensitive, because we were talking about culture, we're talking about identity, we're talking about racial identity, particularly during this very tumultuous time in history. And so, I think if we walked into a room, pre-Covid obviously, and freelancers were pitching us reductive stories like how to travel the world with Omsom, you know, I think Vanessa and I kind of knew: OK, they don't really get our story. We're talking about something bigger and different here. We're trying to build a brand that does this Asian-American audience proud. 

AMIRAH: Finally, what advice would you give to other brands who are looking to use earned media to drive awareness?

KIM: This is a larger brand thing, but I really, really push brands to have a perspective. When you are for everyone, you end up being for no one. And I think that absolutely translates into earned media coverage. I think it absolutely translates into how consumers can recall your brand. I think a huge piece of who we are is this idea of being like a proud and loud Asian food brand. We absolutely pull that thread through not only our visual identity, our brand voice, but also how we show up in press conversations. And so finding whatever your perspective is as a brand, I think, is absolutely key. 

AMIRAH: Hana Sutch is the co-founder of Go Jauntly, a walking and wayfinding app that launched in 2017. The three-person team at Go Jointly have managed to get about 50 pieces of press, bootstrapping their PR instead of working with big agencies on retainer. Here's Hana with lots of practical advice on how to actually handle PR outreach in-house.

HANA: Nothing beats the validation of the outside world. And so it was really important for us to be able to get it out there with as little budget as possible and as little cost as possible. And, in many ways, PR can be achieved when you have a minimum budget and a great story. It does, obviously, take lots of time and effort, but actually just getting that kind of external validation from journalists in the business as well as the general public was really, really important to us.

AMIRAH: What have been some key press wins for Go Jauntly? 

HANA: So, very, very early on, we reached out to a journalist called Alan Franks, who was the ex walking writer in The Times, and he'd since moved on to become a freelancer. And we pitched Go Jauntly to him and we basically took Alan Franks for a walk, demo’d the app, invited a bunch of people from the Go Jauntly community, the users. And off the back of it, we got an amazing piece in The Guardian, like really, really early on. And it was just the beginning of the year. So it was when people were interested in walking or making new habits. It was a really groundbreaking moment for us and I think, off the back of it, we got around 5,000 to 10,000 downloads just from that story. And, obviously, a lot of little press and bloggers picked that up as well, which was great. 

AMIRAH: OK, we'd love to get practical tips about how you get this kind of press coverage. How should one find the right people to reach out to and then make contact in a way that could result in a feature? 

HANA: So, recently we got an amazing piece of press in TechCrunch. We launched a new feature called Green Roots, which basically helps people get from A to B the greenest way. Very early on we thought that it would be something that the tech industry would be interested in. And one of the things that we found is that, actually, because we are a self-funded, non-VC backed, non-private-finance business, it's actually been really, really hard to get into the tech press. What we did is we gave them a first stab at our new feature, so we reached out to them before we launched it and tried to whet their appetite with our product. And, yeah, we managed to get into TechCrunch, which was a massive tick, because I think that's like a dream come true for a fledgling tech startup to be able to get some really great press in something like TechCrunch. 

AMIRAH: Do you have any other tips on what to do or keep on hand to make outreach to press more effective? 

HANA: So, Twitter is still a good place to find and contact journalists and I think there are various ways that you can get in contact with them. So, some of them have their email in their bio. Sometimes there are public journalist Twitter lists that you can dig deep into. And then also some journos put out requests for story sources on Twitter using the hashtag #journorequest or #prrequest, and sometimes they can come up with the goods. But I think the main thing to remember is not just the target publication that you'd want to be in – so, for example, we've always wanted to be in Wired and Fast Company, but actually that's really, really hard. And quite often it's about who you know, so be broad in your list – maybe have a top 10 list and then have another list underneath that. And then I would really focus on the journalist and what they write about rather than, necessarily, the publication. So it really, really helps to tailor the pitch and include key facts about the story at the top and make it really clear why they should care and why it's topical and just do that in the first few lines. And journalists often really like hearing from founders because they can get unfettered access to information and opinions that they might not get if they spoke to a PR. But sometimes journalists can't necessarily just write about a showpiece about your work, so quite often they are looking for other angles as well for you to pitch to them and other ways that they can make the story more interesting. 

Just having a really, really nice set of images, videos, statistics, particularly. Use case studies like end users using your app or your platform or your product or service. That's really, really good as well. And then we also worked a lot with partner organisations, which was a really great way for us to gather promotion. And quite often they had their own PR teams. So, for example, I think it was late 2018, early 2019, we managed to get a co-promotion partnership with Liz Earle Beauty Co and they had their own big PR team, which meant that we could work alongside them to get our story of our new walks that we made and various new content features in things like the Stylist, The Mirror, Grazia, which ordinarily would be really, really difficult. 

AMIRAH: When do you think it makes sense for brands to invest in PR agencies versus bootstrapping things in-house?

HANA: I think that when you can and you've got money then it is, you know, obviously a great idea to invest in professionals. But, early on, there's definitely some traction you can get just by being really diligent and building up your press list from the start. 

AMIRAH: Thanks so much to Jesse, Kim and Hana for sharing their valuable insights around PR, and thanks to Fiverr for sponsoring today's show. Here's Duncan with today's key takeaways.

DUNCAN: Number one: earned media, including PR, is a really important way to drive brand awareness and build credibility. Number two: the key to getting great press is having a strong brand positioning and perspective and helping journalists understand why your stories are relevant and interesting to their audiences. And number three: before you kick off any press outreach, you want to have a carefully-put-together press kit and great photography on hand. That's it for today. If you're looking for more information on how small businesses and startups can go about getting press coverage find our step by step at

AMIRAH: Workshop is back January 13th. Happy holidays!

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