How To Run A Media Event

Some time ago I wrote a post on tips and best practices that I felt startups ought to consider in getting the most out of media relationships. The impetus had to do with recent reports I had been getting from portfolio companies about media interviews that had not gone as well as company management had hoped. Story angles had been mishandled, sensitive information had been unwittingly divulged, and statements were seemingly taken out of context.

In this piece I’d like to cover a sunnier subject: How to effectively run a media event.

Last night, portfolio company, a destination site for eco-friendly products at discount prices, conducted its first formal media mixer in San Francisco. I prefer to use the term “mixer” as opposed to ”launch party” given that the site went live some weeks ago and, quite frankly, “launch party” still carries with it some dot-com era connotations for many in the start-up/VC community. To this day I have a hard time seeing the phrase “launch party” on an invite without it conjuring up images of hosted martini bars and overflowing trays of sushi in a wildly overpriced nightclub.

In any event, the gathering was by all accounts a success. Vendors were contentedly exhibiting their wares. Oscar-winning actress, author, and environmental spokesperson Mariel Hemingway was the headline speaker. Organic wines and delectables were served (on biodegradable plates, naturally). Finally, there was a good but manageable number of representatives from the media in attendance.

Pulling off a successful media event is by no means a herculean task, but it does take some planning. For those start-ups planning a function to broaden their brands and get the word out about new products, services or strategic relationships, below are a few tips that can make a big difference in how best to meet the objective.

Setting and Managing Expectations: This should fall directly into the ‘painfully obvious’ category, but I am endessly amazed how seldom start-up teams methodically think through what their media events are intended to accomplish. Sometimes the excitement and buzz of throwing a party or press conference swamps all the sober thinking that needs to take place about what the objectives are of the events being considered. What, specifically, needs to be achieved in order to consider the event a success? Is success being defined quantitatively?  (i.e., how many reporters attend; how many stories get written and appear on the event in print and other media, etc) or…is it more qualitative? (how our customers, partners and employees perceive the event and how our brand or our new product is thought of?) Get clear on this early so as to best avoid awkward post-mortems on poorly executed events.

Consider Logistics Carefully: A good decision on a venue depends less on how fancy the room is or how trendy the nightclub is and more on practical considerations. Does the room photograph well? Is there sufficient lighting for good shots and clear audio for videographers? Is there sufficient protection for weather changes? Is the staff well-trained working with media people and their demands? Is there excessive noise, traffic, other distractions? Is it close to downtown and/or is it easy to get to from where most of your VIPs live and work? (This is very important if you are considering a happy hour mixer and expect media people and other VIPs to pop over after work.) Finally, think through the date. Do you want the event to stand alone and not compete with anything else that day or week or would it be better attended piggy-backed on another event going on simultaneously whereby people might already be in town and could stop over? (This works particularly well if there is a big convention going on at the same time. People are not likely to fly in for your mixer, but they can be enticed to attend if they are already in town for the convention down the street.)

Develop A Clear Newsworthy Angle: Ask, ‘where is the story here?’ Media people won’t be responsive to a plea to offer coverage for a clearly promotional event no matter how good the free booze, snacks and gift bags. Make sure there is an angle or hook on which a story can be developed? Is your angle local or national? Is it timely? Will there be information disseminated at the event not available in a press release? Is the event piggy-backing on something recently in the news? [For the event, the team scheduled it on the eve of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. This offered up obvious story lines to reporters about how far the green movement has come since the first Earth Day in 1970, the evolution of eco-friendly products into the mainstream, how product offerings intersect with that evolution, etc.] Finally, will there be a newsmaker there? Credible spokespersons and even celebrities can add a certain punch to an event if there is a reasonable chance that that person might make news at your event.

Woo Everyone; Not Just Media Folks. A common mistake of start-up teams is that they focus too intently on wooing representatives from the media and they lose sight of the most important goal which is to have a great event. Media people are followers, not leaders. They are not interested in being the story and, what’s more, you wouldn’t want a room full of nothing but media people anyway.  People don’t attend events because they think there will be a lot of media there; media attend events because they think there will be a lot of people there and, hence, potential for a scoop on a new product/service or other story angle.

Following Up: After the media event is over, the cheese trays have been picked clean, and the blue recycling bins are filled with empty wine bottles, the real work begins. The long-term value that comes out of a media event is in how well the follow-ups are handled, how media relationships are forged and managed, and how the event is talked about in the past tense. You might find that only half the number of reporters that RSVP’d actually showed up. Don’t be discouraged. Reporters routinely overbook and skip events they planned to attend. Follow up anyway with the media–those who attended and those who didn’t–with appropriate press clippings, blog postings, video clips of important speeches, and any other info on the event. With the plethora of social media tools and video apps like live streaming now available, there are innumerable ways to relive or recreate a media event for someone who couldn’t otherwise attend. Even if the reporter skipped the event, he or she may still write a piece later on the company or the event itself; if not, there is a good chance he or she will make the next event if it appeared that the skipped event was successful.

Don’t Be a Media Snob: Echoing an earlier point, just as it is a mistake to focus solely on media folks at the expense of getting a good group of attendees, it is similarly a mistake to get too caught up in wooing mainstream, big-name media outlets at the expense of smaller publications, bloggers and influencers. The media landscape is rapidly evolving. More often than not, establishment media outlets are late to the game on catching a new tech trend or hot company. Bloggers, local trade publications, and online magazines are often the ones breaking stories on emerging companies and trends. Use this to your advantage. As the budgets at mainstream outlets continue to get squeezed, they lean more and more on what is being tweeted and written about in cyberspace to develop story ideas. If your event is only attended by a smattering of small-time bloggers and niche publications, fear not. These outlets can open enormous doors for you and your company. More than 20 years ago, as a college student, I launched my first startup. As the company grew rapidly, none of the establishment media showed any interest in what the company was doing; that is, not until I was quoted in an American Airlines in-flight magazine. At the time, I thought little of appearing in an in-flight magazine. However, that small blurb was read by a reporter at The New York Times. That led to a profile on me and my company appearing in the Sunday NYT a few weeks later. Before long, The Wall Street Journal called. You guessed it, they read the NYT piece. And on it went — all because I took that call from that American Airlines freelance writer that needed a quick quote on a story about to go to press. Print stories begat other print stories. Media was viral, even back in 1988. It is only exponentially more so now. In much the same way that a successful start-up must take care of its earliest customers, a company intent on a healthy relationship with the media must take care of even the most obscure news outlets that first show interest in what it is doing.

Jonathan Tower is a Managing Director at Citron Capital, a global private equity and venture capital firm, where he focuses primarily on Enterprise Software, Consumer Internet, Media, Web Services and Infrastructure investments. His blog is called The Adventure Capitalist.