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Serkan Toto’s Pitching the Press – The Way of the Startup

Serkan Toto - Geeks On A Plane - China - ASIA Tour
Dr Serkan Toto (Credit: kris krug, kk+, flickr)

Dr. Serkan Toto, Techcrunch‘s first and only Asia-based writer – he covers web and technology companies in Asia, especially Japan – was recently in Singapore for SingTel Accelerate. He gave an interesting lightning talk to an audience comprising chiefly of representatives from various Singapore and regional technology and web startups on how to pitch to the press (actually mainly pitching to Techcrunch, but these points work for mainstream press as well).

I’m condensing and paraphrasing the 12 tips he gave during the talk, as well as adding some of my thoughts (in italics), here:

1. Plan ahead.

Serkan says that you need to plan ahead when you put together a pitch, and one of the first things you should do is to check the embargo policies of the press you are intending to pitch to. For example, Techcrunch does not respect embargoes. Another thing to look out for during planning is to make sure your announcement doesn’t clash with a major event, especially with a big brand – you’ll simply get crushed.

2. Avoid low-hanging fruit.

Serkan says that, if you think you’re good enough, it’s best to pitch to the big boys first and avoid lower-tier blogs, at least for a while. The reason is that if your story has covered before, it’s extremely unlikely that the editor or writer of the big blog would be interested in covering you. Also, if the big boys do cover you, the smaller ones are going to do so anyway. Of course, if you don’t hear back from the big boys, then by all means hit the lower-tier blogs – just wait about a week. 

Now this was a little bit hard to say, but Serkan’s right – it’s better to break a story on a site like  Techcrunch first, simply because you’re going to get a far better response for your product or service. Which is also why our site prefers to concentrates on the entrepreneurial angle – the ‘why’s instead of the ‘what’s, if you will.

3. Choose your “targets” wisely.

Serkan points out that one of the mistakes startups tend to make is that they send a pitch directly to Michael Arrington – who may simply be too busy and swamped (and more interested in big picture stories – read AngelGate) to give you your due. So, avoid “superstar bloggers” and find one of the other bloggers from that media.

I’d add that it’s also good practice to research into what individual writers of the site tends to prefer to cover, especially beats or technologies that they understand or like. Bloggers like it that you know their preferences, and it’s likely to give you a better story as well.

4. Practice un-PR.

One of the more controversial tips he gave was that startups don’t need PR firms to do PR for them – all they need to do is to be human and avoid big words and claims like “we’re going to kill Facebook, Twitter, Google” etc. One of the reasons, he says, is that it’s far easier and quicker for writers to engage directly with the C-level person in conversation, without going through too many layers and approval processes. It means a faster story.

In many ways, I agree. And here’s a previous post on the reasons why I think so.

5. Have a story.

The most important tip, Serkan says, is that you must have an interesting story. What constitutes an interesting story? He says good stories can revolve around being a world-class product, preferably new (so, no clones), or has some meaning for readers. Serkan stated the example of  of Philippines-based startup Insync, which he wrote about, that had a really good product of interest to his readers.

6. Structure your story.

A pitch needs to just answer four questions, according to Serkan: 1) Who are you? 2) What do you do (or what problem do you solve)?, 3) Who are your competitors?, and 4) How are you different?. It will also be good to give interesting nuggets – facts, figures – that helps spice up the story.

I’d add also that in a pitch, do use the inverted triangle (or pyramid) principle – put the most important points at the top of your pitch. Don’t assume that a blogger/writer will read all the way to the bottom of your lengthy release.

7. Use email.

Use email, Serkan says, and avoid contacting through LinkedIn, Facebook, or even calls. Do attach in the email screenshots, video links, press releases, anything that helps craft the story.

And don’t send another following email within a day inquiring if we’ve seen/read your previous one. It’s bad form. And we can read through the “what-else-do-you-need” or “not-sure-if-it-went-into-the-spam-folder” tricks.

8. Be concise.

In Serkan’s words and example:

21 paras (1,927 words) + ppt = no way in hell. 

9. Provide extras.

Incentivise bloggers to carry your story (not to be confused with bribery – see below), says Serkan. For example, Insync offered companies registered on CrunchBase a special incentive – more users, more storage! – to sign up. The promotion was so successful it caused the Insync servers to crash after a few hours – proof of the power of Techcrunch, the value of the promotion and the fact it’s simply a great product. Another tip Serkan gave – video. He says too many startups ignore video, which is a great medium to explain what a product or service is about.

Consider the use of exclusives, but be careful with those as well. 

10. Be responsive and polite.

It’s all about relationships, so startups should be as responsive and polite in their dealings with bloggers. Serkan says there are some startups who confuse bloggers as their PR agencies – there is no “you should write this or write that”. And no bribery please – he says he was even offered a consultancy fee (he works full-time as an independent web and mobile industry consultant). Additional tip from Serkan: Think from the point of view of the reader and about making the audience happy, instead of from the PR perspective.

It’s true – I’ve junked emails from rude jerks who insist their product is the best thing since sliced bread, and refuse to take no for an answer. Sorry, your story ain’t that important to me if your attitude stinks.

11. Shoot a final email.

This was a great tip – shoot a final parting email after the story is out to thank the blogger. It leaves a great lasting impression. Bonus tip: Offer to help the blogger, for example, if they ever need additional information, statistics or data on your area of expertise and industry domain.

Again, it’s all about relationships – c’mon, it shouldn’t be a case of “wham-bam-thank-you-m’am”.

12. Don’t underestimate the importance of media.

Serkan also reminds us that bloggers – as individuals – are huge multipliers in and of themselves. They have their own networks and contacts and can help you in many ways. Not to mention that having your story covered by a big blog validates your business – something you can, and should, talk about.

I’ve got more public relations advice for startups here.


Daniel Goh is the founder and chief editor of Young | Upstarts, as well as an F&B entrepreneur. Daniel has a background in public relations, and is interested in issues in entrepreneurship, small business, marketing, public relations and the online space. He can be reached at daniel [at] youngupstarts [dot] com.

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