Pitching your firm to win media coverage

Pitching your firm to win media coverage
Pitching your firm to win media coverage
Crain's New York | Jun. 02, 2010 | FROM THE WEB


Michael Dwork, founder of an eco-friendly dinnerware company, has found that a tailored approach can grab editors' attention -- without using a public relations firm.

By Elaine Pofeldt

Published: June 2, 2010 - 10:34 am

Four years ago, Michael Dwork was a student in Columbia University's MBA program, completing an internship in India with Infosys. The team leader invited Mr. Dwork back to his village one day for a home-cooked dinner.

Mr. Dwork says he might not have agreed to go if he'd known the journey would be five hours long. It's a good thing he didn't ask. Along the way, he spotted a woman pressing palm leaves with a crude device, like a waffle iron, and then serving food on them. This gave him the idea for biodegradable dinnerware. Now Mr. Dwork's Long Island City, Queens-based company, VerTerra Ltd., makes products that are sold in 1,000 stores and used in Cowboys Stadium in Dallas.

VerTerra's founder won first place in the first annual Crain's New York Business Perfect Pitch Competition, held at Columbia Business School on May 25. The winning pitches offer a lesson for small companies that lack the resources to hire a public relations firm: You can bootstrap your way into the media, if you put a little thought into the process.

The contest judges were Jill Kaplan, vice president and publisher of Crain's New York Business; Elizabeth MacBride, contributing editor; and yours truly, a frequent contributor.

Mr. Dwork wowed the judges with his ability to tell the story of his business in clear, colorful anecdotes, like the one just used to draw you into this story. In the contest, 11 teams taped “elevator pitches”: short descriptions of their businesses, similar to what they might provide if they found themselves riding to the ninth floor of an office building with a venture capital honcho. We then selected five teams for additional five-minute interviews.

“If you know what reporters may be interested in and focus on figuring out how your business may fit, the probability of success increases,” says Rafael Rodas, founder of Tucocina, which sells Hispanic kitchenware. He came in fourth.

The most successful pitches can be viewed below. Among the other lessons they offer for entrepreneurs seeking media coverage:

-- Tailor your pitch. Every publication has unique requirements for the stories its editors choose to report. To appear in Crain's New York Business, for instance, a business must generally be based in the five boroughs of New York City or operate here. Early in her elevator pitch, Andrea Wenner, founder of Out2Play -- hich came in second -- told us, “We're the nonprofit that's building playgrounds in public schools in New York.”

-- Share the numbers. Being unwilling to disclose your company's revenue could put you out of the running. When Ms. Kaplan asked Mr. Dwork about VerTerra's sales, he was ready: “We had $521,000 in revenue last year,” he said. “This year, we'll probably be at around $1.4 million or $1.6 million.”

-- Show that you're willing to collaborate. You'll have a better shot at getting a story if you are willing to work with editors to find an appropriate angle. Ms. Wenner offered two. First, she mentioned that coverage of schools' connection to childhood obesity tends to focus on nutrition, not on physical activity. Then she pitched a second angle: “We're only two people on staff, and we're having a huge impact across the city,” she said.

-- Have fun. Just because your pitch isn't all business doesn't mean that editors won't take it seriously. As the camera focused on him in the elevator, David Rampa, senior adviser at Aleutian Capital Group—the third-place team—folded up an issue of our newspaper. “Oh, hi; you've caught me reading a recent issue of Crain's,” he said.

-- Think visually. Mr. Dwork mentioned that the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum had recognized his product's design. A jazzy pitch may be worth 1,000 words in Crain's, but it doesn't hurt to offer an interesting photo op, too.