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AFN’s top tips to improving your startup’s media communications game in 2020

January 7, 2020

Happy New Year! With the start of a new year—make that decade—we at AFN are goal-setting for 2020 along with everyone else. Our number one resolution is to best support you and the rest of the agri-foodtech ecosystem in building a thriving, innovative and sustainable sector. To do that, you have to help us help you.

There’s no easy way to say this, so here it is: some of your communication is not great. Actually, in more than a few cases, it’s pretty awful.

Lo, we are not about to rant at you about all the things you do wrong! We know many of you are scrappy, strapped entrepreneurs trying to DIY a thing that is not your main gig. (Those of you actually spending money for poorly written, jargon-filled press releases, let’s talk.) 

We’ve compiled what we hope will be a handy list of dos and don’ts to help you boost your media and communications game a bit (and uh, make our jobs a little easier too).

Mid-week is the best time to drop a press announcement.

News performs best during the week, Tuesday to Thursday. Reader volume often drops on Mondays and Fridays. It makes sense, really. People often spend Mondays preparing for the week and Fridays finishing up the week’s tasks and winding down. We journalists follow that cycle too, which is why AFN sends our newsletter out on Thursday.


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What to do: If you have news to break immediately, send it Tuesday to Thursday—it will get more eyeballs. If you want journalists to do a thoughtful job reporting your story, send it to us with a few days notice and an “embargo” date and time, that tells us when we can actually publish the news. This gives us time to talk to you, prepare our story and do some fact-checking.

What not to do: Send us news for immediate release on a Friday, unless you want to ensure that your news gets completely buried.

The key to news quantity versus quality is embargoes and exclusives.

These days you can spread news pretty far and wide with a press release alone. Press releases easily get picked up and reposted on site after site. But press releases don’t ever tell the whole story, do they?

If you want your news and story to go a bit deeper, it helps to give reporters some lead time (see above re: “embargoes”) and to offer reporters “exclusives” from time to time. Why exclusives? Because we journalists are competitive folks. We like to break news, and if we can’t break news, we like to have the best story. (Ideally, we get to have both.) But we definitely don’t want to see the exact story that we worked hard to report and write popping up on every other news site out there.

What to do: Embargoes are easy: pick a day and a time you want the news to break, slap that timestamp on your press release and then blast it out to your media network a couple days in advance. (A week in advance if you’re really feeling generous.) Expect to get a phone call or two requesting an interview (you will from AFN, at least).

For exclusives, pick one publication to break the news and offer them an exclusive. (Hint: AFN likes exclusives.) If they don’t bite, move on to the next one. Some have rules for how long they get to “own” the news before you can share with other news outlets, so be clear on that before you send out a general press release.

What not to do: Offer exclusives to more than one publication or journalist at a time. 

“Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do”…

Thank Mark Twain for that tip. The goal of communicating is to be understood, and simple, common words achieve that best, as unglamorous and unpoetic as they may be. This tip should help not only with media but also with business marketing. As startups increasingly engage in a global business environment, it’s important to remember that not all of your investors, partners and customers are native speakers of your primary language.

What to do: Keep it simple. Skip the jargon, skip the acronyms, skip the colloquialisms. If you absolutely have to use jargon or acronyms, immediately explain their meaning.

For example: Technologies, products and services are not “solutions”, though they may indeed be trying to solve something. Tell us what your technology, product or service is: software, sensor, robot, marketplace, microbial seed coating, magical crop juice, CBD fairy dust. And tell us what it aims to solve.

What not to do: Um, use unnecessary jargon and acronyms.

… But imagine you had to pay $5 per word for your press release.

Obviously you are not going to do that! But make your words count, and write (or commission) your press releases with little to no linguistic padding. Here are some common traps:

  • The oxygen-depleting elevator pitch. Is your bootstrapped startup that spun out of a university lab poised to disrupt an antiquated industry with turnkey solutions augmented by a strong value proposition and experienced partners? We have lots of questions. For starters: What is it you actually do?
  • The vapid quote. If we had a dollar for every time we read in a press release that someone was “thrilled” or “delighted” about their new partnership, investment, product, we would be genuinely thrilled and delighted. But usually when we see one of those words, we skip over the quote or paragraph completely.

What to do: Some topics or news items are sensitive—we get that. If you can’t go into significant detail about your news or technology, just keep your release short and sweet. (Or consider waiting to release something until you can provide more detail.)

What not to do: Use press releases as a marketing crutch. (They should used as a marketing tool that provides critical information to journalists and the public.)

Keep it fresh and relevant.

Kudos to those of you carefully picking your words, weeding out jargon, and packaging your news in context. Keep in mind that the contextual container you use should be suitable for technology, product, service, otherwise it just looks like you padded your business news with an excessive quantity of packing peanuts.

What to do: Explain your genuine raison d’être. If you built a farm equipment marketplace because shopping for the right machinery was a problem you and your farm-owning neighbors faced, start there! If you started a new produce logistics company or developed a food preservation technology because food waste breaks your heart, explain! And then offer a datapoint or two about the scale of the issue or market opportunity, if you can.

What not to do: Throw out an old or tired stat that has no real relatability to your business model or strategy. That FAO stat about the world needing 70% more food by 2050 is both hotly debated and a decade old. And we already have enough food to feed 10 billion people given than a third is wasted, so expect glazed eyes if you use that stat. If you’re a hyper-local startup or you’re not actually trying to solve the “Zero Hunger” Sustainable Development Goal, just use something else that paints a more relevant (if narrower) picture.

Bonus tips.

You’re on the record unless you tell us otherwise. If you don’t say “off the record,” you should assume everything you say is “on the record” and open for publication. That said, we don’t want you watching every little word you say during interviews because it can be a lot of work reading between the lines (and leads to inaccurate reporting). Tell us you’re speaking “on background” if you want us to understand context but don’t want to be quoted directly. And for your on the record conversations, you can always ask to check quotes before an article is published. Journalists aren’t required to say yes, but can’t hurt to ask, right? 

No, you cannot see the story in advance. Sorry, folks. Journalists are not your public relations loudspeakers—you don’t get to proof our stories before we publish. But that said, most of us (and definitely AFN’s reporters) care that what we write about you is clear and accurate, so we will check facts and quotes with you before we publish as we need to (particularly for highly technical articles).

Request corrections when we get things wrong. (But only when we get things wrong.) More on that loudspeaker thing, we aren’t going to use the exact words you want. Plus, sometimes things that you’re sensitive about aren’t actually sensitive from a news or information standpoint. If we get something factually wrong or take something out of context, by all means, get in touch and ask us to correct it. If it’s a semantics issue, well, that’s what press releases are for. 

Own up. About lessons learned, pivots, competition. Agri-foodtech is new. Many of you are doing tough, pioneering and innovative things—it’s not going to be a flawless journey to profits, scale, and impact. You build credibility with journalists and the public when you explain how your business fits in the context of what’s happening in your field, what challenges are out there, and what you’re learning. And we’re going to do our research and write about it whether you tell us or not—particularly on your peers and competitors. Consider taking control of this part of your story; own it and tell us how you differentiate yourself.

Oh, and please stop using speakerphone. It’s 2020. Deploy some of that capital you just raised or leverage one of your partnerships to secure a headset. Now there’s a solution.

Feedback goes both ways: if there’s anything you think we should be doing to improve AFN, our coverage and our newsletter, please let us know! Email louisa@agfunder.com.

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