Reporter Sound Off: Q&A with Alex Wilhelm

TechCrunch's Alex Wilhelm talks to us about the pitches he’s interested in receiving, what makes a story stand out and what the media cycle looks like for start-ups aiming to generate buzz.

Lisa Davis

September 16, 2021

There’s no debate that Alex Wilhelm is busy as a senior editor covering start-ups, late-stage private companies, and the IPO market for TechCrunch. This past year, there has been no shortage of stories, sources, and deals fighting for his attention. 

In the inaugural interview for our Reporter Sound Off series, Alex talks to us about the pitches he’s interested in receiving, what makes a story stand out and what the media cycle looks like for start-ups aiming to generate buzz through public relations.

Keep reading to learn more.

Hi Alex! Thanks for joining us as the first interview in our series. To start, can you provide a quick overview of your beat and the sources that you’re looking for regularly? 

Alex: I write about start-ups, late-stage private companies, and the IPO market. I also cover public companies as much as they are useful comps for private firms. My goal is to get a handle on the market for tech and "tech-ish" private companies and capital and convey that to my readers. 

When it comes to cultivating sources, there's a lot of folks in the world that I cover. I've instituted a no-jerks rule. Generally speaking, the trick is to find people who will be the most honest and the least biased over time or at least be upfront when they're telling you something that is slanted in one direction or another. If you're going to fill your head with something, you might as well fill it with stuff from people who care about other people. Harder to do, I think, but more worthwhile.

Has your story focus shifted since the pandemic began last March? 

Alex: Some. Not so much in terms of my goals, but in terms of what I care about. As different sectors of the private business world change so does my focus. I follow the news and what the beat is at that moment in time. Obviously, I want to cover what matters/is happening the fastest or most, so different storylines within the start-up world have garnered my attention at different points in time since last March. But at the end of the day, I am still covering the same beat.

How many pitches do you tend to receive on an average day/week? 

Alex: I honestly do not know. I have my Gmail set to “important/unread,” so I only see a portion of inbound email, and I read only a fraction of that. The pitches that I open are functional things like, “Company X is reporting earnings, do you want to talk to the CFO afterward?” or “Company Z is announcing growth metrics in 3 days, do you want to see the release ahead of time?” or “a report on the P and X sectors in VC is coming out, do you want to see it?” – those emails do not take a lot of time to digest, which is nice.

What are the changes or shifts in pitches from public relations pros that you’ve noticed since COVID-19? What makes a pitch stand out in the current climate? 

Alex: Everyone still wants attention for their company or their client – so that part remained the same. I’d say that we, the media, are back to normal? That’s how it feels, at least. In terms of making a pitch stand out, I only care about select things – data points that fit into what I’m working on - everything else is noise. Mostly, I’m trying to figure out what’s changing the fastest and what’s going to be directionally clarifying. 

Companies experiencing a tremendous amount of growth are usually the ones that I have found to have the most interesting angle into a market or vertical. Those are the companies that I want to write about because they’re doing the most and generally faster than others.  That’s what startups are for, really.

What are some mistakes that PR pros have made when pitching you over the past few months? 

Alex: Nothing stands out as being more different than before. It still feels like junior people at PR firms are somewhat taken advantage of by higher-ups who have them pitch things that reporters hate in hopes that they’ll get lucky (e.g., mass pitching, etc.). I would say that I’m busier than ever, which means that it’s probably harder to get my attention (which sucks for everyone, including myself), so some PR pros have been more aggressive with follow-ups that I don’t read.

There also seems to be fewer reporters covering start-ups than in the past, in terms of their mechanics and happenings – but there are also more start-ups and VCs than ever before. So, it’s an increasingly unbalanced market.

Can you describe some positive interactions you’ve had when working with PR? What did you like about these interactions and what’s the best way to build a relationship with you? 

Alex: I’ve had lots of good interactions with PR people, mostly when we are heading in the same direction – they have access to a person or a fact that I need and will get it to me. The relationship is based on mutual respect and clarity. This goes sideways when PR has some narrative they want to push or a story idea. There are two ways to build a relationship with me – figure out who we know in common and have them reach out or have a killer data point that I can’t ignore.

Do you accept exclusives/embargoes? If so, when are they appropriate to use with you and how much lead time do you need? 

Alex: I do accept embargoes for things that need them, like funding rounds. I do not like exclusives.

What should PR pros know about journalists right now? 

Alex: There aren’t that many reporters left, and there have never been more comms pros/marketing folks, and so forth. It’s super hard to stand out and break into the narrative in Startupland – so I’d recommend that in addition to media outreach, companies focus on in-house content creation. Of course, this could vary wildly across different beats – this is my two cents based on where I sit.

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Thanks for reading and stay tuned for the next installment of Reporter Sound Off!

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Lisa Davis