Startup PR Mentality: What’s Right & What’s Wrong?

Your client thinks his startup is the greatest thing on earth. Your client is wrong. But who really cares? When it comes to “getting press” a startup chief has to be ready to take on all comers.

That’s part of the problem with being a startup. The founders think it’s the best bread since sliced–and have the audacity (some say confidence) to believe they are better than a lot of the press being offered. Which is poppycock.

Another problem is that these startup types think they know how PR works.

In fact, very few people are worthy of being in the media—and as for products, hardly any. Knowing how Public Relations works? Even fewer know that magic answer.

I was recently saddled with a client – Rename Maneless – who scoffed at bloggers who wanted to get more information for possible stories on the soon-to-launch thing being offered. Scoffing is rude, first of all. On top of that there was the ages-old argument of “We can do better.” Blood now boiling, I asked this allegedly smart chief thingamabob if he knew the blog he was turning down had 50,000 readers, and did that number meant anything at all?

The answer was a walloping no. Because, and you can say it with me, it just wasn’t high level enough for his time, attention, or taste. Heavy sigh. I wondered if he knew what a high level was.

So I played a game with this genius. I told him that if he did the one interview, I’d promise him one with a major magazine. Little did he know that the first interview wasn’t even a promise of a story—and no major anything stood on deck. Man, it was like getting a kid to eat his veggies; he shrugged and said okay.

After the blog meeting, this problem child was so happy with the experience and subsequent result that he completely forgot about my disappearing magazine piece. (He really was not ready for prime.) I made him see how snobby he was being toward a real live reporter.

We wish our problems could be solved this easily. But here we go: The next unfortunate request to the same guy came from a podcaster. This was, he said, lower than terrestrial radio–as if radio was evil. I turned the request down. There are only so many hours I can waste playing adult games.

Still, there’s one more problem with startup heads that arises when big-time media start calling. They get insecure. “I just don’t think I’m ready to talk to Time magazine,” one said. But how would you know? Do you think I’d let you sit with a reporter whom I didn’t think you were ready for /slash/ prepare you for? It’s my ass on the line!

The insecurities linger and even after it’s been decided—by me—that he’ll do it no matter what, the late night phone calls start in—and emails and texts, followed by voicemails in the office when he knows I’m gone. “I don’t know, Richard. I think it’s too early!” Too early for? Your nervous breakdown? Please.

Yeah, we face a lot of pretty regular dilemmas in PR society. We deal with Montana-sized egos and paying folk who have no think-before-I-speak button—or think something, then say it without realizing it was better left in one’s head. But some people are such know-it-alls that all our dealings are a uphill trail. To them we have to decide whether to fight or surrender.

There are painful times when it’s so difficult to get a spokesperson to speak that you have to tell the requester that the product isn’t there yet. “It’s a new company and they have many kinks to work out. When they are you’ll be the first to know it,” you lie.

Doing good work isn’t enough. Nowadays, you need an imaginary Psychology degree to cope with people who decide what’s good enough or what they’re ready for. . . .

Another way to skin this: Want to win your battle? Draw a diagram. Like a presentation–like the Powerpoint she uses in every meeting. Show the good emitting from the piece, and explain what bad will occur if she doesn’t chomp the bullet.

That’ll work until exhaustion sets in; you realize there will always be a startup needing to be talked into something. That’s when you run for the covers.

Who Gives a Hit?

“They called you directly — so that is not like you did anything!”

“We better get the credit for that!”

“Man, can you believe it? They bypassed us and just called our client.”

These scenarios are ridiculous at best, but they happen all too often in PR. They are about claiming the hit as opposed to working together to stay razor-thin-focused on the strategy of a client (or boss). After experiencing the above for years, I now stand firm that this is wrong. The next person who asks me whether or not it is our hit … will simply get hit.

No longer debatable, this tug of war is over with no clear winner. Nowadays, when the self-important blogger, big-time media, local daily, or eager President of the United States actually gets what you are trying to say — no matter how she got the news — it means you win. No more tactics over strategy. PR is about everyone working together to make it work. Contests are out, like Katie Perry and Taylor Swift.

This seems obvious?

Liar.

You, like me, are still trying to hide who did what from your payee.

That is what this post is about, even with 12 quite understandable lines of preamble. I am asking for a new way to work that says everyone (me too) will play from the same rule book for the first time, starting on the page entitled, How the hell are we going to get this thing to work?!

I want to experience the calendar date when a CNN producer calls an agency because he heard something somewhere and everyone rejoices. This is not happening. All I get is, We have to say that person was on our pitch list, as if that matters.

If that is what matters, then we are mere order takers. Pushily put, I want my people and yours to practice in a PR community where we create compelling messages that get folks hopping excited … even, nay especially, the other media who see it out there.

Simply: Stop shouting from the rooftops about who did what; just get energized by the mutual work. Remember that media begets media — it is that simple.

Then there is offline versus online credit — the nonsense about who got any given blogger to report about some new press release. I hear it said that the release running on a site triggered a Google Alert or RSS-seeker and thus the hit. That is poppycock.

Then, reviving a 70s reference, what is all this fuss about bloggers handing our stories to the major media? Such logic baffles me — more AP and Christian Science Monitor stories are quoted on blogs than any dead tree columnist would take time to read.

Finally, a gripe that needs no introduction: IR versus PR. When did investor vs. media become the norm? Neither thinks the other does anything that valuable, so when an IR rep gets media to act, the PR dudes say Gee, wait a minute! That is our contact. Reads funny, right? Come on people now, everybody get together … try to love.

The client who cares only about tactical hits — or upper manager breathing down your neck for another inch-thick clip book — needs to be slapped down. Show him the value of COMMUNICATING the fiercest ever message to all constituencies, with all the support that is muster-able. During this period of shrinking media and rising tempers, let us get a little Rodney King and work for the same goal — exposure that moves needles.

The Pitch That Cried Wolf

There are only so many reporters and bloggers covering the field or industry you play in, whether it’s automotive technology, software, clothing, or architectural design. With time and experience, you will wind up speaking to them all one day—or their brethren. In a world of instant communication and shrinking inner circles, a PR person who cries wolf with a few off-the-mark pitches is blackballed in a hurry.

There’s nothing the media dislikes more than vapor (a non-story), so don’t pitch it. Click over to Business Wire, PR Web, or any of its ilk on a given day and you can count up hundreds of thousands of dollars spent propagating vapor news. “Small Company A Signs Agreement with About-to-Fold Company B” or “InterSliceTech.com Launches Bleeding-Edge Customer Tracking Functionality.” Find us a journalist who actually wants to write about topics like that (how do they affect anyone else besides the people who wrote the releases?) and we will tip our hats to that PR person (who has a reporter cousin, of course).

The danger in vapor is that it builds a name for you quickly. The wrong name. If you’re dabbling in handheld technology, say, and you pitch Jason Kincaid, well-known gadgetry guy from TechCrunch, on every software upgrade, he’s going to learn very rapidly not to take seriously any pitch you send his way. Who cares? The danger is that when you have real news, the kind that matters, such as the launch of your new device that makes the iPac shake in its boots, Jason will not pay attention because you’ve proven yourself to be a vapor merchant.

Before you blast out a cluster bomb of e-mails or send that release over the wire, consider long and hard what’s interesting about it. Is it fascinating just because you’ve spent three tireless months working on the content? Is it amazing because your latest noodling brings you one step closer to a competitor that no one’s ever heard of? If that’s the case, hold off and wait ’til you have something worthier of the presses; in other words, don’t believe your own story too much.

Larger public companies are especially guilty of pushing vapor into the press. There’s a theory out there, one we don’t subscribe to, that if you don’t have a steady, weekly stream of information crossing the wires—also known as “the machine”—your business’s progress has sunk to an uncompetitive pace. Remember that with public companies, their news unfortunately engenders an article or two (unfortunately, because it makes the firm think that what they put out is urgent, and so it compels them to keep the vapor machine oiled).

Yet when this non-urgent-news-pushing firm truly has something worth chatting about, the press may not bite. Everyone at the firm scratches their heads and wonders why. But reporters and analysts are glazed over from the hundreds of newsless missives shot through that PR cannon. And they are all too familiar with firms that cry wolf.

The take-away is that vapor works only rarely. For example, it did for the whole of Seinfeld. If what you desire is respected coverage continually, sit on the vapor (“CEO sneezed today!”), and don’t put it out. You’ll only numb the reporters who should care and who should notice that what you do is important. Being important is paramount.

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