Why Most Startups Don't 'Get' Press
"I can't tell you how many times we've met with early-stage companies, and they start by telling us their big vision. They say, 'This is what we're about and what we want to change.' But when we ask them what they actually do, they can’t tell us. If you can’t answer that question, don’t do anything else until you can. Nothing else matters."
This is Brooke Hammerling, unfiltered. Her company Brew Media Relations match-makes young companies with journalists, influencers and anyone else who can help propel them to stardom. Today, her roster includes Wordpress, Charity:Water, Wealthfront, Oracle and About.me — all known for bold, creative communications strategies. She also happened to make the cover of The New York Times’ Sunday business section a few years ago as the poster woman for doing tech PR differently.
When it comes to whether startups need help in this area, she has a somewhat subversive opinion: they don’t. Even while at Brew, she’s helped hash out PR plans for a number of entrepreneurs who can't afford full-time agencies or in-house support. And she’s got a playbook of tactics for those who want to do it on their own.
When To Go It Alone
No matter how many PR agencies or freelance consultants say otherwise, a small startup can pull off a solid media relations strategy without shelling out for help, Hammerling says. In fact, there are only three reasons an early-stage company should consider retaining the services of a firm:
- It’s entering a crowded market. “They need to be able to show why they’re better, why they’re above the fray,” she says.
- It’s a very disruptive company. “If it’s really going to change huge things, like health care, then they need to get out there ahead fast.”
- There’s a legacy CEO involved who has history with the press. “Even if the company isn’t ready for primetime, there will be a lot of attention.”
If none of these three are true, then relax. "Everybody else should focus that budget on development of the product and building a team internally."
You Are Your Message & Your Message Is Everything
When Hammerling takes on a new client, the first thing she does is separate the key members of the team, including the investors. Then she fires questions at them about the product: “What are you? Why are you? Who are you? What problem are you solving and how are you solving it? Why should people care right now?” The idea is to hear what all of them say — where are the differences? Where are the overlaps? What do the people who care most about the company’s success think it is? This is how a narrative is born.
This was Hammerling’s approach with GroupMe, the mobile messaging startup bought by Skype in 2011. “It’s a great example because they were entering a very crowded space, but it wasn’t chat and it wasn’t just texting — we didn’t even want to call it an app,” she says. “Instead, we called it a ‘messaging service’ and talked about it in the context of a story: the frustration everyone feels when they can’t communicate with a whole group of friends at a music festival or a party. We were able to really differentiate them as a new way for friends to talk to each other.”
A startup can use this strategy without a communications team. “You can come up with your own ideas and compare notes, and develop it together. You might end up somewhere you didn’t predict.” She highlights Uber, not a Brew client, as an expert example of intentional branding. “They offer themselves as a technology company — not a car service. That’s a very specific message that tells you something about who they are and what they do.”
PR isn’t about hits and it isn’t about placement. It’s about focusing your voice. It’s about finding your place in the market.
The good thing about separating stakeholders is that everyone will give correct answers to the questions being asked — their delivery will just be different. “It’s not like there’s one perfect answer. Everyone will be right. This just gives you the opportunity to say, oh I like how this one person said that, or how so-and-so explained this concept. You can see who phrased things succinctly and who has a better grasp of the longer narrative. Then you can combine the best.”
The next step is to build what she calls a messaging document, starting with your most succinct, resonant messaging at the top — maybe it’s just one sentence — “It’s what you want to say at cocktail parties,” she says. Below that, you can dive a little deeper with the three key messages you’d want to share with reporters about the specific problem your company is solving. Under that, you can get more detailed. Then make sure everyone has a copy.
“PR isn’t about hits, it isn’t about placement — it isn’t ‘You pay us and we’ll get you a clip here or a mention on that blog.’ And it isn’t about a first-day bump that gets no traction,” Hammerling says. “It’s about focusing your voice. It’s about finding your place in the market.”
Developing messaging that resonates can be especially hard for complex technical and enterprise companies. As one of the first PR people working with NetSuite in 2003, Hammerling knows better than most. “We were talking about data systems and software as a service before the cloud was a thing, and no one understood,” she says. “We had to simplify it down and not tell the whole story. NetSuite does a lot of things, but I needed to tell just that one main thing.”
Some tough love was required. “They had this very very long-winded messaging on what they were doing by explaining the SaaS model of the financial data of ERP and blah blah blah — and I just told them, the mainstream business press doesn’t know this world yet, and they don’t care,” she says. “We filtered it down to this: ‘the future is software as a service: a business that will enable companies to manage the data that is important to them online, and share it across platforms with many people.’ We had to get people to understand how and why it would relate to them. All it took was taking out the jargon and simplifying it so that people could imagine themselves using it.”
Drawing analogies is a rookie crutch. Saying “It’s like Twitter, only for dog-sitters” can be instructive, but it also takes away from your brand. The better thing to do is to boil your message down to its core, and then layer in other dimensions and functionality little by little. “You may do 25 things and that’s amazing, but what’s that key thing you do? You have to make sure that’s crystal clear. Tell the story around that then layer in the rest later. If you try to pack it all into one announcement or a press release, you’ll lose your audience.”
Hammerling points to WealthFront — a Brew client — as one startup doing a good job of turning a complex concept into a single idea. “It’s taking technology, and using it for financial planning — a function that you normally go to humans for. They really had to hone in on a message so that all kinds of people would feel good using it.” You can see it in everything down to their tagline: “We manage your investments for you.” It’s not about technology or business. It’s about the personal ‘we’ taking care of something for ‘you.’
This is a hard pill for some founders to swallow. Here they’ve spent all this time building a multi-faceted product and they want to talk about all of its capabilities. But this is almost always a mistake, she says. “It’s hard to tell founders this kind of thing — it’s like telling them their child isn’t ready for an honors class yet. They want to fast-forward.” But she’s seen it end badly too many times.
Hammerling cites photo sharing app Color as a prime — and commonly used — example. It burst onto the scene in 2011, having raised a whopping $41 million in its first round of funding. Its shocking success seemed clear as the company made the rounds with the media — but the app’s actual functionality was not. “Nobody knew what the app did or what to expect once they downloaded it. Because of the money, people were expecting something great, and it just wasn’t there.” Color’s demise was slow and quiet.
If she had been the one handling the company’s PR, Hammerling says she wouldn’t have let the money dictate the strategy. “Of course they couldn’t keep the funding quiet — too many people were involved and it was an absurd amount. But I wouldn’t have tried to do a full court press around the product at the same time,” she says.
Prepping for Launch
Needless to say, Hammerling has seen a lot of missteps like this and more. She’s had startups come to her three days before their scheduled launch asking for a turnkey media strategy. Of course, there’s no such thing, she says. A solid media plan needs a runway of three to six months. “Even if you have a couple weeks and marketing material, that’s not enough. It’s not going to be effective and it’s going to look fake.” When a company does this — and plenty still do — Hammerling says nine times out of 10 a launch will get botched, and they never get another shot at it.
Like creating messaging, preparing for an effective launch starts with a list of questions — all designed to suss out your real motivations for doing PR:
- Do you just want a lot of attention early on?
- Is the goal to attract a ton of users? Customers?
- Is the announcement more about recruiting top talent?
- Do you want to raise more capital or VC interest?
The answers to these questions will shape your approach and your story. For the most part, different goals mean you go after different outlets. If you’re trying to hire great engineers, you want to get on Reddit, Hacker News, or the blogs engineers you want are reading. If you’re trying to get in front of investors, figure out what they read, and pitch those publications. Also, the more transparent you are about your goals, the more likely you are to achieve them, Hammerling says. “Stick with your one basic, overarching message, you just need to tweak it a little bit for each audience.” Sounds simple, but there are some caveats.
Avoid timing your launch with a funding announcement. Again, Color is a useful example. “If you need to announce funding, try to separate it as much as you can from your product. Absolutely don’t lead with it.” A large round raises expectations, a small one lowers them. The amount of money can all too easily convince people what they should expect from your company and how likely it is to succeed. The product should have a chance to stand on its own.
On top of this, a surprising number of companies choose to launch before their product is ready at all. “It’s a head scratcher, but I’ve seen so many startups determined to stick to their timelines that they’ll unveil something before it works. Then all of the bad press and feedback sets them back six months or more,” Hammerling says. “You have to be patient. If you have to pull a plug, pull the marketing plug. Nobody’s setting those deadlines but you.”
Getting on the Media’s Radar
Once you have your plan, it’s all about placement. How do you get attention in the deafening echo chamber of today’s technology news cycle? As Hammerling puts it — unsurprisingly — it’s all about relationships. And you don’t need to be a communications pro to make them. The obvious rules apply: be smart, pay attention, and don’t be rude. But there’s a bevy of other hacks for getting noticed.
“Figure out who’s covering your industry — whether it’s the broader tech industry, internet of things, consumer internet, mobile, whatever,” Hammerling says. “Then there will be those few reporters who cover that specific area you’re in. Make sure you read everything they write. And don’t just look forward, go back in time. Get a sense of their writing style and personality, what topics interest them.” Following reporters on Twitter can also give you a better sense of their life outside of work and what they’re really passionate about. All of this can be used to craft personalized communications.
While there is no set number of reporters an entrepreneur should work with, there’s value in forging meaningful relationships with a good handful in your area and broader industry, Hammerling says. When she first got her start, the tech media was less built out, and she made it a point getting to know 15 of the most influential reporters in the sector. “Now they’re running their own publications, their own bureaus, their own blogs,” she says. “If you’re a young entrepreneur, get to know the younger guys too — that’s just as important because these are people who share your mindset. They are entrepreneurial too, and they’re going to be the big guys down the road.”
Don’t be afraid to reach out.“The reporters covering tech want to hear your story. They’re actively looking to build relationships with entrepreneurs. If you live in the same city, try to set up some time to talk. If you don’t, then drop them a note a few weeks before you pass through their area and say you’d love to grab coffee. Not everyone will say yes, but a lot will,” Hammerling advises. Of course, don’t do this until you have your message down, know it backwards and forwards, and can clearly explain your value proposition to the market. She also advises against talking to reporters directly too far in advance of launch. There’s risk that you’ll tip your hand before your company’s ready. Once your product’s out in the open, that’s the time to focus on maintaining connections.
The importance of social media is a testament to how much the media relations game has evolved. In the past, it was a common tactic to offer an outlet an exclusive to get their attention — but this isn’t a good hand to play when there are hundreds of influential blogs out there. It’s one thing if you have a massive story that The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times might want to print, but this is hardly the case at the early-stage level.
I’m against the exclusive around a product launch — I think those days are over.
That said, exclusives can be useful for damage control. The more bloggers and editors out there, the more people actively uncovering news. It’s not unlikely that a reporter will get ahold of your story or a piece of it before it’s ready for showtime. “In my experience, if a reporter does get your information, you can work with them and build an even better relationship,” Hammerling says. “You can say, ‘You know what, we’re actually not ready for that to go live. We need another week, but we’ll give you everything you need.’ That’s when you give them the exclusive. They uncovered it, they earned it.” In this situation, it’s important to be grateful and show respect, but it’s not something to put into common practice.
“Giving exclusives will end up hurting your ability to build relationships in the long run,” she explains. “You’re just creating bad blood with all the other journalists who didn’t get the story. In the tech blog world, if someone posted something 30 seconds earlier, it’s perceived as an exclusive, even if it’s the exact same story. So you have to be very careful.”
Once You Have Their Attention
If you’ve put in the time cultivating your media network, it’s time to invest even more in learning how to talk to them. And if there’s one person you should pay, it’s a media trainer. “There are experts out there that are exquisitely good at teaching people how to speak to the media,” Hammerling says. “Talking to reporters is a whole different beast, a whole different art entirely. And you can work with a trainer without retaining an agency. You can just hire them to come in and spend half a day session finessing your message and getting you comfortable with answering questions.”
Hammerling personally recommends Joe Dolce, a communications expert Brew has been working a lot with as of late. As a former journalist and editor for big titles like Details, and as a public relations executive, he’s been on both sides of interviews and knows what effective answers look like.
Some founders may need this boost more than others, and it’s important to recognize which type you are. “Technical founders may have a more difficult time because they aren’t comfortable shortening their ideas or statements to be more catchy. They get their point across in minutes when they need to be doing it in seconds,” she says.
But what if you can’t afford a professional? That doesn’t mean you have to stay quiet. “You can get some of the same lessons from watching videos of successful entrepreneurs who are really really good at telling their stories.” Hammerling lists Salesforce’s Marc Benioff and Oracle’s Larry Ellison as her top two examples. “They’re just really great at presenting, talking in front of an audience, having a sense of humor. They speak with a twinkle in their eye even when they’re being really serious. Most importantly, they look like they’re having fun. You don’t want to be this glum robotic voice reciting key messages. If you’re passionate and having fun, the media will be enthralled.”
Another example, a little closer to home for the early-stage crowd, is Box founder and CEO Aaron Levie. “Leaders like Aaron are clever and very quick in how they connect to their audience while they’re speaking. You can tell he’s enjoying it, and that he really cares about what he’s saying. It’s rare to see someone his age be this fluid. He doesn’t mince words. He says things that are forward-looking and ahead of the times, and he’s very knowledgeable about the other companies in the space,” she says.
After all, knowing your competition is vital to being a credible and compelling voice. “When you know your competitive space so well, better than anyone else, you can be a real resource to the media — and the media is constantly looking for good resources. Being able to speak about your company is one thing, but being able to speak about the industry at large makes you multi-dimensional and worth talking to.”
People have a tendency to think today's news is just tomorrow’s trash, but not now. The internet is forever and people have long memories.
Keep in mind, being an area expert is different than trash-talking your competitors, and that can be a finer line than many entrepreneurs think. Especially as areas like cloud storage or e-commerce become more crowded, reporters love asking about how companies plan to differentiate themselves or crush their opponents. This is a big red flag. “Negativity never wins,” Hammerling says. “If you’re a huge company, sure you might be able to pull off being snarky or sassy, but as a startup, all you should be is respectful of your competition. If you have to, talk about it like you’re all part of the same community and then bring it back to you.”
If pressed and you’re forced to cite a competitor, she advises going big. “Don’t talk about the companies you’re asked about specifically, bring up someone who’s related and done it right. Like if you’re in the communications space, talk about Skype or other big players. Suddenly, you’re connecting your startup with the success of these giants. That’s much better than talking about the various start-ups you’re positioned against — that just pigeonholes you.”
Remember, every time you interact with the media matters. You need to constantly check yourself to be proactive but not obnoxious, informative but not aggressive. Don’t be that one founder who keeps asking if the story will run — if a reporter says it will, it probably will, Hammerling assures. And never attack someone personally based on what they’ve written on social media or otherwise — even if they’ve gotten a key detail about your company wrong. “Writers take things personally and they remember who they don’t like talking to,” she says. “I remember asking a few reporters what they thought of a particular founder, and they collectively gave the same eye roll. ‘He’s terrible,’ they all said. People have a tendency to think today’s news is just tomorrow’s trash, but not now. The internet is forever and people have long memories.”
At the same time, being too good at working your relationships, and getting too chummy with the media can have consequences too. “When you think you’re purely friends with a journalist, 90% of the time you’ll end up really unhappy with how a story about you or your company turns out. It’s one thing to be friends, and it’s another thing to work on a story together. You can get blinded and forget to really focus on the specifics and your message. You might give them too much runway or tiptoe around things you shouldn’t. I see it all the time, people with close relationships who are unable to manifest that into great stories because they aren’t thinking with their PR hat on.”
But this doesn’t mean it’s impossible or ill-advised to forge warm, friendly relationships with media. You just have to make sure they’re clearly defined — and that the terms you use around each other are equally defined. “Some people say you can’t genuinely be friends with reporters, but I think that’s garbage. You just have to be clear. I always tell entrepreneurs know what off the record and what on background mean — and know when to say them. If you’re talking to someone, you can’t give them all this intelligence and then afterwards say, ‘Oh by the way, that was all off the record.’ That’s not how it works.”
Another thing to realize is that with comment threads and social media, readers have become a concrete part of the media experience. “Younger CEOs take comments less seriously than older ones, and that’s a good thing. The only way to handle it is to learn. You can’t make it personal and go off on someone, because that’ll just blow up into something bigger,” Hammerling says. She’s seen her share of CEOs kept up at night reading all the comments on every blog post about their product. It’s hard to dissuade them, but at the very least she encourages them to identify takeaways.
“You may see someone commenting on how they love an aspect of your product. Then you know that’s something that’s really resonating that you can start honing your message around. Inversely, if people are responding negatively to something, then you can very dynamically change your messaging around that, make it more clear or consider changing that aspect of the product.”
The Irreplaceable Voice of the Founder
The vast majority of the time, the founders are the voice and heart of the company.
It’s telling that founders are the ones up at night, obsessively reading comments, thinking about how they could do better next time. They care the most about the company’s success — and that devotion is like energy in a bottle. “It’s a particular type of energy that inspires people, makes for good stories, and can’t be substituted.” Hammerling believes this so deeply that she refuses to work with clients if a founder is not willing to be actively involved in media relations.
This is why, when it comes to announcements, there’s an increasingly strong preference toward a founder’s blog post over an impersonal press release. While you might see some PR teams or companies compiling literature for media — everything from headshots to packets of pre-vetted executive quotes and market position data — this comes off as disingenuous more than it helps.
“When a founder decides to take a backseat, and put a marketing person out there, it negatively impacts the team, the organization, and the trust reporters have in them,” she says. The press really wants that connection with the founder and their story.” This should never change, no matter what stage you’re at, even if you have an agency or a big in-house comms team.
In fact, there’s no better argument for early-stage startups’ ability to navigate the media field on their own — at least at first. When a product, message and strategy align with a founder who can deliver it all clearly and persuasively, there’s no telling how powerful that can be.
As Hammerling puts it, an agency putting out a press release says “agenda,” a passionate founder going straight to the press says, “Hey, look at this, it’s going to be cool.”