Since I began writing for the Observer, I’ve been getting pitches from tech companies. Some of them are household names, and others are companies you haven’t heard about and probably never will. That’s not me being negative. That’s me acknowledging the simple truth that most startups fail. The fact that they just so happen to be bad at public relations doesn’t do them any favors.
So that you and I are on the same page: I’m not a journalist. I’m not the person to pitch anything to because I’m not going to write about it. I write this column because I want the extra money for school, and it gives me the opportunity to unload about some things that are really wrong about the tech world and its impact on society. Or lack thereof. Look no further than the lack of impact social media had on the most recent elections in the United Kingdom if you have any doubts. Public relations, PR, or simply “propaganda” as it was known originally before the Nazis got to the term, is different from social media in that you can track its effectiveness and readily see its impact on the world.
I’ll give you a quick example involving a tech company that’s constantly been in the news for most of the past six months. You know why Slack took off? Look at the amount of press coverage they’ve received. Look at how often The New York Times has written about them compared to other startups. Now the press may play dumb and go, “Golly gee whiz Batman. I don’t know how this company got as big as it did, but it sure is growing”, but don’t let them fool you. A huge driver of a company’s growth, as was the case with Slack, was the amount of press coverage they got. Is Slack an awesome product? You bet. But would it have taken off in the way that it has simply because of its reliance on networking effects to do so? Nope! PR drives the hype, and the hype drives the users. Yet all the talk around Slack revolves around their “growth hacks” and not the amount of press coverage they’ve received. This is very frustrating. It’s also incredibly misleading and unfair for tech companies looking to emulate Slack’s rapid growth. A lot of time, money, and resources are about to be spent on duplicating the wrong thing in order to grow their businesses.
Thankfully, public relations isn’t a hard thing to do. I’d even go so far as to argue that it’d cost less than the amount of money people spend tweaking and optimizing their company’s offerings. Not that you shouldn’t do those things, but there’s this weird perception that doing so is somehow less expensive and more effective to do than anything else to promote your company. In order to do PR well, you just have to understand the truth behind doing it, and the rest comes easy.
Here’s how to do it well: Act like a human being. That means, make friends with the reporters and serve as a good, honest, and unbiased resource for them. When the time comes to actually make your pitch, all you have to really say then is, “Hey … mind if I run something by you?” If they say no, continue being an honest, unbiased resource. The cynics among us, which believe it or not I don’t count myself as, will tell you that’s manipulative. Or trying to game people. Superficially it is, but look back at what I said carefully: “Being an unbiased resource,” “act like a human being.” That’s how PR actually works. That’s the truth. It’s about networking, making connections and only acting on them in a self-interested way when you actually have something that’s so cool, you’ll want to share it with your friends anyway. Regardless of whether or not they’re reporters in the first place. (Besides, if you’re not so excited to share what you’re working on with your friends anyhow, you’re probably wasting your time.) How is that any different from any sort of human relationship where you need or want something from someone else? It isn’t. It’s just hip and cool to be a dick and get snarky about PR people to play off the tech world’s mistrust of them.
Once you understand that you need to do on the PR front, I have good news. Especially if you don’t trust PR people. You can have someone (you, your co-founder, an intern, whatever) learn how to do it. You don’t need to hire a PR person. The skepticism tech people have usually deals with the (sometimes correct) feeling that they’re being overcharged by greedy PR people and given bullshit metrics to measure success. The good news is that measuring PR is easy if you’re looking at the right metrics and not the BS ones. Did you see an increase in traffic? When did that happen? Oh, you mean it happened after that post about your company went live on the Guardian? Then it was PR. Seriously, why is that so hard? Answer: It’s totally not.
The bad news is that, sometimes, there’s also a ceiling you’re going to hit if you do PR internally. Sooner or later, you will need to hire someone to do it for you if your internal efforts can’t crack through the ceiling.
I call this “The Today Show Test.” It goes like this: Can the person you have doing PR for you book you on The Today Show? If the answer is yes, then you don’t need to hire a PR person. If the answer is no, then you need to hire a PR person who can do that for you. (That, by the way, is also how you test the effectiveness of the PR person you hire. Can they deliver what they promise or can’t they? It’s no different than how you’d measure any member of your company’s performance. Either they do the thing they were assigned to do, or they don’t.)
As far as you doing your own PR, or someone internally doing it for you, listen, anyone can do it. Anyone. Koko the gorilla, you know, the one who can do sign language? She could do PR. If she can do it, you can do it. You just need to know what the truth behind the gig is: If you’re good at PR, you will rarely have to pitch anyone anything. At least, that’s the ideal state. It does exist, it’s hard to get to, but the better you get at doing this, the closer you’ll get to that ideal and you’ll find yourself pitching less and less.
Sure, there’s other shit involved, but that’s the core of it. Using that as your framework, the rest is easy enough to sort out on your own.