Since the dawn of public relations, practitioners have been using their craft to manipulate the public. All the while driven by elitist agendas or capitalistic greed and at the detriment of society — as evident in Edward Bernays’ Torches of Freedom campaign — where the Godfather of PR was famously hired to expand the number of women smokers.
And where renowned publicists like Bernays created sophisticated campaigns that, if nothing else, were comprised with a large degree of intellect and ingenuity, present day public relations has been reduced to half-baked gimmicks and a lot of spin.
In an age where we have unlimited access to information, today’s PR world serves no purpose other than to clog the collective inbox of the media, making it even more challenging for them to ensure that we receive the real news and not the alternative facts.
This is the false, I repeat FALSE narrative that has been mooring down the industry I love for too long! A narrative comprised of misconceptions that make it increasingly difficult for the bright stars in public relations to be recognized for the important and incredibly challenging work they do.
But before I even attempt to reset the narrative, particularly how it pertains to startup PR, let me make a few things clear.
I don’t blame journalists who don’t list their contact information in PR databases, those who’ve adopted standoffish attitudes towards us, or even the ones who take shots at the industry as a whole and have even called for the disintermediation of the PR person altogether.
I get it.
A lot of Lazy
As The Next Web’s Matthew Hughes recently wrote, “The lazy pitches overwhelmingly come from professional PR firms. Once they’ve received their fee – which can be as much as $10,000 per month – they’ll write some terrible, un-spellchecked disaster of a pitch and then bombard their mailing list with it. These people are hacks, and should be called out at every possible opportunity.”
Today, LinkedIn lists around 12,000 public relation companies in their database in the US alone. Many of these shops are large firms who have devolved into profit centers, signing client after unsuspecting client and haphazardly staffing each account with a mix of novices, email blasters, and amateurs. The experience of executives at these firms is often only leveraged during the courting or new business pitching phase, in a crisis scenario, or when the firm’s value is called into question. The old bait-and-switch.
With little time for on the job training or even PR 101, many at these agencies have adopted an every squirrel finds a nut mentality whereby they spend their days building massive email lists and blasting company “news” to hundreds of journalists in hopes that something sticks. And stick it will — every so often.
And for the startups that seek to go it alone and try to handle PR in-house, efforts are often helmed by someone with no background in the field. The end result are pitches that… well … suck.
For every piece of news these folks secure, they’ve killed many relationships and opportunities along the way. While they’re not all bad apples these are the folks who proliferate PR misperceptions and expectations. But to suggest that the profession as a whole provides no real value and should therefore step aside is completely misguided.
Kool-Aid, Kool-Aid everywhere…
As our firm specializes in public relations for startups and high growth companies, we’ll use that landscape as a backdrop. Often times, journalists who’ve grown tired of dealing with less than stellar PR folks touting their “new, innovative & disruptive startup” say they’d rather hear from a company executive directly.
Makes sense, right? Well, not exactly.
Naturally, CEO’s consume so much of their startup’s Kool-Aid that they become drunk with a false realization of how much news value it actually holds. They know how much blood sweat and tears has been spent; the feats it took to develop the technology, the unrivaled experience that the team possesses, and the opportunity in front of them.
While they may be 100% right, they are wrong to assume that having a shiny brand new startup is grounds for coverage in the New York Times or TechCrunch.
I’d say that somewhere in the ballpark of 75% of our new business meetings contain a desire from the company’s CEO to “Get in TechCrunch”. And while we’ve been successful in doing just that for quite a few companies we’ve worked with, the ones that did had something truly remarkable or unique to say.
The thinking that hearing directly from the CEO would create an unfiltered line of dialogue that would cut out the spin and make it easier for the journalists to do their job simply isn’t true.
Consider this analogy. News editors have the daily responsibility of deciding which news stories reach the public. Long before the news is published, the editor assigns reporters to cover it, checks for accuracy and fairness and ensures the final product is ready for it’s intended audience: us. Remove the editor from the equation and there’s no doubt we’d see an influx of sloppy, biased content and misinformation. The PR pro is effectively the editor, assuring that the information that passes from the company to the journalist does so in the most effective, accurate, and newsworthy way.
Storytelling ain’t dead
And it never will be. In today’s ‘war for clicks’ it’s not enough to just tell the news, you have to tell news stories.
This is where the true PR pro excels. While it’s become a cliched term, storytelling is as important today than ever. Without the ability to tell an effective story your company will not stand out in the eyes of the journalist, therefore making it harder to standout from your competitors.
Whether it’s a new-kid-on-the-block story that explores the deep experience of a startup’s team and uses the significant backing from well known venture capitalists to reinforce the team’s potential to capture market share, or a light-hearted piece that uses company data and a clever peg to build awareness of a company in unexpected ways, the professional PR person knows how to create stories that command attention and drive engagement.
While some of the campaigns from the early days of PR were ingenious, the feats of the PR pro today are equally, if not more impressive. Today, there are 5 people to every 1 journalist today, double the rate from a decade ago. Many of these reporters receive hundreds of pitches a day. And because they’re human too, in order to arrest them and get them to engage with our stories we have to break through a lot of additional noise, aka a nauseating amount of texts, Snaps, YouTube videos, Tinder swipes, ads, etc.
So next time you read an article about the latest startup out of silicon valley appreciate the fact that the PR job was able to breakthrough. And if that startup is out of Boston, Chicago or even further flung from the tech media’s glow over the Bay Area, then really give that PR person props!
So, is there a need for startup PR? What do you think?
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