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PR for Tech Start-Ups

Ideas and lessons from top minds in tech

PR for Tech Start-Ups - Page 3

I got played by Marc Benioff. CEO Benioff calls his forthcoming book, , a "playbook" for would-be entrepreneurs and executives. Benioff, who co-authored the book with journalist Carlye Adler (a former colleague from Fortune's sister publication, FSB), offers 111 business tips, or "plays," based on his experiences launching and running the Salesforce.

And there I was, in Play #23: Reporters are Writers; Tell Them a Story.

Okay, I wasn't mentioned by name, but he definitely was talking about me and my peers in the media world. Benioff writes: " journalists, encouraged them to mix with customers at events, and eagerly introduced them to customers for interviews."

Call me exhibit A. After all, I procured my advance copy of the book (due out Oct. 19) at a dinner in Manhattan where other journalists and I mixed with customers to whom we were eagerly introduced.

Benioff goes on to explain in Play #24: Cultivate Relationships with Select Journalists and Play # 25: Make Your Own Metaphors that telling a company's story to journalists is far better public relations than an expensive ad campaign. A story or even a pithy quote in a top business publication is far more effective and credible than a full-page advertisement in same newspaper or magazine. And Benioff played this strategy to his advantage, positioning his company in the media as an innovative David attacking old-school Golaiaths such as SAP , Microsoft , IBM and even Benioff's former employer, Oracle.

To be sure, Benoiff's advice, or plays, go well beyond tips for managing the media. He offers real insight into's own experiences building the company. (A Salesforce executive I met at the company's New York customer dinner said he was surprised by Benioff's disclosure that half Saleforce's employees are in sales. The executive thought such information was part of the company's secret sauce.) Such tidbits at times help elevate Behind the Cloud from a platitude-filled business tome to an insider-y playbook - surely the intent of Benioff and his co-author.

That's not to say there aren't cliches in the book. Benioff is generous in his praise of employees and friends - a good thing - but all too often drops the term "genius" to describe everyone from MC Hammer (seriously) to a direct-sales executive from Japan.

He is most passionate when describing Salesforce's approach to corporate philanthropy. The company contributes 1% of profits, 1% of equity and 1% of employees hours to the communities it serves, and in the book, Benioff writes that the push to give employees time to volunteer came out of an effort to give them a sense of purpose he'd lacked at other employers. "Maybe the volunteer program would prevent them from feeling as rudderless as I had during my time at Oracle," he explains. ( Play #66: Make Your Foundation Part of Your Business Model.)

Benioff channeled that rudderless feeling, of course, into forming And so by keeping employees motivated Benioff not only increases employee satisfaction, he also prevents some smart, disenchanted executive from running out and starting the next Salesforce.

Like everybody else, I read the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson at the pool this summer. It's a great, solidly researched biography. And for PR professionals, it provides a pretty detailed peek at Apple's bag of PR tricks. It's also instructive to see just how important PR was for Steve Jobs and Apple.

1. PR is mission critical

There's a famous picture of Steve Jobs holding a cheque for 250 000 $ in 1977, that I've used on this blog before - it's the first VC money Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak ever received, from angel investor Mark Markkula.

The money was earmarked for the production of the Apple II, Apple's first mass market product. But before spending any money on hardware, Jobs used his cash to hire the best PR professional in Silicon Valley:

"The first step in this process was convincing the Valley's premier publicist, Regis McKenna, to take on Apple as a client. (...) McKenna's two specialties were doling out exclusive interviews with his clients to journalists he had cultivated and coming up with memorable ad campaigns that created brand awareness for products such as microchips."

2. The power of exclusive interviews

From McKenna, Jobs learned the power of exclusivity, writes Isaacson, and he would use it to great effect for the rest of his career. This is from the description of the promotional tour of the Lisa computer (early '80s):

"Jobs went to New York to do publicity for it in his role as Apple's chairman and poster boy. He had learned from his public relations consultant Regis McKenna how to dole out exclusive interviews in a dramatic manner. Reporters from anointed publications were ushered in sequentially for their hour with him in his Carlyle Hotel suite, where a Lisa computer was set on a table and surrounded by cut flowers."

3. Surround the introduction of new products with "national excitement"

PR is also one of the reasons that Jobs was so enthusiastic about bringing Pepsi executive John Sculley aboard as CEO in the late '80s. Although Sculley would later oust Jobs from Apple, initially the two men got along great. Jobs especially liked the idea of bringing in the architect of the famous "Pepsi Challenge" (one of the biggest battles in the famed 'cola wars') on board at Apple.

"Jobs enthusiastically agreed (with the choice for Sculley, kv). The Pepsi Challenge campaign combined ads, events, and public relations to stir up buzz. The ability to turn the introduction of a new product into a moment of national excitement was, Jobs noted, what he and Regis McKenna wanted to do at Apple."

It's quite clear from Isaacson's book that Jobs' success at launching products, which he perfected during the last decade, is not a matter of luck. Jobs understood, very early on, the importance of a flawless execution of a market introduction campaign, and he would perfect Apple product launches step by step for the rest of his career.

"Over the years Steve Jobs would become the grand master of product launches. Jobs found ways to ignite blasts of (press) publicity that were so powerful the frenzy would feed on itself, like a chain reaction. (...) It was a phenomenon that he would be able to replicate whenever there was a big product launch, from the Macintosh in 1984 to the iPad in 2010. Like a conjurer, he could pull the trick off over and over again, even after journalists had seen it happen."

4. A successful brand can leverage the fierce competition for scoops

While Regis McKenna was obviously a great influence on Apple PR practices, it should be noted that Jobs was a PR natural, says Isaacson:

"Some of the moves Jobs had learned from Regis McKenna, who was a pro at cultivating and stroking prideful reporters. But Jobs had his own intuitive sense of how to stoke the excitement, manipulate the competitive instincts of journalists, and trade exclusive access for lavish treatment."

Leveraging the competition among journalists is a great tool, because giving someone a scoop is almost guaranteed to bring results. But it's obviously not for everyone. It's not like you can line up journalists just by promising them an exclusive or a scoop. You need to be important to pull this PR trick off. It's important to remember just how pop cultural the Apple brand became in the last decade, and even in the decades preceding it. Indeed, as Larry Ellison of Oracle said: "Steve created the only lifestyle brand in the tech industry."

The lesson here is how crucial it is to align your branding and PR efforts, because there's a virtuous circle effect: PR increases your brand, and an attractive brand will in turn make journalists more susceptible to your stories. Once you have a strong brand, playing the exlusivity angle will almost always bring success, because you can implicitly trade access for coverage of even minor stories about your brand.

5. The CEO is a brand, too

Actually, Apple arguably had two world class brands to wheel out at product launches: the Apple brand and the Steve Jobs brand. Jobs, with his visionary salesmanship, his famed temperamental outbursts, had transformed himself into an pop cultural icon in the last decade. Here's a billionaire who actively promoted the use of LSD, a tech visionary who was once banned from his own company only to return to stage the greatest enterprise comeback of all times while being paid the yearly salary of 1 (one) dollar. Jobs was an almost Shakespearian character. Journalists were intrigued by him: who is this guy?

It also strengthens me in the belief that most top managers underestimate the need to work on their personal brand and their personal relationship with journalists. Our own CEO report in november 2011 showed that most top managers try to keep their media contacts as businesslike as possible - an arm's length approach to media. CEO's often distrust journalists and media. Steve Jobs' example, I think, shows that this might not be the best strategy.

Before you argue that your CEO is not as interesting or colorful as Jobs, I would like to stress that exclusive access to a friendly, human, authentic face at the top of your organization, will always work well with journalists. They meet enough unfriendly, robotic, stifled top managers. They will be pleased to tell their readers how you are different.

6. On crisis communication: pushing back instead of eating humble pie

One of the most significant PR moments in recent Apple history is what's now known as ' Antennagate '. When the iPhone 4 launched, it was quickly discovered that there were problems with the antenna, resulting from the design of the phone. The problem caused calls to be dropped. Apple first tried to downplay the issue, which only fuelled the controversy.

Jobs conferred with his trusted PR adviser Regis McKenna (photo, left), who advised him not to be humble (Jobs didn't do humble very well), and not to apologize. Instead, the Apple strategy would be to explain that all mobile phones sometimes lost their connection. This would be backed by undisputable data. From there, the Apple story would be: all mobile phones do this, and the iPhone is, after all, just another mobile phone:

McKenna: "You should just say: 'Phones aren't perfect, and we're not perfect. We're human and doing the best we can, and here's the data.'" (...) At the press event that Friday, held in Apple's auditorium, Jobs followed McKenna's advice. He did not grovel or apologize, yet he was able to defuse the problem by showing that Apple understood it and would try to make it right."

The video of Jobs' performance is available on YouTube: watch and learn. It's important to note, that Jobs wasn't merely spinning here. You'll see that the presentation is actually very fact driven - which helps tremendously when you're trying to convince an audience of very critical journalists.

This so called "high ground manoeuver" incited praise from Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert: "Apple's response to the iPhone 4 problem didn't follow the public relations playbook, because Jobs decided to rewrite the playbook."

This "high ground manoeuver" is a good reminder that classic PR strategies that are taken for granted are sometimes overly cautious. You can compare it with the truism that you should never go hostile on a television interviewer, or never to answer a question with a question.

On this blog, I discussed one instance where a counterquestion was used with stunning effect - effectively shutting down an impertinently curious interviewer. Here, we see that the tactic of instant apology is not always the only possible answer to a crisis. It's good basic tactics, but for advanced players, it's not necessarily the best advice. Sometimes it's better to fight back. But it's not for the faint of heart.

I made every textbook mistake at my first startup, which is why I believe I was much more effective at my second one. I have adopted the motto " good judgment comes from experience, but experience comes from bad judgment. " We need to learn from doing, by trial-and-error.

If I can help you avoid some of my first-time mistakes it would be a victory. The following are some lessons I learned about early-stage startup marketing. Because market is such a broad topic, I'm restricting these lessons to PR marketing (as opposed SEO, SEM, product marketing, etc.).

1. Where Stealth is Good - There's a lot of discussions on the web about whether startups should be stealthy before they launch or not. The truth is - there isn't a "right" answer so for your company. You need some guidelines to make decisions. My general rule is that it's good to be stealth in the early days while you're building your product and testing your market. Stealth does not mean constipated, paranoid and totally untrusting of others. It does mean not telling more people your future plans than is necessary. It means avoiding drinking too much at cocktail parties with other tech people and bragging about your plans. It means not over-sharing your deal with VCs or other investors.

The truth is that we work in a very small, tight-knit industry and news & plans spread fast. In the early days you don't really want 3 extra teams hearing your ideas and gearing up to compete before you feel you've got a solid head start. Most people totally advise against stealth. They think that only by being open and testing your ideas in an open marketplace can you be successful. Be careful about this advice.

Also be careful about VCs. Most ones that I know have very high ethical standards so I'm not concerned about that. But once a VC has heard your idea he can't "un-think" it. And these ideas have ways of seeping into board discussions with portfolio companies as in, "have you ever thought about trying A, B or C?" It's mostly unintentional but tacit knowledge about ideas spreads quickly amongst the chattering elite.

I actually like finding entrepreneurs who are more circumspect, less braggadocios and generally more planned about their actions.

2. Where Stealth is Bad - I do meet entrepreneurs who clearly fall on the other side of spectrum and are totally closed. I worked with an entrepreneur who was to appear at a startup networking event where he was to talk about his company's plans. He considered pulling out of the event because he wanted to stay in "stealth mode" and felt an event like this compromised him. I counseled him to do the event (it was high profile) and talk in broad themes about the areas in which his business would compete. There are very few truly novel ideas so talking in broad themes certainly wouldn't give away any grand strategy. In stead he went to the event and told everybody "we're in stealth mode and can't yet reveal what we do." It went down like a lead balloon.

I think he really learned from this experience: Experience comes from bad judgment. Nobody likes to hear you say, "we can't tell you anything we're in stealth mode" so develop some generic talking points that don't give anything away when you're asked what you do.

The biggest problem with over-stealthing yourself is that you cut off some of your most valuable resources in terms of testing your ideas, getting feedback from smart entrepreneurs & investors and helping you figure out the potential flaws in your approach.

In my experience, entrepreneurs who are overly paranoid or are information hoarders rarely do well. They certainly struggle to find mentors as there is nothing more frustrating than trying to help a company who is afraid to tell you anything.

3. Market Today's Puck, Not Where It's Going - I often tell startups to " skate where the puck is going " as a metaphor for not just copying what every other company is doing today but to think about where the future lies and planning for that now.

But it is a big mistake to tell too many people where you're heading. I call this "marketing futures." Marketing futures can be really good for enterprise software companies where the information is passed between sales rep and potential customer in terms of near-term roadmap. The buying cycles are often 3-6 months so you want to put your best future foot forward. But don't let this information get out into the general press and don't market more than a few months out.

For early-stage consumer companies I would be careful not to market futures at all.

We all know that much of early-stage technology startup success comes from execution and often what you're working on today will be rolled out more seriously over the next several months. So I recommend that companies talk in detail about the puck at their feet but avoid talking about where the puck is going. While all your competitors are trying to copy your model, you're already on to the next thing on your engineering team.

Nobody seems more disciplined at this tight-lipped future marketing than Apple and you can see how it has served them.

4. Don't Market a Bad Product - Perhaps the most important lesson for first-time entrepreneurs is that you can't have great marketing for a bad product. The corollary is that it is very hard to recover from a crappy marketing campaign that over-hyped. I think I first heard this from Guy Kawasaki but it's kind of obvious. In a world in which you're encouraged to launch early and get feedback from customers you can often confuse "product launch" with "marketing."

I think a great example right now is It's a buggy product but pretty damn cool. I haven't heard them pounding their chest and running big marketing campaigns. And the product itself is invite-only so they can control volume and everybody has expectations managed. By the time they go GA (generally available product) I'll be the kinks are all worked out. And the anticipation of wanting to see the product will build.

The strategy they're employing is called "velvet rope" as in what nightclubs do to build scarcity and interest in getting on the inside. It also helps to keep down issues with crowds getting too big, too early.

5. Don't Blow Your Wad Early - There is a temptation of startups to announce that they're "first" at something so they rush to market with announcements. I know because I did this in early 2000. We rushed to market to be first and got great coverage in the Financial Times (we were in London). But our product wasn't ready for prime time and we struggled to live up to the hype we had created.

As you can imagine that once you're compared to Ishtar (the movie) you've got a higher bar of success to get people interested the second time. Not everyone has a spare 40 mill for a re-do.

6. Market to Your Target Audience - I've seen a lot of startups who like to write blog posts on life as an entrepreneur. That's fine if entrepreneurs are your target market. But be clear on whom your target market is and what the messages you want to communicate to them are. I talked about that in detail on this post about how to blog as a startup.

But whom you're marketing to is not always an easy topic. At one company I work with it's clear that our target user today is youth-oriented and middle America as opposed to 20-something and Silicon Valley or New York. We've been very successful at the former. But we also need to be mindful that often the influencers are on the coasts (LA/NY/SF) and that we can't ignore them. So we've launched some campaigns to be sure we're picking up these crowds with different messages.

7. Don't Believe the Hype - Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes in marketing is to get caught up in your competitors marketing noise. When you're inside the bubble and paying attention to every announcement of your nearest 3-4 competitors it's easy to get despondent when they get their killer press articles or announce new features.

Those of us that have been around the block tend to not get too worked up on any big competitor announcements. They come and go. They're mostly fleeting. Life goes on. iMessage is announced. The NY Times puts Group Messaging companies on their list of companies crushed by Apple's WWDC. But life doesn't end. It's a narrow product. Most app-to-app products are inter-operable, Apple isn't. You have tons of differentiation. Life goes on.

8. Your Competitors Look the Same as You When They're Naked in the Mirror - One thing that startup CEOs often overlook is the impact of marketing on team morale. Every day your team members are reading about all of the great things happening at your competitors company. You're reading their press releases or blog posts. Insider your company everything feels like it's going to hell in a hand basket.

That's because that's how it ALWAYS feels at a startup. You always have too much technical debt, too many problems, staff members quitting, not enough capital, customer complaints, etc. That is EXACTLY how your competitors feel, too. And they're reading your press articles and thinking, "shit, they have everything figured out." You don't. Make sure your team knows this and stays confident. I wrote about it in detail in this article.

9. Build Relationships - Many startups make the mistake of thinking that they simply approach a journalist any time they have a story and get coverage. IIt doesn't work that way. Journalist are constantly harangued by over-eager entrepreneurs. Go slowly. Get to know journalists when you don't need stories. If you care about this topic a more detailed article is here.

Follow them on Twitter. Respect their profession. Read their articles. Comment. Ask if you can help be a source for other stories. Say hello to them at conferences. Understand how their job works. Understand that for every article they write they need "an angle" and if you can't help shape that you're not likely to get inches. The more helpful you are over time the more likely you are to get inches when you need them.

10. It's a Marathon, Not a Sprint - Some startup teams I speak with try to lump a bunch of announcements all into one release to try and have more effect. And example is lumping your VC funding announcement into a story about major customers wins, product features or key milestones. Don't do this.

A funding announcement is a stand-alone event. It's an angle. There are journals who dedicate a lot of time & energy into covering funding. Focus solely on that event. When it's time later to talk about some major customer wins or big biz dev partnerships you'll do so. If you announce killer product features worthy of coverage then talk about that.

One strategy I encourage is to break up mini-releases into exclusives that you give to different journalists to spread the love around and give everybody something unique to write about. Nobody likes writing re-hashed stories.