PR is changing fast - and the authors of Startupland would know

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed August 18, 2017
I have bones of contention with PR. Two PR pros just wrote a book on PR called Startupland. What could go wrong? Check our debate on press releases, content, and tech differentiation.

Back in the early days of diginomica, use cases were harder to come by. PR reps weren't much help - except for Kevin Wolf, whose pitches to me always had customers.

Surfacing customers is hard work, so maybe I shouldn't be surprised that Wolf recently pulled off an even tougher project: finishing a book: Startupland: Madness, Brilliance and PR Misadventures.

And yes, the book is full of the burning rubber and serendipitous moments that make the software market the rollercoaster it is. Written with co-conspirator and fellow comms expert Polly Traylor, Startupland raises questions about the role of PR in a world where attention spans are at a premium - and harder and harder to win.

During a back and forth with the authors, I got their views on how the PR world is changing - and why they decided to jam book writing into their hectic PR lives. We also had some disagreements, which I'll get to shortly.

The press release - valuable tool, or noise pollutant?

Wolf and Traylor believe startups need PR expertise, but their definition of PR's role is broader than you might think. Wolf:

It's easy to think of PR purely as a marketing function, but that's not right. In fact, PR touches nearly every aspect of a startup's business, from product to personnel and everything in between. As PR people, we get a view into a startup financials, its sales strategies, hiring decisions, product roadmaps and customer relationships... Most importantly, we get a unique perspective on company culture, which starts at the top and can support -- or infect -- everything a startup does.

Wolf and Traylor agree that PR is changing, but we disagreed on the value of press releases. I see press releases - with the exception of a handful of huge news items - as a near-useless exercise in the land of nobody cares. I'd much prefer, for example a blog post from a CEO explaining the rationale behind an announcement. I'll give you the whole interaction on this one:

Jon Reed: In my world, PR is changing as it dawns on companies that press releases are almost always ignored. My bias is that the way you reach audiences/prospects is by giving them something of actual value, which could be content of some flavor (ideally that ties to your brand's expertise), or even a free trial that adds value and isn't a tease. What do you say to clients about how to reach people given the amount of noise and increasing indifference to (overly) branded content?

Kevin Wolf: It's true that communication vehicles are changing -- social media saw to that -- but I disagree with the notion that traditional vehicles like press releases are becoming outdated. In my opinion, a press release is still the best tool for sharing information in a straightforward fashion. Certainly case studies and white papers and videos and demos are great as well, but many come across as contrived. Press releases can appear this way as well, if the author uses too much jargon or hyberbolizes everything. But a good press release, with a proper inverted triangle model and commitment to facts and details, is still, to me, the best way to ensure your message is communicated accurately.

Polly Traylor: But truthfully, there is a lot of noise. Don’t issue a press release unless there is real news to share.

Why don't startups push their customer stories?

Now for my next gripe: the absence of customer stories. I still get way too many pitches from startups that are about how wonderful and game changing their technology is. They seem to want to give their founders/CEOs even more press clippings, instead of introducing me to a customer that can vouch for the benefits of these products. Why don't more startups lead with a customer-centric pitch with actual proof points on savings and results?

Traylor says that:

The short answer is that most startups don't have these stories. They tell us that their customers don't want to be a named reference, which might be true in some cases.

Yes, true, but there's more to the story. Wolf elaborated:

Yet sadly, most don't spend nearly enough time cultivating the stories they may have. It's strange, really. Customer stories are incredibly important, for PR but even more so for educating a startup's exec team, its sales reps, potential investors, new recruits, etc. And yet, less than 10% of the startups I know have any kind of process in place for identifying potential customer references and documenting their stories. The really frustrating part is it's not that hard.

Agreed - it's a foundational content principle, more of a discipline than an impossibility. Traylor added:

Sometimes startups get hung up on the idea that every customer story has to be a "case study," a term that comes with all kinds of baggage, including proper formatting, approvals, etc. That's silly. What startups really need to do is start by asking customers if it's ok for their PR person to spend 10 minutes on the phone so they can begin to understand the use case. That's an easy enough ask/get for most customers.

Then the PR person starts a conversation and over time gathers all kinds of info. It doesn't even matter where the customer is in terms of his/her use of the startup's product. What matters is that the startup is learning about the customer's experience and sharing that info with the rest of the organization. Eventually that info can be shared with a reporter, and as you say, these stories -- which now have tremendous depth -- can be incredibly compelling.

The problem of tech differentiation - in AI and beyond

That's good advice; I would not limit it to startups. The other question which all vendors can relate to - regardless of size - is the problem of tech differentiation. Our readers are weary of overhyped technology, AI and machine learning being the obvious example. Yet there are some cool and important startups in the space. So what is their advice to AI startups who truly are making a difference, but are having trouble differentiating in such a crowded space? Traylor:

Differentiating in a crowded space is very hard, and startups might screw up by pretending they can do everything their competitors are doing. Make sure to be crystal clear on the distinct advantage or secret sauce that your company brings – with examples that make this clear. Another question is: if you're trying to compete in an overcrowded space, why are you there in the first place? There's got to be a reason for your company's existence.

Wolf adds:

Another mistake that startups consistently make is trying to position their product or service as the leading this or greatest that. No one believes this nonsense, and heaven forbid it's true, that point will never come across if you're using 'I'm the best' type statements. I always go back to the idea that if you're truly great, you don't need to say so because someone else will.

Honesty goes a long way:

The advice I give to clients is to be honest about where you are in your development. Promote your successes but don't shy away from your failures, or being second in your market, or making an important but not an earth-shattering product update. Good reporters and smart analysts understand that growth is incremental; there are very few overnight successes. If you are truly delivering an innovative product/service, the market -- customers, partners, press, analysts, etc. -- will sing your praises soon enough.

We could apply that same "why" question to the authors. Why would two busy PR folks push to get a book done on top of everything else? First, the differentiating statement from Wolf:

It's the only book out there that looks at startup success and dysfunction through the eyes of its public relations.

Traylor adds:

CEOs can really have an incredible or toxic effect on a company’s public perception—success is not just about great product. While there is lots of general advice on how to do PR, and plenty of books on startups, there’s very little advice on managing PR for tech startups.

My take - the press release debate continues

I'm a big believer in sharing expertise as the way to help clients and, as a happy byproduct, build your brand and community trust. By authoring a book, Wolf and Traylor are, in a sense, agreeing with my point that a big part of getting attention now is earning it, the good/difficult way.

As for our disagreement on press releases, perhaps we will debate it further. I think Wolf wasn't disagreeing me about why original content matters, as much as he was defending the role of the press release in the mix. If Wolf was sitting next to me now, I would point to examples I have seen where startups were able to produce original, authentic content that elevated their visibility, allowed them to punch above their weight, and in some cases, contributed to a favorable acquisition. Yeah, some press releases were no doubt issued along the way - probably too many. But that wasn't the narrative core, or the way attention was earned. I'm sure Wolf would have some interesting responses.

What Traylor said about the over-use of press releases things true. Being the recipient of a terrifying slew of them, I believe most companies are still incredibly optimistic about what constitutes "real news" outside of their organizations. And don't get me started on "embargos"... But that's a little too inside-baseball for today.

A first class PR person advises companies on all of the above, getting them to the right content mix. Content dies on the vine these days without distribution, so the need for a PR person to advise and make intros has, in my view, never been greater.

Wolf and Traylor address some potent themes here, and in their book as well. It's worth a read and a think.

Updated 4:00 pm PT, August 18 with the additional lines in the end about advisory, and my wise crack on embargoes.