Dear Startups, Use Your (PR) Blank Page Wisely

Last week I ran across a blank notebook with the ego-filling “From the Desk of Georgiana Comsa” header from 20 years ago when I started my data storage PR career at Adaptec (now Microsemi). What a blank page my PR career in the data infrastructure market was at that point! While I did some PR on the telco side, going in the infrastructure space was a different experience and I approached it carefully by spending some time on the employee communication side and then diving into product PR. I had great people around me and while I’d like to believe that I have always been proactive, there was a lot of hand-holding with every line I “wrote” on that blank page.

As a side note, I still remember when my amazing boss told me that unless I was writing about “jumping over a fence” or anything similar to that, the words “more than” should probably be used instead of “over.” I was a bit disappointed when the Associated Press decided in 2014 that it was OK to use “over” as a synonym for “more than.” Details for most, I know, but on my blank page that was an important bullet point: accurate writing, the most basic PR skill.

Going back to the blank page concept, let’s look at the blank page of a startup from a branding/PR perspective. I had the opportunity to be there for many startups when their page was blank. Once you start “writing” on it after so many months or even years working on the actual product and building the team, it feels “real.” As I explained to a client the other day, PR is not magical; it is a lot of work and, well, learning how to deal with rejection is a great life lesson in this job, because it happens even to the most experienced PR practitioners. Getting that blank page filled is a process and I want all startups to understand that if they want to “do PR” for one month only around their launch – in most cases – it is not going to help them long-term. In some cases, yes, it will help with SEO and it will get the name out a bit assuming that in the following months, they keep their name in front of their audience somehow (social media, newsletters, webinars, events, etc. – by the way, I believe in an integrated approach), because, guess what, people forget. Even companies with the most amazing launches but no follow-up after the launch realized that both prospects and influencers forgot about them in the following months.

So here is my tip on to get that first blank page filled in your startup diary. Find your PR partner a couple of months before your launch. Work with him/her/them on a six-month plan. Understand that 1) you are partners, working together, not against each other (many reasons why I say, this; I may explain it in a different post) and 2) content is king/queen. Without the right PR help (that includes social media these days since I refuse to believe that there are still “traditional” PR consultants or agencies out there, with no social media presence) and without the right content, have a soft launch and steer away from the “big reveal.” Honestly, these days, many startups don’t care anymore about keeping their technology a big secret and they slowly post information on their website even before the launch. Of course, without sharing that information, it will just sit there. That brings me back to PR.

Understand the steps that you need to make in order to get the blank page filled. Same as the steps that you took to build your career, there are certain steps that you need to take to build your company. Coverage in a specific publication is the wrong goal. Some B2B founders are so stuck on getting coverage in big business pubs – there is a time and a place for those, too – that they forget to tell the story to the people who actually test and buy their technology.

Next blog post will address that: working with influencers in the B2B startup space and learning that coverage that would make you proud in eyes of your parents may not be coverage that would actually close deals for your company.

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Dear Startups, Don’t Make PR Only About You

I was recently invited to host a PR workshop for a group of TiE and NetApp Excellerator startups. I have been doing these workshops for a while for NetApp Excellerator, Silicon Valley Bank and the San Francisco Landing Pad of the Australian Trade and Investment Commission (Austrade). At this last event, the audience was comprised of founders and execs from different industries and startups in different funding stages, and many of them were curious about using PR to penetrate a busy market and compete with established companies. Smaller budgets and smaller teams during COVID times were on everybody’s minds.

The amount of questions and emails I received during and after the PR webinar gave me the motivation to revamp this sleepy blog, which I paused in favor of various social networks and client work that kept me very busy (oddly enough, my last blog post was about blogging or not blogging). We, as PR pros, can’t assume that people understand what we do, and, of course, how we do it. In my upcoming blog posts, I will be sharing very specific PR advice and tips with a special focus on tech startups.

Let’s start with the basics even if you think you know what PR is.

“Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics. At its core, public relations is about influencing, engaging and building a relationship with key stakeholders across a myriad of platforms in order to shape and frame the public perception of an organization.” (PRSA)

Too long? Sounds like blah, blah? Remember two things:

  1. PR does not mean spitting out your own content. You want to “communicate,” so engaging with the right audience is essential.
  2. PR is EARNED media!

Getting media coverage is not about yourself and it is definitely not about your relatives and friends seeing your name online (ha, we used to say “in print”). It is about your prospects, partners and investors not only seeing your name, but understanding the message you are sending and the problem you are solving. Without a real problem, you obviously should not have built that company. Also, without real competitors, you probably don’t have a solid market, you are way too early or you are in the wrong place. Tip: for the reasons I just mentioned, please do not tell a journalist that you don’t have competitors.

The same way you identify a customer problem and the same way you identify your market and your competitors, please identity the people you want to talk to, because talking to the right audience is key. As with anything in life, build relationships that benefit both parties. I will explain in other blog posts how to identify the audience and how to not get on people’s nerves with fluffy sales pitches vs targeted PR. More soon.

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Startup Advice: Blogging or Not Blogging

Since I took such a long break from blogging, I feel obligated to look at blogging (or not blogging) as a useful (or not) tool for early-stage enterprise startups. It comes up usually as we are planning to launch the company. Since PR planning starts a few months before the actual launch and many conversations such as analyst briefings are happening in the background and many startups prefer to stay in a semi-stealthy mode these days (for lack of a better term), they like to reveal some details, but not too many. So blogging comes up as a tool, with teasers, as they call them or we, PR people, call them, placed now and then on the semi-ready startup website to increase the content, which is barely there; remember….semi-stealthy? I tell them that unless they are lucky to have a prolific writer in-house (since some won’t have the budget to outsource it), these are a few guidelines they can follow before and even after the launch:
– Give the opportunity to a few employees to post on the company blog, since they all have different roles, backgrounds and writing styles, so the blog will be more colorful, with a mix of technical and business topics. Also, since startup employees wear so many hats and they are busy, their turn to post won’t come too soon if others are involved and they all take turns.
– Alternate educational posts with posts about your company. If they look too much like sales pitches, add a customer use case. That may help the situation and not turn people off right away.
– Big “no” to longer posts. Keep them as short as you can.
– Add pictures if they mean something. I don’t think in the enterprise world, we are crazy about cute pics that don’t add anything. OK, I would be OK with a meme maybe. 🙂
– Add links to various articles or blog posts. Hopefully, others will add links to yours.
– Have a Comments area, but don’t really expect comments right away. People try to stay away from corporate blogs, same way they try to stay away from corporate social media accounts, because they tend to be salesy. Offer them the opportunity to comment though.
– Invite guest bloggers. Yes, some will be paid-to-play, so consider that (people have to be paid for their time after all if they are consultants), but there are others who would be happy to be a guest blogger (maybe a tech partner or somebody from the community you know well).
– Don’t forget about social media. The blog has to be promoted and while your web designer will hopefully do all the right things in the background, make sure you and your colleagues share it on social media. It helps.

Happy writing!

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The Day When Storage Networking World Died

 

 

This week, the inevitable happened: SNIA and Computerworld/IDG announced they were ending Storage Networking World (a.k.a. SNW these past years), the father – it’s a male-dominated industry, so I will use “father” – of today’s storage shows.

I was one of the first SNW USA attendees, but I skipped quite a few these past three or four years. I wasn’t the only one.  Many people I met at SNW years ago did the same. They chose to meet at larger vendor conferences (VMworld, EMC World, AWS re:Invent lately, etc.) that gave them access to the same people and technologies plus so much more. While I truly believe that the problem with SNW was that it had simply run its course, I also believe that the communities around those other new shows were stronger, more vibrant, and more social-media-oriented. It was hard for SNW, a traditional tech conference, to adapt and compete with these events. Every time I see a show where the hashtag is only used by a handful of people (including tweets from vendor accounts), I know that the “influencers” are not there. It is certainly about the face-to-face interactions, but also about the discussions that people at the conference or those who couldn’t make it, but are following the event, are having during the show, generating more interest in certain sessions, technologies or vendors. It is a combination of real and virtual that we did not have in the early 2000s when we attended SNW. We had the conference hotel bar where we all met for briefings or get-togethers in Scottsdale, Orlando, Dallas, and, occasionally, in the Bay Area. I remember a slightly drunk “influencer” – at that time – introducing me to a CEO,  while I was just passing by through the bar area to my hotel room, who later became my client. Also, who can forget the SNW press room where non-exhibitors tried to sneak in all the time?

Youngest (Non-Official) SNW Attendee (Orlando, 2006)

After a day of press briefings, with bad bangs and a one-year old

To be honest, I was a bit nostalgic when I heard the news about SNW, because it is a place where I met many people I became friends with later. I was there while pregnant (twice) and I remember a couple of analysts who were pregnant at the same time, and how we told each other privately, not really wanting to share it with everybody else earlier in the pregnancy.  Later, I remember bringing my kid with me – in the stroller – and making it a business/personal trip. I also celebrated my birthday there, because they would always schedule it in April during my birthday.

I built friendships and I built relationships at SNW in the pre-social-media era. I was there then and I am here today… the day when SNW died.

 

 

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We Hire YOU to Put Us in the Front of the Right People

I hear that a lot. At first, I did not like the sound of it. Really, is this all I do? But then I realized that, even though it’s NOT everything we do, is actually very important. At a conference last year, a (very friendly) PR person told me that she had set up 12 meetings for her client and was very proud of it. Because I came from the corporate world and I am all about ROI, I tracked that specific company for the following weeks. Those 14 meetings turned into one article. I checked the Twittersphere… nothing, just the PR person talking now and then about her client without anybody commenting.

That got me thinking that putting a client in front of the “right people” is essential. Most PR firms (and I managed quite a few back in my corporate days) are all about monthly reports padded with a high number of meetings with people sipping their coffee at the other end of the line without much interest in what the startup is selling and with little knowledge of the market. The monthly report looks good though. That retainer seems justified. Also, I had clients who insisted that I should pitch every press release to every reporter I knew. I told them that I would not, because not every announcement interests every reporter and the advantage of working with a PR firm specialized on a specific market is that we know exactly what each reporter likes and covers. When they get an email or call from us, they know it is relevant. If the client insists, maybe it’s time to move on, I say. It’s hard to let go of an account, but it’s even harder to waste my time and an editor’s time, and maybe not getting a second chance when the client truly has relevant news. We build relationships with the right people, same way clients want to build relationships with the right customers and technology partners.

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Answering a PRWeek Question on Integration of Paid and Earned Social Media Efforts

In the December 2010 issue of PRWeek, Jason Shuffler asked five PR pros to answer the question: “How do you integrate paid and earned social media efforts most seamlessly?” and I was one of the virtual panel participants. I am pasting an excerpt below, but if you are a subscriber of PRWeek, you can read the full article here: http://bit.ly/eKNNpb.

“As PR professionals, we’ve all had to explain to our own parents – on numerous occasions, no doubt – how we do not work in advertising or paid media, but we actually get paid to help clients “earn” media.

Going back to our marketing classes, let’s remember an ideal integrated marketing communications program includes consistent, well-crafted messages brought to your audience through various communications tools, earned and paid social media being among the most prominent.

The key word once those messages have been identified is: integrate. One way of integrating earned media with paid social media is simply to include the results of earned media into your paid media efforts. Promote that great product review, feature article, or award through your social media ads. Third-party validation is also important to your audience. If you are paying to reach that audience through any form of advertising, you want to share what others are saying about you.

The opposite works as well. Post information on Twitter or a Facebook page about your latest webcast or YouTube educational video. You might be surprised how much attention it can get, assuming that, through your earned media efforts, you built a loyal audience that now trusts you and pays attention to your posts.

The same advice we gave clients when we were only exposed to “traditional media” applies to social media: don’t just “sell” your product or service. You need to educate potential customers and show them how your product or service could solve specific problems. They will come back to find out more.”

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Do We Still Need Press Releases?

It is a question I get now and then from start-ups (note that it doesn’t happen too often, which probably means that in most of the execs’ minds, press releases are still an important part of their PR tool set). Then, of course, the next question is: how many should we write every month?

While press releases are definitely not as “powerfu”l as they were a few years ago, they are still used by all of our clients. Also some editors still ask for them in order to make a decision of either taking or not taking a vendor call, and some even use them as a starting point for articles, following up with questions while writing it. I advise clients not to spam their Twitter or Facebook  followers with links to their press releases. I see both PR agencies and vendors doing that all the time and I know that it is frustrating to see these coming up in your Twitter stream.

Regarding how many press releases a month a start-up should issue, I say that 1-2 a month – if needed – would probably suffice.  Of course, I advise against sending “fluff” or press releases “made up” when things seem quiet. Things are rarely quiet in a start-up’s life (well, unless they run out of money, and we have seen quite a few of those this year), so instead of focusing on how many press releases they send out, companies should be looking at how many conversations they have been engaging in with editors, analysts, bloggers, and users.

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How Can I Justify PR Expenses to My CEO and Investors?

Most startups will invest in PR, because they know that it is the fastest and most trusted way to send information about a company and its products/services out to the world awaiting to try and buy that product/service. For some though, PR is still an abstract term and they do not know if they need to invest in it. I talk to prospect clients every week, and, from what I have seen in the enterprise space, most startups would benefit from PR. First of all, they don’t have the budget to advertise and the resources to measure ROI from their advertising efforts. PR and social media will generate immediate results and the marketing executives will not be worried that the board of directors will miss that banner or print ad about the company, because each investor has Google Alerts set up on his/her portfolio companies and will see the PR results right away.

Also, as social media is a big piece of the PR strategy these days, it is a quick way to engage in conversations with partners, media, and users. Google Alerts will track your Twitter conversations, showing the executive team and the board of directors that the world is interested in what their company has to say. In a lot of situations – depending on the product they are selling – companies get quality leads from their social media and PR efforts. Somebody took the time to read an article or Twitter post, and is contacting them back. They remember the company, what the product does, and want to know more. That is a hot lead.

Another option some startups consider is hiring somebody in-house to do both PR and Marcom. If the startup is lucky to find somebody with both PR and Marcom experience, who worked in the same industry and has strong relationships with both the media and publishers, it may make sense, but the startup has to be ready to spend more money on the PR tools needed to help the person do his/her job (news monitoring systems, databases of editors, awards and speaking opportunities, etc.). Most startups I know will not do that, because they will end up paying much more than hiring an agency. So, they do exactly that: hire an agency.

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FTC Rules for Bloggers Effective Today

As most of us know, starting today, the blogosphere will be regulated by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which requires bloggers to disclose free products or payments they have received from companies they are mentioning in their reviews or blog posts. If they fail to do so, the fine could be up to $11,000. From mommy bloggers to tech bloggers, everybody will have to disclose, disclose, and disclose. It’s fair after all, but I expect some chaos in the beginning, as people are trying to figure out what and how to disclose. If some think that it doesn’t apply to them, think more, because it does. The best way to find an answer is to talk to an attorney.

The reaction the readers will have is certainly interesting to watch. Will they respect these bloggers more or will they stop reading some blogs, thinking that, because they received something in return, the bloggers may not portray the product or service accurately? In the end, knowing the relationship of the writer with the respective company/person helps readers make an informed decision. For us, as a PR agency, it’s easy to comply. All our current client names are on our website. Some agencies do not post them while others have a list of current and past clients – all together – making it impossible to know which ones are still paying for their services. At Silicon Valley PR, our Portfolio page has two separate categories of current and past clients. Knowing that we can’t sign up two competitors at the same time, this page shows prospective clients what companies we are currently working with, so they can make an informed decision when contacting us. Also, when we post something on our blog about a product or a company, it’s clear if they are or are not a client.

This is a new era for both PR and the media, a challenging, but a great time to be on either side. As in any business, the strong ones will find a way to make things work and keep their (brand) name untainted. For more information about these new regulations, go to the FTC site at http://bit.ly/9KMWI.

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The Role the PR Agency Plays in Your Social Media Strategy

The PR agency should get involved in your social media efforts; that could include designing and executing your strategy. From identifying the best places your audience “hangs out” to content creation, it is your PR agency’s job to get you going down that path. An agency with expertise in your market is vital here, because if it supports clients in different industries, what works for one may not work for another one, and you do not want to waste time and money, trying to get connected with an audience that is really not interested in what you have to say and sell.

The question I get from a lot of companies is to what extent the agency will get involved, and they pretty much want to know if the agency would blog, tweet, or maintain the corporate Facebook Fan Page on their behalf. If needed, yes, we would do it. It is not ideal though, because I still believe that it’s something that should be done in-house, especially when it comes to conversations such as the ones on Twitter, but if the PR person chosen to do that is familiar with the industry and the company, he/she can become the voice of the company. For startups, unless they are lucky to have somebody in-house who is social media-savvy, and wants to take this task on, bringing an “outside voice” may be the best way to go. Lack of resources or “fear” of the unknown when it comes to social media may be some of the reasons why a startup may not be ready to execute a social media strategy on its own. On the other hand, it is natural for some corporate execs to try to control the social media efforts as much as they can, approve copy, etc., and it’s not easy to find the right voice either. It helps if, for example, the person chosen to “do” social media on behalf of the company (under the company’s Twitter ID) has a strong and very targeted follower list on Twitter, because it is easier to get the same followers interested in their client’s tweets.  Also, it is easier to engage in conversations if he/she knows the right followers and  the right topics.

As with any information that is disseminated to the public, the PR agency should also advise on what can and what can not be said, because there are things such as roadmaps that you do not want revealed on Twitter.

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