HypeBusters: Startups Need PR


It’s no secret that tech startups and public relations have rarely been the best of friends.  Anecdotal tales abound of young (and mature) tech and social media firms boisterously eschewing all things PR and marketing — often with mixed results.
For many entrepreneurs, “being seen” using PR or marketing can be akin to a stamp of disapproval from industry peers. It’s as though a hot tech startup might lose its street cred, or be seen as selling out, by entertaining the notion of PR counsel. There’s the notion that it’s all about the product. But that’s a myth.
Foursquare’s Dennis Crowley is fond of saying PR “pretty much takes care of itself.” And rather infamously, Groupon has long shunned strategic communications in favor of its own blend of hype-infused rhetoric. Unfortunately, that  strategy hasn’t always  worked out for the “fastest growing company ever.”
Clearly, this flies in the face of long-time ad man Al Ries’ advice that the birth of a brand is through public relations.
Which is why I’d like to dispel a long-standing myth: using PR or marketing isn’t “selling out;” it’s smart business. Of course, there are some important caveats, among them: having a strategic communications plan in place, avoiding the urge to only focus on “getting press,” finding the right firm, etc.
In other words, don’t cast aside what can be incredibly value to a young, growing business just because your industry buddies say it’s uncool.
As Margit Wennmachers, co-founder of San Francisco-based OutCast Communications, told The New York Times in 2009, “Few tech companies with absolutely no PR have built a user base successfully.”
That’s what Flickr discovered long before it was acquired by Yahoo! when the then-fledgling photo-sharing service engaged Spark PR in 2004 to help it navigate the labyrinth of bloggers and influencers that were rapidly reshaping the global consumer tech scene. Hard to argue with Flickr’s long-standing success.
Maybe it’s the culture: tech entrepreneurs are keenly focused on ensuring their businesses succeed, while public relations professionals are focused on . . . helping their clients succeed.
So, where is the disconnect?
Ask New York venture capitalist Fred Wilson. He’s clearly made known his disdain for traditional marketing, noting in a recent blog post that “the best companies know how to become the story and work it.” No argument there. Alas, he conveniently glosses over the reality that great storytelling is only half the battle in building lasting brand affinity.
What happens next is far more important: sustaining brand equity. That is where it gets tricky.
Much of what entrepreneurs do, in one way or another, is a form of communications. Whether working with customers, improving a product or service or speaking to a group of industry leaders, we’re all aiming to tell a compelling story that resonates. And most business owners wouldn’t consider that a bad thing.
Is PR going to help your sales grow by double-digits next quarter? Is it going to turn a bad product into something “magical.” Not likely. That’s not its true value. But it will help you gain an objective sense of where your business stands in the broader consumer and buyer marketplace — outside the friendly confines of Silicon Valley, Austin and New York. It also will prepare you for the inevitable day when your business is no longer the “next big thing;” when you’re just another cog in the capitalist machine.
Furthermore, corporate reputation comes into play at a certain point for every company. Multiple studies have shown that a for-profit organization’s reputation is closely tied to its CEO’s reputation. This is particularly relevant to the tech and digital-media sectors, where there is no benefit of time.
All too often, though, VCs (and the tech startups they mentor) scoff at the mere notion that what they are doing to build their business falls within “marketing.” As Digiday Editor-in-Chief Brian Morrissey recently noted, “There is the long-simmering tension between the camps of venture-backed tech innovations bent on changing the world and the more staid marketing world of selling more stuff for clients.”
It doesn’t have to be this way.
As a longtime agency executive, I have found that many CEOs — regardless of the industry they work in — conflate all marketing as one and the same. They see what their large, established competitors are doing, and think they must emulate their strategy, or do the exact opposite.
Building a successful business takes years of patience, a great brand story and innovative products or services. And that effort quite often requires the strategic brand-building and messaging only public relations counsel can provide.
No amount of online buzz is going to achieve that. (If so, we’d still be reading Tina Brown’s much-hyped Talk magazine.) What will is a savvy combination of great product marketing, sound investor counsel and an objective PR team at your strategy table, helping ensure your company’s early-stage values, goals and initiatives align with marketplace realities and your customers’ needs.
Far beyond securing a coveted placement in Mashable, public relations can help rising tech and digital media startups acquire brand affinity. And that’s a more sensible approach than hoping Google’s new social tool, +1, will boost your search rankings.
Who knows? You could become the next Groupon or Facebook. But as both have learned the hard way, there is little fun in facing a crisis with no strategy in place.
Rosanna Fiske is chair and chief executive officer of the Public Relations Society of America. Follow her on Twitter @fiskey.

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