The good thing about separating stakeholders is that everyone will give correct answers to the questions being asked — their delivery will just be different. “It’s not like there’s one perfect answer. Everyone will be right. This just gives you the opportunity to say, oh I like how this one person said that, or how so-and-so explained this concept. You can see who phrased things succinctly and who has a better grasp of the longer narrative. Then you can combine the best.”
The next step is to build what she calls a messaging document, starting with your most succinct, resonant messaging at the top — maybe it’s just one sentence — “It’s what you want to say at cocktail parties,” she says. Below that, you can dive a little deeper with the three key messages you’d want to share with reporters about the specific problem your company is solving. Under that, you can get more detailed. Then make sure everyone has a copy.
“PR isn’t about hits, it isn’t about placement — it isn’t ‘You pay us and we’ll get you a clip here or a mention on that blog.’ And it isn’t about a first-day bump that gets no traction,” Hammerling says. “It’s about focusing your voice. It’s about finding your place in the market.”
Developing messaging that resonates can be especially hard for complex technical and enterprise companies. As one of the first PR people working with NetSuite in 2003, Hammerling knows better than most. “We were talking about data systems and software as a service before the cloud was a thing, and no one understood,” she says. “We had to simplify it down and not tell the whole story. NetSuite does a lot of things, but I needed to tell just that one main thing.”
Some tough love was required. “They had this very very long-winded messaging on what they were doing by explaining the SaaS model of the financial data of ERP and blah blah blah — and I just told them, the mainstream business press doesn’t know this world yet, and they don’t care,” she says. “We filtered it down to this: ‘the future is software as a service: a business that will enable companies to manage the data that is important to them online, and share it across platforms with many people.’ We had to get people to understand how and why it would relate to them. All it took was taking out the jargon and simplifying it so that people could imagine themselves using it.”
Drawing analogies is a rookie crutch. Saying “It’s like Twitter, only for dog-sitters” can be instructive, but it also takes away from your brand. The better thing to do is to boil your message down to its core, and then layer in other dimensions and functionality little by little. “You may do 25 things and that’s amazing, but what’s that key thing you do? You have to make sure that’s crystal clear. Tell the story around that then layer in the rest later. If you try to pack it all into one announcement or a press release, you’ll lose your audience.”
Hammerling points to WealthFront — a Brew client — as one startup doing a good job of turning a complex concept into a single idea. “It’s taking technology, and using it for financial planning — a function that you normally go to humans for. They really had to hone in on a message so that all kinds of people would feel good using it.” You can see it in everything down to their tagline: “We manage your investments for you.” It’s not about technology or business. It’s about the personal ‘we’ taking care of something for ‘you.’
This is a hard pill for some founders to swallow. Here they’ve spent all this time building a multi-faceted product and they want to talk about all of its capabilities. But this is almost always a mistake, she says. “It’s hard to tell founders this kind of thing — it’s like telling them their child isn’t ready for an honors class yet. They want to fast-forward.” But she’s seen it end badly too many times.
Hammerling cites photo sharing app Color as a prime — and commonly used — example. It burst onto the scene in 2011, having raised a whopping $41 million in its first round of funding. Its shocking success seemed clear as the company made the rounds with the media — but the app’s actual functionality was not. “Nobody knew what the app did or what to expect once they downloaded it. Because of the money, people were expecting something great, and it just wasn’t there.” Color’s demise was slow and quiet.
If she had been the one handling the company’s PR, Hammerling says she wouldn’t have let the money dictate the strategy. “Of course they couldn’t keep the funding quiet — too many people were involved and it was an absurd amount. But I wouldn’t have tried to do a full court press around the product at the same time,” she says.
Prepping for Launch
Needless to say, Hammerling has seen a lot of missteps like this and more. She’s had startups come to her three days before their scheduled launch asking for a turnkey media strategy. Of course, there’s no such thing, she says. A solid media plan needs a runway of three to six months. “Even if you have a couple weeks and marketing material, that’s not enough. It’s not going to be effective and it’s going to look fake.” When a company does this — and plenty still do — Hammerling says nine times out of 10 a launch will get botched, and they never get another shot at it.
Like creating messaging, preparing for an effective launch starts with a list of questions — all designed to suss out your real motivations for doing PR:
- Do you just want a lot of attention early on?
- Is the goal to attract a ton of users? Customers?
- Is the announcement more about recruiting top talent?
- Do you want to raise more capital or VC interest?
The answers to these questions will shape your approach and your story. For the most part, different goals mean you go after different outlets. If you’re trying to hire great engineers, you want to get on Reddit, Hacker News, or the blogs engineers you want are reading. If you’re trying to get in front of investors, figure out what they read, and pitch those publications. Also, the more transparent you are about your goals, the more likely you are to achieve them, Hammerling says. “Stick with your one basic, overarching message, you just need to tweak it a little bit for each audience.” Sounds simple, but there are some caveats.
Avoid timing your launch with a funding announcement. Again, Color is a useful example. “If you need to announce funding, try to separate it as much as you can from your product. Absolutely don’t lead with it.” A large round raises expectations, a small one lowers them. The amount of money can all too easily convince people what they should expect from your company and how likely it is to succeed. The product should have a chance to stand on its own.
On top of this, a surprising number of companies choose to launch before their product is ready at all. “It’s a head scratcher, but I’ve seen so many startups determined to stick to their timelines that they’ll unveil something before it works. Then all of the bad press and feedback sets them back six months or more,” Hammerling says. “You have to be patient. If you have to pull a plug, pull the marketing plug. Nobody’s setting those deadlines but you.”
Getting on the Media’s Radar
Once you have your plan, it’s all about placement. How do you get attention in the deafening echo chamber of today’s technology news cycle? As Hammerling puts it — unsurprisingly — it’s all about relationships. And you don’t need to be a communications pro to make them. The obvious rules apply: be smart, pay attention, and don’t be rude. But there’s a bevy of other hacks for getting noticed.
“Figure out who’s covering your industry — whether it’s the broader tech industry, internet of things, consumer internet, mobile, whatever,” Hammerling says. “Then there will be those few reporters who cover that specific area you’re in. Make sure you read everything they write. And don’t just look forward, go back in time. Get a sense of their writing style and personality, what topics interest them.” Following reporters on Twitter can also give you a better sense of their life outside of work and what they’re really passionate about. All of this can be used to craft personalized communications.
While there is no set number of reporters an entrepreneur should work with, there’s value in forging meaningful relationships with a good handful in your area and broader industry, Hammerling says. When she first got her start, the tech media was less built out, and she made it a point getting to know 15 of the most influential reporters in the sector. “Now they’re running their own publications, their own bureaus, their own blogs,” she says. “If you’re a young entrepreneur, get to know the younger guys too — that’s just as important because these are people who share your mindset. They are entrepreneurial too, and they’re going to be the big guys down the road.”
Don’t be afraid to reach out.“The reporters covering tech want to hear your story. They’re actively looking to build relationships with entrepreneurs. If you live in the same city, try to set up some time to talk. If you don’t, then drop them a note a few weeks before you pass through their area and say you’d love to grab coffee. Not everyone will say yes, but a lot will,” Hammerling advises. Of course, don’t do this until you have your message down, know it backwards and forwards, and can clearly explain your value proposition to the market. She also advises against talking to reporters directly too far in advance of launch. There’s risk that you’ll tip your hand before your company’s ready. Once your product’s out in the open, that’s the time to focus on maintaining connections.
The importance of social media is a testament to how much the media relations game has evolved. In the past, it was a common tactic to offer an outlet an exclusive to get their attention — but this isn’t a good hand to play when there are hundreds of influential blogs out there. It’s one thing if you have a massive story that The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times might want to print, but this is hardly the case at the early-stage level.