In the early days your company will be too small and have too little timely news to merit a full-time PR person. As the company grows, you will hire one or more PR people in house, and will often augment the in-house work with an agency.
Here are some simple basics to get you started on PR.
Your internal PR team or your agency should start things off by media training you and any other members of your team who will be officially representing the company and/ or speaking to press. Media training will include definition of key terms (What does “off the record” mean versus “on background?”), what you can expect during different types of interviews (broadcast, in-person, phone, video, etc.), as well as practice sessions primarily focused on answering tough questions. You should practice the storyline for your company and be able to answer questions about your products, your competitors, and yourself concisely. In general, you and your cofounders will be encouraged to have a founding narrative about the company and a personal explanation for why you are working on your company. Media training will also focus on things like how to answer a question other than the one you were asked (if needed).
Practice, practice, practice. Imagine that you are an actor in a play. Read through your narrative and practice your storyline. Your PR team or executive team can help you practice objection handling, fielding tough questions, and delivering the core company story. Repeat it until you have a crisp story memorized. At the same time, remember that authenticity is key. Reporters will know if you’re reading from a script and it’ll come across as less genuine, which can sometimes be a credibility killer. If you are on the phone with press, it is okay to have a written document in front of you to remind you of key talking points.
When talking to press, you should specify the nature of the conversation and get agreement from the reporter on the terms. This is typically something your PR person will work out in advance with the reporter, and also reconfirm at the start of the call. If there is not agreement, you should assume everything you say is on the record. The general breakouts are:
- “Off the record”—this usually means the journalist may not write about the conversations or quote you. You can ask in the middle of the conversation to say something off the record, and if the journalist agrees, then say whatever it is you wanted to share.
- “On background”—this usually means the journalist may write something like “sources say that Google is moving into flying cars” without directly quoting you as the source.
- “On the record”—If you are not “off the record” and not “on background” then you are “on the record,” which means you can be quoted specifically and directly attributed for the comments or quote.
In order to maintain independence and journalistic integrity, reporters are not always willing to run a story by you before it’s published. If the press has made an error in fact (versus opinion) it is okay to reach out to the journalist when the story runs to correct the factual error. Factual error means things like “they misunderstood a scientific fact” or “they got the name of the product wrong.” Factual error does not mean “they hate my product” or “they didn’t understand its value.”
Given how hard people work on their companies, CEOs may get emotional or upset about press coverage. Realize that most of the press coverage will be forgotten in the future, and most companies have had a bad story or two (or ten) at some point or another.
Most people in the press are hard-working, ethical people trying to do the right thing. Occasionally you will also run across someone who has an agenda. No matter what you tell them, they will write the story the way they want it to fit a predefined narrative and they will massage facts.
It is a good idea to read a journalist’s previous stories before speaking with them. If they have a long history of writing thoughtless attack pieces, you should decide how much you want to engage or talk with them.
One upside of working with a PR person internally or an agency externally is that they have great insight into how reporters work, how they’re generally perceived in the industry, and what you can expect when meeting with them.
The PR community is a small one. There are only a few dozen truly great PR people in technology at any given time. They all tend to cluster at a handful of companies and all know each other. The best way to find a great PR person is to ask other PR people, agencies, and journalists who they respect the most and who does the best work, and then go after those people. Sometimes, you can also hire a great partner-level person out of a PR agency.
In the early days, it will take an investment of time to build relationships with key members of the press. This may include reaching out with articles unrelated to your company that may interest the journalist, or meeting for coffee to discuss the industry without other agendas. It is important to invest in these relationships and avoid transactional behavior. This will increase the likelihood your company will get covered.
As your company scales, building these relationships will continue to be important. However, as CEO you should be judicious with your time. Figure out what other members of your executive team you want to be spokespersons, and start to have them take the lead on some of the press relationships.
It often takes 4-10 weeks for a company to coordinate a big PR launch—more if you are just onboarding a new PR agency or your existing agency isn’t up to speed on the new product yet. Don’t wait for the week before the launch to let your PR team or agency know what is coming. Just like design, product communications should be part of the product launch timing from early in the process rather than being an afterthought. Some companies like Amazon go through the exercise of writing the product “headline” at the stage of product conception. For example, when writing a design document, you might think through what the press story on the product will be when it launches. This helps to shape crisp thinking about what you are building and why.
While getting positive press coverage will get you a lot of attention from friends and family (and maybe some famous people), it is not a reflection of company success. Profitable, scalable revenue is a much more important metric. For most companies, PR is also not a way to get recurring distribution. Don’t confuse press coverage with traction and remember to focus on the core metrics of the company. And do not think that a good press cycle can cover up a bad business decision.
Every company will have a bad press cycle. In general, companies tend to get built up in the press, and then torn down by the press. However, there are singular events the press will rally behind where the company has screwed up or made a mistake. During these times of crisis management, the company needs to act swiftly and wisely to protect its brand and customer base. Crisis management tends to have the following steps:
1. Analyze the problem
What went wrong? How will this impact the company, its customers, or other stakeholders? How is this likely to be portrayed by the press and by competitors? What are different things you could/should do about the situation?
2. Acknowledge the problem
In general, once you are in a negative press cycle, it will run its natural course. Rather than fight the press cycle itself, try to expedite its coming to its natural resolution as quickly as possible. A negative press cycle is like falling into a river and getting swept up in the current. You can swim with the current and come to a riverbank quickly, or try to swim against the current, exhaust yourself, and get swept down anyways. If you made a mistake, acknowledge it, lay out a plan of action, and take action. Do not lie.
3. Take action
Do the things you said you were going to do. If you can do them quickly, expedite action so you can get through the crisis quickly.