I’ve helped a number of tech startups with their media strategy in recent years. There’s a real joy in assisting a fledgling company in raising awareness of a great product – and seeing them take off. However, for every startup I work for, I turn down a number of others. That’s not because I’m brilliant or I think I’m too good for them (or because I’m too expensive); it’s because PR is not the right answer for everyone all the time.
A good third-party article or interview can increase awareness of a product, legitimise a company in the eyes of potential investors and lead to sales (sometimes). However, there is definitely a right time and a wrong time to spend your budget on engaging PR.
If you had the kind of misspent youth I did, you might remember the Underwear Gnomes in South Park (stay with me…) The Underwear Gnomes had a genius plan: Phase 1 – ‘Collect Underpants’ (the idea), Phase 3 – ‘Profit’ (the outcome). Phase 2 was missing. Phase 2 is the execution of the idea – and PR is one in a range of tools startups need to use to achieve it.
However, increasingly I find people looking to engage PR consultants at Phase 1, or even before.
PR is not the magic bullet, a good pitch is. PR can only supplement and help sell a good pitch. In short, a PR person can’t create the product.
Before taking on a startup client, I ask questions about what they’re selling, their backstory and who their target audience is. Why would that audience want the product? Why is it better than anything else? What problem does it solve? It’s too early for PR if they can’t answer those questions and their money would be better spent working on their product than working with me. They may even need to pivot (change course). It’s much better that they come to that realisation after talking to me than after speaking to a journalist.
In tech it’s all about speed to market and iterating as you go but media operates differently. If you’re still in A/B testing mode, going out to the media too early could result in an article about your product’s teething problems. You generally only get one shot with a journalist so why waste it by rushing?
Finally, media is not an end in itself (returning to the Underpants Gnomes analogy, that’s Phase 3: ‘Profit’). The number one aim of PR for tech companies should be to attract more investors or more customers – either in Australia or overseas. PR is just one of the ways you can do that.
Hiring a media specialist can help take you to Phase 3, but, as with cult American TV comedy, sometimes it’s all about the timing.
Liz Stephens is CEO of Liz Stephens Consulting – and a Commtractor.
She has been lucky enough to work on some of the most high profile PR campaigns and events in Australia, and with some of the country’s most talented tech startups.