What startups get wrong about public relations

This article was originally written for MarTech Series in April 2018. I changed the title and I’m re-posting it here. Hope you like it!

If you are looking for media coverage, you’ve come to the right place. Successful PR is simple. Here are the steps.

  1. Generate interesting stories consistently.
  2. Pitch your stories to writers who create content for an audience you’re interested in.
  3. Analyze results, rinse and repeat.

It’s a simple process to follow, like keeping the count when you’re dancing. 1–2–3, 1–2–3, 1–2–3. However, in our experience, this might not be what you’re thinking about when you think about PR. You’re racing to the desired outcome — the gleaming article on a top industry news site trumpeting the latest and greatest about your company. It feels attainable (and it is) because we all consume a ton of content everyday. We read about companies, sometimes in our industry, having seemingly accomplished much less than us, yet they are receiving a glowing profile. Surely you can get the same treatment. PR doesn’t seem like it requires a process. No one expects to make a sale on the first call, rank on Google after a few days of SEO, or publish a few posts to immediately find an audience for your blog, but most people think of PR as an easy transaction — I have a story, it’s the reporters’ job to write it. This is wrong. Yes, if you just raised $50M in venture funding from Bill Gates, you can send an email to any reporter at a business publication and the story will get written. Outside of must-cover stories like that, successful PR requires a process because what is worth covering is, at the end of the day, subjective.

Let’s break down three common misconceptions about PR compared to reality.

Misconception #1: I have news (e.g. launch, milestone reached, etc) that is really significant to us. With the right PR help, we can get someone to write about it.

How it actually works. Journalists are choosing from hundreds of stories to cover everyday for maybe 1–3 slots. First, the sheer volume means that even if your story is perfectly targeted, they may simply miss it or lack the bandwidth to work on it, especially if Trump hijacks the media agenda. They are reading their inbox just like everyone else, without any more sophisticated triage processes. That’s assuming your story is a perfect A+. In reality, most stories we pitch for companies are “B+” stories. They’re interesting, hard news, targeted at reporters who would have a personal or professional interest. However, there are almost always other “A” stories being pitched to the same reporters from other sources who may be bigger and more credible than you, and in the case where we are being evaluated against 50 other “B+” stories, it takes some luck to be selected.

We like to think of PR as closer to playing baseball. A good hitter in baseball succeeds only 30% of the time. The important part is approaching every at-bat with discipline and look for the rare opportunity to really put the bat on the ball.

Misconception #2: I just read a non-news story (e.g. a feature profile, a trend story about the industry, contributed opinion piece, etc) about my competitor. With the right PR help, we can get an article like that about me.

How it actually works. News takes precedent at most publications because they are urgent and sometimes important, yet many reporters spend time (often at nights and weekends) working on non-news stories because of personal interest and potential for impact. However, reporters still have to justify it to their editor, so pegging it to a hard news pitch is still preferred. For example, if your company just raised $200M and became a unicorn, you can pitch a personal profile at the same time so the reporter can better justify doing a profile on you because you just accomplished a rare feat.

But what about the industry trend pieces? You never know when reporters are working on them, and sometimes they get shelved for months and even years because they’re not timely. There isn’t a public database of what reporters are working on (they don’t like to have their ideas stolen). However, you can influence the agenda by 1) pitching a trend piece anchored to some unique data and insight that you can bring to the table. For example, you can pitch a trend piece about how companies are increasingly ditching office spaces for completely remote setups, but you should bring supporting evidence to the table to help the journalist with research and offer help connecting journalists with companies without offices and their remote employees. Alternatively, to score inclusion in these trend pieces, you can 2) pitch frequently high-quality stories so you are constantly top-of-mind. Reporters, like the rest of us, suffer from availability bias. If they have to talk to three sources in your industry, you want to be one of those three sources.

Finally, how do you get a contributed opinion piece? Today, publications are starved for content — especially good, timely content. You have to pitch it to the editors and get them to consider letting you publish. Usually you want your piece to be finished, but not published anywhere else. Alternatively, it could be a piece that you have published already and seen a lot of traction on your own blog, which would help demonstrate that it’s “good” content that should be re-published and shared more widely. You also want it to be timely and insightful. You are competing with hundreds of people who want to write for a brand name publication, in addition to reporters on staff that have been hired, vetted, and has a track record. Why would the editor risk the publication brand to let you publish?

Misconception #3: I need a PR professional with strong relationships to the media in my industry. With strong relationships, we can get any media coverage we want.

How it actually works. Relationships are useful, but they tend to be overvalued and difficult to assess the veracity behind anyone claiming to have strong relationships. Because of that we think it should be discounted most of the time.

However, that’s not giving relationships its proper due. PR-Journalist relationships are like any business relationship: they exist to help everyone do business more effectively. Journalists trade in stories and they want access to high-quality stories. The way PR wins over a journalist in a relationship is by regularly bringing high-quality stories, and once in a while offer something exclusive. Essentially, for a journalist to see a PR pro’s name in the inbox and want to click on it more than any other email, the journalist has to trust that the story contained in this particular email will be high-quality and potentially lead to rare, unique access. PR pros can communicate that by establishing a record of consistently high-quality stories over time. However, PR is a business, and PR firms inevitably start working with less credible companies who are willing to pay. In order to keep existing credible clients, they inevitably start pitching “B+” or lower stories to journalists. From this perspective, the PR agencies that can plausibly have strong relationships are typically agencies that most businesses cannot afford or bully as a client. They’re priced high enough to filter for more credible companies, and even then, they are selective about who they choose to take on as clients and what stories they would pitch for them. It’s no surprise that the agency you paid $20k a month for did not appear to have strong relationships.

#TrustTheProcess

Obsessing about your competitors’ coverage is obsessing over the outcome, not the process. Worrying about PR agencies’ relationships is placing lopsided attention to a tiny (and typically unattainable) lever in the process.

Again, here are the steps to successful PR.

  1. Generate interesting stories consistently.
  2. Pitch your stories to writers who create content for an audience you’re interested in.
  3. Analyze results, rinse and repeat.

This process does not depend on you having to pay to retain a top-tier PR agency and it’s guaranteed to work. Of course, generating interesting stories is hard work, especially if you work on (relatively) boring enterprise procurement software. It’s also hard to find the story that is both interesting to you and the reporter. It pays to understand what drives reporters and their readers, especially when they may be different. Here’s a version of the Eisenhower Matrix from before that also includes a perspective from the average consumer of media. I hope this gives you more tools to think about your public relations efforts.


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How Facebook saved the news industry

Mark Zuckerberg’s news feed in 2006 (source: Slate)

Last Friday, Facebook’s Head of News Feed Adam Mosseri announced that Facebook will begin prioritizing content created by friends and family over content from the media, brands and other Pages since space in the News Feed is limited. This is a good long-term move for Facebook and I hope they continue to experiment with other ways of distributing news stories, but the announcement may mark the end of an era of opportunity for the news industry. The media’s reaction so far (BuzzFeed, The Outline, New York Times) suggests that this is yet another example of how Facebook has ruined journalism by pulling another bait-and-switch, depriving the media of access to their audience, which is fair but missing an important point. Facebook has actually helped keep the mainstream news industry relevant for far longer than they would otherwise have been.

What if Facebook didn’t exist?

Today, Facebook has a monopoly of our attention. However, what if this was never the case?

In the early days, people were excited about the Internet because of its potential to help the little guys compete with the giants. Anyone can start a website and immediately begin vying for user attention against traditional media giants like the New York Times. However, long tail websites weren’t interesting and they were difficult to discover. The mainstream behavior that emerged was to access the web through portals like Aol and Yahoo!, which meant the portals were responsible for picking the content for us to consume. As a result, web portals mostly featured well-known, traditional media brands from the offline world. This worked out well for everyone. Portals like Yahoo! needed credible content to engage their new audience and the traditional media brands ready-made credible content and were eager to get in front of web users. Better yet, news content trained people to visit web portals regularly. The democratizing power the web was awesome in theory, but a poor user experience in practice.

As Internet usage grew and the web started to mature, portals began to feel insufficient to the average user. Google search took over as the primary entry point because it offered a better way to access all the interesting stuff on the web. Bookmarking became mainstream. Services like del.icio.us made it possible to discover content via other people’s bookmarks. Blogrolls helped users go from one awesome blog to another. RSS and RSS readers made it manageable for people to keep up-to-date with their favorite media sites. I was in college at this time, and I remember having hundreds of feeds in my RSS reader and sharing my OPML file with my friends. Surfing the web was awesome because I was discovering great websites and blogs that were much better than traditional media sources, and I had the tools to keep up with them directly. Traditional media companies did not have as much of an advantage in this version of the web where I actively curated my own experience.

And then Twitter was born. Twitter was the culmination of this self-curated web surfing experience. While search, bookmarking and subscribing to RSS feeds were useful activities, they were quickly getting overwhelming. I loved sharing my OPML files with friends and recommending blogs for them to read, but most of my friends did not care enough to learn to customize their own experience. Most of them underutilized bookmarking, relied on aggregators like Google News, and maybe installed the StumbleUpon extension for occasional serendipity. Twitter made curating your own web a whole lot easier. I could follow Fred Wilson to get his Tweets, which were more frequent and personal compared to his blog posts, and I’d still see Tweets pointing me to his new blog posts. I didn’t need to organize bookmarks. I didn’t need to use an RSS reader, and I didn’t need to be stressed out by the tens of thousands of “unreads” in my RSS reader. Twitter was about to bring the self-curated web that I loved mainstream.

Twitter raced to 50M users one full year faster than Facebook, and all of my favorite bloggers started tweeting regularly. I got on relatively early and I was sure my friends would soon follow. They never did. Instead, Facebook started doubling down on their News Feed, which turned into the killer app. Facebook now sits at 2B users and Twitter is out there trying to prove that their meager 300M users are not all bots.

Twitter didn’t lose to Facebook because they didn’t invest in lists or fix the “cold start” experience for new users. It also wasn’t because Twitter was too slow to add images, videos, and expand to more than 140 characters. Twitter lost because the self-curated web lost. At the core, Twitter was about rolling your own version of the web. Twitter accomplished that by letting you easily follow the people and entities that you cared about, and then bringing their content to you. It didn’t matter if you wanted to only use the web for sports, or if you wanted to just consume mainstream news, or if you were like me, obsessed with tech and wanted to follow all kinds of interesting people in tech.

Facebook’s News Feed had a very different vision for the web and it’s closer to the vision of web portals of the late 90s. Because Facebook was initially about friends, when they launched the News Feed, they had to figure out what to put in the News Feed to engage their users. Friends’ content were only so interesting. After a failed experiment with the Facebook platform that allowed third-party developers to push content to the feed, Facebook realized that the opportunity for the News Feed is for them to decide what goes in the feed, and that was the right move. To Facebook, people would rather have someone decide for them what content to consume. Just like how people preferred for Yahoo! to pick the websites to feature on its portal, for CBS to program the shows we watch, and for the New York Times to decide what stories we read about on Page One.

This is why I think Facebook actually helped save the news industry. Facebook sheltered the news industry from the most intense competition they’ve ever seen. The web could’ve gone in a direction where the mainstream activity is something closer to Twitter, where users proactively decide what they want to read without a gatekeeper. In that self-curated version of the web, it’s hard to believe that most people would volunteer to simply choose content from traditional news media. The news business would have to really work to compete for that privilege. Instead, Facebook became the gatekeeper, and traditional news media was the right-hand man. Together, they pumped news stories into everyone’s news feed, establishing and expanding the influence of the news media to two billion people. I think this is a hugely under-appreciated fact.

As Facebook shifts back to more friends and family content, media organizations will find that the page views are not coming back. The news industry was influential before Facebook, but not on the scale of two billion people. In the last few years, Facebook may have helped publishers reach and engage a wide enough audience that examples of successful transitions to healthier digital business models at places like the Washington Post likely have a lot to do with Facebook. However, most publications are still in the midst of that digital transition and barely surviving. My colleague Leo Schwartz asked Joshua Topolsky the difficult question this morning.

Without Facebook, how do people find your stories? Will we all move to Twitter just to follow The Outline? Are we going to rely on Flipboard and Apple News as the new entry points?

On the “problem” of Fake News

There is a deeper point here to help explain Fake News problem. To the extent that Facebook caused Fake News, it has to do with the level of scale and intimacy that’s attached to news in the Facebook era.

I think it’s bad to assume that people want to consume news to the level of intensity that I think the makers of news would like to believe. While services like 24-hour cable news stations, Yahoo! and Facebook definitely helped pushed news on to the mainstream, it doesn’t mean that the users were actively seeking to consume news. It’s important to keep in mind that sometimes news is just there as great filler content to help engage end users.

Growing up, I never enjoyed reading the news and I still don’t. Some people I know talk about wanting to develop a news reading habit like they want to develop an exercise regimen —because it’s not easy but sold to us as a good thing to do. That’s why parents and teachers used to make us read the newspaper regularly. If it were as easy as watching YouTube, they wouldn’t have to. I’d guess that most of us pretend to care about the news and actually still need a lot of work to improve our reading comprehension scores.

However, even if you aren’t actively seeking to consume news. News finds you because of Facebook. Facebook is delivering news at an unprecedented scale, and they are doing it in a very intimate way through our mobile devices and contextualized by our friends. That is why we seem like we are not prepared for it. We are not. Fake news is not the problem. The problem is news literacy and intimacy.

We’ve never seen an entire population forced to grapple with the news every day, multiple times a day, during our best and worst moments. For the first time, news can easily get personal and emotional in the context of friends. For the first time, we are required to get good at reading between the lines and critically evaluate every claim. We are not prepared.

So where do we get our news from now?

I don’t know, but I’m sure Facebook will continue to promote news articles that your friends share because they need to drive engagement, so the change might not even be noticeable. I am still obsessed with Twitter and I think they found the right balance of mixing both real-time and algorithmic feed. I’m starting to miss high-quality blogs, but I’ve filled that void with podcasts, newsletters, and YouTube channels. reddit is growing into a dominant force as well. While the self-curated web has lost for now, there’s still a lot we can do if we want to be an active consumer of the media. I’m optimistic to see what the future holds.

It’s interesting to think about a world where Facebook didn’t exist. Some other algorithm-based content aggregator adept at engaging the end user at scale might have taken its place. This alternate reality already exists in China with Toutiao, a Flipboard-like app but with Facebook-level dominance that has commoditized publishers just like Facebook, but to an even greater extent that A.I. is writing articles instead of humans.

Thanks Regina Wong, Richard Lo, David Tran, Ruby Lee, Liisa Sailaranta and Yvonne Leow for reading a draft of this post.

Why Upbeat is building the future of PR

A new approach to storytelling

One of the most frustrating aspects about being a maker is telling the story of what you’re making. You toil away for years obsessed with your project. You want the world to know about it so you post something here on Medium and nobody reads it. You pay a fee to put out a press release and nobody reads it either. Agencies are too expensive, and their quality is hard to discern. Researching journalists yourself, building relationships, and learning how to pitch them takes a ton of time that you don’t have. It shouldn’t be this hard.

On the other hand, journalists are looking for great stories to tell, but they struggle to keep up in today’s intensely competitive media environment. Journalists are working harder and faster than ever, yet they are almost always under water, sifting through endless emails from less-than-credible sources, trying to find truth and meaning, and constantly having to react to whatever is happening on Twitter. They’re being pushed to the limit with no end in sight, and they’re burning out.

We’re building Upbeat to try to make a difference. Today, we are launching the modern PR agency at UpbeatPR.com (formerly known as PRX.co). We’re also unveiling an amazing set of investors behind our mission.

At Upbeat, we think the media industry is experiencing a massive coordination problem. Public Relations, or PR, is often the first stop when there is a story worth telling, and has historically played a central role in helping with the coordination. However, the solution we have today is barely better than what we had in the pre-Internet era. Instead of newswires, telegrams, and phones, we use email and Twitter. Sometimes we post on Product Hunt or Reddit, and a journalist may end up discovering it. Once in a while, a great Medium post gets shared enough that it finds its way to the right people, but we can’t count on it. What we’re doing today is completely ineffective and unsustainable.

To make meaningful progress, PR needs to leverage the massive amount of information available online to bring the right story to the right journalist. PR also needs to keep up with the ever-expanding definition of what it means to be a journalist and include influencers when appropriate. If audience reaction to any story is immediately visible through shares and Tweets, PR needs to make use of that information to help journalists understand the potential impact of their story. If anyone can easily look up anyone and anything online, PR needs to make an effort to vet stories for their veracity and credibility before pitching. As it stands, we are barely taking advantage of the technological progress to improve the process, and that’s why we’re building Upbeat to power how we tell stories in the future.

Every story we help connect to the right journalist feels magical to us, and we’re excited to make more and more connections. Our ambition is to make the PR process easy and accessible to companies, and ultimately helpful to journalists doing the hard work. We are living in one of the most transformative periods in modern media, and we hope to play an instrumental role through Upbeat. While we’re just getting started, a bunch of you have taken a chance on our service. Thank you for being the most critical part of our development.

Check out some of our launch coverage below, which includes first-hand experiences from journalists, and visit our website at UpbeatPR.com. We look forward to hearing from you.

https://venturebeat.com/2017/06/07/upbeat-raises-1-5-million-to-modernize-pr-outreach/

Thanks Gaby Gulo, Zack Witten, Shane Wey, Jessica Tsai and Shravan Reddy for helping edit this post and Bérénice Magistretti, Laura Hazard Owen, Catherine Shu, Iris Dorbian for taking a hard look at our story and covering it for your readers.