Dear Startup CEOs – You DO Need PR Expertise

As usual, I am a little but late to the party in contributing my two cents to the debate, but smart people like Shel Holtz, Neville Hobson Katie Payne and Jason Calacanis of “Silicon Valley Insider” have debated an important topic:  do startup CEOs need PR expertise?

Jason kicked off the debate in his post “How To Get PR For Your Startup: Fire Your PR Company” by stating that:

My philosophy of PR is summed up in six words: be amazing, be everywhere, be real.

You don’t need a PR firm, you don’t need an in-house PR person and you don’t need to spend ANY money to get amazing PR. You don’t need to be connected, and you don’t need to be a “name brand.” Today, many bloggers lament how much press folks like Kevin Rose and Robert Scoble get. They say that they get too much attention and that they got this attention too quickly and without earning it.”

This was a hot topic and I am firmly in the “NO” camp, prominently represented by my pal Chip Griffin.  So here’s the deal from my perspective of someone who worked on the agency side for 15 years and is now in-house.  If you are a start-up CEO, please move away form the post.  Slowly and carefully…that’s it…

I think that Jason has done an amazing job of making public relations work for him.  Good for him.  But he also notes that:

For over ten years I’ve been in the unique position of being both a CEO and a journalist in the technology space. My first company produced Silicon Alley Reporter magazine, where I held the dual titles of CEO and Editor. At my second company, Weblogs Inc., I was a blogger and CEO.

Here’s where we part company.

Jason clearly has communications expertise.  I have no statistics to back this up, but my guess is that the overwhelming majority of CEOs have a good idea (or not), some money (or not), but lack the fundamentals of how to create their own public relations machine.  I have a few other nits with this.  They include:

  • Public Relations or Lead Generation? A lot of what Jason describes is promotional in nature, most of it earned media is some high profile outlets.  But remembering that the true definition of public relations is “establishing mutually beneficial relationships with your target audiences,” much of this seems more promotional and less conversational.  Sure, the lines between marketing and public relations blur, but when earned media is designed to generate awareness that is designed to generate sales, this smacks of marketing, not public relations.
  • The ABCs of Communication. I continue to be aghast at the lack of communications skills in even some of the most senior public relations practitioners in large corporations — and I won’t even get into my series of “How to Sell Social Media to Your Dumb-Ass Boss” posts —  but you can get authentic and real all you want, but if you do not have the right messages that are reaching the right audiences at the right time, you are wasting your most likely scarce communications dollars.  And this is Public Relations 101 – define who you want to talk to, the channels through which you can reach them, offer messages that are relevant to them and then make sure that you measure your campaign so you can swap things out that are not working (thanks, Katie Payne for the lat one).  Forget startup CEOs, I have met very few senior communications professionals who can do even these basic steps.  Most (gasp!) hire agencies, who, if you have selected carefully, have existing relationships or expertise that can get you there.And the most important word in the preceding paragraph is channelS – with a big “S” at the end.  It seems impossible to me to keep up with all of the different online and offline channels if you are one person.  Monitoring and reacting when you really kick things in gear can be a full-time job.
  • No Time, No PR. I had one brief and very unhappy experience as a start-up COO (without someone else’s “money” – and “money” is in sarcastic quotes because when I told Mr. Moneybags how much it would cost to make his idea a success, I was out on my ass).  Fast.  But I can tell you that the life of a startup CEO is grueling – you have to make your widget, get new business, make payroll, seek out and hire talent that works for you, balance your books, make payroll, etc.  For those CEOs who have the time for this, your Red Bull consumption must be a significant line item in your operating budget.

Finally, Jason’s piece is detailed and offers some solid points.  What is lacking is that I sincerely doubt that most startup CEO’s have the skills, time and human capital to carry out the recommendations.

Mark

Facebook, Life and Death

When I listened to the Media Bullseye Radio Roundtable this week, I realized that I had not visited Ike Pigott’s blog lately.  I have said this in this space and on his blog, but I admire Ike’s intelligence and ability to make complex topics seem simple.

The latest post stopped me in my tracks a bit, though.  I learned a lesson about social media, but not about zeros and ones, circles of influence, but about life, death and absolution.

Ike bravely talks about a childhood that included a lot of bullying — with one bully in particular with whom he re-connected via Facebook a couple of months ago.  His friend and former bully, Scott, openly shared his experiences in the 22 years since they had connected, apparently filled with struggles and addictions.  Recently, Scott fell, hit his head and never recovered.  Ike eloquently notes:

Scott’s Facebook page is still up. His status message still reads “Scott is resting in peace.”

That’s the first time I’ve ever seen a death notification on Facebook. But there’s much more to that message.

I can’t speak for him, or Debbie or anyone else. But I know for a fact he and his family were checking his Facebook from the hospital bed. And I know they saw the messages of support coming in. And I know that if it weren’t for Facebook, he wouldn’t have passed with the knowledge that he got the absolution he wanted from Isuck Pignuts.

Yeah, this social media stuff can be pretty stupid sometimes. Check that, a lot of the time. But when real people connect in ways that are truly meaningful and lasting, you can’t ignore the power. People use phones for stupid things too, but a call from the right person can change your life.

Scott – and to all from Scott’s family who read this – you brought a lot of joy to a large body of people.

Peace out, Scott.  Peace out…

When someone says something that is so eloquent, you can only mess it up with extra words.  But in a world of Facebook filled with keg stands, drunken parties and thrown sheep, it made me feel a little bit better about the world of Facebook.  It does connect us — not always in ways as meaningful as this, but it does.

Thanks to people like Scott and Ike and their circle of friends — on Facebook.

Mark

Reality Check: There Will Be No Wiki White House, Dan

A friend of mine sent me an article in the Huffington Post today entitled It’s Time for a Wiki White House.There are some things that are somewhat visionary, but other things in this article that are just plain wrong.

Its author, Dan Froomkin, first takes a swipe out the outgoing President:

On that day, the Bush administration’s stodgy, wheezing version of whitehouse.gov will be carted off to the National Archives in its entirety, leaving precisely no legacy – and no limits.”

Dan then waxes poetic about what President-elect Obama way well be:  the first Internet President:

If he and his team truly embrace the paradigms of the modern Internet — as defined by blogs and YouTube, Facebook and Google, instant messaging and crowdsourcing, wikis and reader comments — Obama’s whitehouse.gov will bring unprecedented accountability to the White House. It will offer a vastly better way for the American people to relate to their government — and maybe even learn to trust it again.”

This is all fine and good.  President-elect Obama was voted in office to affect change.  But here’s where the starry-eyed look gets in the way of the story:

Imagine a White House Web site where the home page isn’t just a static collection of transcripts and press releases, but a window into the roiling intellectual foment of the West Wing. Imagine a White House Web site where staffers maintain blogs in which they write about who they are and what they are working on; where some meetings are streamed in live video; where the president’s daily calendar is posted online; where major policy proposals have public collaborative workspaces, or wikis; where progress towards campaign promises is tracked on a daily basis; and where anyone can sign up for customized updates by e-mail, text message, RSS feed, Twitter, or the social network of their choice.”

Sorry to burst your bubble, Dan, but I work in Washington at a fairly high level in government.  Here’s what is NOT going to happen:

  • Blogs: White house staffers may, in fact, be allowed to have their own blogs, but they will be so watered down by legal concerns that I fear that they might turn into a Twitter feed: “Just went out for coffee.  Tastes burnt.”  In a town where secrets are coveted but leaks like a sieve, there would be little compelling news to keep a blog fresh, but more importantly, interesting.  The lawyers will do what they do, which is lawyer things to death.
  • Streamed meetings: Only the most vanilla meetings will be streamed.  There is a reason why reporters are kicked out of the room when the real stuff happens.  Anything else would be staged like a FEMA press conference.
  • Daily calendar. The President’s Daily Calendar would have to omit outside appearances, which would gut its effectiveness, because of Secret Service prohibitions.  And why tell the opposition party that you are meeting on something that you might want to keep in-house.  To do otherwise would be stupid.
  • Policy wiki. Major policy proposal proposal workspaces?  Too many cooks spoil the broth.  Research Selogene Royale’s presidential campaign in France.  She turned her Web site into an electronic “listening tour” and requested policy input from French voters.  She ended up with a party platform that stretched from Normandy to Nice.  This is good in principle, and lousy in practice.
  • Campaign promises?  Trust me, the Republicans will do that for them.  And if they don’t keep a campaign promise, do you think the Web site will have a big, red “X” in the “We Didn’t Keep This” column?
  • Other tools: Twitter and .rss are good ideas, but I doubt that you need “pull” tools to draw attention to the President-Elect.  These are good ideas if you are launching a company and trying to build traffic, but President-elect Obama won’t stay up nights wondering about his unique visits to WhiteHouse.gov.
To be perfect honest, Dan, there are a few good ideas in this, but I think that you have a) let your bias against the current President color your thinking about the Web site, and b) are examining the potential of what might be without considering the hard-core realities of how business gets transacted at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Mark

Mumbai Taught Me That Twitter is Here to Stay

I have had a bit of fun lately with Shel Holtz and Neville Hobson on the “For Immediate Release” podcast, leaving my best “bullshit bingo” comments (“…leveraging our synergies to create a new corporate paradigm..”), but I am afraid that I have to use a term that could fall into that list, describing how Twitter has not jumped into the mainstream:

Convergence.

A series of events over the last several weeks has convinced me that Twitter has gone from a shiny new toy to an overloaded fail whale to an integral part of how we exchange information on a global scale, one that is intertwined with others ways that we send and receive information.

Neville Hobson tweeted about this as well, showing a chart of his tweets and offering comparisons between his and Geoff Livingston’s stats (I’ll leave my own stats out as my New Year’s resolution is simply to get this blog’s Technorati ranking above my shoe size), but I have seen Twitter firmly etch its spot in how we communicate over the last week through convergence.

It’s a horrific example, but the tragedy that took place in Mumbai last week demonstrated how information can be gathered, analyzed, dismissed or accepted and then propagated to an audience craving information.  And by propagated, I mean either through people reading others’ tweets and commenting on them, or through the “old” media picking up tweets and news leads.

I took a look at Blog Pulse, and rather than searching for the word “Mumbai,” I decided to search for the hash tag “#mumbai”. For those of you who have not used this before, hash tags are a way to identify your topic matter in a way that is uniquely identifiable for all.

Here are the stats that I found on Blog Pulse.  Consider that this does not actually measure the tweets themselves, but how those in the blogosphere used the hash tag as a tie-in to Twitter:

I can’t do the math (sorry, Katie Payne, but I am not a math guy), but what we are seeing is the “convergence” (there’s that word again) between the twitterverse and the blogosphere. The spike in the hash tag “#mumbai” demonstrates a cross over from people writing about it in Twitter to people writing about it in blogs to people writing about it in Twitter – and also getting into and from the mainstream media.  As I wrote a few days ago, with such as large population, India as what are likely millions of expats who were desperate for information as the tragedy dragged on.

Finally, what convinced me that Twitter is here to stay is that we are now seeing CNN use it as part of their regular newscasts, including the Mumbai tragedy.  Rick Sanchez annoys the hell out of me, but you cannot argue that a mention on CNN is worth a whole lot of Tweets.  AND – they have more than 60,000 followers.

Two days after Indian authorities restored control in Mumbai, people are still talking and tweeting about it, as we see on the index page of Tweetscan (the larger the word/hashtag, the more mentions).

I’ll leave others to discuss geopolitics and what is likely to happen in India next, but I have not joined the ranks of the true believers that, due to its convergence with other forms of communications, Twitter is here to stay.

Mark

Twitter and Tragedy = #mumbai

Like many people, I spent my Thanksgiving and today watching the horrific events in Mumbai unfold.  I have learned over the years that the less said, the better in times of tragedy, but it breaks my heart to see India experience such carnage, but more so played out over several days. There are a billion people in India, but countless millions living overseas who want to know something — anything — about what is happening.  Feeling that disconnected to your homeland must provide a sense of immeasurable longing and powerlessness.

I have been trying to follow the coverage on BBC America, but with two young children popping in and out of the room, it’s hard to catch anything consistently.  Some of the best updates I have been getting are from Shonali Burke and I have also been following #mumbai.

All I can say is that one of my Tweeps, Shonali, and one of my students, have both been affected by this tragedy — which makes it more personal for me — but not nearly as personal as for them.

Like I said, the less said is the better — I’ll just state that that the Indian people and my friends and colleagues are firmly in my thoughts and deepest hopes for this thing to end.

And the best and most up-to-date news I have seen has come from #mumbai.

Mark