The PR Challenges of Working With the Self-Proclaimed In-Crowd

About 3 weeks ago, a TechCrunch writer named Ryan Lawler wrote a story about the Lyft launch and how it got “ruined” because a GigaOm (he didn’t say that, but I’m pretty sure that’s the “offender” from the comments) writer posted their story late the night before the embargo was to be lifted (no pun).  The Aug 24 TechCrunch story is here:

Lawler spurred a lot of conversation, 135 comments alone in the post (and even a follow up from him with 15 comments: , and lots of other chatter, especially among us PR people.  I’m thrilled he wrote the story, I loved it (I’m not saying I agreed with it) and I’m going to tell you why.

I could take time to talk with you about “how it used to be,” how PR and press used to work together on launches and big news, and how PR should be.   But what’s the point?

The world is different so let’s spend some time talking about the reality of doing PR today, especially with what I call the “web 2.0 influencers” – the TechCrunch, All Things D, GigaOm, VentureBeat, Ars Technica, Pando Daily, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, Social Times, Silicon Angle, Business Insider and HufPo’s of the world.   I also call the writers at these outlets the “Self Proclaimed In-Crowd” and while I know and like many folks who write, or wrote for one – or many (another piece of this story) of these outlets, as a generalization, these influencers have a lot of power.  This power they bestowed upon themselves, and all the rest of us tech people have accepted – and grown – this false reality.

Writers at these 12 outlets make or break – or that’s the perception – tech companies, and their PR people, today.  Not too long ago, I launched a client to great results, coverage, reach and readership, but they were unhappy because all they really cared about was the almighty TechCrunch hit.   Sad, but true, for many more companies than just this one (even with TechCrunch leadership – and readership – changing a great deal in the past 12+ months).

Does that one TechCrunch hit trump 5 other solid stories?  Does it really move the needle, or just give you a lot of Google love and Twitter retweets for about 5 minutes until the next story takes your place?

I have strong opinions that company visibility should be a long-game.  PR should be a building process, setting out a strong path of “digital bread crumbs” of news, proofs, company growth and momentum over time – months, not weeks, and surely not days.  And all those bread crumbs should be shared ongoing, democratically with the whole set of influencers that cover – and should care – about your industry, not just those 12 outlets, or the writer of that one dream hit.

That doesn’t mean love from the In-Crowd isn’t a goal, it just shouldn’t be the only goal.  Below are some suggestions of how to navigate the challenges of pursuing the In-Crowd.

  1. Have a great story!  Find some sex appeal to your company, some hook or edge, ideally controversial.   NO more social games, no more Groupon wannabes, no more iPhone apps.   Rather, are you the Reddit killer, the anti-Airbnb?  Are you founded by the first person to leave Facebook after the IPO?
  2. Use – but be careful with – funding.  Funding, and dollar signs, especially from big VCs (ideally Sand Hill Rd based), hugely help your coverage chances with these outlets.  It’s about the VC name, not yours.  Accept that and use it to get coverage for yourself.  But be careful: the second your lawyer or investor files Form D, its public and out there, and folks like Dan Primack sniff these things out and break many a story, derailing the best PR intentions
  3. And there’s that:  exclusives, first, only.  The In-Crowd likes to know things first, and only.  Part of why I love Lawler’s story – and the comments – was what a Real and Accurate capture it was of the world of these influencers, and the challenges us PR folks have in dealing with this world.  I was so thrilled a journalist put in writing what we have to explain to clients all the time.  It’s a race to be first.  30 seconds matters.  The timestamp of the first to publish or break news says best.  It shouldn’t, but that’s the game these outlets are playing.  And even if the writers hate the game and would like it to be about the quality of the story, the unique angle they took, we all know the pressure is to be first, be the most in-the-know.
  4. Now, here’s the rub.  You pick someone to be first, you work that all-powerful TechCrunch story, you’ve likely burned your chances for other stories.  And even if you are democratic, and offer your news to all your top tier influencers at the same time, whoever bites first, or does a story first, will likely preclude others from being interested.  You need to accept this and adjust to it.  The days of getting 15-20 different hits are reserved for things like the iPhone launch or whatever rare Silicon Valley woman is taking a new job.  (bonus points if she’s pregnant).
  5. This In-Crowd moves around a lot. They are highly competitive, and highly sought after, and may bounce from RWW to D to Pando and back.  Keep track of who’s where covering what.  And know because of this, they all know each other, and all the outlets – this is how the competition gets so intense.   This also means developing good, strong relationships with an individual is critical.  They may move on and land somewhere else, but if you are a good resource, they’ll “take” you with them.
  6. Being in Austin means we are not regularly mixing and mingling (read: drinking, even sleeping, I’m serious) with these folks at multiple San Fran and Silicon Valley tech events.  Be realistic about this, but also take advantage of times they are here, like SXSW (but do not launch at SXSW).  Also invest some time and money in going out there, attend things like Demo and Disrupt to just meet people (don’t be in hard sales mode, become a person they are happy to have met)
  7. Try to chill a bit about coverage coverage coverage.  These days, 2 or 3 positive, deep stories can carry your whole launch.   We’ve already discussed, the days of coverage by the dozen have passed.  But the few hits you do get can be amplified out and be more effective than a long list if they are quality, and if you do the right things with them.
  8. And in comes social media.  When you get a hit, amplify the heck out of it.  Tweet it out, pass on that link, have your community, customers, partners, family and friends tweet it out too.  The press and outlets like this too, btw. It helps their reach, their Klout scores
  9. If worse comes to worse, create your own news!  For $89 a pop you can put a press release out on PR Web.  That, to the average eyes doing Google searches, is news, and not distinguishable from a Mashable or Next Web hit.  And, of course, with the release, apply #8 to get word to spread
  10. Finally, respect and honor the journalists just doing their job, not wrapped up in the Google SEO land grab.  That set of influencers who deserve to hear your news, and have access to you, is from much more than 12 onlines.  Our local outlets, such as this one, or Austin American Statesman and Austin Business Journal, are fantastic to work with and deserve to know great Austin news at the same time, if not before, GigaOm and VentureBeat.

OK, there are my suggestions.  None are bulletproof, and even though PR surely isn’t rocket science and technology and social tools should make our jobs easier than ever, I’m telling you, 20+ years of PR, and to me, its never been harder.  I’m so thankful to Lawler and this TechCrunch story to give you insight into what happens in tech PR these days.  Odds are, if you read the story, it made your blood boil a little, in lots of different ways.  But know that what Lawler wrote is a very accurate capture of the reality – as ridiculous as it seems – of today’s technology world and the mind-set of In-Crowd we encounter every day.

About Laura Beck

Laura Beck is a Boston-to-Austin girl, 12+ years doing high tech PR here making her almost a native. With a passion for start ups, she has now embarked on her own, stripedshirt, but continues doing marketing consulting for a host of Austin area companies and organizations.