Nobody knows if Charlemagne could read because an advisor always read aloud for him. It was considered humbling for the king to do anything himself. The same fears drive the most captivating, articulate entrepreneurs to hire publicists. Who wants to risk looking like a fool? As a result, hardly anyone in technology ever tries to talk to a journalist by herself—except Guy, of course.
That’s too bad. Just the other day a newspaper’s technology editor told me, “It’s just so hard to meet entrepreneurs these days. You always get their PR people.” A dozen entrepreneurs sprang to mind who would kill to tell their stories. All have agencies. So what I am recommending is not howto manage an agency, but something more radical: not hiring an agency at all. Here are ten reasons why.
The truth will set you free. Over and over, publicists tell their clients to stick to the agreed-upon message to avoid mistakes but this guarantees you’ll never say anything thoughtful or spontaneous. Maybe your company has two and a half customers. So what? If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably not dumping toxins into a river or selling cigarettes to teenagers. Let GE and Philip Morris retain agencies. If you were stripped absolutely naked for the world to see, a few warts might show up, but more people would do business with you. Once you get comfortable with that, you’re ready to deal with the press on your own.
The rolodex is already online. Almost every journalist publishes his e-mail address, and many have a blog. You can also use LinkedIn and Jigsaw. The point is that you can communicate with journalists without a PR person. Usually a sincere note from an entrepreneur is enough to start a conversation. Pick out something good that the journalist wrote and say what you really think. Make a top-five list of what your company has learned in its first six months. Suggest an idea for a story. Keep it short; ask for nothing. It’ll mean a lot more coming from you rather than a publicist. Odds are you’ll hear back.
You don’t have to seem all grown-up and boring. Every entrepreneur feels vaguely disreputable. Maybe you drive a crappy car. Maybe you never went to prom. There are enough stuffed suits in this world to fill fifteen Wall Street Journals a day. As anyone who watches American Idol will tell you, what this spun-out, over-hyped world is absolutely famished for is a little genuine personality. And, outside of your technology, it’s probably the only thing you have. So stop trying to be like IBM and just be yourself.
Ideas are the precious things. Most entrepreneurs are bursting with unconventional ideas: Maybe you think an ad-crazy Silicon Valley has lost its nerve; maybe you’re a grown woman delivering pizzas to diffident recruits in Stanford’s computer science lab; maybe you’ve always wanted to meet the hairy guy living in a trailer park who sends you the inspired spam about mail-order pheromones. These are the kinds of ideas that journalists love.
Imagine how you would finish this sentence if you were having two beers with your best friend: “You know the strangest thing about what we’re going through is …” What comes next is your best story idea. Even if the story isn’t about your company, you’ll be a part of the conversation. The rest will come naturally.
Let the fur fly. When proposing a story, consider Michael Jordan’s response when asked how much to bet on golf: “Whatever makes you nervous.” If there’s no drama, there’s no story. Most publicists are terrified of a genuine story with real characters and an unpredictable outcome, so no journalists are allowed into your data center on launch day nor can they mingle with customers at your user conference. As an entrepreneur, you’re going to be more comfortable with risk than a publicist. And you won’t win as a start-up without taking risks, over and over again.
Nerd-to-nerd networks are where it all happens—and value speed in everything you do. Most publicists feel threatened by the Internet’s systems of attribution, glorification and punishment, where Digg can make an obscure posting more important than the evening news. Agencies don’t have the street cred, the technical chops, the instinct for candor, the distinct voice and, above all, the commitment to speed to engage in a meaningful conversation with the blogosphere. In the thick of things, you don’t want to have to coordinate with consultants or get permission from anybody. Just ask John Kerry.
Even bad coverage isn’t so bad. I was once profiled in a national business magazine doing odd things in my underwear. It was terrible; I lay face down on a couch for an hour after reading it. And you know what? It wasn’t that bad. Never whine to the journalist about coverage, avoid narcissistic story-lines, and don’t worry if you make a few mistakes.
Go in alone. It’s hard to make a move when your dad drives you on a date or to sound contrite about the neighbor’s begonias with your mom standing behind you. It’s just as hard to connect with a journalist when a publicist is always at your side. You often need a candid space in which you can say what you really think. Just bring a notebook so you can jot down any follow-up items and you’ll be fine.
Passion + expertise = credibility. A publicist will never have your passion for your project, and she’ll never have as many colorful customer stories as you do. A friend of mine once told me about “the greatest idea in the history of capitalism,” which turned out to be a semi-pornographic massive multi-player video game. A publicist would never have pitched it as well as he did.
Make time. Most entrepreneurs say they don’t have time for DIY PR. Sure, it takes a while to spam 100 journalists with every press release. But that doesn’t work anyway. Focus on a few big ideas, and you can tell them yourself. Use a feed-reader and Google alerts to track industry news and company mentions. Conveying your company’s story in a personable, compelling way is one of your most important jobs.
(Who’s counting?) Hire an employee, not an agency. When you need help, hire a person, not an agency. This is especially important if you’re not interested in journalism. And if you can afford it at all, it’s worth hiring an employee rather than a contractor. You want someone who can dive into what you’re doing whole hog because he believes in it, without all the staff churn and management overhead of an agency.
What should you look for in this employee? The worst PR person has contempt for journalists because he either believes journalists can be easily spun or because he becomes aggravated when they can’t. The three best questions to ask when interviewing a publicist are “Who are your favorite writers in journalism?” Why are they your favorites?”—so you can find someone who actually cares about the craft of journalism—and “What is an example of a feature story that you’ve pitched?”—so you can find someone excited about ideas.
Also, ask for a writing sample. As with any other position, value brains, drive and a soft touch over looks. Most of all, don’t hire anyone fake. Of course, you’ll need to make it clear that the PR person won’t be managing an agency.
A battalion of agency publicists will try to terrify you about the perils of launching your company without their expertise, but anyone who tries to scare you from DIY PR, starting a company, or buying a house online usually isn’t someone an entrepreneur should heed.