Business

Startups can no longer count on traditional PR — here’s why

This is a guest post by Vanessa Camones, founder and CEO of theMix agency. 

The tech boom is transforming every business it touches, but it doesn’t seem to be helping a core part of the industry: Public relations for tech companies. By and large, PR hasn’t adjusted to the rapid shifts of the digital era, and as their top clients in tech succeed (or at least enjoy the bubble), they themselves strain to stay relevant. Worse, this is hurting the thousands of startups desperate to get traction for their product and brand amid a market oversaturated with competition. The problem is so dramatic, top venture firms have even tried to replace traditional PR with their own PR platforms. In my view, however, that’s only a temporary bandage on top a much deeper wound: When it comes to tech in particular, traditional PR is fundamentally broken, beyond repair, and losing its relevance in real time. The sooner struggling startups realize this, the better.

Here’s some symptoms to the problem as I see it:

Yes Men PR Firms Not Adjusting to Social Media

Over the last few decades, traditional PR agencies have developed a Voice of God/humble servant relationship with their clients, treating their words and opinions as sacred, rarely to be challenged. But in the social media context, where a company announcement can be undermined in a matter of hours, this is self-destructive for both sides. Consider what Twitter did recently, announcing changes to their blocking policy, only to encounter instant, pervasive user backlash, to the point where the company quickly reversed itself. You see this pattern time and time again in tech — a feature goes out, there’s a PR nightmare, and the company backtracks. Clearly their PR firms aren’t warning them about these impending disasters, or briefing them on common communication mistakes — or the companies themselves aren’t listening to their counsel in the first place. And while established players like Twitter can weather social media-fueled user revolts, they can be disastrous for smaller startups.

Take OUYA: The indie videogame console started with a hugely successful Kickstarter and a dedicated fan base eager to become its evangelists. But after release delays and poor communications with its most passionate backers and developers, the brand largely became poisoned on influential social sites like Reddit. I admire OUYA founder Julie Uhrman and hope her product can recover its luster, but am also pained at all the squandered opportunities lost by the speed of social media.

In any case, most startups tend to work with PR only for press releases and product launches — which takes me to my next two points:

Tech Press Releases Generally Don’t Drive Conversions

Many startup CEOs assume that announcing their new service or app with a press release is key to their launch, but as I must often explain to them, press releases per se rarely drive actual user conversions. That’s true even if the release is picked up and featured in a post by a top tech news site: While several million readers may skim the post about your app, only a fraction will bother clicking the actual App Store link, and only a fraction of them will install the app, let alone use it more than once. This problem is compounded by the sheer excess of tech press releases put out on the wires every day, choked over with generic product descriptions and executive quotes which sound like no human ever, and blatant SEO keyword scheming — the latter, in part, causing Google to change its policy on press releases altogether, making them even less relevant.

To be sure, press releases serve a purpose as a legal/investment formality, but that’s very different from actually trying to tell a narrative. If you have a good product, you should be telling its story through a video, a blog post, and an ongoing conversation in your social media channels. But “ongoing conversation” isn’t typically part of a PR firm’s DNA, or what startups expect of them.

Startups and Their PR firms Don’t (Generally) Value Social Media and Content Strategy

As we saw with the rise of blogs and now the growth of “linkbait” posts, content that’s emotionally engaging and immersive is what works in today’s ecosystem: Stories that people can understand in a simple, straightforward context. The same is generally true for content around products and companies, but that’s the most difficult kind of writing to do well. It’s best expressed not in press releases, but via blog posts, online video, and social network updates. However, most PR companies weren’t prepared for the shift that social media caused, and have been slow to integrate it into their core capabilities. So they also don’t understand how to manage and create conversations — an absolute necessity for real-time marketing — while companies big and small don’t understand how to fit social media as a layer into their existing content strategy. (According to an Altimeter Group report, only 1 in 4 companies approach social media holistically; according to Context Marketing research, 49% of B2B marketers still don’t even have a content strategy.) Consequently, tech PR is placed in a single silo, and any coverage earned for their clients is relegated to a single press bump without a broader context.

All this is probably a major reason why recent attempts to revamp startup-based PR don’t seem to be returning significant results. HackPR was supposed to transform traditional PR, but we haven’t heard much about it since its launch last year. (Ironically making it a likely case study in one-hit wonder coverage — itself a typical PR problem for startups!) The same might be said about AirPR, which first launched as as “Match.com for PR”, but now seems to be pivoting to become an analytics-for-PR service.

The good news is that traditional PR firms are starting to change, and integrate content strategy into their services. Top agency Edelman just added a content arm, as did Weber Shandwick. Both represent some of the world’s biggest brands, and it’ll be interesting to see how their strategy adjusts to include content. At the same time, powerful social sharing platforms like Pluck, Percolate, and Socialeddy can help PR/marketing teams manage their channels, while also giving them the data to measure success, so they can build a case internally for continuing to support an entire integrated comms strategy.

Small startups, however, may not see these shifts soon enough to benefit from them.  But based on past experience, I’m confident the best ones are agile enough to thrive in the tech industry’s post-PR agency future.

Vanessa Camones is the founder and CEO of theMix agency, a full-service marketing and communications boutique.

 


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