Startup PR: hire for brand building, not brawling

The tech industry has come into its own among consumers, press and investors. As such, tech companies should prioritize staffing marketing and PR teams with skilled storytellers and people experienced in brand marketing.

I started my career in Silicon Valley a little over a decade ago and in that time a lot has changed. For one, there were only a small handful of reporters from major news outlets covering tech and even fewer that were actually based here in the Bay Area. For the most part the folks closely covering the product updates, major launches and the comings and goings of executives were mostly local bloggers who developed hugely engaged followings in tech, but not among the mainstream.

Another difference? Only ten years ago, a lot of internet companies faced an uphill climb in terms of educating reporters and policymakers about how all of these services worked. Take Google for example: from mapping technology, to scanning books, to free email services, there was a lot of foundation to lay with many audiences with regard to privacy, service policies, monetization, etc. Meanwhile, marketing at a lot of these growing companies was still in its nacent stage. There weren’t really any CMOs acting as brand stewards as these companies became increasingly prominant in the press and ubiquitous among consumers.

During this time the comms efforts that were the highest priority really focused on hardcore tech bloggers, business reporters, and various Washington D.C.-type influencers. Because these companies were pushing hard and fast into new legal and policy areas, many companies opted for communications leads with legal and political experience.

So what’s changed? Well, a bunch actually.

The press is paying close attention. The spotlight is white hot.

There are now a crap load of reporters assigned to covering this industry. I don’t know the ratio compared to other beats, but the list of reporters who care about a product launch from a Google, Facebook, Snapchat, etc. has probably increased in size by 10x since I started out. The number of bureaus popping up in San Francisco seems to be increasing too. Why is this changing? Kevin Kelly, founding executive editor of Wired, explained it really well recently:

“Early on, Apple was fringe. It was nerdy-techy. The difference now is that these companies are the most profitable companies in the world. This is no longer the sideshow; this is the main show.”

Also, more reporters and editors across consumer and lifestyle beats write about the technology angle of a story almost inherently now, in a way that was a really hard sell when I was starting out in PR. Again, this is because technology has become so central to our every day life in a very short amount of time. You can’t write about human experience or trends without writing about technology because it is fueling it all. Brings me to my next point.

Technology is now firmly ensconced into the center of our every day lives.

Remember when it was kind of crazy when your dad figured out how to instant message you on ICQ when you went away to college? Asking for a friend. Well your dad is now tweeting pretty aggressively from his beautiful Twitter app on his brand new iPhone at your Congresswoman using hashtags and he’s not calling them “pound signs” anymore. We’ve come along way baby.

Whether it’s a more established app like Twitter or a relatively young startup that is catching on with people quickly, tech brands become a “thing” to average, non-Silicon Valley consumers at an increasingly rapid pace these days. That’s because of the internet, the app economy and most importantly the amount of ink, pixels and airwaves the press now dedicates to covering these companies due to what I discussed above.

There are so many ways to share your company’s story now.

Everyone writes about this always but content marketing is a thing, there are so many ways to reach people via social, etc, blah blah, you get the picture. Worth reiterating this is so different than just ten years ago when switching from press releases to blog posts as a way to communicate directly with people (and press) was relatively controversial. The best in the business get that consumers expect a pretty intimate relationship with the companies behind the products they use. If you’re not up and running with a strategy related to this sooner than later, it will haunt you.

What does it all MEAN? Especially for startups . . .

To me, this means that technology companies need to get much better at owning their stories and managing their brands from day one. You no longer get to be “stealthy” for very long, if at all so you gotta fill the void with an accurate narrative about your product, your team and what you’re trying to accomplish asap. Drag your feet and others will do it for you (reporters, former employees, anyone with a Medium, Facebook, Twitter account, etc).

So while you may hire folks who will take care of the “battles” that inevitably come (lawyers, business development people, lobbyists, even comms people who deal with crisis, etc.) — your comms and marketing leads should be really good at strategic, proactive storytelling and thinking long-term about the brand. Companies should bake in brand building DNA from day one with leadership that has a real point of view on a company’s story and understands all the tools at their disposal for getting the message out. In fact, in many cases, I believe many technology companies should buck a popular trend in the Valley and instead of combining policy and communications into one team, they should erect “marcomm groups” (have product marketing, brand marketing and comms on one team and roll up into one exec).

Obviously this isn’t a one size fits all thing and hiring people with deep experience in your company’s vertical as well as people skilled in reacting to crisis is important. But if we start to think about technology companies in 2017 as the new CPGs, then the job rec of the person you think of hiring to create a vision for the brand on the marcomm team starts to look a little different than you might intially think. Who would Nike tap to own their narrative to millenials or women? What type of candidates is Starbucks looking at? Who has been really successful at telling stories on behalf of a tech company that reach out of the Silicon Valley echo chamber?

Regardless of what you’re building, it’s a brave new world out there. With a veritble press corps watching tech’s every move and consumer awareness of tech brands increasing, tech marketing and PR need to get serious about managing their brand perception. Hiring savvy storytellers and building up that muscle memory to drive a narrative forward among *many* audiences from day one will make the road ahead much easier. Be it the inevitable crisis that pops up or, if you’re lucky, the roadshow on the way to an IPO, a good brand foundation will go a long way in keeping the company on the right track.

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