There has been a lot of discussion over the past few days about the future of Public Relations in a new media world. The debate was kicked off by Robert Scoble in a post in which he took a subtle kick at the traditional Public Relations route for start-up companies. In the days since, Steve Rubel, Michael Arrington and a host of others have chimed in. The basic question is this: Does a start-up company need to hire a traditional PR firm in order to get attention/press or do companies with good products always rise to the top of the attention heap?
PR was a key part of our success at Jellyfish.com. We launched Jellyfish in June of 2006 with a Wall Street Journal article covering the launch. That coverage started a snow ball of press, and helped us attract top talent, raise more money and get the attention of Microsoft which later purchased us.
We wouldn’t have gotten that article without a traditional PR firm. But that doesn’t mean I’m sold on traditional PR. Frankly, I think it is a necessary evil. Here’s the Jellyfish recipe:
1) Join the Blog ecosystem. After coming up with the Jellyfish advertising concept (now used as the basis for Microsoft Live Search cashback), Brian and I immersed ourselves in the blogosphere. We found the thought-leaders in the industry (folks like John Batelle and Scott Karp) and we made reading them a daily part of our job. It opened up our world and made sitting in Madison, Wisconsin not so limiting.
2) Launch our own blog. We spent a great deal of time on the Jellyfish blog pre-launch, discussing the search market and the problems with that market that were creating our opportunity.
3) Engage the bloggers in our industry. Once we had our own content and something relevant to say, we reached out to the important bloggers and a few of them started to follow our story.
4) Hire a traditional PR firm. In our case a firm in the Valley (Connecting Point). This was last on our list and it came after we’d already gotten a beach head in the new media world ourselves.
Why did we hire a traditional firm? Because we needed access. Like it or not most tier 1 bloggers AND almost all of the traditional media use PR firms as gatekeepers. Being headquartered in Madison, Wisconsin, has a few advantages, but access to national media and bloggers is not one of them. It might as well be Siberia to many in the Silicon Valley world.
In the case of Jellyfish, we got the attention of John Batelle, Scott Karp and Pete Cashmore without a PR firm on the strength of our business ideas and our personal contact strategy. But there were many other blogs (TechCrunch, Om Malik, Greg Sterling) that didn’t give us access until our PR firm opened up the door with an introduction. And we didn’t even get a whiff of attention from the traditional media world until our PR firm started leveraging their relationships to get us in the door. The reason seems pretty simple, a reporter at the Wall Street Journal (or any other Tier 1 target) gets inundated. They need gate keepers to filter our the crap and a good PR firm can earn that gatekeeper status.
My takeaway from that experience is the following:
1) PR Starts with the Company Leadership. Our PR firm was fantastic at making introductions, but they didn’t give us much else. Completely outsourcing everything to them would have been a disaster. The pitches and the substance behind those pitches came from us after a lot of hard work. You get out of your PR firm efforts what you put into it. Bloggers/New Media should be approached in a direct, personal way, not with scattershot form Press Releases. We are starting those efforts with our new company right now on this blog.
2) At the end of the day, it is still who you know. Like it or not, you need to hire a PR firm that has great contacts or you run a HUGE risk of not getting the attention you deserve. This is where I take issue with Scoble and Arrington, who argue that good ideas cut through the clutter. In Scoble’s example, a buddy of his clued him into the company. I need to get into his network, and I live in Madison, Wisconsin. I don’t run in his circle, but I can hire someone who does. We didn’t get into TechCrunch (or the Wall Street Journal for that matter) until we leveraged a contact from our PR firm. And it wasn’t because we didn’t have an interesting idea (in fact, our Jellyfish cash back concept, now in Microsoft’s hands, has been the subject of multiple posts on TechCrunch since). And TechCrunch is just one of many that didn’t pay attention without that PR introduction.
3) Get a PR firm that has great relationships. The best thing a PR firm can do in our new venture is tell us they are extremely busy and can’t take our work. If I’m selling the firm on the idea and why they need to take us on, that is a huge message. It tells me they don’t pitch every company that walks in the door with some cash. It means their relationships with media are solid. And at the end of the day, that is what we are buying with a traditional PR firm.
I’m going to take my own lessons right now by using this content to reach out personally to Scoble, Arrington and the others that are talking about this stuff right now. It is the start of building New Media credibility for our next venture. Wish me luck!