We had broken records by growing a nascent software company into a $118 million-per-year revenue machine. And we had pulled off a successful IPO in just five years. Not even the legends of that time—Microsoft and Oracle—had achieved such a feat. Yet people would say they had never heard of us.
To say that this was frustrating would be an understatement. Because we weren’t known, we had to struggle to find every sales lead. On every sales call, we wasted valuable time explaining who the company was before we could talk about our products.
This wasn’t for lack of investment or effort. We spent a fortune on marketing. Our oversized marketing department hired overpriced agencies to develop marketing materials and promotional videos. We purchased full-page ads in magazines.
The problem was that we didn’t understand the most powerful marketing tool of all: public relations (PR). We assumed that business success would automatically translate into recognition. And we were overly cautious about what we said in public. Every media interview was carefully scripted and supervised by our marketing department and PR agency, and we turned down interviews that weren’t directly related to our products or corporate positioning.
But over a period of six years, our company was only featured in 20 to 30 articles in total. And these were mostly in small trade publications or the local press.
When I founded my own business, Relativity Technologies, in 1997, I decided to take a completely different tack. We gave PR precedence over marketing and decided we would talk about whatever the media was interested in. My employees and I might make mistakes, be misquoted, and perhaps give out too much information, but I was willing to take the chance. We would have a policy of being accessible and totally open with the media, customers and investors. We would let our guard down and be ourselves.
Our products were really boring. We produced legacy systems modernization software. So we had to find a different way of getting attention. We decided that Relativity’s best buzz generator would be our staff of Russian programmers, who had formerly performed top-secret coding for the Russian military and intelligence. We began selling ourselves as an exciting company with a James Bond edge.
The strategy of being open and pitching exciting stories worked. Even though we were located in what was then a technology backwater—Durham, NC—we were getting as much attention as the hot dot-com startups during the Internet bubble. In just the first five years, we were featured on all the major TV networks and in more than 1000 articles in major business publications worldwide. Fortune Magazine lauded us as one of the 25 “coolest” companies in the world. The Wall Street Journal featured us in more than a dozen articles—including two on its front page.
Most of these articles weren’t about our products but about our opinions. That was okay, because, as we saw, the credibility that you build as an opinion leader spills over into everything else that you do.
As a result, our mailboxes were flooded with inquiries from potential customers and job applicants. Our employees showed a much greater sense of pride. At a time when the worth of a technology company was measured by how well it was known, our market valuation increased by a factor of 12. We were able to raise millions in order to expand.
So if you’re starting a business, the question you may ask is: how does one get PR—and what does it cost?
The good news is that PR doesn’t have to cost much. You don’t need to hire high-priced agencies that specialize in racking up big bills and spamming journalists. But it does require corporate executives—preferably the CEO—to take a proactive approach and to be open and available.
Here are my tips.
1. Read dozens of business publications. Understand what topics are newsworthy and which journalist writes about what topic. You will find that journalists are always under tight deadlines, have specific “beats” that they cover, and are looking to inform their readers of the latest trends and explain their meaning. Write to them and offer your insights. You will find that most journalists do write back to you.
2. Focus on the needs of the journalist and not yours. No one is interested in your product. If a journalist asks you a question, answer that, and don’t obsess with getting your product covered. Build a relationship over time — it will likely pay off and you’ll get the coverage that you are looking for.
3. If you do have something to announce, put it in the context of a “news hook.” Make your message timely and relevant to what is happening in the industry or the world.
4. Don’t ignore small or regional publications. You may want to be in The Wall Street Journal, but it is not likely to cover you until you have built great credibility. Your best starting point is small, industry-oriented or regional publications. They are a lot easier to approach and will likely be interested in breaking your story.
5. Be available—even when you are busy. Journalists on tight deadlines need sources to quote as fast as they can get them. The first to respond usually get featured.
6. Be honest. You will find that journalists have excellent “bull— detectors.” If you mislead them even once, not only won’t they ever write about you in a positive way, they also will likely tell their associates about their experience. I confide in journalists all the time. I have not had even one journalist report on something that I said was off the record or was on background.
7. Be yourself and express strong opinions. If you want to hedge your bets or be diplomatic, you will likely not be covered.
When all else fails, write your own story. The blogosphere has democratized journalism over the past few years, and there are hundreds of blog sites where you can post your opinions. You can even set up your own. If you keep your submissions fresh and provide reasons for people to come back for more, you will find that you build a loyal following.
It doesn’t work like the movie Field of Dreams where “If you build it, they will come.” So create the nice marketing plans, fancy logos, slogans, and great brand names. But remember that what really makes the impact is getting the word out.