We are proud to introduce PR: Done and Doner, a podcast that equips tech PR and marketing pros with the info needed to get the best possible results.
It is not just about mastering the changing world of earned media, although that is key part (and not getting any easier, most agree). We take a more expansive view, and understand that modern PR goes well beyond scoring press hits. To help companies succeed, the tech comms pro of today must have many more arrows in the quiver.
So, expect to see episodes that cover earned and paid media, content, messaging, reputation, positioning, branding, SEO, digital, analyst and influencer relations, and more – in an informative and easily digestible format with video and audio. (As you can probably guess by the title and art, it’s intended to be a fun, provocative, irreverent affair. Hopefully not too dumb; or overdone).
The show is hosted by Fusion PR principals (and tech PR veterans) Bob Geller and Jordan Chanofsky. We’ll interview guest who are experts – renowned authors and practitioners who can shed light on the latest strategies, tactics and best practices.
You have PR questions? We have answers: done! (And doner).
In this episode, Bob Geller interviews Robin Schaffer, an industry analyst relations expert. Her company Schaffer AR helps B2B tech companies maximize results with analysts and get top placement in their reports. Here, Robin counters myths and misperceptions about analysts, and answers the most common questions asked by PR teams, such as:
When is the right time to hire an analyst firm?
What to invest and when?
Hire a big or boutique firm?
Is it pay for play?
They are miscategorizing us (or there is no category) – what to do?
PR, Done and Doner is available on Anchor, Spotify and other popular podcasting channels.
By now you have likely heard of the biggest news from the first days of the French Open this past weekend. It was actually about no news, or rather the refusal of one of the shining stars to engage in press activities surrounding the event.
Instead of facing the media – and submitting to threats and fines – Naomi Osaka withdrew, citing depression, anxiety and fear of public speaking. She also said she did not want to become a distraction (and promptly became the main story).
The episode raises all kinds of questions. What is an athlete’s obligation to the sport that helped make her a star (she’s the world’s highest paid female in sports)? Should there be an exception to the rule that you must play the game (not tennis but the game of getting grilled by the press)? Do the media have an inalienable right to put athletes up against the wall at the pleasure of sports fans?
Like a bad movie, no one comes away looking good. Many observers expressed sympathy, but as the New York Times reported:
Few of Ms. Osaka’s colleagues have shown unequivocal supportfor her stance.“Press and players and the tournaments comes hand in hand,” Victoria Azarenka, a two-time Grand Slam champion, said. “I think it’s very important in developing our sport, in promoting our sport.” She added that there were moments when the media did need to be more compassionate…
“Above all, it’s just really sad: for her, for the tournament, for the sport,” said Martina Navratilova, a former No. 1 who has seen plenty of tennis turmoil in her 50 years in the game. “She tried to sidestep or lessen a problem for herself and instead she just made it much bigger than it was in the first place.”
New York Times
I agree it is hard not to sympathize, Naomi Osaka is still young and is obviously suffering from some issues.
The sympathy is tempered by the fact that, while it seems she is taking a stand at great personal expense, others might not so easily be able to afford to do this. Plus it seems a bit disingenuous to shun some media Q & A about the game, yet embrace brand endorsement deals that add to her public profile. The Times wrote that she became a favored spokesmodel who doesn’t shy from using her platform for activism.
Another wrinkle: the newspaper reported that poor communications played a role. An agreement could have been negotiated quietly rather than the whole thing becoming a spectacle where a young champ felt as if she had no option but to unceremoniously leave the event.
Perhaps the one positive takeaway is the attention brought to mental health issues (especially in a COVID era) and the stresses that athletes face beyond competition.
What do you think? I asked the Fusion PR team. Here were some of their responses (their views and mine don’t necessarily reflect the agency’s).
I don’t think she should have to face the press. She’s an athlete, not a public speaker. It’s ridiculous. Plenty of athletes crave the media attention; let THEM speak to the press.
At this stage of professional sports – being a public figure comes with the turf. She wouldn’t have had a chance at the endorsement deals without the pro career behind her – at this point though she can set the terms of her media engagements. She’s become bigger than any one tournament. That said, it’s probably a balancing act and she couldn’t go completely dark for too long.
It’s like Elon Musk: there’s no shortage of press interest around him and he makes his own rules ; media won’t stop being interested.
My personal thoughts on this are that, while it does come with the territory of being a pro athlete, she is suffering. Most athletes are not like pop stars, or companies trying to build an audience. They are talented individuals who usually get thrust into the limelight and do not know how to handle it. I cannot imagine what it is like to go to work, do physical labor for hours depending on the match, and then having to get in front of a completely different audience and answer questions about your every move. It must be exhausting! I don’t think any athlete should have to speak to the press after a game. Let the ones who want to speak do so, but it should not be an obligation.
This whole thing reminds me of Marshawn Lynch (NFL running back, currently retired). As an NFL player, you are contractually obligated to speak to the media (or should I say “be available”). Lynch’s antics in this regard are well known…as there have been numerous times, even during the super bowl, that he would show up for press conferences only to just sit there for the minimum required amount of time and not answer any questions. The league made a lot of money fining him for this.
Brandon Marshall, another NFL player, is an advocate for mental health as he had his own issues with bi-polar disorder, ADHD, and anxiety.
I had blogged a while back about all those time wasters we sometimes run into; e.g. the deluge of pay-to-play offers you get right after releasing news over a wire. There’s another that has been bugging me and my teams: obscure analyst reports.
Luckily, our friend Robin Schaffer, of her namesake analsyt relations firm SchafferAR, helped us better understand the situation and avoid spinning wheels. See the Q & A below, from recent email exchange:
We track various segments our clients compete in, and want to know of and get into the right reports. But a challenge is wading through Google alerts triggered by report mills, like (I’m assuming) this one (in the area of quantum computing).
Some sites seem to just aggregate, syndicate, resell reports – but are there real analysts and research behind these? Is it worth it to wade through and find out if it is real research?
Nope. These are crap and not relevant. AR folks ignore them. Very tempting because they provide insights on every possible market.But I have no idea where they get their data. You have to go to the reputable analyst houses to identify the real research.A slog, but you need to.
Please check out my interview with her about maximizing analyst relations. Also, I am pleased to report that she’ll be one of the first guests on our upcoming video podcast series.
“I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”
The club, or field of PR, can disdain those who want to join; particularly people so entrenched that they lack little “real world” experience.
For example I started interviewing for PR gigs in my late thirties, after taking a circuitous route through various sales, marketing and IT consulting roles. When all was said and done PR seemed to be my thing, so I set out to interview for client-side and agency gigs while picking up some freelancing business.
I had no idea what kind of opportunities awaited for someone with my eclectic background. But the comments were mostly positive. “Refreshing!” “We like to see other kinds of experience, not just PR.” One in particular, the owner of a boutique tech PR agency was thrilled that I was an electrical engineer and former IBM-er like him. Fusion CEO Jordan Chanofsky made me an offer over 20 years ago – and I am still here today. (The funny thing was, that soon after I joined, I felt out of my element, due to lack of experience working for an agency).
All these years later I can safely say that, if you want to work in PR, sure, it is great to have related experience. But thinking outside the PR box can make you better at your job, as I find many myopically see every situation as a PR challenge that demands a PR solution.
What does this mean, and why should we think out of our “bleeping PR heads?” Which other POVs can be valuable?
One of the most obvious POVs to consider is the gatekeeper, or journalist. Yet too many PR people don’t do this well.
Why? Thinking like a good journalist is critical for PR; it’s important to be inquisitive, a good storyteller, and yes, often skeptical.
Why is it a challenge? It is much easier to mass blast a pitch than take the time to read their stuff and personalize the approach. Also, we like to be optimistic and not focus on the long odds. That said, sending and praying, optimistically, is not good; or is falling in love with your own ideas and pitches.
Howto do better? Read their articles. Follow them on social media. Be as skeptical as they are. Realize you have to be smart and creative, and work hard to earn their attention. Dig for something press-worthy. Get to know them, this makes it easier to understand their story appetites and sourcing criteria.
Results: Pitches that hit home, better PR outcomes, stronger journalist relationships.
The Buyer and User Audiences
It can help to see things from the perspective of the audiences we target: the personas who use the company’s product or service, and those who influence the purchasing decision. We reach them directly on social media or through gatekeepers.
Why? If the news and content we promote does not resonate, our PR efforts will fall on deaf ears. And, guess what: aligning with the hot topics and pain points of end users can be key to journalist buy-in, because ideally you are targetting those who write for these audiences.
Why a Challenge? Most PR people don’t have hands-on experience with the often esoteric technologies. We’re not steeped in the lives, routines and perceptions of users, CIOs and other decision-makers.
Even if you work on the client/industry side, it’s a fair bet that you suffer from the isolation of the marketing department. The result is an overreliance on jargon and copy-and-paste writing, a challenge that I described in Finding the Words that Work in Tech PR:
There’s a trap I think some of my tech PR colleagues fall into. In an effort to sound savvy and speak in the language of the targeted audience… they rely on recycled, empty (but “safe”) prose that may have originated in the marketing department… Add to this that internal marketing staff and the agency may well not have the technical knowledge or familiarity of the markets they are serving to pick the words that resonate with customers and prospective customers.
How to See it from their PoV: Try to understand the worlds they inhabit. Bounce ideas off of friends who work in the field. Try out the tech, if you can. Take in demos, attend conferences. Avoid gobbledy gook puke, use words and tell stories that are more meangful and impactful.
Results: Better stories and business outcomes.
Our PR programs are part of the larger marketing and business picture for our clients. Our clients and employers compete in the larger world. So if you don’t heed the bigger picture, your counsel and programs will be less effective. It is important to think like a CMO or military strategist – to be aware of tools in the arsenal, the playing field and plan accordingly.
Why a challenge?
It takes research and effort to stay up-to-date, with the competition and other marketing tools and strategies. And, let’s face it, most of us do not have the POV that comes with working as a CMO or military strategist.
How to do better
Get smart about other marketing tools, tech and tactics. Understand how PR interplays with others in the mix. Research the market, follow the plays of the competition.
I thought I’d wrap the series with a few final thoughts, as well as one more case study.
To Brand or Not to Brand
If your secret sauce is so special, and can really make your company a market beater, why not give it a name?
You need to call it something. In the second post, I explained how to describe your IP in simple and clear terms (see the case study below for another example). But you will not always have the chance to use a long form description. Some companies use brands, i.e. trademarkable names, and others, more general terms.
Google PageRank is an example of the former. Regarding generic phrases, consider Amazon’s one-click ordering, and Identiq’s provider-less trust network.
There are tradeoffs regarding branded names vs. generic labels. Startups need to weigh the overhead of establishing and supporting multiple brands vs. the potential benefits of a catchy term that they can own.
And don’t think a great name alone is enough (see my example about Certs and Retsyn in the first post; giving a fancy name to a common ingredient worked for breath mints back in the day, likely not for tech companies today).
Making it a Verb, Playing Bigger
The ultimate is when your product or technology is so widely adopted that it becomes synonymous with that function or kind of product – sometimes even becoming a verb. Think Google or Xerox. This NY Times article explains how a brand name becomes generic.
In my first installment, I mentioned companies that parlayed core technologies into market leadership – like Cisco, with routing tech, Google, with Page Rank, and others. How did they do this?
Sure, it starts with great technology, of the proverbial disruptive variety. But you also need steadfast, focused execution and marketing to become a category king. I blogged about this approach, that was inspired by the book Play Bigger.
Mipsology’s core tech, built into its Zebra software, makes it possible to run neural network deep learning models developed for popular Nvidia GPUs on other kinds of chips.
This means models that have been “trained” (fed large data sets to teach computers how to make decisions in “the wild” from new data) on Nvidia can run flawlessly on FPGA (field programmable gate array) chips– which offer certain advantages in terms of flexibility, lifespan, and tolerance of environmental factors.
Most who work in and write about AI understand the importance of inference acceleration. That’s because the NN models are ineffective if they’re too slow making decisions in real-world situations (just consider the need for speed when it comes to vision intelligence for real-time guidance in robotics, telesurgery and autonomous vehicles).
However fewer understand the nuances of neural network models on GPUs vs. FPGAs. And it seemed a tall order to explain how Mipsology can take a model developed for Nvidia and accelerate inference on a Xilinx (or other) FPGA – without the need for any additional programming. Plus, the Mipsology executive team was concerned that the company would tip its hand to the competition by trying to explain this.
Instead, we focused on the functionality and drew an analogy to CUDA, Nvidia’s own, wildly popular translation layer that makes it easy to run programs on their own chips, as covered in EE Times:
“The best way to see [Mipsology] is that we do the software that goes on top of FPGAs to make them transparent in the same way that Nvidia did Cuda CuDNN to make the GPU completely transparent for AI users,” said Mipsology CEO Ludovic Larzul, in an interview with EE Times.
To summarize, “secret sauce” underpins a solution or component. This almost magical ingredient has given bragging rights to scores of companies over decades.
But promoting the underlying tech is not the same as hyping a finished product. It may be unclear how it can advance your PR goals.
Secrets can build curiosity if you toss out a few crumbs. But the tension must break at some point. Even if you convince a journalist that there’s something pretty cool under the hood, they will get weary of the dance unless you show more cards (am I mixing enough metaphors here?) Say too much, and your competitors can rip it off.
In this post, I explore the steps needed to overcome these challenges and turn this asset into a PR advantage.
1. Take Stock of Your IP and its Potential
The best way to understand the tech is to just ask. The answers from this kind of discovery can inform everything from messaging, positioning, branding, website, collateral and so on, not just press releases.
E.g., when we sit down with a tech startup we ask:
Tell us about your core tech
How/when was it developed?
What was the “Eureka moment” that led to it?
How does it reflect your team’s expertise?
Does it build on anything else (like open source)?
Has your team published academic papers about the IP?
Does it give you a competitive advantage?
Is it patented/protected?
You need to ask, because the founders may take their core tech for granted and want to jump right to telling the world how great their product or solution is.
It is not just about fact finding – but teasing out the cool, to help turn a dry story about technology into something really interesting.
2. Hitting the Sauce
Hopefully you are realizing that this kind of info can be very helpful – and not just for hyping the secret ingredient.
The IP often reflects the company and team’s DNA. Knowing more about their R&D and tech chops can inform story-telling and thought leadership efforts and become part of the larger company narrative.
From there it depends on how relevant the technology is to the company’s goals. If it is aligned and provides a competitive advantage, all the more reasons to double down.
Like real sauce, the tech has a shelf life. If the company has pivoted, then the original tech may be less relevant. Or perhaps the vendor has gone on to conquer new markets and launch different offerings – then, the original IP may be less relevant.
It is hard to cover all possibilities but let me list a few ways below to overcome challenges and leverage secret sauce in your marketing.
3. How Much to Say and When (To Baste or not to Baste?)
The best time to flaunt it is at the beginning and throughout the first few years of a startup’s journey.
How big a deal should you make over secret sauce, vs. other things you could be talking about? Why say anything?
To the extent that IP explains your advantages vs. the competition, then it boosts credibility. Plus, there’s the good old “gee whiz” factor, if it’s just really cool tech and a breakthrough.
Some are afraid to talk about the core IP for competitive reasons. I think that fear is overblown. First, if you’ve gotten patents, it is for all intents and purposes public info that anyone can look up. If you haven’t, you need to weigh the risks of discussing the tech vs. holding the cards close. Assuming you are willing to share details, they should be woven into the messaging and storytelling.
It is not a binary decision, either. You can dance around it and share some details without giving so much away that it can be reverse engineered.
4. Explaining the Unexplainable (Simmering the Sauce)
If you are with me so far, and want to open up the sauce spigot, the next question is how to do this, especially when the underlying technology may be very hard to explain and understand.
All kinds of content can help. PowerPoints, white papers and academic papers should be provided to those who want to dig deeper and really understand. But it is not a great idea to leave this to chance. Your success in communicating with journalists, who may not be tech wonks, will hinge on breaking your tech down in simpler terms.
Do this well and the IP becomes shorthand for the company’s differentiators.
How to explain at a high level depends on what you have. Typical tools include demos, explainer videos, analogies and metaphors. While a deep dive into translating technology is beyond the scope of the post, perhaps a couple of mini-case studies will help.
ThetaRay: Threat detection for banking
Secret sauce challenges:
ThetaRay is on the cutting edge: their proprietary machine learning and AI algorithms process massive amounts of data, and glean intelligence about the “unknown unknowns” – threats that are anomalous – without historical context, regardless of the type of data.
How it does this is hard to explain. The claims sound almost too good to be true. Plus, there is much noise, competition and growing skepticism about AI. Most solutions are “black boxes” that are inscrutable and sometimes accused of bias.
We provided many ways for the media to validate and better understand ThetaRay’s tech, ranging from videos to white papers and even demos (unlike many others, their solution is “explainable AI” and not a black box).
It helped to flaunt the reputations and academic papers of founders and world-renowned mathematicians Amir Averbuch (Tel Aviv University) and Ronald Coifman (Yale); and highlight the years of research behind the secret sauce.
To explain at a high level, we positioned their tech as Artificial Intuition, as written in this TNW piece.
[Artificial intuition] … enables computers to identify threats and opportunities without being told what to look for, just as human intuition allows us to make decisions without specifically being instructed on how to do so. It’s similar to a seasoned detective who can enter a crime scene and know right away that something doesn’t seem right, or an experienced investor who can spot a coming trend before anybody else.
Identiq: Anti-fraud privacy protection for e-commerce
Secret sauce challenges:
Identiq aims to stop the rampant propagation of personal info and combat consumer fraud through a “provider-less trust network” that validates customer identity for e-commerce companies without sharing, sending or storing PII (personally identifiable information).
They employ cryptography to make sure the person applying for a mortgage or setting up a customer account is who they say they are. Identiq obviates the need for third party data clearinghouses (like credit bureaus) to do this.
If members of the Identiq network validate the ID it can be proven, to a high degree of mathematical certainty, that the person is the real deal, and not a fraudster with stolen credentials.
The problem is that it is maddeningly difficult to explain cryptography, and convince people that Identiq can help e-tailers confirm a person’s identity – without sharing or storing any details.
We used a number of tools to explain Identiq; from videos to comparisons with online auctions to dumbed down explanations, like “Bob and Bill both have a number in mind, and they want to know whether it is the same, but they don’t want each other to know what number they have. So, they tell Steve, a third party. Steve can then tell them whether they have the same number, without telling either of them what each other has.”
The idea is to make it easy for companies to identify who their new customers are through a “network of trust”… They can do that without sharing the customer’s personal information… “We looked into a branch of cryptography called multi-party computation, which is over 30 to 40 years old,” Arad said. “This branch deals with the question of how multiple parties can calculate some function together without revealing their own individual inputs.”
For example, if you were conducting an online auction, every participant can make a bid and multi-party computation can allow the participants to find out who the winner is without revealing individual bids, he said.
Ran Canetti, professor of Computer Science at Boston University and the recipient of many awards including the RSA Award for Excellence in Mathematics and the IBM Research Outstanding Innovation Award, explained the cryptographic context behind the anonymity of the [Identiq] network. He discussed why a technique which had been established in academic circles for decades had recently emerged to tackle real-life challenges.
We know Robin from our work on former client NICE Systems. She managed analyst relations there, and since then went on to other related gigs and eventually launched her own A/R practice, Schaffer AR
I reached out and we struck up a dialog. It was great to catch up, as I enjoyed our work together at NICE.
Fusion PR helps clients with analyst relations too. As most in B2B tech marketing know, industry analysts are key influencers, and it is important to get their validation and ranked and categorized in the right reports.
That said, we most often help clients leverage unpaid relationships. Robin’s book and firm cover every facet of the field, and I thought it would be great to interview her about getting the most out of A/R.
Robin graciously agreed, and answered the following questions.
Why industry analysts?
Industry analysts from firms such as Gartner can have a strong impact on a tech vendor if you know who to engage and how to engage them. Analysts sit at the intersection of customers and competitors and they follow market trends. They know a lot, have a voice, and can be great influencers on opportunities, help amplify your brand and messages, and provide input on strategy, products, go to market, or other important aspects of your business.
What should we expect out of an A/R program?
A great AR program is tied directly with business objectives. AR can easily become a cauldron of meaningless tactics unless all activity starts with a tangible business goal. AR programs can help grow revenue, expand into new markets, fine tune your products and strategy, help raise investments, and build attention for your brand and messages. I start with targeting the business goals I want the program to impact and then build the specific analyst engagements to achieve that.
How do you choose an analyst firm?
The prioritization of firms and analysts, depends on the goals you are aiming for. Analysts play many different roles and you need to know who does what. Gartner, for example, is the strongest at influencing enterprise deals and driving revenue. But they have thousands of analysts and you need to get down to the individual’s specialty area and focus on the right ones. Depending on the space, there may be boutique analysts who are very influential in a certain region or technology area. If your goal is primarily to amplify brand and message, you would go to a 2nd or 3rd tier firm who offers marketing services.
Once you define the type of analyst you need, it takes a lot of good old research to find the right ones — searching the internet, asking customers, checking with partners, reviewing media sites, etc.
What is the best way to communicate with and brief them?
Every analyst is a human being with their own POV and communication preferences. For those you have prioritized, it’s important to know them well and engage accordingly. Some are formal, others very social. Some have a very strategic view of the market and want to hear your business goals and direction from a top executive. Others are more product specific and want to see speeds and feeds from a spokesperson who can roll around with them in the weeds. The same analyst may need different information at different times. Read what they write and understand their research agenda to understand their thinking. Tailor your messages to their perspective of the world.
A briefing is the basic engagement you will have. Briefings are free, but you have to “sell” the analyst on giving you the time based on the merit of your message.
Regardless of what you present, people respond to stories rather than facts and figures. Make sure to use good storytelling techniques to convey your message, featuring customers who have been positively impacted by your technology.
Be sure to create a clear and effective deck that communicates who you are and the value you deliver. Analysts save the decks and refer back when needed. Make sure it stands alone without the talk track.
How can we influence them?
That’s the million dollar question! First you need a clear definition of what you want them to think. With that in mind, influencing is a complex, nuanced activity that combines educating them, showing them proof points, seeking their insights, holding advisory sessions, etc. If you do that right you will move, engagement by engagement, to the perspective you want them to have. Every engagement has to have a goal along the journey.
If you want to change an analyst’s mind, you need to go beyond briefings, to incorporate inquiries and advisory sessions. This takes investment, but the give and take of a two-way dialogue builds relationships, and strong relationships are key to influence.
Is it “pay for play”?
Pay-for-play is a very common misconception in the analyst industry. “The more you spend, the more they like you.” Any analyst worth his salt is not influenced by a commercial relationship. At the big firms, analysts usually don’t even know how much you spend. But investing buys you time, attention, and access through advisory or working together on a project. Spending more time with an analyst can dramatically affect the nature of the relationship and can impact their perceptions… but it’s not the investment itself, it’s the time.
What should we expect to invest?
Analyst investment is tied back to the goals. You can influence an analyst without spending a dime through free briefings, but you have to have a very compelling story. Every firm should maximize influence in this way. If you want to get analyst advice and feedback, you usually need a commercial relationship. And for them to help amplify brand and messaging almost always involves investment in white papers, webinars, custom research, etc. I do “guerrilla WAR” – I help my clients get the most value possible with the least investment: no investment at first. Then investing in 2nd and 3rd tier firms before you spend a minimum of $60k on a Gartner subscription. Investment is just one part of a holistic plan.
How do you earn the desired Gartner MQ or Forrester Wave positioning?
MQs and Waves are the most visible ways that analysts can impact a business. But getting a good position is the tip of a very large iceberg. While the intense report activity happens once a year or so, the perceptions that feed into the evaluations happen every day. Analysts form opinions talking to customers and prospects, interacting with your competitors, listening to partners, following market trends… and through every single engagement you have with them during the year. The day after a MQ or Wave publishes, a goal must be set for the next year and you need a plan to achieve it.
How do you get the analysts to recognize/report a new category?
Getting analysts to acknowledge a new category is like trying to sell ice to Eskimos. Analysts consider themselves the establishers of categories and are resistant to attempts by vendors. This is because most vendors try to establish self-serving categories that position themselves in the best light. The best category creators come up with a strong and legitimate way to categorize the market in a way that helps end user organizations make good decisions. They avoid cutesy marketing names. They suggest categories that are broad enough to include at least a handful of vendors, but not so broad that “everybody” would be considered. Then, they embark on steady programs to gain adoption over time.
It can go by various names. IP (short for intellectual property). Or proprietary tech. Or keys to the kingdom.
I like “secret sauce”. Most who work in IT understand that this refers to the magical ingredient that sets a technology or solution apart.
If “communications” or “PR” are in your job description, you may wonder what to do with “secret sauce.” How do you message it, build it into your storytelling and news campaigns, yes, how to spin the sauce or slather it on for best results?
Secret Sauce Origin Story
One of the secrets to building buzz, is, well, through secrets. Stealth can create a mystique that leaves people guessing and wanting to no more.
So, adding the words “secret sauce” to your solution news should make it a natural media magnet, right?
Ah, were it so easy. The phrase by itself won’t do much for you – it has become a cliche’, one of those industry tropes right up there with killer app, origin story and the more recent unicorn.
This Quora Q&A says the term became popular during the burger wars, in the 70s. I am old enough to remember McDonald’s 1974 commercial that hawked “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun.” The big question that drove people nuts at the time was, what was that damned special sauce (the schoolyard rumor was “bull semen”, yeah, sorry, gross, I know)?
If you plug “secret sauce” into the Google Ngram viewer, which charts word usage in books dating back to 1900, you will see the first mentions in the early 1970s (confirming the Burger Wars theory), with rapid growth occurring around 2000 (perhaps, not coincidentally, during the dot com boom).
But there was secret sauce even before it was called secret sauce. E.g., I remember ads for Certs breath mints from my childhood that hyped a mysterious ingredient called Retsyn. The Canadian news site CBC explains, in a great piece on Words Invented by Marketers:
When I was growing up, Certs breath mints had a long-running series of TV commercials with a “Two mints in one” theme. But along with two mints in one, Certs hung its hat on one word: Retsyn. But what is Retsyn?
It was an interesting marketing strategy from parent company American Chicle – whose other product was Chiclets. [They] launched Certs in 1956, and used the word Retsyn in all its advertising for years.
Retsyn sounded vaguely scientific, and Certs framed it as a proprietary ingredient, saying that a golden drop of Retsyn was a “miracle breath purifier.” In reality, Retsyn was homogenized vegetable oil.
Going back even earlier, Coca Cola famously guarded its secret formula, as described in Wikipedia:
The Coca-Cola Company‘s formula for Coca-Cola syrup…, is a closely guarded trade secret. Company founder Asa Candler initiated the veil of secrecy that surrounds the formula in 1891 as a publicity, marketing, and intellectual property protection strategy. While several recipes, each purporting to be the authentic formula, have been published, the company maintains that the actual formula remains a secret, known only to a very few select (and anonymous) employees.
The entry further explains that the drink included coca leaves and hence cocaine.
Secret Sauce in IT
When was “secret sauce” first used to describe information technology? It is a great question, if I must say so myself – and one I asked on Quora – only to hear crickets. Please help if you know!!!
I did some digging to try to find out. A Google search surfaced the term in a 1993 BYTE magazine article about CD-ROMs (boy was that a great publication, back when magazines were real, glossy and thick as an encyclopedia). There was a 1988 BusinessWeek article that mentioned “secret sauce”, also when describing CD-ROM tech.
Those are some of the earliest mentions in media that I found; perhaps it is telling that both were about CD-ROMs.
Examples in more modern day tech are all around us, but might not jump out. Think of Google PageRank, the web indexing algorithm that helped make the company the unrivaled search leader and giant it is today; or Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm, or Amazon’s one-click online shopping and recommendation engine. Years earlier, Cisco became a giant and established the web router category via its packet routing algorithms. The TV series Halt and Catch Fire chronicled a rival team’s efforts to reverse engineer IBM’s original PC BIOS (basic input output system), the operating system underpinnings and keys to the PC clone market.
Fusion PR represents a wide range of tech startups that are bringing exciting breakthroughs to market, built from secret sauce in cybersecurity, ad tech, cloud, mobile, fintech, AI, and other spaces.
Not all technology products have a secret sauce. E.g., some are built from open-source components. Or, perhaps, they utilize public domain algorithms, like deep or machine learning models often do.
Does that mean such offerings have no differentiators, or advantages and hence no appeal?
Not necessarily. Your company can innovate in pricing and delivery models. They can build a better interface or “wrapper” and brand on processes and customer service. Just ask Zappos.
What it Means for Tech PR (IP, therefore I am)
Assuming your solution does have this proprietary IP, what can PR do to weave it into the larger product and company stories?
As I implied above, sometimes saying less can draw more interest. Being cryptic can work for a while, especially for startups, which need to play every buzz-building card they can.
However, this kind of strategy makes it hard to build credibility. The media like to dig in and understand. They want to know about the tech, if it really works or is just hype (like Retsyn). No one completely trusts black boxes.
You can try to distract by shifting attention to results, features and benefits vs. the secret sauce that helped. But stories about customer successes can get tiresome too; perhaps they could sway a buyer rather than a reporter.
Revealing too much too soon comes with its own risks, e.g., clueing in the competition.
So, what does one do, if you are lucky enough to have that secret sauce that really sets your solution apart? How do you talk about it and promote it without giving away the keys to the kingdom?
An “October surprise” is news that magically “happens” before a November election, just in time to throw a wrench in the works.
Politico says they can be “happenstance or deliberately orchestrated;” the article lists examples going back to 1840. More recently, the 2016 presidential election featured such surprises on both sides: the infamous Access Hollywood tape that showed Trump being Trump; and emails from Wikileaks that cast the Democratic party and its nominee in a negative light.
This time around there was chatter about a possible bombshell in the making. We are now days away from the election, and I think most would agree that, if it happened, the October surprise came and went with barely a whimper.
What can the PR field learn from this? What tactics should be avoided to “open big” and perhaps launch the next, more successful October surprise? This post explains.
Politics and PR
I’m a news junkie and a PR guy. My “beat” is tech, not politics; still I love to watch closely during election season. The campaigns’ PR moves – their speeches, messaging, and media tactics are on full display, and you can learn a lot. For me, the presidential debates are like watching the Super Bowl.
So, I of course paid special attention to rumblings about an October surprise as the month approached. And I became dimly aware of efforts to paint Joe Biden and his son as corrupt.
There was a story in NY Post, and related coverage, about leaked emails that appeared to show how Hunter and possibly Joe Biden stood to gain from shady dealings with foreign governments. I read these stories but did not take them too seriously; paid a bit more attention when Trump cryptically wondered if Biden was the “big man” referred to in the emails during the last debate.
The article is fascinating on a number of levels. It is a deep dive into the Trump administrations’ attempt to drum up an October surprise. It shows how the news sausage gets made: how such stories begin, how some try to coopt media and orchestrate news; and the enduring role of major media as a gatekeeper and arbiter of the top stories of the day.
If a Story Falls in the Forest, and Top Tier doesn’t Hear– did it Really Happen?
NY Times Media Columnist Ben Smith wrote about how the campaign started:
By early October, even people inside the White House believed President Trump’s re-election campaign needed a desperate rescue mission. So three men… gathered… to launch one… The three had pinned their hopes… on a fourth guest, a straight-shooting Wall Street Journal White House reporter named Michael Bender. They delivered the goods to him there: a cache of emails detailing Hunter Biden’s business activities, and, on speaker phone, a former business partner of Hunter Biden’s [who] was willing to go on the record… with an explosive claim: that Joe Biden… had been aware of, and profited from, his son’s activities. The Trump team left believing that The Journal would blow the thing open
The Journal had been chosen because it offered the right levels of trust, reach and leans right wing. So far, so good. But things got “messy” when Rudolph Giuliani jumped into the fray, without letting the others know:
[He] burst onto the scene with the tabloid version of… the plot. Mr. Giuliani delivered a cache of documents of questionable provenance — to The New York Post… Mr. Giuliani had been working with the former Trump aide Steve Bannon, who also began leaking some of the emails to favored right-wing outlets. Mr. Giuliani’s … refusal to let some reporters examine the laptop, cast a pall over the story — as did The Post’s reporting, which… could not prove that Joe Biden had been involved in his son’s activities.
PR Takeaways: Don’t muck up the timing, message and coordination of your campaign
The article reports that the WSJ was starting to get cold feet because of uncertainty about a direct connection to Joe Biden; also, they were not thrilled that Trump mentioned the upcoming story in conference call.
PR Takeaways: Don’t get ahead of your story; don’t promise more than you can deliver; and for crying out loud, don‘t piss off your top media target by blabbing about it in advance
Ultimately, the WSJ did published a “brief item” which reported that the central claim of Joe Biden’s involvement was unproven.
Another interesting takeaway is the article’s conclusion that the traditional media gatekeepers are still the arbiters of big stories:
The… failed attempt to sway the election is partly just another story revealing the chaotic, threadbare quality of the Trump operation… But it’s also about a larger shift in the American media, one in which the gatekeepers appear to have returned after a long absence.
By 2015, the old gatekeepers had entered a kind of crisis of confidence, believing they couldn’t control the online news cycle any better than King Canute could control the tides.
But the last two weeks have proved the opposite: that the old gatekeepers, like The Journal, can still control the agenda. It turns out there is a big difference between WikiLeaks and establishment media coverage of WikiLeaks, a difference between a Trump tweet and an article about it…
Yeah, I’m not sure about this one. It is reading a lot into one episode, and is like trying to prove a negative; an all-too-convenient conclusion for a major media columnist.
How can we possibly know what would have happened if the WSJ embraced the story in a more full-throated way? Would that really have driven a true October surprise?
It may have helped. But the real reasons the story did not take off may have more to do with our polarized environment in which many distrust news, especially anything that seems ginned up.
Plus, how can you surprise when everyone is waiting and watching for a surprise? It really is hard to sneak an explosive scoop by these days and orchestrate its release – there are so many ways for a surprise or stealth launch to leak or be sniffed out.
And did I mention that there’s SO MUCH DAMNED NOISE we are drowning in and real, earth shattering news, like existential threats of biblical proportions crowding the headlines?
These things all add to the challenge of getting big news to take off.
Final PR Takeaways: Get top-tier media to cover your news first, it could make a difference. And, what the heck, consider launching your October surprise in September; that might help too.
Electrek can confirm that Tesla has dissolved its PR department — technically becoming the first automaker who doesn’t talk to the press… The move has been confirmed.. at the highest level at Tesla with the source saying, ‘We no longer have a PR Team.”
The piece created a stir, and many others quickly covered the story.
Without a PR team you don’t have an official statement; and people were left to speculate on the reasons. Many assumed that Elon Musk, a celebrity CEO with 43M Twitter followers, no longer wanted to suffer a sometimes unkind media; and thinks he can frame the Tesla narrative on this own.
The attention for this story might not be surprising since it involves media and big tech. It led to a lot of comments and chatter on social media, and teeth gnashing about the state and future of media and PR.
Obvious questions include:
Will others follow suit? Those with known brands and large social media followings can directly reach large audiences.
Are the relevance and influence of media declining, when there’s record mistrust of the institution?
If media influence and relevance are in question, where does that leave PR?
The media alarm over this also says something about how they cover tech. The irony is that pitches from startups often go ignored by major media. But take away PR and access to big tech – and there’s a panic. It’s because well-known brands are safer stories. And negative articles, of the techlash variety, seem to be good attention-grabbers.
These are some of the same types of questions PR has been facing since the advent of social media. I’ve written often about the evolution of PR here. And I just addressed some of these questions in my recent podcast appearance, with host Marti Sanchez, who also runs content and thought leadership firm Influence Podium.
I rarely cuss in writing. But if I read one more “what does it mean for PR now Elon Musk shut down Tesla’s PR shop” article, I might lose it in a profanity laced rant. It doesn’t mean anything. And it’s 2020, so I get a pass on cussing.
You go, Frank, that is effin’ awesome!
Comments from our Team
I asked our team at Fusion PR for their thoughts. Here were some responses:
It’s Musk. I wouldn’t jump to a trend for eccentric things that work for him.
Jordan Chanofsky, CEO
Well-known businesses, such as Fortune 100s and companies with celebrity leadership, can reach a certain point where bad press will not affect consumer habits. For example, Facebook has a ton of bad press, but the majority of people still have a Facebook account and will continue to use the company’s other platforms like Instagram and WhatsApp.
Tesla’s elimination of a PR department is not an indication of a larger industry trend. Perhaps proactive media relations will end for a time at the company, but skillful communication with key stakeholders, such as employees, investors and more is essential and fundamental to businesses’ success.
I guess with a Twitter following of that size, Elon Musk doesn’t have to worry about securing coverage of his company announcements. But what is his plan for countering any negative stories that break? We know how volatile he can be. Without a PR team to help him develop a level-headed response, we might wind up seeing a lot more “Sorry pedo guy”-style tweets.
Also, I don’t think this says anything new about the state of PR. Elon fancies himself an iconoclast who breaks the rules. Most corporations are very conservative and would never take an unnecessary risk like this.