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.
The fourth wall is a figurative one at the foot of a stage (the other three walls shape the room of the set). Actors breach this wall when they talk to the audience. Similarly, PR is being challenged to break through mass communications and take the message directly to individuals.
This has been happening for some time. E.g. many use social media as part of the PR arsenal, and those who do a good job of it engage one-on-one. But direct communications is being taken to a new level to support sales and more specifically, ABM (account-based marketing) programs. PR people are being asked to go beyond mass media, even beyond what you might reasonably call PR to do something many would consider anathema: sell stuff.
In this post I explain more about the ABM trend and how PR can advance key account selling goals.
The PR and Sales Connection
First, let’s take a closer look at the PR and sales connection. Both professions advance their goals through communications (well, spin and persuasion help, too). But PR is more about getting attention for ideas, whereas sales is about getting the order (I confused the two and blew a job interview for a sales position, earlier in my career – see this post).
PR might want to disavow any connection, and not be seen as “product peddlers” (this works great until the client says “We hired you to make some noise, the great press hits are coming in. Now, where is the ka-ching on our web traffic and orders?)” I’ve even heard some say that PR is not a tool for driving sales, which is kind of ridiculous because I know I’ve bought things after reading about them in an article.
Suffice it to say that we should be friends, and make nice – one should support the other. It is hard to sell when no-one has heard of you. And PR success comes more easily with sales success, case studies, and testimonials from happy customers.
All well and good, but things take an interesting turn with ABM (also called key account marketing).
If you’ve worked in the tech industry, especially B2B and enterprise, you have probably heard of these terms. ABM is a sales strategy that targets key accounts, rather than taking the typical shotgun approach across markets. But it is not just about the sales team – it is about bringing other resources to bear, and lining them up behind the effort; especially marketing, which might otherwise operate more independently.
ABM has become a priority for many B2B organisations, thanks in part to their need to become customer-centric. Customer experience is changing how organisations are conducting business. The customer is in control.
B2B organisations are battling to see who can best deliver value to customers and drive them along the customer journey to advocacy. ABM is the future of B2B – it’s all about organisational groups aligning together to build customer relationships and growth, and maximising customer lifetime value.
That was written in 2017, but the practice continues to grow. Last December, Amy Gesenhues wrote on MarTech Today that 73% of marketers planned to increase ABM budgets in 2020.
PR is increasingly becoming part of the mix that supports an ABM approach. It can help in all the ways PR helps sales: through validation, brand building and product or service PR, as examples.
It can help in other ways, too (depending on how broadly you define PR, and how resourceful and versatile your agency and team are).
Here are some ways
Define buyer personas
Compile prospect lists
Court ABM buyers and influencers on social media
Go beyond the usual social engagement, like sharing and reciprocating and actually pitch them for a client event or offering (breaking down that fourth wall).
Engage them in other ways
I’ll be writing more on this topic, and posting about tools that can support ABM PR.
I love the band Talking Heads, and saw them for first time in college many years ago. Back then, I thought they had a cool name – but only found out that it refers to the disembodied heads of yakking newscasters when my friend and fellow concert-goer explained.
Fast forward many years later, and I am afraid I am becoming a talking head on tech startup PR and branding. In the past year or two I’ve done a few such spots; OK, not network news (give me a little more time), still, excellent forums in their own right.
I can’t say I’m a natural. You know the old sayings: we’re not the main story, our clients are; and cobbler’s kids, no shoes, etc. Yet as communicators, we should be comfortable with the video interview format. Zoom has made us all video stars during the pandemic, right?
Mitchell was a real pro in preparing and coaching me. While I waited to go on in the virtual green room (how cool is that!), he helped me nail the all-important CPOP – customer point-of-pain (referenced in the title of this post) Fusion PR addresses. Mitchell and his team were a pleasure to work with. I strongly recommend you contact him for any thought leadership coaching and writing help (here is his LinkedIn profile).
I am also including links to other interviews I’ve done on similar topics.
It’s hard to think of anything in our lifetimes that’s so taken over our lives and attentions. We’re all trying to adapt, with the best minds tackling the Covid health and economic crises, and focused on getting us back to work and the “new normal,” whatever that means.
It’s also changed how we communicate. Every news cycle brings new ideas and words.
I don’t think we need a primer on newfangled terms blared in non-stop media coverage, like the word cloud here. Instead, in this post I focus on some of the stock phrases that have taken on new meaning.
How are you doing?
It used to be an innocuous (or insincere) way of starting a conversation. We’d say this and quickly move on; how many really cared? No one expected or wanted a long winded update.
A positive side of the pandemic is that “how are you doing’ is no longer a throwaway question. We really do want to know, and listen closely to the answers while sharing our own updates. The simple conversation starter has turned into a new way to bond and commiserate.
It’s also become emblematic of the state of small talk. Maybe a side benefit is that we will spend less time on verbal filler and more time getting into important things with the people we are holed up with and those we meet on Zoom.
The Zoom conference has become synonymous with business calls and meetings (anyone who’s curious about how they zoomed to the top of web conferencing heap, see this CNBC story).
This trend has forced us to up our video games. It now seems like an amateur move to hide behind your avatar. You need to be on-screen and presentable, causing some of us to do the unthinkable like shower once a day and attend to personal grooming.
In other cases we have become less formal. Who puts on a suit for a Zoom meeting, even if you are trying to impress a business prospect?
The good news is that many formerly camera shy folks are learning to rock it on video. They’re cleaning their rooms and some are even using fancy virtual backgrounds. I am surprised no-one has come out with a way to really ham it up with Zoom, like integrate laugh tracks, other sound and visual effects (hint, hint, a good business idea?).
Um, is it? We have lowered our expectations for birthdays and more significant life events. Some are being postponed, done virtually, by a drive-by, or not at all.
“I can’t come to the phone” or “If you’re around…”
Where else are we going to be?!!! We are all here at home, dammit. The pandemic has been the bane of call screeners with fewer good excuses for those trying to dodge friends, family and calls.
Summer and Casual Fridays
We are now all casual, all the time. No need to let the troops avoid the city exodus on Friday afternoons in the summer when we are all working from home. Every day is a casual dress day.
Don’t try this at home
I love this catch phrase. But it has taken on a whole new meaning when we are all at home, all the time. Things we would have never thought of trying without leaving the house (like getting a haircut, grooming a pet) now get done at home, or not at all.
The company you keep
The pandemic has unfairly singled out businesses that service consumers. But even many B2B companies are getting hurt.
Those who serve other businesses must deliver results and prove value like never before. If you are good enough to do this, you may well just stand a chance and weather the Covid storm.
So, the words “the company you keep” (from the old NY Life Insurance commercials) have taken on new meaning.
Fusion PR is truly grateful for clients who continue to retain us; many have fought hard to keep the agency budget amidst other cuts.
If ever there ever was a company in the right place at the right time, it is Zoom. Their namesake teleconferencing service has come to symbolize how corporate teams can get useful work done, from a distance.
Those in PR understand the importance of conveying the right image. when using Zoom, or another service, you don’t want to come off like the jokers in the SNL video, above.
You do want to look and sound your best at virtual meetings, meaning professional, ready for work and to make a good impression. Sometimes, you can’t help things like loud pets or kids in the background. People tend to be understanding and can relate. But it is better, if possible to look and sound as if Zoom meetings (or Google Hangouts, or FaceTime) are second nature. This means avoiding messy room backgrounds, and heeding obvious things like dress and grooming.
You don’t want uninvited guests crashing the Zoom party. This can especially be a danger in the PR world, for obvious reasons. Check out this NY Times article, which explains how to counter Zoom bombing.
Designing at Home
Most PR pros are not graphic designers. When asked to create an infographic, e.g., we often call in a partner with this skillset.
Not to take away from the pros, but I found a tool that does let PR try designing at home (well, isn’t everything tried at home these days – negating the old saw).
It’s called Visme, and is like Canva on steroids. E.g. Visme has a nice library of art, templates and animations. It guides you in color selection and layout, you don’t need to be a design whiz. Visme makes it easy to design infographics, and other visuals that combine data and charts. It brings stunning presentations, brochures, graphics and videos to life.
I am using Visme now to create cover art for a podcast that we’ll be announcing soon, and will be writing more about my experiences with Visme.
Dispatch from the IT Front Lines
I was recently fact checking a pitch about tools to help enterprises manage IT consultants amidst the pandemic. To do this, I wanted to speak with someone who works in the field, to see if the pandemic had an impact on IT projects, their business, and if the pitch might have legs.
So I called my buddy Joe to hear about what’s been happening. He leads 36 IT consultants; their company has a team of 350. He prefers that the team work on client-prem, for face-ime, but now all are remote. Here are some things Joe shared.
In-flight work continues
No major impact on new business, so far
Major new initiatives, like digital transformation are being held up
These days it is easy to manage everything off site, even for infrastructure like networks, firewalls, and servers.
He used Coronavirus as a verb, like deals getting “Coronad”
There’s been remarkably little impact on their work, except it is tougher to close new business as he normally does a lot of wining and dining.
I asked if he’s worried about team productivity, he said no; this kind of work style takes politics and appearances out of the equation and emphasizes real results.