United we Brand? Top Reads on Corporate Activism

Should CEOs speak out on social, civil and political issues?  Should brands take a stand?


Back in the day (meaning just a few years ago) the answers were easier.  It was a more innocent time and easier for businesses to step up to the plate when government was not doing its job.  The Edelman Trust Barometer (an annual gauge of trust in institutions) has long ranked CEOs higher than others

Today it’s more complicated.  There’s a hot mess of issues that divide and we all seem ready to have chips knocked off our shoulders. Political correctness dominates, and it is easy to get in trouble by saying the wrong thing.

So, what’s a brand (and their top execs) to do?  Should they play it safe or take a stand? Fence-sitters might alienate those who want to know the brand’s political and social colors.  But taking sides can also fail spectacularly, as I pointed out in my post Just Don’t It.

There are many sides to these questions.  Below, I dig deeper and shed light by excerpting from the many excellent articles on the topic.

Lead with Values

In a PR Daily story about Starbucks, Ted Kitterman recommended leading with values; he cites some great examples:

The biggest takeaway for anyone following the news cycle these days must be that you can’t please everybody. So, what should you speak out on? Brand managers and PR pros should be actively searching for ways to express their brand values to consumers…

Think about Patagonia’s campaign to save protected national park land. More controversial efforts have included Dick’s Sporting Goods stand on guns, Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad and Gillette’s campaigns regarding inclusion.

What all these companies have in common is a cadre of leaders ready to stick to their principles and take the heat. They are also ready to lose some customers for what they believe in.

From Hero to Zero

Can businesses do well by doing good?  What happens when bottom line realities collide with CSR goals?

This NY Times article shows the blowback that can result.  It reported how agricultural giant Cargill fell out of favor with environmentalists:

For years, the American agricultural giant Cargill has been on relatively good terms with environmental advocates, praised for agreeing to a landmark moratorium on buying soybeans grown on deforested land in the Amazon rain forest.

In recent weeks, though, that relationship has soured over the company’s refusal to agree to a similar moratorium in another environmentally sensitive region of Brazil and… its failure to meet its anti-deforestation targets. This month, the environmental advocacy group Mighty Earth released a report titled “Cargill: The Worst Company in the World.”

50 Shades of Woke

Sword & Script blogger Frank Strong wrote about the nuances of taking a stand, covering another Edelman study, and his own survey:

A study by Edelman found… “64 percent of consumers around the world now buy on belief, a remarkable increase of 13 points since 2017.” The ensuing narrative has been that “taking a stand is no longer an option for brands.”

Yet asking people if they buy on belief is not the same thing as … if they’d buy from a company with a public position on a political issue with which they disagree. There’s a level of granularity that needs to be explored…

If the quality, convenience or price of a product or service is better than the competition, respondents said they would still buy from a brand even if they took a political position with which they disagree… employees matter too. If the workplace is divided over an issue, any stand could be disruptive.

PR tech firm Meltwater posted an article that explores the different sides of brands taking stands, and also shares some great examples.  The story, by NewsCred, says:

The prevailing advice seems to be that if a brand chooses to go down this path, it should proceed with caution. It should select an issue that’s a fit and be prepared to back up its promotional efforts with REAL actions to support the message it puts forward.

In Employers we Trust

Frank Strong mentioned the importance of employee concerns.  Indeed, the latest Edelman Trust Barometer reveals “My Employer” is the most trusted institution:

“The last decade has seen a loss of faith in traditional authority figures and institutions,” said Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman. “More recently, people have lost confidence in the social platforms that fostered peer-to-peer trust. These forces have led people to shift their trust to the relationships within their control, most notably their employers.”

Workers also like to take their employers to task, according to the many stories I’ve seen about employee activism.  This Medium article is a first-person account of #GoogleWalkout, a trend so prevalent that it apparently deserves its own hash tag.  The author, a 13-year Google veteran, railed against the company’s unchecked power on the way out the door. 

This NY Times story reports that an employee revolt led a PR agency to drop a contract they’d just won for a private company that runs border detention centers.

Regarding activist workplaces, right leaning, anti-PC Mises Institute wrote about the dangers of The Rise of Woke Capitalism for Education News. The post likens these companies to totalitarian governments or even religions pushing their beliefs.

Boardroom Sociopaths

I’m a cynic and question the motives behind most corporate activism. Do companies push CSR and philanthropic agendas without regard for the PR dividends? In the Jewish religion, true charity should be given anonymously. Who really believes that Nike chose Colin Kaepernick without some consideration for their bottom-line business interests?  And if they didn’t, shouldn’t they have?

In a NY Times DealBook piece, Andrew Ross Sorkin writes about Jame Gamble, a former corporate lawyer for the largest companies:

[He’s] concluded that corporate executives — the people who hired him and that his firm sought to protect — “are legally obligated to act like sociopaths.”

It’s because they have a fiduciary responsibility to guard the bottom line and protect shareholder interests.

“The corporate entity is obligated to care only about itself and to define what is good as what makes it more money,” he writes in the essay. “Pretty close to a textbook case of antisocial personality disorder. And corporate persons are the most powerful people in our world.”

Sorkin describes Gamble’s modest proposal:

Companies, he suggests, should “adopt a binding set of ethical rules, approved by stockholders and addressing the key ethical dimensions of corporate life” including relationships with employees, communities, customers, and [companies’] effects on the environment and on future generations.

This movement, if successful would compel them to balance profits and ethics.  Sounds great, but Andrew Ross Sorkin points out the obstacles and unintended consequences of such a move.

A Few Final Thoughts

Can companies do well by doing good?  I think they can by taking a long-term view, insofar as stronger local economies, clean environments and happy employees can all be good for the company.  Yes, they should be strong businesses; but not the kind built on the backs of exploited workers and plundered ecosystems.

I love the proposal above, that boardrooms and C-suites should also be guided by ethical rules.  I agree with PR Daily’s advice: that top execs should lead with principles and damn the torpedoes.

E.g. we can just look at the latest news cycle, which included two mass shootings.  Matthew Prince, CEO of cloud tech firm Cloudflare showed guts in taking extremist messaging board 8chan offline, as reported in NY Times.  Legally, he did not have to – and other big tech companies have dragged their feet when it comes to policing extremist content.  The paper also ran an open letter to Walmart’s CEO, urging Doug McMillon to take a stand against guns.  Will he?

Above and beyond that, getting involved in culture wars, and picking gratuitous political fights seems to be a perilous idea for these tense and divided times.

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Just DON’T It: Brands Fight Culture Wars at their Peril

Should brands get involved in culture wars?

E.g. some thought that Nike was very shrewd in hiring Colin Kaepernick as a brand ambassador.  He’s polarizing, but the bold move seemed to sync with their brand.  For the uninitiated, Kaepernick is the football player who got lots of kudos and crap for sitting during the national anthem at games and inspiring others to do the same.  By picking Kaepernick, Nike was standing up for rights and championing athletic prowess – or cynically playing to their base.  Either way, they placed their bet.

Some say that brands should express human, relatable qualities.  But people are often careful about sharing provocative views in public or at family gatherings or at work.

This was lost on Nike.  Sure enough, their Kaepernick gambit exploded like July 4th fireworks when Nike pulled new sneakers that had the Betsy Ross flag from production.  They did this at Colin’s urging, according to this NY Times piece, because the flag can be a symbol of oppression and racism.  Now, everyone is mad at Nike, and clearly, they are taking a business hit and PR lumps (it remains to be seen, what if any long term impact there will be on the brand and sales).

I know, it is easy to play armchair quarterback.  Hindsight is 2020. Etc. And there were lots of moving parts to the mess.  Should Nike have hired Kaepernick in the first place? Having done that, should they have heeded his advice on marketing strategy (if that actually happened)?

The alternative is for brands to get bland – so neutral and inoffensive that they don’t appeal to anyone.

We live in polarized times.  We have become numb to provocation.  But in a sick way, we love to have our buttons pushed. So it is tempting for a Nike or any company to take their culture war shots.

But the latest episode shows the risks.  Nike and other companies should think twice before doing this – that is my opinion.

What do you think? I asked some friends and co-workers – see their answers below, and feel free to chime in with your comments.  And happy July 4th, Flack’s Revenge readers!

Emily said: “I think it is fair for brands to take sides in culture wars, especially if a brand ambassador is being called out by the public as a bad role model. If a brand isn’t being properly represented or the brand ambassador does not uphold the company’s values, I think it is the company’s right to pull lines and end sponsorships as needed.”

George said: “They missed the elephant in the room – the controversy over the past few years about the Confederate flag and statues should have put Nike on the alert about flag symbolism.”

Mark said: “It depends on the company’s preferred image and appetite for controversy. It can always be interpreted as ‘jumping on a bandwagon’ and can definitely backfire in terms of sales, but it’s always an attention-getter!  I’m all for companies getting involved in culture wars.  It helps me know which brands to avoid!  I think pulling the shoes was a mistake though.  Their stock has taken a hit, and that’s a case where they should have let the marketplace decide whether or not they wanted flags on their feet.”

Jordan said: “Brands are being forced to participate in cultural wars usually erring on the conservative side. If anything becomes offensive to anyone these days, brands are so wary of negative repercussions that they almost don’t have a choice but to pull a product, or an ad, or an individual.  Is that taking a side? In a sense it is. Making a choice is taking a side.  Even doing nothing could be, although that would passive.  However, nowadays doing nothing can be ground for an attack.   A deeper question could be whether brands are acting out of what they believe to be a correct choice ethically. Clearly most brands these days believe that it’s in their business interests to take what is generally reverse-action (pulling back on something or someone) but at some point, there will be a backlash against that as well.  The flag and Nike might be a good example, we’ll see. “

Brian said: ” I think it’s the most socially unaware/tone deaf branding decision ever – you can go with Kaepernick, but then you need to stay from the flag – especially one from an era that obviously had slavery. Don’t hedge your bets.”

Adam said: “Who the fxxk wants sneakers with a Betsy Ross flag anyway.”

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Fostering Insurtech Success at GILS 2019

I enjoyed attending the Global Insurtech Leaders Summit – Insurtech Insights in NYC last week. The event featured two days of great sessions and panels led by startup and carrier execs, and journalists and investors.

Insurtechs demonstrated their wares, and it was a great forum for networking. The Brella app made it easy to arrange 15-minute “speed dating” meetings at tables set up for this purpose. The crowd took full advantage, the meeting area hummed with activity, and a great upbeat vibe pervaded the busy and well-attended event.

If you’re an insurtech (as are Fusion PR’s clients) it was a great place for meeting potential customers, comparing notes on tech and best practices and picking up tips for boosting business success. I list a few notes below from some of the sessions I attended.

Beyond Buzzwords

Timor Kalimov, SVP of Business for Hyperscience, discussed buzzwords (like AI, machine learning) and other ones (e.g. document processing).

Despite the march to digital transformation, old school documents of all kinds still dominate insurance. “Human ingenuity knows no bounds in messing things up,” he said. Whilst some industries are still completing tasks manually, a lot of businesses are looking to digitally transform their companies to increase productivity and ensure operations are completed to higher standards. By using a platform, such as the one offered by Vantiq (continue to their website here), business developers are able to build event-driven applications to quickly solve the needs of the company, ensuring that work is completed efficiently. It shouldn’t be too long until insurance companies decide to improve their operations with digital transformation techniques to keep up with other businesses around them.

You need AI and machine learning to turn this hot mess, including poorly scanned documents, faxes, PDFs and handwriting, into actionable info in a cost-effective way.

Collaborating with Insurers

The next panel was especially interesting as it focused on how insurtechs and insurers can collaborate for the best results. There were two executives from each camp. Mee-Jung Jang, Managing Director at the MetLife Digital Accelerator powered by Techstars, moderated.

The panel covered a wide range of topics, like how Chubb and MetLife work with insurtechs, expectations, successes and failures.

Partnership models can vary, e.g. Terry Luciani, MetLife VP of Innovation, said that they draw from the Techstars accelerator. Chubb collaborates with startups organically, according to Sean Ringsted, their Chief Digital Officer. Chad Nitschke, Co-Founder and CEO of Bunker (an insurer and technology platform that serves SMBs) contacted and now works with Chubb.

Tim Attia, CEO of Slice Labs, a cloud-native platform for innovative insurance providers, said that that large carriers have experience and can help a smaller company like Slice to scale.

When asked about failures, each had a different take: Terry said that the last mile of business implementation is hard. Chad pointed out that failure is important, and everyone needs to be honest with themselves. Tim agreed with these thoughts and suggested that distribution is key, not just a product-driven focus.

Terry pointed out a sobering number: just 5 proofs of concept result from 1000 startups. He added that it is important to set criteria and have clear metrics.

When asked about advice for insurtechs, Sean Ringsted of Chubb said: “Have a business proposition, don’t just lead with technology. Have clear markers, be prepared for a long journey; you’re going to iterate.” Terry Luciani of MetLife said: “You need to know my business. Leave me with next steps.”

Building Excitement for Life Insurance

I found the next session interesting because it focused on some of the unique issues in life insurance.

Moderator Grace Vandecruze, MD of M&A firm Grace Global Capital, pointed out that there are 46 insurance companies in the Fortune 500, each with an average age of 98 years. Consumers trust the industry only slightly more than cable TV providers.

Mike Logsdon, Co-Founder & COO of loyalty platform Life.io, pointed out a “dismal” number: one in six can’t name their life insurance carrier. The industry wants to innovate but suffers from a legacy culture.

Adam Erlebacher, CEO of Fabric agreed, and pointed out the irony of companies so thoughtful about using data to price risk being late to the Internet; the industry has focused on building product rather than on delivering great customer experiences.

Making Lemonade

In another session, it was great to hear from Ty Sagalow, who was one of the founders of homeowner and rental insurance innovator Lemonade.

Ty said that insurance has a branding issue; it’s the only industry where there’s an inherent conflict between the customer and provider. When one wins, the other loses. He also cited the Urban Dictionary definition of insurance: “A business that involves selling people promises to pay later that are never fulfilled.”

There’s no simple answer to the industry’s reputational dilemma; but perhaps companies like Lemonade will help. They donate money left over from claims to charity, as pointed out in this article in Financial Times.

Afterwards, I met Ty and bought an autographed copy of his book: The Making of Lemonade.

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How to Become a Media Darling

This post originally appeared on Business2community

Every startup wants to be the belle of the media ball. But what do you do if the press just aren’t biting? It’s all the worse if they’re lavishing attention on the competition.

From Pixabay

So why do media latch onto certain topics, personalities, companies and brands? Given that reporters, with varying degrees of editorial oversight, have discretion about what they cover, the $1M PR question is how to become the object of a media love fest.

There’s no simple answer or formula, else we’d all be famous for 15 minutes. You can start to get a sense by tracking their stories: reading between the lines, unpacking sentiment and bias and tuning in to their social media conversations.

Or you can read this. I share some rules below, based on my many years of experience helping startups launch and grow with PR. The tips reference examples from technology and politics.

The Power of Brand

Build a strong and admired brand, and the media will beat a path to your door — or at least spend less time dodging your pitches.

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of brand. Witness the media fascination with Trump, or any of the big tech players (of course, the coverage is not necessarily fawning, with either of the above examples).

The brands become a muse that pay dividends in terms of earned media coverage – often with no discernible hard news in sight.

The obvious question for a B2B startup is, exactly how can you achieve this?

Read more at Business2community.

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The Internet Killed these 4 Words for Me

Let’s face it, things have gotten weird with the Internet lately (and all things related – like the Web, apps, and social media). We used to have a great thing going! Now, Internet, you’ve become clingy, stalkerish, irrational, and carelessly share my personal info.

The rant could turn into a much longer post, but I’ll focus here on a subset of the complaints, namely four words that no longer mean the same things, largely due to Internet tech and culture.

Read on below, and I’d love it if you can share your thoughts and any other words that no longer have the same meaning.


When I was coming up in the world of PR I became fascinated with the field of memetics.  Here was a science, or at least theory (famously postulated by Richard Dawkins, in his book The Selfish Gene) that claimed to explain how ideas propagate.

Understand memetics, I thought, and I will be the PR whisperer; able to make buzz and even press releases catch on and spread far and wide (as I further detailed in this post). Flash forward twenty or so years and it is not well-intentioned if sometimes annoying US marketers who’ve mastered memetics.  It is the Russians, as they so ably proved in the last election – when they infected social media to try to influence the outcome.

But my complaint is not about the science – if memetics was ever a real one. It is the word meme, which is the atomic unit of memetics.  Like it’s biological counterpart, the gene, or a virus, memes are designed to catch on and spread. This snippet of culture could be something as a small as a catchphrase or as large as the Bible, and entire religions.

Anyway, that was the idea. Now they have come to signify the junk food of the Internet, silly distractions, or propaganda shared by political zealots.


Now I’m afraid I’m starting to sound like cranky old dude… “Sonny, when I was young…”

Seriously, the kids think they invented things like content and influencer marketing – but these staples existed long before the online world (one of the early examples of the former was the Michelin Guide, which promoted travel and sold tires in 1900, as explained in the Wikipedia definition).

The influencer used to be someone who was, well, influential in a field – an industry analyst, educator, executive, reporter, etc. Now I think most people equate the term with social media influencer – anyone with a big Instagram following who shills for a brand. Real influence is about more than just a number, I wrote a while back.

News and Truth

The last two are related, so I am grouping them here.

Just a few years ago, there was little debate about the meaning of news and truth. The Internet killed these things, with the help of cynical politicians and scheming Russians. Some would also argue that social media platforms ate news media for lunch (who are punching back with some scathing articles recently – e.g. see this USA Today story, this one from BuzzFeed, and this CBS News piece).

Today we have fake news and alternative facts. A couple of years ago I wrote: it’s the end of the truth as we know it, about the failed promise of the internet, as a public commons to crowdsource knowledge and wisdom.

Just witness the struggles of the social media platforms as they attempt to mediate the flood of content and separate lies from theory from actually legitimate info.

I also wrote: Facebook redefines news, and PR will never be the same, and about the challenges of agreeing on a definition of “news” in My Take on the Fake News debate.

Would we be wondering about these things just a few short years ago? In the words of the Grateful Dead, what a long, strange trip it’s been.

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Cover Your Assets to win in PR

We are often asked what it takes to succeed in PR, and about the client effort required. They’re great questions; the second part acknowledges shared responsibility.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

I’ve found that most just want great results, they’re not trying to milk an agency.  But PR newbies may think that it will be easy – their groundbreaking news will almost sell itself; or that a proactive PR firm can do it all with minimal client input.

So, for anyone who’s asking, here’s a newsflash (actually, two, no extra charge):

  • The media generally don’t care about your news.
  • We are PR pros, not magicians.  You need to throw us a bone!

Which brings us right back to the original questions.

A Challenging Media Environment

Even those who think they know PR may be surprised to learn that the job has gotten more difficult. PR pro and blogger Frank Strong recently wrote about challenges confronting journalism and the PR profession.  He cited data from recent studies:

“Is the process of media relations getting harder? Yes, it is according to 68% of PR professionals polled for the 2019 JOTW Communications Survey.  That’s up 17% from the same survey last year.”

An article in Bloomberg reported that PR workers now outnumber reporters by six to one, mostly due to vanishing newsroom jobs. Little wonder that it is harder to get media attention and results.

Show me the Assets

Most great programs spring from an effective agency and client collaboration; they combine agency savvy, ideas, and relationships with client ammo. This is particularly true for landing top tier, which is often the litmus test of success. What is needed to get to this vaunted media segment? How can the client help?

The two-word answer is “PR assets.” These are the things reporters love that drive or support a story. I list them below, for each kind of opportunity, and shed light on agency and client roles.

 Hard News

In a busy media landscape, breaking news is a top driver of reporter interest.  When it is your news, you own the story.  But the hurdle is high, to be considered news by major media, typically requiring scale or name recognition and mainstream appeal: the largest deals, best-known brands, or truly breakthrough new products.

Since top-tier worthy announcements happen rarely, if at all, for most startups, success means tapping other opportunities and PR assets.

Creating News

Many equate news with announcements, but that doesn’t have to be the case. There are ways to create news that may or may not fit neatly in a press release. These can include commissioning research, surveys, even PR stunts.

Does your business spawn data that can be mined for newsworthy info about trends, or consumer or business behavior?  If so, this could drive a pitch that lands.

The agency can suggest these kinds of ideas, but the client needs to be on board to make them work.


Even if you can’t own a story, there are ways to get mentioned, e.g. through newsjacking.  This means riding related breaking news, typically by offering execs as a source of color commentary or analysis.

When opportunistic news hits, it can be a feeding frenzy, with many trying to jack the same story.  So, it is important to be fast and offer a unique and compelling POV.  Boilerplate statements, along the lines of “We have a cybersecurity expert who can comment,” won’t cut it.

The client can help with a quick and incisive response that the agency can shop around, based on the client’s savvy and front row view of the technology and industry.


It seems that there are fewer opportunities to drive or otherwise participate in features: the longer non-news stories that focus on trends and topics.  Still, they’re worth pursuing if you have a great angle and the all-important PR assets:

  • Hard data that support the story
  • Company spokespeople who are prepped and media-genic
  • Third-party spokespeople (customers, industry analysts)
  • B-roll footage (for broadcast top-tier)

Company Culture, Startup Stories, Exec Profiles

Ultimately, great stories drive PR and journalism.  But it is too easy for founders and their teams to drink the Kool-Aid about their own. There’s no shortage of things to write about and most media don’t care about your news or your stories, as noted above. 

It takes a solid understanding of the publication, the type of feature, and the reporter – as well as the source material – to craft a topic that has a fighting chance.

Here, the PR team can guide you.  Great ones have the instincts of a journalist and the nose for a story.  E.g., there are opportunities in many publications to highlight startups and profile executives. 

PR should interview the execs to dig for story gold. The client can help by sharing the very best stuff with an understanding of the high hurdle and what might sell.

Posted in Tech PR, Technology | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Building a Fintech Startup: Top Tips, via Betaworks Panel

Last week I wrote about growth tactics for B2Bs. This week I am following up with a post on how to build a fintech, based on a panel discussion I attended at Betaworks Studios in New York.

Amanda Moskowitz of Stacklist, a directory of business tools for startups, moderated the session, which featured these panelists:

It was a super-interesting group of ventures, plus, it was great to hear from Nekesha Woods, who works for one of the giants and also did a fintech stint. Qapital is a money app that encourages savings, Bloom Credit provides companies with credit expertise, STASH makes it easy to invest, and Republic brings startup investing to the masses via crowdfunding (you no longer have to be an accredited investor ).

The brief descriptions are inadequate, as each fintech on the panel seemed to offer a unique take on their space; e.g. STASH automates investing in fractional shares of the stores where you shop. I encourage you to visit the links to learn more about each one.

Over the course of an hour, the panel discussed some of the unique challenges of launching and growing a fintech. VC funding is generally required due to the heavy lifting needed to develop a product that is robust enough to survive in the market and meet regulatory requirements. Forget moving fast and breaking things. You really need to lawyer up, do your homework and invest in dev; lightweight MVPs won’t cut it.

Here are some of the observations and takeaways, regarding marketing, and other aspects of building a fintech:

  • Qapital got great results with Product Hunt. They also tapped word of mouth and press coverage. App store and Google reviews helped.
  • Caroline Hoffman said that building a marketplace is not easy. Republic had to get creative, tap FOMO, and encouraged featured startups to bring in investors. Republic leveraged their partnership with AngelList, and made it easy for new members to invite their networks via LinkedIn. They used Facebook to test their messaging.
  • STASH used Facebook to get feedback, organic referrals, and employed street teams and growth hacks. There was a need for education, as people are more used to traditional banks.
  • Bloom is a B2B, but it helped to frame their messaging from an end-user POV.
  • Most eschewed paid advertising

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Cheap Trick: Great Band, Lousy B2B Growth Strategy

It’s tough to launch and grow a successful business, and tempting to look for shortcuts.

And why not? We’ve all heard about the magical growth hacks; the campaigns that went viral, the PR home runs that crashed servers and exploded phones.

So, when B2BNXT said they wanted to interview me about B2B growth tips, I considered quick tricks that can be easily related in a short interview.

Then I thought better of it and focused my advice on the hard reality that building a brand, market share and success usually takes time.

Failure to Launch

There’s nothing inherently wrong with splashes and jump starts. But in today’s noisy news environment, it is tough to turn short term success into long term prominence and brand equity. This is especially true for companies selling B2B tech and services lacking sexy, mainstream appeal.

Not to dismiss growth hacks. Sure, if you offer an app or software that can hitch a ride to another’s user base – more power to you.

PR-ing your way to rapid growth? It can happen, but I would not bet the farm. Some firms will promise this; there’s no shortage of pay-for-play mills, and even some-pay-for performance companies that claim to rocket you to fame – don’t be deceived. As I said in my post about PR myths, sure an agency can claim great relationships and maybe get you into a major media article. There are some sketchy operators who can guarantee mentions in a top publication. And then what?

Getting cited here and there doesn’t move the needle much these days on awareness.

Scaling Your B2B

So, what does work? Sure, you need to have a great product or service. But that alone is not enough.

Nothing sells the media like hard news involving big brands, big bucks, customers, truly breakthrough products, deals, and successes. If you’re lucky or smart enough to have this PR ammo, sure, work it – just keep in mind that news cycles fly by quickly these days. Your precious news will quickly be forgotten. How do you build a known and enduring brand?

The number one tactic to drive B2B growth is to build a strong and recognized brand that connects with the needs of customers. People and companies buy from brands they know and respect. They pay attention to information that hits their hot buttons.

This generally comes from a consistent campaign that exposes the market to your news, content and thought leadership. It’s most effective when your communications connect with customer needs.

Consistency and quality are incredibly important to building brand and growth. You need to be interesting, relevant, and make sure your news and content show up where your customers are.

For further details including recommendations on media and social channels, strategies and tactics, and case studies, see my interview on B2BNXT (includes a video and transcript).

Please chime in below with your questions and comments.

Posted in Campaign Analysis, In the News, Marketing, PR, PR Tech, Public Relations, Tech PR | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

How to Stand out at a Noisy Trade Show (MWC Field Guide)

I am often asked by clients how to build trade show buzz and booth traffic.

It can be especially challenging when you’re a small startup with limited funds, as are most of our clients.  They’re competing against well-known companies that have massive tricked out booths, and also trying to steal attention from other strivers.

The difficulties of rising above show noise were never more apparent than at MWC, the annual mobile industry confab, which I attended last month in Barcelona.  It’s an extravaganza, with eight cavernous halls, thousands of exhibitors, and over 100K attendees.

To get answers to the above question, I treated the show as a field experiment, paying close attention to what stood out. Which exhibits were eye-catching? What tactics drew crowds? Which ads and signage pulled me in?

Competing with the Big Boys

If you’re Samsung or Nokia, you can build a vast presence to dominate the show floor. Others did too, like Huawei, Ericsson, and ZTE. Their booths were like shows within a show; department stores displaying consumery goods and atractions, or the mini-smart cities that some tried to replicate.

There were robots playing piano and drums at the ZTE booth and live bands elsewhere

Immersive VR was another crowd pleaser: several exhibits let people don headsets and drive race cars or step into a video game to virtually battle each other – all to the delight of passersby too. These looked fun – but seemed to limit flow and traffic, as only a couple of people could participate at a time.

Startups had the challenge of stealing attention from these and hundreds of other, less glitzy displays.

Small Players Get Creative

So, what did work for the smaller exhibitor? A few tactics stood out.

Stand and Deliver

Polished speakers pitching at timed intervals drew audiences.  Granted, this was not even an option for the smallest booths, due to the seating needed. 

Why does this tactic work? People are naturally drawn to an interesting presentation – using a mic and speakers literally helps rise above the noise – and there is the allure of snagging a seat before show time.

Sleight of Hand

One booth attracted people with a shell game. The presenter cleverly wove the pitch into the routine. This tactic drew a smaller, more intimate audience than above as you had to lean in to observe and listen. There was no need for extra seating – people swarmed the booth and watched from the aisles, a good thing: crowds attract crowds.

Work the Crowd

Some exhibitors drew attention via colorful characters who roamed the show floor and mixed with attendees handing out swag or game clues. The ones below had hoods with business in front (namely, their faces) and party in the back (Guy Hawkes AKA Anonymous hacker masks).

I have no idea how successful the gambit was; but it caught my attention.

Eye Candy

Other booths used lasers or beautiful video displays to draw attention.  E.g. Enensys Networks featured a simple yet powerful array of cell phones that piped in striking video. Their live 5G broadcast demo showed how operators will soon be delivering HD video quality on a large scale.

The Ultimate Showmanship

There is no substitute for an offering that hits all the right buttons.  Combine this with a clear message and tactics like the above, and you get the ultimate: not just traffic but the right kind of traffic, namely potential customers with a sincere interest in the display and solution.

Orchestration vendor Cloudify pulled off this feat.  They announced their Spire edge orchestration solution at the show.  Cloudify Spire connects and controls distributed networks, devices, and applications from the core to the edge – it is a great answer to the pressing need to bring sprawling IoT and other edge devices into the fold and help enterprises and telcos deploy SD-WAN and 5G.

Anna Burukhin of Buzz Hunter helped design a booth that conveyed that message, in a simple and powerful way.

A 3D holographic-like display was extremely eye catching. Together – booth, messaging, and a compelling announcement/timely offering– consistently brought crowds to their booth. There can be many display methods that business can use to draw attention to their booths, such as using LED SNA Displays enabling the operator to change the display as and when needed, increasing the likelihood foot traffic may stop to watch and view the product or service.

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Startup PR Myths Debunked

It has been almost a year since I blogged about common startup PR myths. That post drew from NY Tech Meetup mail list discussions and cited arguments for and against PR.

Since then, I’ve run across a few more myths. So I thought I’d update that post.

You Don’t Need PR if you have a Great Product 

This myth is based on the old cliche’ that if you can only build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door.  In other words, marketing doesn’t count. Anyone who has studied business or labored in the trenches of the startup world knows that this isn’t true.  But many ventures are led by techies who may not be so savvy about marketing.

Yeah, you need a great product – but that alone is not enough to get noticed in today’s noisy world.  You also need consistent and effective PR and marketing support to earn the attention of key audiences.

It’s all about Relationships

Just hire the right firm with the right relationships, that’s your ticket to PR success. A corollary is that said firm can help you get famous near instantly.  It is based on the fallacy of PR as media whisperers who can pull a few strings, get clued into stories in progress and voilà! Your startup is on the map.

This is an irritating one because it sounds like it should be true. There’s no question that you need a great network in PR; yes, relationships can help.  Any PR firm that has been in business for more than a year has them.

But great relationships alone are not enough. Especially as you seek to get into the highest echelons of media – the largest publications and most well-known and respected reporters will not write because you know them, or necessarily share what they’re working on.

They will hear you out, and maybe even write if your news is relevant to their coverage (and checks off boxes like credibility, defensibility, i.e. includes hard data or third-party validation, and ranks higher than other stories they could be working on).

It’s all about Content

According to this myth, you don’t need a PR firm, you just need writers for bylines and blogs. After all, content is king, right? And it is not hard to find cheap writing talent.

I’d argue that content is a commodity and attention is king. It’s all too easy for your precious articles to go ignored, and hard to generate the quality content that people actually want to read. Besides, content alone will not do much for building all-important brand recognition, as I point out in my post End of Media Relations – or a new Beginning?

That’s because bylines and blogs are by design not overtly promotional, and don’t win the validation that comes from earned media about your company and product.

PR Doesn’t Work Anymore

Some say that PR is no longer effective for tech startups.  E.g. in a forum, a CMO said:

With the number of security outlets decreasing and the number of vendors trying to get coverage exploding, I question whether PR still has a place in the marketing mix of smaller cyber-security companies… I feel they’re better off with a research tool and a good writer in house and marketing the press in the name of the CEO.

This myth takes a narrow view of PR.  True, the field is constantly changing.  While some doors may close, others are opening.  There are many ways to get through to your audiences beyond press coverage in trade media.  E.g. analyst reports, events, social media content – these things are all part of any good agency’s arsenal.

The very challenge cited – competition and marketplace noise – is all the more reason to hire professionals well versed in your field who can work their magic to help your story rise to the top.

Please also check out this post which counters the following topics. Thanks for reading and I welcome any input on PR for startups.

  • Hiring a PR firm is a colossal waste of money for most startups
  • Just use Cision for press releases if you want PR
  • PR is not rocket science. You can spend a week or two learning it and get 70-80% of the results of a PR agency for 10-20% of the cost.
  • Very rarely will a PR agency develop your brand
  • There is not a need for a $10K a month agency, which will not do much more for you than a freelancer or small firm.

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