By Steve Campbell
Campbell & Company Strategies Inc.
“Most of the PR people are useless,” concluded Joe Menn, technology reporter for the Los Angeles Times in an interview recently with the CBC’s Undercurrents news magazine show. But, he’s also quick to note, “The scary thing is, the press coverage does affect the money.”
What drives the value of many new technology companies? According to a recent study by Stanford University professor Ezra Zuckerman, it’s “spin.” Zuckerman’s study notes that, for new companies, making savvy use of the press can help boost analyst and media interest, and drive product sales.
Why? Because in these days of rapid technological change and high-flying Internet/new technology companies that often defy fundamental analysis, many people look to newspapers, television and trade magazines for objective guidance on industry trends. Over the last five years, the media’s power as frontline evaluators on which hot products and exciting companies will emerge as the new leaders in an industry has expanded in parallel with the explosive pace of new technological developments.
Saul Hansell, a technology reporter at the New York Times, knows just how valuable media coverage has become to tech firms. “They want me to write about their company because it creates buzz, because it legitimizes the company. A piece of that is an article in the New York Times that says this is the next big thing.”
There is no doubt that PR, done well, can help new tech firms develop their reputations more quickly, a necessity to raising capital, selling products and developing momentum in these days of ever-shortening company development cycles. But done poorly, PR has the capacity to cripple an emerging firm.
Yet, as Menn points out, it’s worth the time to find a quality PR consultant. Here are answers to some of the questions that tech firms often ask as they go about the process of selecting a technology PR consultant.
We’re targeting the U.S., shouldn’t we use an American PR firm?
No. Some Canadians believe that PR consultants based in Seattle, San Jose or New York can work the U.S. media much better than Vancouver PR firms. In fact, American consultants are no better connected than Canadians. The truth is that, even if they work in the same city, they rarely meet face-to-face with reporters and editors, relying like Canadian PR consultants on the use of phone, fax, email and couriers to interact with the media. With today’s email and telecom revolution, most Canadian companies don’t need U.S. PR firms to obtain coverage south of the border.
But aren’t U.S. firms better connected?
Again, the myth of the well-connected American PR consultant who constantly mingles with reporters from Wired magazine, The LA Times, CBS News and Time magazine is just that, a myth. It’s based on the ancient stereotyped image many have of the old days when PR consultants would ply reporters and editors with booze in smoky bars at lunchtime in return for the placement of stories in the next day’s paper. The reality is that in today’s world, few quality journalists have time or interest to fraternize with PR consultants. They’re too busy working and if they did want to socialize after work, they certainly don’t want to spend their relax time with someone lobbying for a story.
At best, a consultant who has developed a friendship over the years with an editor at an important trade magazine or newspaper could get a few small personal favours done for them a year. In that case, however, it’s extremely unlikely a top-end Silicon Valley PR consultant or a PR specialist with experience in a U.S. vertical market will pull in that marker for a small tech firm client from B.C.
Much more important than so-called connections is knowing who to call, how to deal with them professionally and how to create a good story line that will attract their interest. Experienced PR consultants in Vancouver can do that as well or better than Americans. Conclusion: small or big, Canadian tech firms do not need U.S. PR firms to gain the media coverage they need.
Do we need a big agency?
The size of the PR firm should be a consideration in your decision, just not in the way you may think. With their well-appointed office spaces and staff bustling around, the bigger PR firms present the image of a large team ready to work hard on your behalf. But unless your account is on the north side of $100,000 per annum, you will likely only work with one or two people in the agency – all the VPs and other employees bustling around are often extra overhead on your invoice.
What’s most important with any size agency is the level of service and quality of results you receive for your budget. Tip: Pick an agency that approximates your size. Big agencies are hired by large corporations to deal with extensive PR programs needing a lot of staff and other resources. Small- and medium-sized tech companies with more modest needs should start with a single consultant or a smaller firm where they’ll be a big fish in a small pond and get the attention they need. The best way to make an informed decision is to review the credentials of two or three consultants/agencies of different sizes prior to making the decision.
What skill set should our PR consultant have?
The key attributes are a depth of technology business-to-business PR experience accumulated over years and the interest and ability to “get up to speed” quickly on their technology and business issues. In addition, in today’s cluttered media landscape, imagination and the ability to develop story angles that will pique the interest of reporters is paramount.
Is experience in our industry an asset?
Yes and no. Since your intellectual property is likely world-leading, even consultants experienced in the industry will still have to climb the learning curve. The ability of the consultant to “get up to speed” on any technical subject matter is often more vital than direct experience. Second, check carefully the experience of the people who will actually be working on your account. While a firm may have worked for clients in your industry in the past, find out how long ago and who did the work. Often, the people who did the actual work have long since moved on, leaving just clippings and a stale client list.
The bottom line: What will it cost?
Every client has different requirements. That said, here are some rough estimates on what to pay. For small technology firms, they should expect to pay anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000 per month for an international PR program targeting U.S. trade magazines and Canadian daily newspapers, TV stations and trade publications. Publicly traded, pre-IPO companies or firms that may be bought out within 12 to 24 months should expect to pay between $3,000 to $7,000 per month for PR, investor communications services and support. Some PR firms may take options or shares in partial payment.
You really shouldn’t pay anymore unless you have an international company that requires specific on-the-ground PR assistance in other cities and countries or a large, aggressive international program focused on both the publicly traded side and on trade magazine coverage. In both cases you may need to spend up to $10,000 (or more) monthly in order to secure access to a network of national and international offices. In these circumstances, one of the larger firms in town is probably your best bet.
How can we find a good PR consultancy?
Most reputable consultants belong to an industry association. One place to start is in the BC TIA’s membership directory. Under the services category, a number of specialist PR consulting firms and consultants are listed, each of which considers technology PR important enough to join B.C.’s largest high-tech industry association.
Conducting the PR firm search like a job interview is not far off the mark as it is people (consultants) you are retaining, not the agency. It’s vital you take the time to examine the consultant’s background and experience – perhaps ask to see their resume – in detail. How long have they been consultants? If they’re working for a big firm, how long have they been there? All these questions will help you gain a full understanding of the PR consultant experience you are contracting and how it can be harnessed to achieve your business goals.
Of the consultants you do interview, carefully check their backgrounds and experience. Compare their hourly billing rate in relation to their years of direct experience in PR agency work. Broad-based and extensive experience in technology PR is fundamental as is the ability to work with senior reporters and managing editors. Don’t settle for less.
The momentous business shifts of the last decade have clearly demonstrated how central PR has become to the success of newly emerging technology firms. Joe Menn of the LA Times sums it up best. “A friend of mine wrote a story in an industry magazine and there were three paragraphs about one company that was doing something different. That company went out and got a second round of financing, millions of dollars, based on those three paragraphs.”
There’s no doubt press coverage can help pull in the money. Given the stakes involved, take the time to find the right PR consultant for your company. It could be one of the most important business decisions you’ll make this year.
About the author: Steve Campbell, APR, is president of Campbell & Company Strategies Inc., a public relations firm that provides public relations and communications services to companies in the technology sector. Steve is a member of the organizing committees for the Vancouver Enterprise Forum and the Fraser Valley Technology Network, a member of the B.C. TIA and accredited (APR) as a public relations professional by the Canadian Public Relations Society. Steve can be reached at (604) 888-5267.