a next generation, online career service where employers and employees can more easily find and evaluate each other. Their two principal products are careerbuilder.com (http://www.careerbuilder.com), a Web site offering career search opportunities as well as career-oriented content, and Teambuilder, a client/server software solution that automates the hiring process. A look at the paper shows that NetStart's been getting its share of editorial success lately. Gene is a 13-year computer industry veteran with executive management and human resource experience at corporations including Hewlett Packard, Sequent, Legent, and Compaq Computer Corporation. Prior to joining NetStart, he was Vice President of Marketing for Compaq's System Division, where he brought together the team to launch that company's distributed enterprise strategy, which positioned the company to participate in the mid-range systems marketplace. Gene's going to talk about how PR fits into the overall marketing plan and what they've done at NetStart.
Mr. Austin: Thanks, Neil. Actually, a year ago I'd probably be sitting out in your spot trying to learn more about PR as well from a start-up standpoint. We embarked aggressively in PR about a year ago and we have an interesting dilemma in our company in that we have a business-to-consumer marketing plan and a business-to-business marketing plan all within one company. We have to get job seekers to our careerbuilder.com site and, at the same time, we sell an application to businesses called Teambuilder, that allows them to tap into the Internet from a recruiting standpoint; that's classic business-to-business marketing.
When you look at the consumer side, early on in our PR, we found it cost-prohibitive as a start-up (at that time, 20 to 25 people), to really go out using traditional PR methods and tap into the consumer marketplace. That's because when you look at the publications that are truly designed for the consumer, it is ten times anything you would see in the business-to-business marketplace. It was very hard from our standpoint to target how you would market our career site. We experimented and I would encourage most of you to experiment as well, but just realize that you're getting into a very broad area of coverage; there are a lot of publications you have to deal with in a consumer-oriented market.
On the business-to-business side, we've found a lot of success in marketing the company and what we are about. We've gotten quite a bit of interest and we've gone at it in a couple different ways. Now I'll back up real quick. PR to me from a business-to-business standpoint is starting the lead at the top of the sales funnel, if you will. I look at everything as a sales funnel. I want to get people at the very top that now have an awareness of who I am, and use PR to do that, and then use a little bit more costly techniques to move them down the funnel until I can close them. So I very much view PR as an awareness campaign. One thing I will tell you-from a PR standpoint, do not underestimate the interest in a very small company across the country. We did not think we would get a whole lot of press, being a recruiting company out of Reston, Virginia, and what happened was just the opposite. For example, we actually had an industry analyst write a 2-page article on us, because we were a very unique business model in the recruiting space. By the way, we were not subscribing with the analyst. Most analysts won't write about you unless you're buying their service. We didn't do that and we actually caught a nice hit from there. And we've caught 20 good PR hits about our company simply by launching the company with a quality press release and some follow-ups.
The other thing I would caution you about in PR is that the real value of a PR agency or PR contact is how well they can spin your message in a context they know in the industry. You have to look at the people on the publications. They are inundated with phone calls and emails and all kinds of techniques to catch attention and the value of your agency is how well they launch on your strategy and what you're trying to do, then how well they can spin that into something that's going to grab somebody's attention and make that person say, "Yeah, I'd like to talk to them for 30 minutes or so." So, again, I look at it as awareness campaign, and so far, in our first year of really going after it, I found business-to-business has been a far more cost effective way of marketing our company.
Mr. Oatley: Thanks, Gene. Let's take a listen from the other side now. Our next panelist has a well-recognized byline in this region. Rajiv Chandrasekaran writes about technology and the technology industry for The Washington Post financial section (http://www.washingtonpost.com). This may-or may not-put him in touch with a better class of people than his previous beat covering police courts and general assignment news in Northern Virginia. He's a native of the San Francisco Bay area and a graduate of Stanford University. Rajiv will talk about what it's like to be on the receiving team.
Mr. Chandrasekaran: Well, I hope to demystify this process. I don't know if it can be done in three, four or five minutes. Being on the receiving end means getting 40 or 50 emails a day, a slew of faxes, a whole bunch of telephone calls, and I often think the hardest part about my job is not going out and reporting and writing a specific story but deciding which stories to write over the whole slew of stuff that comes in over the transom. You folks, I think, probably perceive The Post as a national newspaper that has-both in its business coverage and in its news coverage-a focus that extends well beyond the Washington area. And while that is the case, The Post in the last few years and in the next few years will continue to make more efforts to improve our coverage of the local business sector, especially the local technology community.
We try to focus on this every Monday in our Washington Business section. In that section's center several pages is a section called Wash Tech, or Washington Technology, in which we generally have a couple of very locally focused stories. Then, during the week as well, we're trying to beef up our coverage of local technology issues.
Traditionally, The Post has covered the big guys in the area. You know if you're AOL or UUNet, it's pretty easy to get us to do your earnings and to come out with product announcement stuff. Likewise, if you're a national Fortune 500 company, we tend to naturally focus on some of that. So how do you as a small, upstart organization get the attention of a big national newspaper? You need to take care in the pitch that you are sending to a reporter. If you're small, we're looking for an interesting story; show us something that's unique about your product. What's new about this? Does your company have an interesting background that we could bring into the story? Reporters are naturally lazy people, so do a little work for us. Send us some prior clips if you've got them from other trade publications. Send us some analyst reports.
Newspaper stories fall into a great big formula. Either something is indicative of a trend-"This is the latest in a series of things"-or this is wild and wacky and unique on its own-"Gee, whiz, look at what that crazy little company out in Herndon is doing!" So, try to tailor your pitch to one of those. It's a dirty little secret, but reporters fall into a rut and look for one of those two types of things. A good example might be to use Gene's company as an example. I think it was last December or November, I can't remember who I got the phone call from, but I got a little media kit from NetStart and I looked through it and it had this analyst report in it. There were, I think, one or two photocopies of little write-ups they had in some trade journals. While recruiting over the Internet wasn't something brand new at the time (there were a lot of other services that were doing it), this was somebody local, this was sort of indicative of a trend, you know it's the latest in this, so this really seems to be taking off, and they had an interesting story. The CEO used to work at Legent. After that company was sold, if I'm recalling this correctly and please let me know if I'm not, he was laying on the beach for a week and figuring what he was going to do with his time and his money, and came up with this idea. He contacted a couple of ex-Legent guys and they got together to pull this company together. That's interesting little background that helps make an exciting story. So a confluence of those factors came together and what eventually came out was a story in the Around the Beltway section in the Washington Technology part of the Washington Business section.
A couple of do's and don'ts, here. At The Post, we're not very big on routine product announcements, so if you're coming out with "Here's version 2.0 software," it generally isn't going to get our attention. Take a read of what a publication generally writes about and get some clues as to the types of stories they're interested in and tailor your pitches accordingly. Some other things in just dealing with the media, try not to call, be respectful of a reporter's deadlines. If you're trying to reach somebody at a daily newspaper, don't call after 3:00 if it's not for that same day. If you call me on the phone after 3:00, I'll be really curt with you and simply say very quickly, "Is this something that is an urgent matter that has to be dealt with today?" And if you say, "No," I'll probably simply say, "Why don't you call me back tomorrow?" and not even take your name and number because things get very stressful after that hour.
Email is a very good way to approach a reporter. You can find the email addresses of Post reporters on the Post Website (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/interact/longterm/stfbio/wpemail.htm) and the same for most other publications. Send a good tailored email pitch to us with a name and number on it and we'll read it and if it interests us, we'll get back to you. Don't spam us. One or two emails is fine. Don't send us five, six, seven. That gets annoying. But be persistent. If you don't hear back from us, call back and try to gauge an interest level. I'll generally be pretty frank with a person who calls and so will most reporters, telling them, "Hey, I don't think we're interested in this," or as may be the case for some of you, things are at too early a stage.
We generally want to see a company that has a product out or is in the final beta stages and is going to be releasing something. We'd like to understand what the big picture is here. Does this have a consumer implication? Is this going to help businesses of all incarnations? We want to see that you have some partners and some funding so it gives us some legitimacy-you're not just a fly-by-night. If we're going to write about you, in some way we are de facto saying, "Well, these people are real," and so we want to back up that process. The more ammunition that you have to show that you are established and growing and have something that's a real deal coming out on the market, the better for us.
Also, be respectful of our time and our concerns. Don't you and don't have your PR people call and expect to get 30, 40 minutes of my time. Try to pitch something in about five minutes and ask ahead of time if I have five minutes to chat. Be succinct and direct. Although you might think it's great to hire a big PR agency to come and contact me, I often love to hear directly from entrepreneurs themselves. They often are a breath of fresh air, no offense intended against the PR folks here, but if I can talk to the people that are really in the trenches, that are really running these shows, in five minutes, it often gets me more excited than talking to somebody that has a very slick, polished routine spiel that they give to me.
If you're going to call or if you have your PR people call, don't call three different reporters at The Post and try to independently pitch your stories to different people. It's a waste of our time and let's say two different people are interested and we both start working on it, then we realize another person is, it gets us kind of irked. In any event, I hate to dwell on the negatives, but hopefully those were a few helpful hints.
Mr Oatley: Thanks, Rajiv. Randy Barrett is also a journalist from a different kind of book. Interactive Week (http://www4.zdnet.com/intweek) is the leading national weekly on Internet business. Randy is a senior writer with Interactive Week, currently covering Internet service providers and the operation of the Internet network. Before joining Interactive Week, Randy was editor of Enterprise Reengineering and a staff writer and editor at Washington Technology. He's been writing on business and technology issues for more than 10 years. As a complement to Rajiv's points, Randy will talk about what a trade reporter is looking for.
Mr. Barrett: We're in a deadline world and there's no deadline like a news deadline. Most people, and certainly PR firms, understand that. Smaller companies sometimes don't. As reporters our deadlines are fixed; if we don't meet them, we lose our jobs. And it's that simple. So basically my advice to you is to pitch as accurately as you can. Read the magazines or newspapers that you're pitching to. I can't tell you the number of times I get called and I'm just the wrong guy, they're pitching the wrong story. I will listen to a pitch if they say, "Here's a story for your section of Interactive Week. It's related to Internet service providers," which is what I write about. And then I'll give them my time, and usually that's a much more fruitful way to go about it.
The other thing is, if possible, and I know for smaller companies this may be hard, be exclusive when you're pitching. Reporters love a scoop. If you've really got something you think is interesting and you can say, "Here, I'm going to give it to you first and see if you're interested in it," my antennae go right up because we're all in competition with each other and our job is to beat the pants off the competition. So be exclusive when possible. I know that may not come naturally if you want to broadcast to a lot of publications, but if there's a couple or one that you really read a lot, that you really want to go to, go there first and tell the reporter, "Here's a story I want to give you first if you're interested; otherwise, I'll go somewhere else."
The last piece of advice I have is to make your executives available. It's always obviously better, as Rajiv said, to hear from a CEO or president even of a small company. The PR firms are doing their job, many of them do a good job, but I have to wait a number of hours usually between the time the PR person calls me and the time I can talk to the CEO or president. I'd much rather talk to the CEO or president and I would much rather have the direct dial to call the person back.
That's my final piece of advice: Make yourself available, even the ladies and gentlemen here who are presidents of companies, make yourselves available and break out of that meeting when the reporter calls. If you are not available or you don't seem to want to make yourself available, I'm not going to write about you. I've got a deadline to meet and if you're not there, then you've lost an opportunity. That's happened any number of times that I've worked on a story and had to drop it at the last minute because I just couldn't get the right person. So, I'll leave it at that.
Mr. Oatley: Our final panelist will tie together some of the things we've already talked about from a very personal and recent perspective. Susan Williams DeFife is president, CEO, and founder of Women's Connection Online (http://www.wommenconnect.com), the Web-based community that provides over 1,100 pages of relevant, thoughtful Internet content, discussion groups and bulletin boards for professional women and women business owners. Prior to founding Women's Connection Online (WCO), Susan served as executive director of Women Executives in State Government and has owned her own public affairs consulting firm, the DeFife Group. She has also been a successful television and radio reporter. Big things have been happening at WCO lately, including a round of venture capital funding and, from what I can tell, a more aggressive PR campaign.
Ms DeFife: Thanks, Neil. As Neil said from my bio, I think I've seen this issue from just about every perspective. I've been a member of the media doing radio and TV, I was a business editor for an all-news radio station. Then depending, on your point of view, I either moved up or slid further down the public opinion scale when I went to work for a governor.
I started my own PR firm and then founded Women's Connection Online, so I've got a lot of different perspectives. It doesn't necessarily mean I'm going to be more successful at getting coverage, but I do have a perspective that may be a little different from some of the others here. One of the key things that I would tell you-Neil's correct, we've put together a very aggressive PR campaign since the spring-and I think the most important thing about the campaign is that we have known from the beginning what our goals are. That's one of the things you need to figure out before you do anything. What is it that you are trying to effect? Success is not going to be a stack of clips on your desk.
In our case, we're trying to build a couple of things. One is traffic to our Web site and the second is revenue, and the traffic does tie into revenue in many ways. First, it's letting people know we're out there and bringing people into the site by increasing awareness of our URL and who we are and what we're doing. Second, to build on Gene's point, it's building awareness among the corporate partners that we want to do business with, the women's organizations that we want to reach, the individual women that we want to bring online and investors.
We did raise our first round of venture capital in May. We will be out this fall raising a second round. In the beginning of raising awareness, we did not have our funding, so we were really focused on building credibility, building momentum. Rajiv says you've got credibility with him if you've got corporate partners and other alliances. Quite frankly, you have credibility with those potential corporate partners and potential investors if you have press coverage. The media has a great deal of power, and that is-if it's written in the newspaper, it's credible., it's true, it's real. So we have used a lot of our press to build momentum with those corporate partners and investors, creating the bug about who we were. We do something that Rajiv basically said not to do-send out a lot of press releases. We send out releases about once a week. We've slowed down a bit through the summer because we've been growing so quickly. We have some good announcements, but we don't send a press release out just to send a press release. We're not expecting to see an article every time we send a release out. We're not expecting to get a radio or TV interview. What we're trying to do is hit the many different constituencies and see what happens to play well with them. There's a press release that will appeal very much to the women's organizations and have them decide that they want to sign on with Women's Connection Online. There are other releases that play well with potential investors. And there are some reporters who've called up as a result of seeing about five or six and say, "Hey, there's really something here."
So remember, it's not just one announcement, but really building the momentum and the credibility along the line that will help you achieve your goals and may also generate the notice of some very critical press people to what you're doing. We had no money when we started our PR campaign back in March and April. We were still looking for funding. My business partner and I were working without pay, so we decided to get very creative. We felt that press and marketing was going to be one of the most important parts of our strategy. We found a woman who used to work with a major public affairs firm. She was billing $215 an hour when she left; she decided that she wanted to spend more time with her children and only work three days a week, not five. Her firm could not accommodate her. We were able to hire her for much, much, much less. And, in fact, in the beginning what we said to her is, "We have no money. What we have is the potential of funding, and the potential that this company is going to succeed." So we promised her a certain amount of money and stock options, knowing full well that if we didn't get funded, she was going to get nothing. But she also knew if she was successful at what she did, she would be a part of our getting funding.
So we ended up getting somebody who was really top notch as the result of being extremely creative. She has stayed on board and has been a very critical part of the team since, so I would urge you not to feel as though you have to hire a PR firm. Call people that you know, call people you trust and say, "Hey, do you know anybody who might have this kind of skill level or experience who would be willing to spend five, ten hours a week with a small entrepreneurial company?" I think we had Michelle one day a week when we first started. That was our agreement, and we were able to do a lot of really good things with that. So be creative and think outside the box on getting your PR.
And I think I would echo the sentiment about trends and what's new, what makes you unique. From the beginning we had to really separate ourselves from some other women's sites that were out there. We are very different, we are unique, but we had to spend a lot of time really explaining who we were, what we were doing and why we were unique. Then we just happened to fall right into a couple of trends. We had been doing some things for three years that all of a sudden became trends. Tom Peters wrote an article discovering the women's market, how wonderful this was and how everybody needed to be there. Well, all of a sudden, the big corporate types were looking at this saying, "Hey, Tom Peters says it's so, it must be so." The Net Gain book came out. We were doing community before community was cool. Now all of a sudden, it's out there. It is a trend and we are right there between the women's market and the community, so we able to generate a lot of press and visibility as a result of that.
part two: questions & answers
Mr. Oatley: Now it's time for your questions. Please, if you will, identify yourself and the name of your company before asking your question. And a warning. We are taping the session and will put a transcription on the Web site for those who couldn't make it here. So don't say anything you wouldn't want your mother to read.
-- on using
experts . . . and becoming one
Gail Houck, Calcott Associates: This is to the people of the press. If we're trying to get a niche as an authority or an expert in the field, what sources do you typically go to when you're looking to find someone to reinforce an article from an expertise side?
Mr. Chandrasekaran: For me, there are two or three different types of sources. I go to financial analysts, the folks at the big Wall Street investment banking firms. Now, generally if you're not public, you're not on their radar screen, so that wouldn't apply to many of you. The next is industry analysts, the folks at places like International Data Corporation, DataQuest, Giga, Forrester, Jupiter and all those places-although after the recent article in Wired, I've tried to lay off a few of them. Some actually get paid for every quote that makes it into major newspapers and that was a bit of a wake-up call for some of us. But I tend to look in the big organizations as well as the smaller, independent analysts that look at certain market niches and I try to get to know many of them. They're often good sources for me in terms of getting story ideas and what not and so they are sort of the number two source I go to. Then I also see customers, people who use a product, as a source of legitimacy. I like to get lists of customers from companies I write about and I do my best to go and have an honest discussion with that customer.
I never, ever use a quotation from a customer that appears in a press release saying, "This is a wonderful product," because I know that's the best possible spin that your company's put on it and I want to get an honest appraisal of it and I generally will not write a story about anybody if I can't find people on the outside to talk about a product. It's very rare, it has happened, but it's very rare that I'll write about somebody's new product or some new technology without getting somebody on the outside to look at this and give an opinion about it, somebody from that sometimes dreaded analyst class to give their two cents.
Mr. Barrett: I'd agree with pretty much everything and about the analysts. I try to use analysts as sparingly as possible. I use them on background and if it's an area I don't know much about. But it is true, some of the analysts are literally being paid by the companies they're covering, so we in the press tend to take them with a grain of salt, though some of them are excellent. I like to talk to your competition. If you're in an area that has two or three companies, I want to find out about what you're doing and then I want to talk to your competition to figure out how it's different or how they're ahead, you're behind, or whatever-it's all a big horse race and I want to know all the horses.
As far as people within the industry itself, I'm always looking for sources of people that know an area very well and can speak not just about their own company's interest but also the industry as a whole. And that is people in the trenches, not CEOs and presidents, but more often mid-level managers, people who are really doing the work in the bigger companies, and those are the people I get scoops from. Those are the ones who really know what's going on.
Ms. Houck: How do you typically find them?
Mr. Barrett: Occasionally they come to me. Often it's in the course of reporting on a story that I'll find somebody who really knows what they're talking about and can be really clear on the issues and I'll save their name and number and hit them again.
Ms. DeFife: OK, let me take this from a different perspective, too, and that is you can set yourself up as something of an expert if you have a great deal of knowledge in a certain area. We're really becoming positioned as a company that knows how to market to the higher-end women's market online, so we get called frequently from that standpoint. It's not somebody doing a story on my company, but it's somebody talking about who we are and the expertise that we've developed and we're getting quoted again in a different sense. We're also getting invited to speak about marketing to women online, which again positions us exactly among the audiences that we want to reach.
It has come about as we've done a lot of these stories about ourselves and gone out and marketed the company. When reporters are doing stories, if somebody's looking for a speaker about, "How do you successfully market to women online?" we're getting the phone calls and so, again, that's really continuing on with the PR campaign.
Mr. Austin: One last thing on the customer side, quickly, that Rajiv spoke to, is I would say that 90% of the reporters and editors that we came in contact with insisted on speaking with customers and they didn't want just one, they want you to give them a list of from one to six. So I would encourage you to have probably a half a dozen people to testify to your capability because, for example, a couple times we had disconnects between the customer and the reporter-they missed a deadline and nothing happened or it came out two weeks later or whatever. So it's vital to have people lined up and also vital to have the communications departments within their companies know that they are going to be called. For instance, we had a high-tech company that was going to be a reference and ComputerWorld called the person and the communications department found out ComputerWorld was calling them and they said, "Oh, my gosh, we've got to get in the middle of this." So you've got to really orchestrate references very well to really have an effective follow-through on a PR campaign.
-- how long . . . and
for how long?
Ann Pederson, Applied Solutions: This is for Rajiv and Randy. When we send emails, first, how detailed do you want that email-how long; and second, how long do we wait to see if you're going to respond to us?
Mr. Barrett: If we like it, we'll call you back. (Laughter.) I mean, really, that's what it comes down to because we get hordes of email, but if it's interesting, we'll call you. And I understand why people want to follow up and I certainly am polite about that, but don't call me three times about a fax or an email, you're just going to drive me crazy.
Mr. Chandrasekaran: I'd agree. I read most of my email. Anything that doesn't look like spam is gone through. Keep it of moderate length-I mean don't give me three sentences, but no need to go on for three pages. It's very easy for me to send a quick message back saying, "Can you send me a little bit more information about this?" Make sure the name and number is displayed prominently on it, and, yes, if it's interesting, we'll get back to you. I think it's maybe fair to make a follow-up phone call about a week after you've sent an email and I can give you some indication therein.
I generally don't send replies back to ones that aren't of interest. At the same time, an approach other people have taken is sending press releases every couple of weeks and after getting several of them you start to see something interesting perhaps, and maybe it's the fourth or the fifth release that pops out at you, so different approaches can be taken.
-- one message,
Sally Celmer, Teramedia: I wanted to make a comment and ask Susan a question. My partner, Vivian, and I recently sold our company to Teramedia and we did a very similar thing to you, Susan. We selected a young woman who had been with Turner for seven years and worked at home with children; she was absolutely wonderful as an extended part of our team. One of the things she drilled into us from the time we first started that was so useful was the question, "What is the one thing you want to be known for? You can't have three or four different messages in PR; it has to be one message. Do you want the press and everybody in America to know that you're Teramedia or do you want everybody to know that you have a children's interactive CD-ROM/Internet service called Time Blazers? Is it Time Blazers that you want to get out there or is it Teramedia?" And you think, well, both, and she would say, "No, no, no. There's one message that you want to get out there and what is that one thing?" So, Susan, I would ask you when you talk about the Women's Connection, I intuitively think maybe that's women's networking but then you say your objectives were very clear and that is to get people to your Web site and make money, but I'm still not sure what you do and I'm not trying to be rude.
Ms. DeFife: No, no. I appreciate that. We've actually trademarked our phrase: "The first stop for women on the Internet." "Women's Connection Online - the first stop for women on the Internet."
Ms. Celmer: Is it for networking or are you actually selling something?
Ms. DeFife: It is an online community for professional women and women business owners with news and information and networking online for women. That's what we do and that's what we home in on in every press release-a thoughtful, intelligent, relevant, useful community for women. What's been out there is very entertainment-based and this is a community that women can come into and get technology they can use. It's information, it's networking, it's interacting with guest experts online, so it's a community for professional women and women business owners and that's what we continue to repeat throughout. But I need to be able to say it in two lines or it isn't effective.
--experimenting in a
Neil Agate, Sussex Systems: I had a question for Gene. You mentioned that you had some early experiments with PR and I'd just be curious as to what worked and what didn't.
Mr. Austin: First of all, I would encourage you all to experiment across the board on a bunch of different things because that's the only way you're really going to find out what works. While we're all in the same Net world, everybody has different spins to what we're all about. We've probably done three major PR pushes in the last year. First, we launched the company and we did a very traditional PR launch. We'd sit down and determine, "What's the headline? What's the ideal headline? What would be the headline we'd all say was A+?" And that headline, you'll never see it in the finished story, but you'll see your message in the first paragraph or second paragraph of the write-up which is where you want it to be, right, so people catch it. So we did that on the company and we launched the company and what it was all about. That was extremely successful, but it was very traditional.
We went to analysts first, and they got excited because it was a different spin on recruiting on the Web. It was a different revenue model for the Internet, and they not only chose to write about us but also gave us very valuable feedback on what we were saying, so I'd encourage you all to try to get at least one or two of those before you do any kind of major PR push, even if it's on the phone. And then we did a press release, a media kit, and then basically what's called "call downs" to editors and writers about our story.
We then decided that we wanted to do a Career Builder push. Now, most of you hopefully have heard Career Builder on the radio in the local area. That still remains our number one way of doing awareness for the site. We did a round of spin letters, which is talking about how career sites are evolving and our site was an achievement-oriented site, designed for the achiever and the person who's really career focused. Basically those went out on email and they weren't press releases, they were pitch letters is what they're commonly called. Those didn't do that well, and maybe because there are 500 career sites in the universe and we're just another one. I don't think we had a good hook. I don't think we had something that grabbed people like a radio grabs people and sends them to the site.
We then did, to Rajiv's point, a product launch for our second release of our Teambuilder product and that didn't do as well, either, as the first company launch did. We've found out that we're doing much better with issue-oriented announcements than with product-oriented announcements and now we're re-focusing almost all of our PR around the intellectual capital issue, record unemployment, employee tenure at corporations has never been lower, and you need a different way of viewing recruiting. It needs to be a strategic issue and we've found a lot of people have been following up on that. It's a business-oriented issue. The CEO, the CFO of a company can relate right away to the fact that, "I've got 100 openings and if I don't fill those openings I can't meet my growth objectives." So you're probably going to see NetStart moving away from product stuff, again to the point made by Randy and Rajiv, and moving towards business issues.
washington regional story
Bill Holleran, Northern Virginia Technology Council (NVTC): I'd like to shift gears for a second from PR strategy and tactics to industry trends. The cover story in the current issue of Forbes ASAP magazine shouts, "How the West Kicked Butt," and it's a story rating the technology regions that pretty much dismisses greater Washington, in a word calling it stagnant, and this is something that will probably rankle the people in this room, saying that it lacks entrepreneurial spirit. Now as a counterpoint to that, a week ago Saturday, Rajiv's colleague at The Post, Peter Behr, reported on a new study by a Pennsylvania consulting firm that rated greater Washington as the number two metropolitan area in the country behind Los Angeles in terms of the number of technology workers employed in the metro area, ahead of San Jose and Boston. So I'd be interested in how both the corporate communicators and the journalists respond to that. How do you size up the greater Washington technology market and in terms of an industry trend, is that something as communicators that we should tie into or stay away from?
Ms. DeFife: I'll take the first crack at that one. I think that the difference is perception and what you're talking about is extremely interesting. I've read those same numbers. It's fascinating to read those numbers. They're boring, they're dull. What the West Coast has right now that we don't have right now are personalities and the quirkiness that Rajiv is looking for. I think we've got it. We just haven't talked about it. So I would suggest the PR strategy starts to become success stories, profiles, get out there and talk about the enthusiasm and what these companies are doing. The numbers are a lower part of your press release. The lead of your press release and your campaign has got to be, "Here's what we've got to offer." Let's make it exciting so that the reporters are interested and they're doing stories. It's really a creation of what the reporters are interested in and doing stories on. Yes, the West has been out there much longer, they've been doing this much longer, their numbers have been out there for a while, but I think that it's the personality that's getting all of the attention and I would suggest this area needs to create a personality of its technology entrepreneurs.
Ms. McGraw: There's a perception issue. Washington, DC, is known as very political, a very stuffy area, and that's a very hard perception to compete against the San Jose, LA, San Francisco perception, so I agree with that. I think it's up to all of us to really communicate. There's really a lot of great companies here, a lot of great people, and we can compete with the West Coast just as well.
Mr. Austin: When we were out raising our first round of money 18 months ago, several venture capitalists (VC) said, "We'll fund you if you move to Boston or Silicon Valley."
Ms. DeFife: That happened to us, too. We heard from a West Coast VC, "If you would consider moving, we would fund you."
Mr. Austin: I moved to the area a year ago and I have to admit, I've lived in the Valley and this area is much more percolating from an entrepreneur standpoint than any area I've lived in. The biggest issue I think is that Silicon Valley has a huge head start and they've put, if you will, points on the board because they've had a lot of successful IPOs and hopefully there's a bunch of successful IPOs sitting in this room and I think that's the key. Once we start getting some visibility from the IPO standpoint or just great success stories in general about customers voting with their dollars or people voting with their hits on their Web sites, then I think we'll be OK.
Mr. Barrett: I would add as an Internet writer, in cyberspace as you know, it's wide open. I'll go to a Web page, I have no idea where that company is. I don't care where the company is. I mean, if it's here, that's great. I know there's a lot of terrific, very entrepreneurial companies here in the Washington area and I've covered many of them, but your story is what compels me, the writer, so whether you're here or Canada or Silicon Valley or Belgium, it doesn't matter in the way that the Net really helps you, because there's no nationality or geographical boundaries.
Mr. Holleran: Well, 40% of all Internet traffic in the world comes through greater Washington.
Mr. Chandrasekaran: One other aspect you might want to think about is to try to take advantage of your location here in the Washington area. If you are doing things that are government related and something that's different than traditional systems integration-a software product that's helping some part of the government do something faster, better, cheaper, that sort of thing-perhaps that's at least a unique angle in pitching to certain trade publications and pitching here in the Washington area. I travel back and forth between Silicon Valley and Washington at least once a month, and so I can still see the very stark differences between the 101 corridor and the Dulles Toll Road, but it's becoming cooler for companies not to be located in the Silicon Valley, largely because of the high prices of real estate and the high cost of workers, the high salaries that workers command over there. I think that as time goes on, both the fact that this is an area of natural growth and the fact that Silicon Valley is nearing buildout, there is a greater legitimacy that's placed on folks who are outside the Valley.
And, you know, frankly, it's people like you in this room who have those interesting stories to tell in this area and you don't have to preach that to me or to any of us up here. It's still going to be a challenge for you in dealing with the California-based media to say, "Hey, look, we're out in Northern Virginia or we're out in suburban Maryland and we need to be taken seriously." But I think that as this area continues to grow, it's becoming less and less of an issue.
Ms. DeFife: Let me add one more thing. I think we need to be a little more proactive about that, too, and one of the things I was just thinking as we were listening to the speakers is that there's a wonderful campaign that Temple University did a few years back where they took all their famous grads and they said, "They could have gone anywhere. They chose Temple." You may want to think of something where if these entrepreneurs could be anywhere, they could be in Silicon Valley, but they chose to be here. Why? That kind of a campaign that might be fun or interesting, again, is something that might generate a little more interest, but I think we need to be a little more proactive about that.
Clair Sassin, Potomac KnowledgeWay Project: I just want to pick up on what Bill and Susan addressed with the Forbes ASAP article. Bill, I hope NVTC sent a response. I know that we did from PKW, I encourage everyone to respond to things like this. We received a personal letter from the editor who picked up on one of our points, which was venture capital in the region, and he said that he felt it was the missing ingredient that we did not have. And, so, once again, all I can do is just encourage everyone to respond, to do what Susan said, which is to help spread the word.
--too much publicity
for a start-up?
Ken Showalter, Advocacy Network: I wanted to get your advice for early stage entrepreneurs who are primarily looking to attract investor interest and may actually be hurt by too much publicity because if you're not really ready to go and somebody may look at you and say, "Well, these guys aren't for real," so it's a two-edged, Catch-22 kind of a thing.
Ms. DeFife: I think you have to have something to announce. Both in terms of your credibility with reporters and your credibility with investors, you have to have something to announce and you have to be truthful about it. You have to be honest about what you can do and what stage you are at. It is a Catch-22 and I know a lot of people have some concerns about, "If I talk about it, people are going to take my idea," and I think about what Mario Morino says, "If you've thought about it, 100 other people have thought about it, too." I think you do have to weigh the two edges of the sword, but with us, it's let's roll the dice, it's all or nothing here. Let's talk about what we do have and what we can talk about, even if it is early stages and as it develops to continue to do the announcements to show the momentum, because what I found investors are looking for was, "Well, you told me what you can do with my money, but I need to see what you can do without it." So our press releases really showed what we could do and built that momentum. We announced what we could when we were ready and, as new developments occurred, we announced something else on top of it. You don't have to have everything there ready and perfect all at once with the announcement and go out for one big bang, because then you've got nothing else to follow up with.
--business or consumer
Thomas Edwards, TheSynch.com Cybercasting: Is there any advantage to try to break into the popular press as opposed to just dealing with the Internet press, and how can Internet companies go about trying to get that popular press coverage?
Ms. McGraw: I'll start with that. Is it business-to-business or is it consumer?
Mr. Edwards: Well, it's business-to-business, but it's something that is available to consumers like if you design a Web site, for instance, people, ordinary human beings, will come and look at it, or if you do a cybercast, consumers will be watching it.
Ms. McGraw: If you're business-to-business, it goes back to something all of us have echoed, it goes back to trends. It's easier to break into the popular consumer press with a business-to-business product if you're picking up on the trends that are out there. It's near to impossible, and I hate to say this, but it's a waste of time and effort if you're business-to-business trying to break into consumer unless you follow a trend.
When I started at AOL four years ago, believe it or not, we had very, very limited resources and there were all sorts of media. There was online media, there was consumer media, there was business media. We had to pick which to go after with such limited resources and at that time we picked the consumer media. Right or wrong, that meant we didn't even have time to talk to the technology media because we were so understaffed, so under-resourced, and so we chose on purpose to break through to the consumer media. A lot of that breakthrough really happened on trends, because four years ago nobody was writing about online services and nobody was writing about the Internet, so we really had to wait for trends and actually wait for our competitors to make announcements, for us to then be able to almost hop on the bandwagon of our competitors' announcements and say, "Hey, this is what we're doing," or "Hey, this is how we're different," so it was actually very difficult for AOL to break into the consumer press.
In my beginning stages at AOL, I would make lots of phone calls. Nobody knew who we were, nobody cared, nobody wanted to write about the Internet. I know that seems unreal, but four years ago that's how it was, and so we leveraged trends and we leveraged what our competitors were doing to try to break into the consumer market.
--where does PR fit?
Laura Weisman, Benton Foundation: I'm just curious, from the corporate communicators, how do you see the PR advice you've been giving fitting into your larger marketing plans, whether it's advertising online and offline, strategic partnerships. I'm wondering how you see the whole picture as opposed to this one element of a bigger picture?
Mr. Austin: Well, for NetStart, I have a direct sales force that is out talking to companies about our solution and how we can help them with recruiting. PR helps start the sales process-hopefully, people have read about us, they've seen us in some way, shape, or form. Again, if you look at the sales funnel, PR usually puts people at the top of the funnel and then we use other techniques like a direct mail or maybe some limited print advertising to pull them on through the funnel and actually close the business. So it's very simple for us in so far as we try to get people lined up to understand our solution.
One of the side benefits of PR-that for a small company adds credibility-is that your little press release is part of a packet that you hand to businesses. Even though it may not have done well in the press, it adds a lot of credibility. It shows that you're making a lot of moves and you're doing a lot of things and you've got some things to talk about. So we used press releases six months ago as collateral just to help people further understand what we're all about. There are some side benefits as sales tools for some of the PR pieces we have.
Ms. DeFife: We're using the PR as one prong. We're testing right now our advertising to see what the most effective placement is. We've just taken ads on National Public Radio's (NPR) All Things Considered. Starting in the middle of this month, we'll do some direct mail and some advertising through women's magazines to test-we haven't tested that as well as we have our PR campaign at this point. We also market through the professional women/women business owners organizations in this country by getting them to participate with us. They then send out information directly to their members and through their newsletters to articles, etc. We also voluntarily ask for registration for a weekly newsletter when you come to our site and we send out an email distribution every week about what's going on with the company, what's going on with the site this week, so it's drawing them back everyday. We've found that, too, has been extremely successful and that doesn't cost us any money, so we're really testing a lot of different options.
Audience Member: I think that's kind of a segue, Susan, to my question, and that is, really, what is the least expensive way to get the most out of your press releases and do you need a different type of press release for different types of media?
Ms. DeFife: I don't think you need a different press release for different types of media, just knowing that some media's going to be interested in one release and others won't be. We target the women, the business and the technology reporters. The press releases have probably been one of the least expensive ways that we've gone out and gotten press. Now we did hire someone eventually because we didn't feel that we could do that ourselves. I think the most important thing is that that first paragraph catches somebody right off the bat. As Gene was saying, "It's a headline," and the headline has to grab and the first paragraph has to grab. Same thing when you're sending your email inquiry to the reporters-you have to grab them right off the bat. I think that's the thing that we have been most successful with.
Mr. Barrett: I'd just add as a writer that don't make the mistake of getting overly technical in a press release, even for the business press. I'll tell you, I'm a writer, I'm not a technocrat, so it's much better for me to understand. Even when I do understand an industry really deeply, make it simple, make it clear, and don't get too technical because people will glaze over on you, even experienced technology reporters will glaze if it just gets too technical, so please don't do that.
Ms. DeFife: And I think if we are all talking about a landscape of limited resources and we know there's lot of media outlets out there, putting your release on the wire is one way to get it out to everybody, but just really homing in on those specific media outlets that you know you have the resources to follow up and speak with. I think a more focused strategy is helpful in limited resources than trying to reach everybody.
Mr. Austin: It's the first page of the press release. If your first page doesn't captivate them, they're not going to go to the other pages. And don't spend a lot of time on the quotations. Everybody puts in quotes from various people. Get reasonable quotes, but quotes are not the lifeblood in a press release.
Audience Member: Could you elaborate on the quotes? Why? Why not?
Mr. Austin: Well, what you're trying to do with quotes in a press release, first of all, an executive in the company is trying to use that quotation space to further position your announcement, and then usually you have some third party endorsing it, it's either a customer, an analyst, or what have you. But it's become so standard in the industry to have quotes from an executive of a company as well as a third party that it's no longer unique and I think the press community is fairly numb to what's there. So that's why I think the focus should be on what's the headline and in the first paragraph. What am I trying to convince them is so special that they ought to jump through the rest of the materials I've sent or give me a call?
Mr. Chandrasekaran: I never use quotes from press releases, never. Unless it's companies under fire and they're putting out a terse two paragraph statement that gets quoted from. If you're trying to pitch a product or a service or what not, it's fine to put them in there. Some people may use them, but I want to talk to all those people firsthand.
Mr. Austin: Here's something we did that might interest you. There's a service called NAPS-North American Press Syndicate. NAPS is an interesting thing that I have been pretty happy with. We went out and subscribed to the service. It's $3,000 and they guarantee 400 hits, so 400 write-ups of what you're doing. Now you script an article, we did it on CareerBuilder, and that article mostly plays in second and third tier newspapers. To Pam's point, you'll see it in the Vienna Times or some of the suburban papers of the larger cities. We have gotten a lot of response from people at our site; we ask, "How did you hear about us?" and a lot of these second and third tier newspapers have popped up and that has to be the NAPS article because we're not talking to reporters from those papers. I found that pretty cost effective. When I first saw it, $3,000 for 400-second, third-tier newspapers, I didn't think it was a big deal, but it's actually turned into something pretty good -and you have full editorial authority, you're the one writing it. They kind of spin it to look like a news article, but it's really basically your deal and it's very cost effective press.
Ms. McGraw: We use PR Newswire. We send our press releases out and it does cost us about $300 or $400 per press release, but it is your press release, it goes out, a lot of papers will pick it up, but more importantly for us it goes to all of the push technology, all of the push services, so we get a lot of hits from people who have seen it on Pointcast or whatever might be out there, so for us that's also effective in terms of building traffic.
Mr. Barrett: I would just jump on here and say it's very handy for us to hear about something before it goes on the wire. We can get a jump start on it. Most of the times many publications will agree to embargo so we can come out the same day that a press release comes out if it's something big that we think is important. Even better if we can beat your release out, even if it's by a few hours or a day. That really is very attractive to a news organization. Again, the story needs to be compelling, we need to be excited about it.
Mr. Chandrasekaran: The slicker the media kit, that doesn't mean I'm more interested in it. It's the substance behind what you've got there, so don't feel compelled to have this really thick packet that you send the media with lots and lots of glossy brochures in it. That doesn't guarantee anything.
approval, and some pointers
Hank Levine, Spinoff Development Alliance: I just wanted to share a few things that I did with a previous company that I sold about five years ago because we had a very, very successful PR campaign. The first thing we did was to have a very targeted approach to the periodicals that we wanted to reach and we would read all the back issues and then we would contact someone. This was pre email, so we would call someone and we would always start the conversation, rather than talking about our company and our product, we would say, "Hey, I read your article that you wrote about new electronics in cars and it was really interesting because ...." Reporters loved it because they love to hear about things that they worked on and then we would just segue right into, "And, by the way, we have an electronic product that you'd be very interested in, too, that's similar to what you wrote about." We found that just an absolutely great way to get interest.
The other thing that we found, it was amazing, but we would get these articles written and at the end we would say, "Boy, we've covered a lot of ground. We've talked about a lot of technology. Would you like to read back some of the article to me or perhaps fax it to me for fact checking to make sure that it's all accurate?" And about a third of them would fax it to us and we would have a lot of ability to edit it and make it like our article, and the articles were like our press releases when we were done. It was astonishing. I'm not saying everyone, but literally about a third of them would fax you the entire article and most of them would at least read you an area or two where they weren't quite sure they had it right and you could tweak it.
The last thing is: get reprints, because reprints are third-party endorsements. They are unbelievable and we would just pass them out to everybody and they just had so much more credibility than your own advertisement.
Mr. Barrett: Let me just jump in for a second because I think an important issue's come up. The really top tier publications in any field will not allow preview for publication approval and the reason for that is mostly legal. If something is written that you disagree with or you feel is libelous, then you could threaten a lawsuit and say, "If you print that, well, we're going to sue you for $100 million." That's what the lawyers will tell you.
Journalists will tell you, "Don't touch my stuff!" because our job is to be objective, cover all sides, find the angle and give as accurate information as we can. We're not looking for a company to come in later and say, "Well, by the way, we'd like you to spin it this way." Some magazines may be willing to do that, but I think you need to make sure you respect the writer's independence. That's really important, so don't be surprised. You can always ask; people ask me, "Will you send it to me ahead of time?" and I say, "No, we really don't have pre-publication approval," and most people understand that. I think you really need to understand that because if we gave everything back for pre-publication approval, would anything be worth reading? No, on the whole, it would all read like ad copy, in the worst case scenario. Now, fact checking is important, and I do that from time to time if I'm in an area that's technical that I don't understand. I often do that, and I will also be happy to check quotes with people and I think that's only fair.
Mr. Chandrasekaran: I wholly agree with everything Randy has said. It doesn't mean that I will never fax a copy of a story or read back a story to some one before it appears. It doesn't mean that I'm not interested in being accurate. I think that when dealing with the larger news organizations and the trade publications that also have these rules, to take the time to answer all the minute questions that are out there, that it's often helpful to talk out a lot of the technical details and I think that just having a good, in-depth conversation and making the appropriate people at a company available to a reporter will ensure that it comes out very accurately.
It's when you can't get in touch with people and the press release is written in a convoluted way, then it doesn't quite come out making sense in the newspaper. The other thing that needs to be mentioned is when you are approaching the media and trying to pitch your story, you're opening your company up to coverage, you have to realize that it's sort of a double-edged sword. By sending out a press release, by embarking on a PR campaign, it doesn't always mean that everything will come out rosy. It's the difference between paying several tens of thousands of dollars for an ad in The Washington Post versus contacting a reporter.
When you buy space in the media, you can control the message. When you are looking for a reporter to cover you, you're going to try your best at spinning it. It's my job to un-spin that. That's why I get paid. It's not to sit there and lap up your press release and rewrite it using a few different adjectives and get it into the paper. It's to vet this out, to see whether it is legitimate, whether it makes sense, whether it is of interest to other people out there and just how legitimate it is. It's to talk to other people, people that you haven't offered up to me on a silver platter, to see and to honestly evaluate and comment on what you're doing. I will tell you that more often than not things generally come out pretty positively.
Companies, small companies, I mean in the context here, small companies don't generally come up to news organizations and try to pitch stuff that winds up coming smack and hitting them in the face. But you can't be guaranteed that every sentence is going to be perfect. I think that in most articles I write about small technology companies in the Washington area, there's always some sort of caveats put in, there are some doubts raised about the future prospect of this or questions raised about competition, what not, and that's what makes it balanced and that's what gives it legitimacy and that's why someone will have a different approach when reading a news story about it than reading an advertisement about a product.
--press kits, wire
services and other tools
Raj Khera, GovCon: I have a three-part question. One is which do you find more effective: a press release or a media kit, and when do you recommend each be used? The second part is which of the PR sources do you prefer to get information from and which don't you like? I see on the list here we've got Business Wire, PR Newswire, News Bureau and so on. Are there any ones that you recommend or don't recommend?
And the last part-the Netpreneur Program is participating in what I think is a wonderful experiment with the ProfNet service in which reporters can actually post queries on the types of articles they're writing. I get about maybe a 20-30% response from reporters when I actually try to contact them which I think is pretty good, because you can't expect to hit everything, but do you have any comments on that? Does anybody have any comments? I don't know if you remember all my questions.
Mr. Chandrasekaran: The first question was press release versus media kit. Generally a media kit involves a press release as part of it, but there's also lots of background material, annual report, product brochures, what not. Both are fine. I have a huge stack of media kits by my desk and every now and again I get in a cleaning frenzy and toss most of them in the garbage. They're good to leaf through, it provides some decent background, a press release generally is sort of focused on one event and if you're a small company, the other stuff in the media kit is helpful to put it in context. I think a lot of what you might have in a slick media kit could well be stapled to the back of a press release, including a few photocopies of other articles, or a brief Q&A, some background, etc. It doesn't have to come in a nice, 4-color, glossy folder.
Mr. Barrett: Let me add to that for a second. We use the media kits when we make a phone call or get a phone call inquiring about
featre stories. There's no reason just to send out blanket media kits, but if we've made a phone call to initiate a feature, the press kit is very helpful for all of the background information, as Rajiv was saying. And the press release really goes out on its own as a current news event.
Mr. Khera: So you use the media kit as a follow up, almost?
Ms. DeFife: We will make initial contact suggesting a feature story and the media kit comes as a follow up to that phone call, because the reporter has already expressed an interest and says, "Yes, send me information, I'm looking to find out more about you." But we don't just blanket the press with media kits.
Mr. Khera: The second question was which sources of PR do you prefer and which don't you like, PR Newswire, things like that.
Mr. Chandrasekaran: I get everything on my computer. I have Associated Press, Reuters, PR Newswire, Business Wire, Bloomberg, all of that. More than I can handle. So, what that actually means is, if you think you have an interesting release, simply putting it out on the wires generally isn't enough to grab my attention. We have an editor whose sole job-I pity this person-is to sit in front of a computer terminal and scan the wires looking for everything and anything interesting that could be in tomorrow's Post and generally they will flag stuff, send it my direction, and I will look at it. But if you have something that you think is interesting and worthy of my attention, fax it to me or email it to me or give me a quick phone call and call my attention to something and I will generally say, "OK, I'll take a look at it," and that's the best way.
Mr. Khera: Any thoughts on ProfNet?
Mr. Oatley: For those who don't know, ProfNet is a service where researchers and journalists send in queries when they're working on stories. It's distributed to thousands of subscribers and the subscription price varies depending on what kind of organization you are. What Raj is talking about is that the Netpreneur Program, through the Morino Institute, has a subscription to ProfNet and we go over those queries looking for ones that might be applicable to netpreneurs in the Talk The Talk email discussion group (http://netpreneur.org/connect/talktalk). ProfNet allows us to redistribute just the subject of the query to people in that group, who can follow up with the reporters through the Netpreneur Program.
Mr. Barrett: Let me just jump in for a second. This looks like an earlier question about how to become an expert in areas. I subscribe to probably six or seven different lists, mailing lists on the Net, and they come into my email. I'm sure Rajiv does, too. It's a great way for me to track the industry and I often, when I'm working on stories, will say, "I'm working on this area. Does anybody have any experience? Give me a call." I do that probably twice a day, at least, and it's a wonderful resource for a writer because automatically I've got an incredible audience of people who know a lot more about something than I do, so I really recommend getting on the list and if you see journalists who are on them, and often you'll see them there, saying, "Hey, I'm working on a story on XYZ." It's a great way to get your oar in the water.
Mr. Austin: On the news wire thing, real quick, when you do a press launch of any kind, what we do anyway, is we target the publications we're going after and the reporter or other person involved in it. We don't expect PR Newswire or BusinessWire or any one of the other wire services to catch those people. You've got to do something very different there. But what we do is for three or four hundred bucks, to Susan's point, you can put it out on the wire and you might grab a couple people off of that, that for some reason might be right in the middle of writing a story on recruiting on the Web and the timing's perfect and so you end up getting some extra benefits, but it's pretty inexpensive to go out and just broadcast the whole thing. You've got to be real targeted how you go about a launch and the wire won't do that for you.
Mr. Chandrasekaran: Just one quick comment on ProfNet. It used to be great, two years ago, when you would put out a request and you'd actually hear back from professors. Now, you put out a request and you hear back from lots and lots of PR agencies and I've stopped using ProfNet for precisely that reason, because I'm not hearing back from academics, I'm hearing back from public relations people. Now, that said, I've occasionally used it, some of my colleagues occasionally use it. If you're going to participate in it, my advice would be, "Don't respond with a PR person, but if you perhaps have a scientific advisor or one of your founders or one of your employees who has some sort of academic credentials, then have them get on there." I think that reporters generally turn to that when they're trying to look for some sort of academic sources, not specifically industry sources.
Leon Harris, Chaos New Media: The question I have is about a topic the panel touched on briefly earlier regarding the number of press releases that you send out for products and services. I was wondering if you all could elaborate a bit on coordinating and/or staggering press releases you send out.
Ms. DeFife: Well, I think the first point is you really need to have news to put out a press release. A lot of people will just put out press releases. But you have to really put it through the acid test. Is it newsworthy? Is it new? Is it a trend release? Is it an issues-oriented release? It has to be something new. I wouldn't advise putting out a press release for the sake of putting out a press release. If you have an overall plan, whether it's a 3-, 6-, 9-, or 12-month plan of what news you think your organization is going to have over that time period, you can start creating releases for different time periods. That said, I think most people have had good experience, if you have news and you put out releases consistently, you will end up with people suddenly becoming aware of your company. Seeing a string of news releases and putting the overall picture together. But I guess my main advice is there's no secret time frame for putting out a release every week or every other week. I think it's really driven by news and what your overall strategy is-if you're promoting the company or the product or the service.
Mr. Austin: I would agree. We subscribe to the Big Bang theory in PR in that we like to have a fairly significant announcement and not just, "We added a partner here," or "We did this," or "We did that." We like to have a couple of messages that reinforce our overall strategy. That would be what I would call a launch. Now that doesn't mean when we sign up a partner that we won't issue a press release and maybe do a very small amount of PR work, but most of the time we're trying to look about every three or four months for something fairly big that we're going to put a pretty good push on to our target publications.
Ms. DeFife: We're at a stage right now where we've got so many announcements going on that it's got to be newsworthy. But we've had so many great things that we've had to put together a schedule for six weeks out that says, "This is what we're releasing when," and we have to be very careful not to step on ourselves. The newsletter I mentioned is sent out every Monday and we don't touch anything for the next couple of days, at least. Last week, we had a really nice Reuters story and we said, "Hold everything else, because the Reuters story is out there. It's really great and we're getting a lot of coverage from it." So we bumped a couple of the press releases, in fact announcing a new board member, who will be just terrific for us, until next week because we had some really good things going on. So you really need to be careful not to step on your story.
Anita Brown, Black Geeks Online: I am about being a personality in this region, a phenomenon to some extent. I came on AOL in November '94 to sell my T-shirts. I quickly became known as the Email Queen because I sent a lot of email talking about my shirts. I met a lot of people. It turned out those people became the people who gave my name to the press as somebody to talk to about African Americans and the Internet. I'm saying this because there are a lot of ways you can get free publicity.
I do it the real grassroots way. I went in chat rooms and met people. I had no Web site. In fact, to this day, I have no Web site for my T-shirts. I have a listing in Cybermart and I had a shop in another mall, because the Email Queen thing took off and I became this kind of hub for organizing blacks into a virtual community online and now we do have a Web site for that, Black Geeks Online. But I want to tell you some of the things I did that worked.
I wrote the equivalent of a press release saying, "Miss DC Takes T-Shirt Business from Her Basement to the Internet." It's too long for a headline but it worked. And I honed it; it was an email attachment. In fact, at that point I didn't know how to attach a file. It was a copy/paste. And people say, "Tell me more about your T-shirts," and I'm lazy, so I copy/paste sent it. Then I found out you could copy/paste it to 50 people and send it. I would read it every now and then and kind of hone it. Ultimately, I sent it to some local newspapers, and they'd print it just like I wrote it-same headline, three papers. People at a conference, they see a black tech firm set up and they say, "We want to do an interview. Can you recommend somebody?" Well, you're going to remember the Email Queen, email@example.com. The Boston Globe called me. I always ask people, "Where'd you get my name?" because I don't have a Web site. "Six people must have told me to call you."
I got a quote in The Boston Globe two years ago. I got a quote, in fact, the bottom line quote, in a Newsweek article that said, "Indeed, African Americans weren't on the Net." They said, "There's one holed up and she lives in DC"
But I do other things. I sent an inspirational message, started out going to just my brother, it now goes to over 300 people. That's something I do out of my heart. So you go on and you post messages to message boards. Stay away from the classifieds. Ultimately, I was thrust into this role as founder of Black Geeks Online, and again, you have to wait until you have a story. I decided on a coming out party, although we'd been around for over a year and the Web site still wasn't where I needed it to be, though I was doing email publications, a full-fledged newsletter and updated bulletins on jobs that come to me, because when you get to be the Email Queen you become one of the press sources for these folks. I decided to launch my event on the Fourth of July weekend-the 5th of July. I assumed it was a slow press day and with help from some pros we wrote a page and a half press release. We held out because we weren't sure Sinbad was going to be our interactive participant. He was, but he wasn't. He was there and ready to go but his computer wouldn't work. He even bought a new computer trying to get into our event. Long story short. That's what I did. We had national Fox news coverage, local Fox, News Channel 8, The Washington Post, Fast Forward. NPR interviewed me that morning, a WOL radio interview, it was all grass roots.
You can get articles written about you that you post in areas like Your Business on AOL, in a women's area, as a matter of fact. So, in a lot of ways, Susan and I do the same thing. We're building virtual communities, but we need to take advantage of the Net to promote what we do and to become a persona. Now, quiet as it's kept, I'm a very shy person. One thing that helped me get over that was I think I've created these icons. There's Miss DC, there's the Email Queen, there's Sistah Geek, and I kind of don't see them as me. Another thing is when anybody calls, I find out who they are. I had a call two years ago from a woman who wanted to verify a Web site or something about me, and I said, "Why are you calling?" "Well, I'm doing a report for Essence magazine." I told her more than she ever wanted to know about me. She ended up on my inspirational list, she wrote the story, they decided not to cover me because they wanted Tech Queen Mamas and not a local kind of person. July '95 I was featured in Essence as head geek in charge, founder Black Geeks Online. But you just put it out there, you just put it out there.
One more. A lady called about a week, two weeks ago, to see if I knew of art galleries where black art from London on digital whatever could be put up. I kind of told her who I thought I knew. Come to find out she wants to write an article on me for an Australian publication. And it goes on like that. I refer a lot of other people, too.
-- demos and multimedia
Bern Solnik, sayYES Productions: I'll direct this to the two reporters on the panel. We do music for multimedia projects. We're always looking for new avenues to add our music to, and I was wondering if you had ever received any less traditional forms of PR pitches, maybe something that involved multimedia sound or video or what not, that you found particularly effective?
Mr. Chandrasekaran: You know, we don't use typewriters anymore, but the computers at our desks are pretty darn close. I have a 486 with no CD-ROM drive and what not, so if you want to send me a CD, no luck there. I have to take it home and sometimes I'll do it, but it will probably collect dust on my desk. Likewise, if you're sending me a rich email document with a sound clip, I don't have a sound card at work. So, we might want to stick to the traditional stuff on paper; email is good, I do that. The other thing that sometimes people try to do, I don't know if this is PR agencies on speed or what not, they send these big Day-Glow trinkets with a packet. You'll get a press release that's buried in a box that looks like a hidden treasure, with a screwdriver to open it. I'm not going to go through that. It goes right in the garbage can. If you want to send lots of food and free gifts, T-shirts and stuff like that, I can't accept it. The Post has a gift policy. It gets sent to kids at Children's Hospital. So your sweet things can go make diabetics out of the kids over there, not me. So, generally the straight and narrow, on paper, over the fax, by email, over the telephone, these generally are the best way to get our attention. Then if you have other materials you can send after having a conversation with us-when we decide on a format-if there is something that you can send me in a multimedia form that I know I can receive, that's great, but the traditional approach is the best to get in the door.
Mr. Barrett: Let me just jump on that real quick. A demo is always preferable over something complex; a demo is always stronger. If you can set up a demo, I always like to meet with people face to face and I would say at anytime that should be the first option. If there's a writer that you know or a reporter that you know covers your area, get to know them, introduce yourself, show them a demo of your company. That's what we're here to do is to cover what you do. The more face-to-face interaction you have, the better off you are.
Mr. Chandrasekaran: I want to very quickly add on to that. Demos are wonderful. I love to have people come in. I generally try to do them very quickly in the morning, 20 to 30 minutes. Don't come in with a laptop with a Powerpoint presentation. It really irks me. Show me the real thing. Show me a cached version on your hard drive or set up something that we can just use a phone line to do, but if it's a demo, demonstrate the product, don't give me a pitch you'd give to a venture capitalist.
--using your website
Paul Albert, Route Link: This is to the journalists. What do you think about nontraditional media kits put up on the Web rather than on paper?
Mr. Barrett: I need to have a real release, to go from a real letter, something that I can read first. I'm not going to jump to a URL site unseen. But if you can capture my interest in a one-page or half-page release or letter or pitch to me, that includes the URL, it's very easy for me to pull it up and take a look and see more. And I often will do that, so if you have a Web site, don't hesitate to mention it on your release, because sometimes after reading a release, I want to find out a little bit more about a company and not having a media kit handy, I will go and click in the About Our Company section of somebody's Web site to see who the players are. It might indicate the partners, who's giving funding and other information that helps me gauge my interest level in a story.
Mr. Oatley: A quick observation from the moderator. One of the things I do for the Netpreneur Program is putting together the Netpreneur News email broadcast (http://netpreneur.org/news). It frankly astounds me the number of Internet companies that send out press releases that don't have their URL. I'd be surprised if more than 60% of the press releases that I see have a URL, and
these are Internet-based companies.
Mr. Barrett: I'd like to jump on that. If you haven't already, then put up what we call an "industry duh" page on your Web site. A duh page is the name of the company, the full name, your address, your telephone number, etc. I can't tell you the amount of time I waste in a day trying to find that information on Web sites. Put it right up there-you'll save everybody trouble and you'll probably get a reporter to call you.
Mr. Chandrasekaran: Yes, in the How To Contact Us section, make sure you have a little button for press and investor contact information.
Stephen Miller: My name's Stephen Miller. I'm a professional in residence here at the Freedom Forum. I'm also an editor at the New York Times on leave. I was just sitting here trying to soak this in, but I think I needed to jump in as another member of the press to talk to you about how to handle this. The one thing that has been driving me crazy, because I cover technology at the paper, is the fact that you people who ought to be using the Internet better than anybody are really, really bad about your press sections on your Web sites. At 4:00, when I'm on deadline, and I need some information, or at 5:00 or 6:00 when nobody's around, I can't reach any of you people on the phone, I can't get basic information off your Web site, and I should be able to. So, please, when you create a Web site, put in a really good press section. I want names and phone numbers who I can call after hours if I need to and there are ways of setting up the press section so that it's only for press-that we have to register to get in. I don't mind registering to go into a press site so that I can now get in after hours to find out anything I need to know about the company, your last earnings, those press releases we've been talking about. Make it easy for us in that respect.
One thing that I don't think any of us have focused on, there's sort of a subtext here, is a lot of this is personal relationships. When I find companies and PR people who are straight with me from the beginning, who understand what my problems are and who deal with me that way, they tend to get better press. I know that there's spin they're trying to put on the story. I know that they're trying to make their story known, but they know that I'm not here to do their press releases. I'm here to write a story about them. If you know that I'm not necessarily going to write the best thing about you, but if I know that I can get you to give me a straight answer, or in fact say, "Look, I can't talk about that right now, it's a competitive situation," just be straight with us.
I think that's the one thing that drives all of us crazy is people who are so busy trying to spin us that they don't give us the respect and consideration that not all of us are out to get you. We're trying to do a job. We're trying to write interesting stories for our readers and the best stories are those from people who tell us the truth.
-- finding the right
Ariel Glassman, Network Software Associates: A quick question. In addition to becoming very familiar with the publications in which you're interested, reading the bylines, etc., what's the best way to go about identifying the people I need to speak to instead of, as you mentioned, sending out the same thing to three different people. If I don't get an email back from you, does that mean I should try someone else?
Mr. Chandrasekaran: Yes, if you don't hear back from one reporter, you might want to try somebody else who you think also covers that area. If you call The Post, as an example, you call the Business News desk at The Post, you're going to get a news aide picking up the phone and you can tell them a little bit about what you do and they will tell you who the most relevant reporter is. It's not always a bad thing in starting out a conversation with a reporter to make sure that they are the appropriate person that you talk to. "So, you cover local technology issues, right?" and I can say, "Well, no, I don't do that anymore, but this person does," so you're not wasting anybody's time.
Mr. Barrett: There's also the yellow books, the yellow book of media. I believe the libraries probably have them as well, but you can look in there and see who covers the different topics for the various papers.
Mr. Chandrasekaran: There's always editorial assistants that you can talk to at each of the papers that will really steer you in the right direction.
Greg Young, Logex International: I've got a quick question here for Gene. Just quickly, have you had any success doing a joint press release with some of your larger corporation clients or customers or anybody else and, if so, have you found that they want a lot of control in the press release that you send out?
Mr. Austin: We're actually getting ready to do one. A software company's actually going to be partnering with us on some projects. My view on that is if I'm the little fish, I'd rather ride their bigger coattails, because I'm looking for the endorsement out of the big fish. I kind of let them have control, as much as possible, as long as they don't take liberties on spinning our message. So, I think a very effective PR strategy is an endorsement strategy, where you have varieties of people around you endorsing you for whatever reason. In our case, a software company in the human resources area would be a huge endorsement for us.
Audience Member: We just did that with IBM and it was on their letterhead and we really wanted it on their letterhead.
Mr. Holleran, NVTC: Any do's, don'ts, wisdom on handling bad news, crisis communications?
Ms. McGraw: I would say, "Be honest. Be open."
Mr. Chandrasekaran: Make plenty of your people available.
Ms. McGraw: All kidding aside, the more honest, open, and available you can be in a crisis is really the best way to handle it.
Mr. Barrett: Nothing piques a reporter more than hiding. If you're ducking or hiding, we're going to come right after you because we're going to suspect something's up.
Ms. DeFife: The most successful disaster campaign was Tylenol. The CEO came right out and said, "We're recalling our product. We're going to get to the bottom of this." They never had any problems after that. You continue to see disasters where the CEO didn't come out and say, "OK, we don't know how it happened but we're going to accept responsibility and we're going to take care of it - everything's OK." The only thing I would suggest is, having worked for a governor and dealing with a lot of crises, it's okay to say, "I'll call you back," and sit down for a few minutes and think about what you're going to say and how you're going to say it. They are on deadlines, you have to respond to them, but you can say, "I'll call you back."
Mr. Barrett: Of course, you'd better call them back.
Ms. DeFife: You better call back, but you don't have to respond that instant. You can think about it and make sure that you are kind of doing a role play, what kind of questions am I going to get asked, and yes, I'm going to answer them truthfully, but I'm going to say them in a way that is calm and has been thought out, because your company's on the line.
Ms. McGraw: And sometimes you need to take that time and figure out what really happened. You need to backtrack and figure out what the heck happened so you can talk about it honestly.
Mr. Oatley: We have to let our panel get back to work
now. I want to thank everyone once again for coming, especially
our panelists and the Freedom Forum, which has been a most gracious host.
Just two quick items I'd like to mention. One is to announce that we will be creating an email discussion group to continue this conversation. We invite you to keep this discussion
going among yourselves and to tap the various experts who will participate.
Second, we'd appreciate any comments on this event, the resource materials, or anything else on your mind. Please send any suggestions or comments to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and thanks again for participating.