As editor of Digital.NYC I was regularly approached by startup founders, desperate to get publicity for their companies. The need to be known to customers, potential investors and partners creates this insatiable hunger for publicity. From my limited vantage point it seemed like most startups don’t get this right. So I thought I’d ask a seasoned veteran in the PR space, Laurie Jakobsen, founder of Jaybird Communications. Laurie and I have worked together for a few years, as I’ve regularly covered one of their clients, the New York Tech Meetup group. Let’s hear Laurie’s take on what a good PR firm can, and can’t do for startups, and how to best work with a PR firm.
Laurie Jakobsen Founder of Jaybird Communications
MD: Laurie, before we get into the weeds on all things PR can you give us your background?
LJ: Sure! I started out in the music industry while I was still in college at Tufts University, as a writer for the school paper and local ‘zines. I’ve now been at this 25 years, starting out professionally at a company called Shore Fire Media, where I worked with artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Wynton Marsalis, Everything but the Girl, the family of Jimi Hendrix, and Natalie Merchant. In 1997, I joined N2K, which was one of the first online music companies and was a big part of the Web 1.0, “Silicon Alley” scene. That’s where I met many of the people I still work with today, including Andrew Rasiej, who is now the Chairman of the NY Tech Alliance. I then had a number of positions in the early dot-com years, working with startups and helping established companies transition to digital. Along the way, I got my MBA from NYU’s Stern School of Business, and then I founded Jaybird Communications in November 2009. We focus on strategic marketing communications services for digital businesses, especially startups, B2B, and music-related ventures.
I’ve given a crash course on communications at DWT’s Women Entrepreneurs Bootcamp for the past few years, and I’m a regular mentor for NYU Steinhardt’s Entrepreneurship in the Music Industry capstone course. I’m more involved with that class this year, as I’m the Entrepreneur in Residence for the spring semester. I’ve also spoken at Pace University, General Assembly, and Digital Entertainment Ventures events.
MD: And what is the range of clients you work with? Are they mostly or partly startups?
LJ: I have worked with quite a number of startups over the years! Currently, we’re representing the social VR company Endless Riff, and the professional services connector IndieNinja. It was exciting to recognize the NYC startups Audiokite and Superglued as early stage ideas, and see them build and make it to successful exits. We also helped introduce companies such as Fantrotter, Keli Networks, Qus, and Token.FM. Right now, we also represent the Mixcloud, VNUE, the Association for Independent Music Publishers (AIMP), Music Business Association, and the NY Tech Alliance, of course. My range of clients creates some really interesting synergies, and there’s definitely a “friends of Jaybird” network!
Companies generally want to bring in a PR person when they are at some sort of important inflection point or crisis: launch, acquisition, a critical deal, venture raise, CEO change. So it’s always really interesting work, and we get very close to our clients.
What’s great about having gotten my start in music is the industry was the “canary in the coal mine” for digital. Music was the test case for nearly every kind of internet business, so that experience gives me a lot of insight into all kinds of companies.
MD: Broadly, what does a PR firm do for a company? Is it that fuzzy thing called branding, can it drive customer acquisition or some combination of the two?
LJ: PR should support a business goal for the company, which for startups is often financing and business partnerships. People usually think of “PR” - public relations - as only media placements: stories in newspapers, websites, TV. As such, PR is not the best tool for customer acquisition, that’s really a function of marketing: social media, email campaigns, and advertising. PR in the broader sense - true public relations - should be aligned across all those communication channels, so I often find myself handling elements of that for clients.
Stories in the press do build a company’s credibility with investors, partners, and potential customers, so it is an extremely important part of brand building. Your brand reputation is baked in that “intangible asset” line on the balance sheet - if I’m being flipant, I will tell people to sell their company, and the value you get over your hard assets and income reflects the value of PR.
Because of the wide view they need to have across the industry to do their job well, PR people can be great strategic advisors. It’s really important to involve PR people in discussions about new projects or ideas before they are fully baked, so these insights can still be incorporated into the plan. In the best relationships, it’s a very collaborative process.
MD: Let’s focus on startups for a minute. What can a startup reasonably expect to gain from working with a PR firm and at what point in their growth does it make sense to use one?
LJ: Honestly, the environment for startups in the media is quite tough. There are fewer outlets and reporters looking for the next hot thing that there were even five years ago. The same reporters covering Amazon and Google may be the ones to decide if they want to write about your company. As I like to say, “‘It’s cool’ is not a business model,” and media now want to see much more than an interesting idea. So PR is not something you want to do too early if you don’t have a real product or service ready to go.
The key thing to remember about PR is that it’s storytelling. Do you see yourself as regularly having new elements to your story every 2-3 weeks? That’s when having a PR person on retainer becomes valuable. That said, a PR person can also help you find stories. I often find that companies get so used to what they are doing that they don’t recognize where there’s interesting nuggets for media. For example, my client Music Reports has an amazing database of information about songs, and they want people to know about their depth of knowledge. So in December, we put together a pitch about the most-covered holiday songs in their Songdex data base, and that ultimately got pick up in USA Today. That put together the company’s goal, with a timely hook for media. So you may want to have a consulting session with a pro to help you determine where you are at.
Also, be really clear about your needs. I’ve talked to so many companies that hire the big expensive firm their VC told them to hire, they did not make their launch date, and so spent $45,000 with nothing to show for it. Then what I hear is that they now “hate PR,” which is really unfair. That’s not the fault of the PR company, that’s a hiring mis-match. I’m biased here, but I think most startups are better served by a small PR company or a consultant that can be more flexible and dedicated to the specific focus of the company.
MD: How can companies make best use of a PR company? What are the responsibilities on the part of the company?
LJ: The thing I tell all my companies that have not worked with a PR firm before is that this is not the same kind of outsourcing as building an app or website. It’s likely you’re going to spend more time on PR activities, not less. I need a steady flow of information, and when a story is breaking, we need to have fast responses before the news cycle moves on to something else. PR is also something that builds over time - it’s rare that the first hit will be the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times. So you need to be prepared to commit 3-6 months. You need to be ready to have a steady flow of news, be willing to talk to media, and ready to do conferences and panels - and willing to put in the work to prep yourself if you’re not. I once had a company that did not return my calls or emails for two weeks when we were kicking off. I could not even get a bio written, one of the most basic tools. Then they called, and wanted to know where their Wall Street Journal story was on the launch that was happening in a week. Your PR person can’t make this stuff up out of thin air; they need you. So if you cannot dedicate the time, don’t do it.
Also, it’s really important that you regularly read/watch/listen to the media that covers your industry. This is just another element of the relationship building and networking that you should be doing every day. Knowing who’s covering your space is really important, and you can see what are the current trends. Reporters probably know more about the space than you do, and sometimes can even help turn you on to potential business partners or competitors.
Generally, reporters are looking for stories that either align with readers’ expectations, or have the contrarian view. Friction is interesting. You need to align your desire for a story with the outlet’s need to have people engaged with them. And you need to be realistic about what kind of coverage companies like yours typically get. A PR person will help you refine that, but it’s important that you establish realistic expectations.
MD: And when will a startup know if their PR company is delivery on the promised results? How do they know if their money is being well spent?
LJ: This is such a tricky question, because most tech founders and CEOs want to see a direct correlation: this story lead to X# customers. The reality is not that straight-forward; customers need multiple “touches” before action, and they often can’t recall what made them commit. Your PR person should give you a clear plan of action based on your business goals. I like to translate this into a timeline, and we discuss it every week on a call.
Sometimes PR companies value their media placements by the equivalent advertising spend - what you would have to pay if you placed an ad of the same size as the story, but that’s not a great metric. If you want to be really evolved, you can do a scoring grid: pick a list of your key media outlets, and give each a numerical grade. Then you add factors for length and tone. So each media placements gets a number score, and you can see trends over time: are you getting more coverage in better outlets? Are the pieces longer? Are they more positive or negative?
As someone with more of a B2B bent, I feel this model is better. For example, if you’re trying to get your product in every CVS, a New York Times piece may not be as valuable as a piece in Drug Store News - because the audience you want to take action is likely reading that regularly. So while your friends may be more impressed with the Times, the more valuable story is in the industry trade.
MD: Any final thoughts or advice for founders or their marketing person?
LJ: It’s critical to be a consumer of media and understand where your company fits in the current areas of coverage. It’s natural for entrepreneurs to swing between the extremes of overconfidence and insecurity, so it can be hard to keep a realistic perspective.
Also, the most important thing to remember is any kind of communication has to be tailored to the audience. A big mistake is that people think their message is the most important thing, and if the audience - investors, customers, media, employees - don’t understand it, it’s the audience’s fault. Nope. It’s your responsibility to figure out how to help your target audience understand, and that’s the skill of a professional PR person.
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