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Judging by incoming mail, press releases and social media, technology start-ups think we care about their money-raising.

They often spend precious resources telling us how much they have raised or expect to raise.

Start-ups also want to tell us they or were mentioned in an important publication or were invited to take part in an event. I’ve seen press releases boasting about some allegedly famous venture capitalist, who no-one in New Zealand has heard of, making a passing comment about a start-up.

So what?

None of this is news. Almost no-one cares. That’s not media rudeness or arrogance. That’s what access to web stats tells us. We know readers don’t click on those stories. They are not interested.

They don’t care much when the start-up is in their own town and involves people they may know. They care less if the boast comes from a start-up based halfway across the world.

And yet still the deluge of press release material and assorted marketing hype continues to flow.

Bubble

The world of venture capital and start-up finance exist in a bubble. One that rarely connects to the real world.

Things that matter inside the bubble have little resonance outside.

No doubt the latest funding round is of utmost importance to everyone involved in the start-up.

But until there is something tangible to show, the press releases are just so much noise and wasted public relations effort.

They can even harm the business, because journalists will see them as attention-seeking time-wasters and ignore the start-up when there is something worthwhile to say.

For the rest of us, start-ups only become interesting when a product or service ships. The product has to useful or fun. It has to have a real market. It has to be better, cheaper or otherwise different from what has gone before.

Now tell me something interesting

Now here’s the curious thing. Most of the time the product or service being developed is interesting. The idea that kicked-off the start-up may also be interesting. Far more interesting than much of the banal waffle the public relations types push our way.

If you want to create a buzz about a new product, service or other business, tell us why it is better than what went before. Explain how improves lives, saves time, entertains us or boosts productivity.

Don’t bore us with dry financial details, save that stuff for your investors. Instead get us excited about the proposition.

There is a time and place to talk about money. Rod Drury has made some important points in the past about Xero’s war chest and spending strategy. That information is only interesting because we already care about Xero.

Drury and his team told us all the key who, why, what stories years ago. We’re hooked. So when he talks about the money raised and what he intends to do with it, it’s a message worth hearing.

A guide for business owners and others who want publicity. This is an updated version of a story first posted in 2008. 

If you have a product or service to sell, you want the greatest number of potential customers to hear about it.

While word-of-mouth marketing is a great jumping off point when you’re starting, eventually you need to reach a wider audience. This means working with blogs, web sites, newspapers, magazines or broadcast media.

There are two ways to get attention; advertising and publicity. Newcomers often confuse the two. That’s a mistake. They are different and work in parallel universes.

Advertising is always strictly commercial. You buy a fixed amount of space in a printed publication or air time from a radio or TV broadcaster. Online advertising can be display advertising like banners and boom boxes or text ads. All can appear on web sites, in electronic newsletters or even as part of an app.

When you buy advertising you provide the content, or what advertising people call copy, at your cost.

Use advertising professionals

If you’ve enough budget you can hire a creative team to prepare the copy. This costs money, sometimes lots of money. The cost is worth it if you’re running a major campaign: advertising professionals know how to press the right buttons and get results.

Advertising means you get to say where, when and how often the copy will run. You have complete control over the message and its delivery. Well up to a point; some publishers will refuse certain ads and there are laws about what you can and can’t say.

Cost per reader, viewer, listener

Advertising costs depend on audience size: the number of readers, listeners or viewers the media delivers. Experienced advertising buyers think about CPM: the cost of reaching one thousand people.

Publicity isn’t for control freaks

You have little control over publicity. Editors, journalists, photographers and other media professionals make all the important decisions — they won’t consult you. They may listen to you or read your material, they may not.

In principle it depends on your message’s newsworthiness. If your story strikes a chord, they’ll listen.

Journalism ethics

Surprising though it may seem, journalists have an ethical code. They are not for sale. Their job is to keep readers informed regardless of commercial considerations.

This is why you should avoid applying commercial pressure when seeking publicity. Don’t imply you will place advertising in return for favourable treatment.

At best you will insult journalists or offend their professional pride. At worst you will create a situation where ethical considerations mean they either can’t touch your story. They may even choose to take a hostile approach to emphasise their independence.

Professional journalists don’t regard helping your sales as their job. Nor should they.

Media is a business

This may seem confusing. After media companies are commercial businesses. You might think editors and journalist would jump at the chance to make money. However, taking a long-term view is good business. Media properties with a strong ethical code are held in high regard by readers, listeners or viewers.

This means more people get to see editorial. It also means they get to see the advertising. A strong, independent editorial product will deliver better, more involved or wealthier, customers.

At the same time, research shows advertising works best when the editorial is credible.

Who controls the message?

Even when a journalist does respond to your publicity in a largely favourable way, they still get to choose what is said, where it is said and when the story runs.

They choose the angle. They also get to decide how many words to devote to your message and they can choose whether your rivals get to comment or not. An editor might choose to use your supplied photographs or other graphic material, they may not.

A journalist, maybe a sub-editor, will write the headline and captions.

You wouldn’t normally expect to pay money to a publisher when they use your publicity. However, there are some media properties that will ask for a payment in return for running it.

We call it advertorial

Some media businesses might agree to run your vetted publicity material in return for you buying advertising. There’s a whole spectrum of arrangements from total separation of editorial and advertising all the way to properties that are, in effect, nothing but paid advertising.

At the extreme end of the scale you are dealing with vanity publishers – people who will take your money and make you look good. Your mother may like the result, but you won’t sell much.

As a rule, publications that sell editorial integrity are not well-regarded by readers – that’s your customers. Experienced publicity people discount the value of these publications.

Apart from anything else, readers tend to know when they are looking at paid-for editorial and learn to trust it less than truly independent content. In particular, younger, media literate, people are cynical about this kind of material.

One commonly used measure is that four of their readers would be worth one reader of a more prestigious, editorially independent title. That also applies to advertising in these publications – expect to pay less for space in a publication that isn’t fully independent.

Publicity specialists

While many businesses organise their own publicity, others hire specialists.

The most common arrangement involves hiring a public relations or PR consultant. Their job is to know which media properties and media professionals are receptive to which message.

A good PR company can save you time and trouble. They’ll help you prepare your message and train you in the art of handling the inevitable follow-up questions. They’ll help get the message to the right people at the right time.

Some public relations companies have intellectual property tied up with publication and journalist databases. They cultivate contacts and learn the best way to approach each outlet.

No guarantees

Public relations companies rarely guarantee results. You should avoid any PR operator who makes that kind of promise.

One misconception is that publicity is all about issuing press releases or holding press conferences. Both can have a role to play, but most important PR takes place out of sight.

Susan Young lists great tips for public relations professionals in 20 Things Every PR Pro Should Know How to Do. You should read it if you work in communications.

Journalists can learn from it too. We need to deal with public relations people almost every day. It’s important to know how they feel about journalists, how they think and how they pitch stories to us.

Nothing in this list suggests PRs should be anything other than professional. However, it partly explains some of the odd things we see happen. For example:

Pitch, arrange, and attend an interview for a client.

Know the process from beginning to end. Hold your client’s hand as you prepare them for an interview you’ve arranged. Be there for them when they need you. Equally as important: Know when to step back and simply listen.

From a journalist’s point of view, it can be frustrating having PR people sit in on interviews. And annoying when they attempted to control things or argue about the line of questioning.

My favourite point is:

Create the subject line of an email pitch in less than eight words. 

Clarity rules.

If only they could lean this.

Public relations people aren’t paid by the word. Yet for some reason many act like they are. They stretch things out way too far. Likewise, the often get carried away with their client’s jargon or bombast.

Of course public relations professionals are not the only people who need to write tighter copy. Unlike freelance journalists they don’t have the incentive of being paid by the word to be long-winded.

If you have a product or service to sell, you want customers to hear about it.

Word-of-mouth marketing is a great jumping-off point when you’re starting out; eventually you’ll need to reach a wider audience.

Popular web sites, newspapers, magazines, TV and radio have the wider audience. Publicity is an effective way of reaching it.

Publicity often means working with journalists. There are ways of doing this properly and there are traps to avoid. First the background:

Publicity isn’t advertising

Businesses can get media attention through advertising or publicity. They operate in parallel universes.

Advertising is a commercial deal between you and a media company. You buy access to consumers. You provide what the advertising industry calls ‘copy’.

If you’ve got a large budget, hire a creative team to prepare your copy. It is worth it if you’re running a major campaign: talented advertising specialists know how to press the right buttons and get results.

Advertising means you get to say where, when and how often the copy runs. You control the message and the delivery. Up to a point. Some publishers refuse certain ads and there are laws about what you can and can’t say in an advertisement.

Journalists control your message

In contrast, you have almost no control over publicity. Editors, journalists, photographers and other media professionals make the important decisions. They may listen to you, they might not.

It all depends on newsworthiness. If your message strikes a chord, they’ll take notice. If the message is boring, they’ll ignore it.

To get publicity, you must convince journalists your story will interest their readers.

If publicity is that simple, why does it often go wrong?

No easy short cuts

Straightforward marketing messages are rarely newsworthy. Rather than working to find fresh, newsworthy angles, companies look for short cuts.

The most obvious is applying pressure. It can backfire badly.

Some companies imply they will place advertising with a media property in return for favourable editorial treatment.

At best this insults journalists or offends their professional pride. At worst ethical considerations mean they either can’t touch your story or they choose to take a more hostile approach just to prove their independence.

This is good business

You might think editors and journalist would jump at the chance of promised advertising. As we’ll see in a moment, some will.

The best ones won’t. That’s because readers prefer editorial with a strong ethical code.

Not only do more readers read the editorial in an ethical publication; more readers get to see the advertising material. Better still, properties with strong, ethical editorial standards deliver better – more involved or wealthier – customers.

Advertising works best when the editorial is credible.

Their story now

Even when a journalist responds favourably to your publicity pitch, they still get to choose what is said, where it is said and when the story runs. Their loyalty is to readers, not to you.

Journalists get to choose the angle. They decide how many words to devote to your message and they choose whether your rivals comment or not. An editor might use your supplied photographs or other graphic material, they may not. A journalist – usually a sub-editor, will write the headline and captions.

There are media properties that will ask for a payment to run your publicity material or agree to run it if you buy advertising elsewhere. You may be tempted. The audience won’t be as good and you may be disappointed by the results.

Using a specialist publicist

While many businesses organise their own publicity, others hire specialist public relations or PR consultants. Their job is to know which media properties and media professionals are receptive to which message.

A good PR company will save you time and trouble. They’ll prepare your message and train you to handle the inevitable follow-up questions. They’ll make sure the message gets to the right people at the right time.

They cultivate contacts and learn the best way to approach each potential outlet.

Public relations companies rarely guarantee results. You should go out of your way to avoid PR operators making that kind of promise.

Checklist: Dealing with journalists

  • Publicity isn’t advertising. You’re not in control
  • Newsworthiness is everything.
  • Journalists want material that will interest readers
  • Journalists aren’t your sales people
  • Publications with strong editorial values are the best outlets
  • A PR or publicity professional can get better results

“News releases became an anachronism. Online news portals and email killed the underlying functionality of paper releases as a news dissemination tool. The internet delivered news faster, and this was a good thing.”

Gorden G Andrew says the PR industry has effectively committed suicide by abusing the new release system to the point where journalists no longer listen. He says public relations will cease to exist as a profession and as a function.

No big deal, you may think. But Andrew works in marketing and worries press releases and similar communications will come to reflect poorly on the companies paying for these services.

Death by Content: How Press Release Abuse Killed Public Relations | Marketing Craftsmanship.