Iterations: Inception, Courtesy of Public Relations

For the past two years, I’ve been writing opinion columns on TechCrunch, which has been a lot of fun. I haven’t been great, however, about pulling those columns here on my blog the next day and sharing them with you all. I’ve noticed that many people don’t even see my Sunday column on TechCrunch, and there are many reasons for that. So, for the next month or two, I’ll be posting more here and also building out parts of the site. I’m open to any suggestions or requests (this isn’t only *my* blog!), and I’d encourage you to subscribe by email — and share with your friends over email.

Here’s my “Iterations” column from last Sunday, February 24, 2013 on how the early-stage technology startup world interacts with public relations. I was surprised with the reaction because (1) many founders emailed me to ask questions about best practices for this; (2) many PR professionals contacted me that they were happy about the piece; and (3) however, they weren’t happy with my statement that true PR is near-impossible to measure. I will still stand by that statement, because either people buzz about your company, or they don’t. There’s no in-between.


incept totem

Feb 24, 2013: Editor’s Note: Semil Shah is a contributor toTechCrunch. You can follow him on Twitter at@semil.

“FOR every reporter employed in America, around six people work in public relations: a few too many, some might think.” So began The Economist’s obituary for Daniel Edelman in January 2013, a sharp eulogy commemorating the life of a public relations giant. For decades, Edelman, in addition to founding and running the firm that bears his name today, successfully convinced legions of companies and brands to work with him to win the “air game” of public relations.

In Edelman’s mid-20th Century America, the ratio of PR professionals to reporters was nowhere what it is today. And, in our insular world of technology startups (and some startups aren’t “tech startups,” just so we’re clear about the facts), there are a staggering number of smart people who work in tech PR relative to the number of full-time tech reporters. I don’t have the statistics to support this claim, but having been a long-time contributor to this site, I just feel it, and I’d bet you do as well.

The first question, then, is “Why?” – Why is this world of tech startups able to support so much PR activity?

Before we answer this question, we must not conflate advertising or marketing with PR. In grossly simplified terms, marketing creates a platform for sales. Advertising is a costly technique to bring potential clients and customers to one’s marketing platform in order to make a sale. But, the work of public relations, or “PR,” is the dark art that’s impossible to measure, the craft of indirectly encouraging or persuading the crowd to seemingly engage in organic chatter about something, to somehow become a natural part of an ongoing conversation that, over time, incepts the audience to become, somewhat unknowingly, evangelists for a certain point of view. It’s Don Draper with asplash of Dominick Cobb.

Why, then, does PR still exert power in a world we were are constantly told it’s *all* about engineering, product, and design?

Let me count the ways. The current pace at which new companies form or launch makes it difficult for the crowd to sort these signals properly, and makes it difficult for tech reporters (hence,Techmeme) and investors (hence, AngelList) to keep tabs on ones that (may) matter. This pace creates enough noise to sometimes positively impact efforts around fundraising, recruiting, or partnerships. Engaging in PR, then, merits serious consideration. However, early-stage tech startups aren’t often keen to hire non-technical folks with PR-like experience to join their teams full-time, so engaging with an agency on a retainer-basis — while not cheap — becomes a viable option. To boot, many of the best VC firms funding these startups also invest in their own PR because it’s critical to their business in today’s climate, so why shouldn’t portfolio companies do the same?

It’s easy to stop here and proclaim it’s all about “product, product, and product,” and to blame the PR firms and professionals, but that would be a lazy and misguided conclusion. For many startups, PR definitely has a seat at the table. PR firms aren’t to blame. The fact is, there is real economic demanddirectly from entrepreneurs and investors for their expertise, so we must then ask, “Why is there demand to begin with?”

There’s demand for PR because there are too many “tech startups.” There’s demand for PR because everyone is starting something, entrepreneurship is mainstream and “cool,” and consumer attention spans are under constant attack. There’s demand for PR because acqui-hired startups and their acquirers want save face or sell a story. Even in cases where startups don’t engage with PR firms, agencies, or consultants, many actively coordinate pre-launch games to manufacture “buzz” and hits on social media to get the word out cheaply and loudly.

PR, when it hits, scales. Thoughtful content-marketing paired social media scales. The monthly line item for PR, while pricey, can be slashed in a pinch and is easier to cut than having to let go of a full-time employee. Effective PR can send the right whispers in the ears of potential investors and recruits, all of which help create real economic value for all shareholders in the event of a financing or acquisition.

The list goes on and on. Generally speaking, for early-stage tech startups in the Valley, considering PR is a complicated decision because it initially seems to buck conventional wisdom, which commands that all companies to focus primarily on product and recruiting. Yet, on the other hand, most engineering- and product-focused teams in the early-stages (meaning, up to Series B) aren’t often in the mindset to hire someone who has this type of nontechnical experience. Most of the PR talent, as a result, stays at the agencies, probably because those folks want to be in control of their workflow rather than shoulder the uncertainty that comes with being a nontechnical employee at an early-stage tech startup in 2013.

We must all be cognizant of the fact that tech PR professionals are in demand and very good at what they do. Many of them work for the companies you read about in the tech blogs or help the folks you see on stage at conferences, and many of them engage with the investment firms that fund them in the first place. As they are flush with deep relationships, a steady flow of a new business, and recurring accounts, we cannot fully understand how deep their collective influence runs because its effects are cumulative and impossible to quantify.

But, I can tell you this…for startups that have begun to enter the phases around Series A into the growth phase, PR oftentimes pays dividends over and above the monthly retainer fees. Coordinated PR has the potency to incept investors and spur them to debate the merits of and mull over a specific investment opportunity. Well-crafted PR can impact M&A. Orchestrated PR around a company’s technical brand helps attract candidates. And, PR can, over time, create a soft but constant drumbeat that spreads as the crowd continues to chatter. Behind most stories we read, there likely is a Don Draper shaping the narrative, so we must all try to channel Dominick Cobb and examine the totem we see spinning before our eyes.

Photo Credit: Leonardo DiCaprio as Dominick Cobb in Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.”