What Startups Can Learn About PR and Crisis Management

What Startups Can Learn About PR and Crisis Management

I was recently approached by Fast Company to comment on “crisis management” at startups in the wake of the Airbnb “ranksackgate” story. I agreed to do the interview because the story was about what other companies can learn rather than about airbnb in particular.

What are the teachable moments? The short article in Fast Company is here if you’d like to read it.

In a nutshell — I think airbnb eventually got to the right place and I was impressed with the letter their founder Brian Chesky wrote and their new commitment to safety and damages. Obviously they wish they would have figured this out a bit more quickly, but as a young team I personally cut them a little bit more slack than I would if it were Oracle, for example.

And as long as people put things right and show contrition, situations like this eventually become a “tempest in a teapot.” Today’s Internet titans are filled with such momentary lapses.

But I thought I’d use the situation to talk more broadly about some PR lessons you might learn for your own business and also incorporate some situations I’ve faced recently with some portfolio companies.

1. If You Don’t Shape Your Story, Somebody Else Will
My golden rule of public relations is that “if you don’t shape your story somebody else will.” We see this in politics all the time. Think John Kerry and the “swift boat” scandal. Whatever your political view we can all agree that John Kerry is a terrible communicator. He’s verbose, often off message and wooden.

During the 2004 election he was accused of having made up material facts from his service in the Vietnam War in an election against somebody who didn’t serve in a war. How do you lose that debate?

Simple: he let other people tell the story. He didn’t respond quickly and forcefully. Journalists write stories that have an appeal to readers whether the accusations have merit or not. Just look at the silly Obama birther debate that we wasted so many news cycles on.

You know the saying, nature abhors a vacuum. The story will get written whether you want it to or not.

Don’t be “swiftboated.” Shape your own story.

2. Understand the Gravity of the Situation for Your Customers
So how do you know when to publicly come forward with information and when to not do so? Is it ever appropriate to just let a news cycle pass assuming the story will move on and die down? The obvious starting points to think to yourself are:

  • Has something happened that fundamentally affects my customers or partners?
  • Is there a story that negatively affects how people perceive my brand?
  • Is there a reason I need to communicate to my constituents?
  • Is there a need to change my policies, announce a mea culpa or get a topic focused on the right points?

If you’ve done something that is wrong you should put it right immediately. Do not expect it to blow over. The perception of your brand by not responding will not recover. You cannot seem overly defensive. If you believe that journalists or competitors are telling a story that isn’t right you need to put that straight. Do so by winning the hearts and minds on substantive talking points rather than attacking others. Attacking always comes across as petty.

3. Don’t Bury Bad News
If you have information about a situation that has gone terribly wrong don’t cover it up. Remember that the cover up always ends up worse that the actual infraction. We learned that from the original “gate.” If you were hacked and customer passwords were stolen, get the story to your customers ASAP. Yes, it will be bad. But imagine how much worse the story will be in 30 days when people find out you knew their information was stolen and they didn’t have a chance to reset passwords, cancel credit cards or whatever other remedies they would have preferred to make.

Consider the flawless response from Brian Norgard at Chill. His product auto-posted a testimonial from Dave Morin into Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg called the tactic “lame.” Pretty tough when you’re called out by Zuck himself. Yet a quick response clearly made this Chill moment into lemonade.

If you want to see flawless in action, read Chill’s post. They shaped the story. They reacted quickly. They didn’t try to bury the news of what they’d done. They turned off the feature (took the high ground) while defending the practice in their post. Moreover, they drove a lot of attention to social TV viewing and Chill through their response. 10/10.

4. Never Blame the Press
The most tempting thing for inexperienced entrepreneurs to do is to attack the press. It’s easy to say somebody hates you, got the story wrong, is lying, has biases, etc. In fact, some of these things may even be true in some circumstances. Your job is to change the situation, not shoot the messenger. Build deeper relationships. Have private conversations to change opinions. Find other media outlets to tell your story. Know your positive talking points. But don’t pick a fight with the press. That’s a war you’re not going to win.

We live in a free society. It’s the job of the press to hold us all to account and question our conduct, our performance, our accuracy our businesses. Sometimes the story will be dead-on and will benefit us all by protecting consumers, sometimes I won’t agree with the story and think it will be proven largely wrong. In any event, I’ll take a free press any day. Journalists are doing their jobs. When many do it simultaneously — even when some stories aren’t 100% accurate — we have way more transparency in our system.

The positives far outweigh any possible negatives.

5. Know Your Key Messages
I was recently talking with an entrepreneur who had just gotten a ton of press around his company for an interview he gave to a journalist. The story was controversial enough that it created follow-on articles. He seemed proud, “all press is good press, right?” Wrong. I told him,

“Look, all of the press you got was totally ‘off message.’ You’re being talked about for the wrong thing. I don’t mind controversy. But if you’re going to say something controversial make it about the market you serve. Make it about the point-of-view you’re trying to change.

Make the story be about your market. Journalists aren’t going to write about you all the time unless you’re Facebook. You just burned a story. You wasted that opportunity with that journalist and that journal. What a shame.”

Know your talking points at all times. Know what you want the market to talk about. Stick to your script. All press isn’t good press. Off message press is a wasted opportunity.

6. Don’t Take the Bait
Another entrepreneur contacted me recently because a competitor had attacked his company in the press. I’ve written about this topic before — you should make your competitors frenemies, even when the do stupid things like attack you. Sure, if it’s a major attack that you believe will hurt your business you need to respond. But my view is that you take the high ground. Attacking back makes you both look petty. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Lead in the press with your positive attributes. Use it as an excuse to get a journalist to write about you.

The story of X company attacks Y, how does Y respond is an angle journalists can sink their teeth into. Of course they want you to attack back hard — that makes a great story for them. It doesn’t help you. Stay focused on your message.

And privately reach out to your competitor. Go meet them in person. Explain that your biggest competitor is inertia as it almost always is for startups. That, or incumbents. But tit-for-tat between small companies NEVER makes sense. Don’t do it.

See here how much perfect bait was tee’d up for MG at TechCrunch in this public fight between Google & Microsoft and again and again. Public fights are the gifts that keep giving for journalists and those fighting never come off looking good — they just convince themselves they do.

7. Develop Trusted Advisors
Like in every part of your business you need advisors. Startups often have advisors that help on recruiting, fund raising, biz dev, sales, etc. You need friends who have lots of experience in dealing with the press and hopefully relationships with journalists themselves. Trust me, these advisors will prove invaluable if you don’t have a lot of media experience. It isn’t something that comes naturally to most.

I’m always surprised how friends ask me for media help after they fawked up a story and never in advance when they’re planning. With portfolio companies I’m always involved in the planning phase. I want to know our media roadmap.

8. Get to Know the Press Now
Most startups talk to the press when they have a big event they want to talk about. That’s too late. I know it’s counter-intuitive because it seems like you shouldn’t talk with the press until you’re ready with something to say.

The reality is you want to have journalist relationships well before you have a story. Help them with other stories. Get to know what areas they’re knowledgeable and passionate about. Become interested in their profession and in them as people. Just like I advise people to get to know VCs early, so too with journalists. Here is a quick action plan for you in how to build journalist relations.

9. Get Media Training
I do a lot of public speaking and that includes speaking on television. Very few people are good at TV and many are sh*t scared of it. Yet with some simple media training you can be an effective communicator.

The same goes for press interviews. Knowing how to stay on message, knowing what your talking points are, knowing what the journalist’s angle in the story is, etc. are all parts of effective media training.

And any great PR firm will have a media training department. It’s how I learned the golden rule of TV interviews — ABC. Answer, bridge, communicate. Answer the question your asked briefly, use a bridge sentence to change to what you want to talk about and then communicate your key messages. It works every time. No media training for me = no ABC. It was worth every penny.

10. Have a PR Strategy
You probably also want to have PR people with whom you work. Sometimes they will work inside your company, sometimes they will be external. Here’s a 10-point guide on how to work with PR firms.

PR doesn’t happen by accident. It’s a business function and a very important one at that. Good PR will help you punch above your weigh class. Bad PR will bury you and make everything harder: funding, recruiting, biz dev, sales.

Draw yourself a chart as a CEO of all the activities for which you must dedicate time. Make sure at least 5–10% of your time allocation is in this bucket. Year round. PR is a continual process, not an event.



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