Ten common tech PR myths

(Editor's note: this is a guest post from Robert Bownes, the founder of Old Street Communications)

PR practitioners know that their chosen profession has the almost unique distinction of being both simultaneously understood and misunderstood by most people. It’s spin right? Getting us in the news? The Thick of It, Ab Fab and...well...that’s pretty much it. Obviously, in most cases people are thinking about publicists or the fluffier end of consumer PR. While not quite understanding PR is usually fairly harmless, there are some preconceptions that businesses have that, if not dispelled, can lead them to make fatal mistakes in their communication efforts. 

While the following ten points could apply across different PR sectors, they are, in my view, the most common within the tech industry. So, in no particular order:

  • A PR agency guarantees news coverage -  no startup has an inherent right to be covered by the media - it is after all a very competitive market. What PR can do is hone your message, find the most compelling stories and tie it all together in a way that will give it the best chance to interest journalists. Good agencies have strong connections with journalists who trust them and will read their pitches (often the biggest hurdle). However, whether your startup gains traction with journalists is ultimately down to the actual merits of you and your business. Sadly, not every startup is newsworthy. 
  • You have copy approval on news stories - this is a big one and speaks to the most fundamental misunderstanding about PR and indeed journalism. Journalists will not allow you to review and amend their stories before they go to print. Sometimes, in exceptional circumstances, they will sense check technical aspects or quotes on complex issues. Understanding that once something has been issued to the media there are no take backs is absolutely critical. And it leads me nicely on to the next point:
  • Journalists will cover a story exactly how you want them to - while ‘churnalism’ is a growing problem, generally PR communications such as press releases will not be copy-and-paste jobs. Journalists use PR material as a basis of a story, there is no requirement for them to describe your company exactly how you wish it to be worded. You can only correct stories that are factually inaccurate - not because the journalist wrote a snarky piece about your new product. 
  • PR is all about spin and razzmatazz - anyone can write a snappy press release or quote right? Just add in words like ‘pioneering’, ‘bleeding edge’, ‘disruptive’. Delight the journalist by telling them that we are ‘world leading’ - without citing a third party source…I could go on. The truth is that the best PR messaging is simple and to the point. Journalists want the information provided to them without marketing speak. The PR trick is in pulling out the most interesting stories or hooks related to your startup and applying them in a broader setting that will interest the readership of the target publications.
  • It’s all about the features not the benefits - It can be difficult to keep perspective in a startup - after all you’re living and breathing it every day surrounded by people all focused on the minutiae of the business. This can lead to founders losing a sense of what is actually interesting about their startup. Ultimately, people want to know what your startup does and why it is beneficial. Getting bogged down in technical detail or fixating on the features can lead to this messaging being lost...which reminds me…
  • Using big words makes you look smart - There can be a tendency in the tech industry to partake in linguistic gatekeeping - using inaccessible terms or unnecessarily complex definitions that the average person would scratch their head at. As I’ve said above, simplicity is key in good PR. Journalists often cover a huge range of tech or business issues, they can’t be expected to be experts in every subsector of tech. If they read content that requires them to look up a thesaurus they are likely to decide it’s not worth the effort - after all they have plenty of other stories to choose from.
  • Backlinks are the most important factor - This is a fan favourite of PRs and journalists alike. Backlinks to a website, research or product are governed by the house style of the publication and then only if a link is strictly relevant to the reader. There is nothing PRs like less than sending across a great piece of coverage only to be told it’s not useful because there is no link and that they should tell the journalist to put one in. PR is not about direct click throughs to your website to boost traffic - it’s about long-term brand building and relationships. It is not a stretch to think that if a potential client reads a piece about your business they won’t then Google it separately to find your website. If the lack of an instant click was too big a hurdle for them - chances are they weren’t going to buy your product. 
  • You can’t print that it was off the record - ‘Off the record’ isn’t really a thing. There’s no law you can say has been broken if something you said was ‘off the record’ gets published. Yes, it is a convention that most journalists do adhere to, however, all it will mean is that your name doesn’t get attached to the quote. If you use ‘off the record’ to bad-mouth the competition or reveal confidential information it will inevitably come back to bite you. 
  • Journalists email questions over before the interview - This, on the face of it, is a minor confusion, however, it can speak to a larger misunderstanding of the power imbalance between a startup and the media. Nowadays the average journalist may be required to put out 5-10 stories a day. The pool of journalists is shrinking and the PR army is growing. As a result, time is a very valuable commodity and competition has never been greater. To get the best results, startups need to be as helpful and flexible as possible - this means avoiding giving journalists extra work - such as requesting interview questions, a late rearrange of a call etc.. Naturally, most founders are used to people accommodating them rather than the reverse. Nevertheless, if you want your startup in the news you have to play by the journalist’s rules. 
  • PR is only about news coverage  - I think most agencies regularly encounter clients that only measure the success of PR on the volume of mentions (or in the worst cases backlinks). While it’s perfectly fair to want to focus a campaign on media relations, ignoring other aspects of PR such as - interviews with journalists, events, speaking opportunities, awards won, analyst relations, social media impact - can limit the impact of your PR campaign and prevent longer-term brand reputation building.

Featured image credit: Mathieu Turle / Unsplash

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