Bob GellerBob Geller

When I joined my agency as a young recruit back in the day, I took on clients ranging from data storage and software startups to Swedish telecom giant Ericsson.

Each had their challenges, but one was notably different. The pitches for the startups required a great deal of trial and error. After banging my head against a wall, I’d shift gears to Ericsson. Phone conversations with reporters felt more like banter with old friends (once we got past the awkward “Oh, you’re a PR guy” stage). A typical response was: “Right, Ericsson, let me try to fit you in.” Chasing stories down for other clients made me feel more like an annoying bill collector.

This was a long time ago, and much has changed in the technology and public relations worlds. One thing remains the same, however: success hinges on very different playbooks for established brands versus startups. Below, I’ll explain how this plays out and how to stack the deck—or stack the tech—depending on which side your company or client falls out on.

O'Dwyer's Nov. '19 Technology PR Magazine
This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Nov. '19 Technology PR Magazine.

The power of brand

Technology dominates our lives and the headlines. Nine out of 10 companies in the NASDAQ 100 are in tech, from old school vendors like Microsoft and Intel to relative newcomers like Facebook and Amazon. Unicorns—young, private companies valued at over $1 billion—dominate their sectors and command outsize attention.

It’s a winner take all world in business, and this applies to media coverage too. Big news about recognized companies and brands still ranks the highest on the press attention scale.

So, if you’re a big tech brand, you’re all set, right? And startups should just pack their bags and go home?

Not at all. The primacy of brand is a double-edged sword. Well-known brands come with associations, sometimes, less than glowing. There can be baggage that needs to be overcome, and this isn’t necessarily easy, given the inertia. Think of how hard it is for a large ship to shift course. A large brand can be a major target for a looming crisis.

The startup’s brand can be viewed as a blank canvas, waiting to be filled in. Their challenge is to overcome the initial reluctance and natural skepticism about something new and unproven.

Inevitably it gets to games of defense vs. offense.

Defense vs. offense

The tech leaders have much working for them, such as recognition and market power. Their business challenges typically involve defending turf, growing market share and conquering new areas. PR needs to support each of these.

The programs should focus on reputation, crisis management—when necessary—and news about business progress and product and business lines. In short, it’s primarily a defensive game and needs to heed vulnerabilities such as any baggage related to their brand or space (think of cable companies and customer service, or social media platforms and consumer privacy).

The PR team should explore tactics to counter these issues. This could mean finding ways to rebuff unwanted media inquiries for certain topics and pursuing those that are more strategic.

Startups face different challenges and need to play offense. This means taking risks and being bold to fight for attention. New can mean newsworthy. Disruption, taking on the giants: these are appealing storylines. Plus, there’s an affinity for the entrepreneur, and a natural rooting for the underdog.

The new ventures, the lesser-known competitors should launch communications aimed at the weaknesses of the leaders to get coverage. A tried and true tactic in technology is sowing FUD: fear, uncertainty and doubt.

In addition to taking more risks, startups can use their small size to advantage. For example, they can be nimbler when responding to news and marketplace developments. Big brands can be constrained by bureaucracy and disclosure regulations governing public companies.

Executive branding

There are parallels between the challenges and opportunities of big brands and the profiles of their leadership. Indeed, it can be hard to separate a well-known leader from the company brand. Think Larry Ellison at Oracle, Marc Benioff at Salesforce, and Elon Musk at Tesla.

Having a celebrity CEO can seem to be an unfair advantage. And this may be true, depending on the personal brand of the executive. Some are loose cannons that create more PR damage than windfall. We saw this recently with the WeWork IPO flameout, when CEO Adam Neumann was regarded as a hero, until he wasn’t.

The startup with the unknown executive team needs to work hard to earn attention and build a brand for its leaders. This can involve thought leadership programs, especially in the B2B sector.

The PR teams at larger companies should understand the strengths and weaknesses of the public faces and do their best to mitigate problems by counseling on talking points, when to engage the media, when to shun the spotlight or sometimes, the best way to apologize.

Don’t fear the techlash

It’s hard to ignore the growing technology backlash, or techlash. People fret about habit-forming apps and social media, and news and algorithmic bias and manipulation. Governments around the world are clamping down to fight against monopolies and protect consumer privacy. Reporters are editorializing with harsher tones in their articles.

How to respond? Again, this can vary based on the type of company. Big tech is taking the brunt of the criticism, especially the FANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google). Their PR teams are doing their best to fight the fires, but many of the problems they endure are systemic and won’t go away overnight.

This doesn’t mean that smaller companies get a free pass. They can get dinged too. One of our startup clients was called out as a violator of consumer privacy by TechCrunch, and several other publications ran articles quoting the TechCrunch article. We felt the company was unfairly singled out, as others offer similar functionality which can, in fact, expose personal information, if implemented incorrectly. On the other hand, the TechCrunch piece positioned our client as de facto leaders in the space and thrust the company onto the world stage. We took it as an opportunity to go on the offensive, and issued a statement that countered the inaccuracies in the article. Several outlets published it verbatim.

The PR team went out with a pitch about the problem and explained the benefits of the technology. The client’s CEO was eager to get out there and educate about their technology, damn the torpedoes. This aggressive approach resulted in interviews and coverage with many top-tier outlets.

A larger company might not have been able to respond as quickly or be as eager to go on the offensive about such a sensitive issue.

Despite the techlash, I feel that tech PR is still a great place to be and will be for years to come. You just need to apply the right tactics for the type of company and technology.


Bob Geller is President of Fusion Public Relations.