I started my career in tech PR back in the late 1990s: a time when founders and the VCs who backed them were given superstar status, and tech industry publications like Wired, Fast Company and Red Herring (RIP) were as thick with print ads as the September issue of Vogue.
That boom time, and the bust that followed it, shaped me as a communications professional. The parallels between those years (that many who are reading this are too young to remember) and today are undeniable. And now, as a “veteran” (read: old) tech communications professional, I find myself drawing from those early experiences in the counsel I provide my clients and teams.
Arriving in the San Francisco Bay Area in Spring 2000, I very quickly got a job at one of the top boutique PR firms at the time. Every day, we fielded dozens of requests from well-funded startups who were willing to pay obscene amounts of money for our services. No matter that they didn’t have a product or viable business model, they had a vision and a story to tell, and vision and stories drove valuations. It was the best of times for tech PR—until it wasn’t.
After several months of watching the NASDAQ, which had more than doubled in the previous two years, take a precipitous nosedive, capital started to dry up. Companies that were riding high on VC money with hopes of record-breaking IPOs were laying off staff en masse, and PR agency bills weren’t getting paid.
The impact was also quickly felt by the Silicon Valley media, who, for years, had been served the same Kool-Aid we all had—and were now being forced to confront some cold, hard business realities.
I’m not in the business of predicting boom/bust cycles, but what I’m reading, watching and hearing from investors makes me believe we may want to prepare for a correction. That will mean a return to fundamentals, in business and in how we communicate. Here are five tips for tech communicators that I think are especially important when navigating a bear market:
- Your story’s important. A good story and storyteller can go a long way in weathering rough market dynamics. Being able to paint a picture of how you are building for the future and addressing an untapped market can buy some time and patience from investors and your employees.
- But so are the proof points. The macro market data isn’t on your side, so stakeholders are going to need more than just vision. Lean into any good financial data, new product introductions, partnerships and customer wins to reinforce the story you’re telling. Use these proof points as an opportunity to show progress.
- Manage expectations. This is always important, but especially so in a down market when investors are twitchy, the media is skeptical and any unforeseen miss can be seen as a death rattle. This is where externally facing roadmaps—for the business and the technology you’re building—come in handy. Roadmaps create predictability and predictability is your friend. Just make sure you can deliver! And if you don’t, explain why and what you’re doing to get back on track.
- Beware of glass houses. A cornerstone of tech marketing has always been competitive depositioning. There’s nothing quite like a good David and Goliath story to rally stakeholders and garner attention from the media. But if you’re going to wage an air war against a competitor, be prepared for them to fight back. Make sure your house is in order: Fully understand any potential vulnerabilities, prepare your responses and train your spokespeople.
- Go direct. I am a fierce believer in the media. I have been lucky to work with some of the best tech journalists over the years and there is nothing more satisfying to me than sparring with a fair journalist. But, as we all know, the media landscape has changed pretty dramatically since the dot-com boom. Journalists are spread thin and are under pressures that didn’t exist 20 years ago. That’s where your own channels come into play. I’m not a believer in ignoring the media, but if you are having a tough time getting your message across, tell it yourself. But remember, you’re competing for eyeballs, so tell your story with a journalistic lens and have a content marketing plan.
As I said, I can’t predict where the market is going to go from here (if I could, I’d be living here and making my own wine). But I do believe the party we’ve all been at for the last decade is coming to an end. Everyone’s going to need to sober up. The good news is, the historical trend line shows that there is always plenty of opportunity in tech, especially for those who have the focus and discipline to play the long game.
Sabrina Guttman is global technology practice leader and managing partner at FINN Partners.