PR Strategies for Startups – by Jason Calacanis
I’m grateful to Jason Calacanis for letting me post his articles on Mixergy.com. I think his ideas are incredibly helpful to startups because he’s an entrepreneur himself. (Plus every time he lets be publish his writings here, my site gets a nice traffic bump.)
Location: Mahalo HQ, Santa Monica, CA
Friday, August 19th, 6:28PM PST.
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PR Strategies for Startups (Part One)
For over ten years I’ve been in the unique position of being both a
CEO and a journalist in the technology space. My first company
produced Silicon Alley Reporter magazine, where I held the dual titles
of CEO and Editor. At my second company, Weblogs Inc., I was a blogger
and CEO. Today I’m the CEO of Mahalo, and the editor of an email
newsletter (Jason’s List–which you’re reading right now!).
Additionally, for over 10 years I’ve been the subject of many stories,
including features in the New Yorker and WIRED (twice!), as well as on
television programs including Charlie Rose, 60 Minutes, Nightline,
CNN, Fox News, Bloomberg and countless others. I’ve gotten more press
than any entrepreneur could dream of–certainly more than I
deserve–and I’ve never had a public relations firm working for me.
As both subject and writer it feels like I’ve learned a lot about how
the PR and the press works–especially in the technology business.
My philosophy of PR is summed up in six words: be amazing, be
everywhere, be real.
You don’t need a PR firm, you don’t need an in-house PR person and you
don’t need to spend ANY money to get amazing PR. You don’t need to be
connected, and you don’t need to be a “name brand.” Today, many
bloggers lament how much press folks like Kevin Rose and Robert Scoble
get. They say that they get too much attention and that they got this
attention too quickly and without earning it.
What’s funny about this is that “A-list” ceWebrities like Scoble and
Kevin Rose are overnight successes 10 years in the making. Scoble and
Rose have been everywhere for a decade. Me? I’ve been everywhere in
this business since 1994 when I was 23 years old in New York City
trying to get any meeting I could (for those of you who wouldn’t meet
with me back then I totally understand–chances are I wouldn’t have
met with me back then).
Things that look like an “overnight success” typically are not.
Now, I could tell you to “be amazing, be everywhere, be real,” drop
some buzz words and call it a day. However, that’s not why you’ve
invited me into your e-mail box. Nope, based on the feedback you guys
have given me since we started this e-mail experiment, I’ve learned
that what you really want is honest talk and clear tactics so you can
fight the good fight.
Here are my first ten tips on how to do PR for your startup.
1. Be the brand
As the founder of your company you must be in love with your brand and
inspired by your brand’s mission if you have any hope of getting press
for your product. If you don’t *really* believe in your product on a
deep, intrinsic level, it’s going to come across *immediately* to the
bloggers and press you’re pitching.
When I started Silicon Alley Reporter in New York City, I had stacks
of the magazine with me at ALL TIMES. If you saw me at a party I had
25 copies in my backpack, or 200 on a broken-down luggage cart, and
you had one shoved in your face within a minute of meeting me.
My excitement level about the magazine was so great that at a Knicks
game I climbed down from my seat in the 300s to hand a copy to John
Kennedy Jr. who was sitting courtside. From the corner of my eye I
could see security making a beeline for me, so I acted quickly: “John,
I’m a magazine publisher just like you! Here’s my magazine… it’s
about the internet.” He looked at it, said thank you and–I’ll never
forget–“I think it’s gonna be big.” At that moment I felt security on
my shoulder and I left with a huge smile on my face thinking “Wow, JFK
Jr. thinks my magazine is going to be big!”
After telling the story a couple of times people pointed out that he
was referring to the Internet being big, not my magazine–but they
don’t know the look he gave me. I’m 100% sure he was talking about the
magazine. [Side note, I got to meet JFK Jr. a second time later that
year at a dive bar on the Lower East Side. We were having drinks with
John Perry Barlow and JFK Jr. showed up on his mountain bike. It was
really special, and although I only met the man twice I can tell you
the world is a different place without him.]
Additionally, if you met me in the last 90s, chances are I was wearing
a tight black Silicon Alley Reporter shirt. Stacks of them littered my
loft on 26th street, and I would toss them only if they started to
fade on the edges. I had no problem wearing them seven days a week–I
was on a mission. So proud of my little brand was I, that if people
didn’t like my marketing I never noticed. People called me P.T. Barnum
behind my back and I called myself P.T. Barnum when I looked in the
All I cared about was that you had heard the name Silicon Alley Reporter.
If you look at any of the successful brands out there, chances are
their leader is banging the drum: Mark Cuban lives for the Mavs, Kevin
Rose lives for Digg, and you can’t get Loic to shut up about Seesmic.
That’s how it should be. If you don’t love your brand why should
2. Be everywhere
If you and your team have committed to being the brand, the next step
is being committed to being everywhere. When I was running Silicon
Alley Reporter I was essentially a beat reporter. Every single night I
would go out and meet folks in the Internet industry. While other
folks went home to their families–and there is nothing wrong with
that–I went out and made a family. In this case, the family became
known as “Silicon Alley,” and the members of the family were the folks
in and around the startup companies.
This is why Silicon Alley Reporter grew to 5-10x the size of our
competitors in terms of reach and revenue: we were the community.
Other folks reported on the companies, but we were one of the
companies. This is why Mike Arrington has taken such a huge place in
the Web 2.0 marketplace: TechCrunch is a startup company–warts and
all–just like their subjects.
When we launched Weblogs, Inc. I told my partner Brian Alvey–who did
have a family and was a homebody–that his job was to hold the fort
and my job was to go out and spread the gospel. During the Weblogs
Inc. years I attended every possible event I could. At these events I
acted as a speaker AND as a blogger covering the event. This meant we
were getting and giving press–which is a virtuous thing to do.
At these events folks would see an Engadget, HackADay, Joystiq or
Weblogs, Inc. sticker on my laptop, or me wearing a T-shirt, and say
“hey, how’s it going?” I’d give the stump speech about a) what we’ve
accomplished, b) what’s working, c) what’s NOT working, and d) how
exciting it all was.
Your job is to transfer the enthusiasm you feel for your brand to
everyone you meet.
3. Always pick up the check–always.
At the industry events I mention above I always set a goal of creating
deep relationships with a small number of folks as opposed to running
around trying to trade cards with as many folks as possible. You can
trade cards on LinkedIn, but you can’t break bread there. In the real
world break bread, don’t trade contact information.
Typically, I would make dinner reservations for six to ten people at
two or three different restaurants at two different times when I got
to a conference. Then I would try and round up a couple of folks and
cancel the reservations I didn’t need. This is how I developed
friendships with almost everyone I know today, including Robert
Scoble, Evan Williams, Mike Arrington, Steve Gillmor, Chris Andersen,
Steven Levy, John Markoff, and Esther Dyson. If you’re not a social
person, learn to be, because it’s your job if you’re at a startup
This technique of setting up dinners and being inclusive I learned
from Yossi Vardi, Linda Stone and John Brockman. These three always
seemed to be hosting a dinner at the conferences I was attending,
including TED, PC Forum, and The WSJ D conference. Every time I went
to these conferences I attended their dinners–and I took notes.
Yossi, Linda and Brockman are the most connected people I know, and
following their lead I’ve probably hosted over 100 dinner parties at
conferences. These parties have an average price of $1,000 each.
That’s $100,000 in dinners–probably around $10,000 a year–and it’s
the best money I’ve ever spent. That’s how I built my network and now
that it is built I’m giving one of my best secrets to you. That’s why
you subscribe to the newsletter right?
PR firms cost $5-15,000 a month. Buying dinner at a conference ten
times a year will cost you about one month’s worth of PR.
Now, as a tip, don’t be over aggressive when you invite folks to
dinner and don’t feel the need to try to get the most important folks
in the industy there. Just find a person or two you’re friendly with
and set up dinner for the three of you. Then, as you meet folks give
them your number and let them know you’re having dinner. E-mail them
the details and if you invite five folks two will come, and they will
bring one or two people each.
Everyone remembers who picked up the check. My dad picked up every
check he could knowing that the folks he hosted would at some point
come back to his bar, and some percentage of them might become
regulars. This reciprication effect is a natural part of our
existence, and there is nothing wrong with it. Just this week someone
who attended a tech meetup at Mahalo met me in a bar and bought me and
my father a drink. We talked for 30 minutes, and now for the cost of
$15 in drinks I would take that guy’s call any time. How could I
not–it would be rude!
Now, before you say “oh you’re blown out, you can afford to buy dinner
for everyone,” let me state clearly that I did this when I was broke
as well. My secret then would be to find a family style restaurant
that was affordable like a Mexican or Italian restaurant. I would then
proceed to order a ton of appetizers and side orders for the table.
Folks would get so filled that they wouldn’t want a main course later
on. This was the best “poor man” hack I ever came up with: order for
the table and let folks start networking. It’s cheaper, it’s more fun
and it saves a lot of time.
4. Be a human being
The best way to get PR is not to sell someone on your company or
product–it’s by being a human being. Journalists hate PR people and
they hate being pitched. They do. It’s just a fact. Journalists and
bloggers despise PR people, and if they say otherwise they are lying,
placating you or just being diplomatic.
It’s a much better strategy to just be yourself and develop
relationships with people in the industry slowly and organically. If
you’re a good human being who is capable of both listening to people
and engaging them in a dialogue then the “pitch” will just happen. In
fact, it won’t be a pitch. It will happen when you’re walking back
from the restaurant and the journalist or blogger asks “How’s it going
at Mahalo?” It will happen when you’re sitting outside during a break
at the conference having a cup of joe and a blogger will walk up and
say “What are you up to?”
Rule number one of interacting with a journalist: you NEVER have to
bring up what you’re doing, you just have to be a normal person and
wait. It is the job of journalists and bloggers to ask questions and
they will. They don’t need to be pitched.
5. How to bond with a journalist
It’s important for CEOs/founders to realize that journalists and
bloggers are, in fact, humans. They long to be heard, to be admired
and to belong–just like you do. When I was a journalist I was always
amazed by the number of unfocused pitches I would receive. For
example, when I was covering the internet I would frequently get
pitches like “You have to check out this new nanotechnology company”
or “we’re launching a new technology to make shipping more efficient!”
Ummm… great, but I’ve never covered the nanotech or shipping
industries–why would I start now?!
You must realize that journalists are constantly getting banged by
lazy, clueless PR folks who fire first and don’t understand what the
word “aim” even means.
This inefficiency leads to an opportunity: you can cut to the front of
the line by spending just 30 minutes researching the journalist you’re
pitching. Before meeting with a journalist it’s your job–the job of
the CEO–to read their last five stories in full. It helps if you take
notes on these stories, read the comments under them and look for
reactions to the story around the web. This should take no more than
five or ten minutes per story. You should also look at their LinkedIn
account and do a Google search to see where else they have worked. If
you know that Om Malik was at Red Herring, Business 2.0 and then
started his own company, you can bring that up when you meet him. He
will appreciate this in light of the fact that half the folks who
e-mail him don’t even know what beat he covers or how to pronounce his
I’ve gotten so obsessive about this that my liaison Tyler, whom anyone
who’s met with me in the last year knows, keeps tabs on our journalist
and blogger contacts. He not only reads their work, he always stays in
contact with them. This means we are in constant research and dialogue
with the folks who are covering us. This means when we meet about a
story we know as much about the journalist as they know about
us–sometimes more! Tyler will hand me a stack of stories and
background information on the people we’re meeting with on the flight
to another country so I can play catch up.
This is, from my point of view, a simple matter of courtesy and good
manners. If you want a journalist to be interested in you, take some
interest in them. At the very least you’ll have something to talk with
the journalist about.
6. How a CEO should e-mail a journalist
When I was a journalist I would not speak to PR people about my
stories, and I would hold a hard line with them: if you want me to
cover your company have your CEO e-mail me at jason at calacanis dot
com. They would reply, “ok, let’s do a call about your story and i can
put you in touch with the right person over there…” and all I heard
was “blah blah blah.” The CEOs and founders of the companies who had
direct relationships with me got more direct coverage of their
company, as well as more quotes in stories about other companies and
Journalists and bloggers are very busy and PR people are, by and
large, considered an inefficiency in the system by them.
The best thing for a CEO to do is to stay in regular communication
with journalists and bloggers in their own, authentic voice via email.
I frequently email journalists I know and give them unsolicited
comments on stories that have nothing to do with me. Sometimes these
comments are positive, sometimes they are not. I’ve emailed New York
Times journalists to let them know when they missed the real issue and
what trees they may want to shake.
I recently e-mailed Dan Lyons of Fake Steve Jobs fame to tell him what
a low-rent slug he was being for attacking Steve Jobs over his health.
You can be sure that after ten years of unsolicited e-mails most
journalists know who I am and how to get in touch with me. Some may
not agree with me, but they tend to respect my opinion. That’s really
the best thing you can do: be respected for your views on the
Your job as the CEO/founder is to create direct, honest and personal
relationships with journalists. The truth is that PR people are
selling you a share of their relationships with journalists, and their
relationships are typically on shaky ground. You’re much better off
building a personal relationship by sending a personal email like
Nice piece on Facebook’s valuation. One insight I had: if the value of
the company BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH than should Microsoft be thinking BLAH
BLAH BLAH? Thoughts?
If you do that once every other day for a year or so you’ll develop
relationships with 50 to 100 important folks. Of course, you have to
have something of substance to say, so don’t waste their time and
don’t write five page e-mails or you’ll look deranged. Short, to the
point and intelligent. If you’re not smart enough to send something
insightful, well, than I can’t really help you and you might want go
work for someone smart for a couple of years. :-)
On that side note, if you’re a journalist or investor in Apple and you
feel you have the right to know all the details about Steve Jobs’
health, you’re wrong. Everyone has a right to privacy, and if you take
away the CEO’s right to privacy in matters of health then you’re going
to have the most talented folks not want to take the CEO slot. Just
like most really talented folks have no desire to run for public
office. You know Steve has had cancer, you know the outlook for that
type of cancer and you can make your own estimate as to his value to
Apple. If you think that Apple will crash and burn without Steve then
don’t by the stock. Really people, let the man have his peace.
7. How a CEO should speak to a journalist
If you have a phone or in-person interview with a journalist there are
some basic things you should know and do. First, you should always ask
the journalist “are you taping this call, or should I talk slowly so
you can take notes?” at the start of the call. 80% of the time they
are taping the call, and 90% of the time they will not offer that up
to you. If they are taping the call that’s a good thing–you’re gonna
be quoted correctly. If they are NOT taping the call that can suck,
because they are going to paraphrase you. I conduct 95% of my
interviews over e-mail because I know I’m going to get misquoted, so I
tell folks in my email “don’t worry… I’ll give you nice blunt,
honest responses that don’t look like PR speak in the email. :-)”
This increases the probability that the journalist will a) quote you
correctly and b) that they will accept an e-mail interview.
There are a handful of journalists I will speak to on the phone or in
person because I know they are not going to spin me. Also, if I know
there is a chance that I will be spun I am very, very clear to state
that. For example, when launching and running Mahalo, everyone wants
me to say we’re a Google killer. When that question comes up I
immediately say “let me be very, very clear–and please don’t
misrepresent me in your story–that Google is a partner and we don’t
see ourselves as a replacement for Google but rather a complement for
the following reasons.” You have to take control of your message when
speaking to the press and know that many of them are looking for a
little conflict in their piece. If you want to pick a fight than go
ahead–it’s not a bad strategy–but if you don’t want to mix it up, be
really clear about that. It’s your job to make sure your points get
across, not the journalists.
Many new CEOs/founders tell me they were spun in a story, saying
things like “I spoke for 20 minutes about how we’re not replacing
Google and only mentioned why we might replace them for two minutes
and they made that the title of the story!!!” Let me be clear about
something, journalists are like lawyers in a deposition: their job is
to keep you talking. The more you talk, the more is revealed. I would
teach my journalists at Silicon Alley Reporter to ask short questions
and to act confused specfically to get folks to reveal more
information. This is an age-old strategy.
Columbo is the best model for a journalist: “oh, one more thing
fella… I’m a little confused, you said your revenue model was
e-commerce, but I don’t see anything for sale on the site…. my wife,
she says I’m a little slow… any chance you could explain that to
Your job as a suspect/subject is to say things concisely and with few
words: “Google is our partner in five areas already: search
advertising, analytics, YouTube, open social and custom search. They
also send us half our traffic–they are NOT our competition, they are
our partner.” Silence. More silence. If the journalist is good they
will say something like, “but certainly on some level you compete?”
and you respond “No, we don’t.”
If the journalist is really good they will point out an example: “But
you’re human powered search and they are machine search… if you
reach scale some users will choose right? If human-powered search is
that much better like you say folks will switch right?!?” Now they’ve
got you… what do you do? Sometimes you can just say “hmmm… that’s
an interesting point,” then enjoy the silence. Another method might be
to just say “I’ve never really considered that. They really are our
partner and that’s how we treat them.”
Bottom line: assume that the worst sentence in your hour-long
conversation is the lead sentence of the article or blog post. If you
do this you’ll make your worst sentence pretty darn good! Also, don’t
feel the need to fill the dead air.
8. Invite people to “swing by” your office
Since I’ve started my companies I’ve always taken the position that
anyone can swing by our office for coffee any time. When I meet folks
I always tell them “if you’re ever in Santa Monica swing by.” When
folks are in Los Angeles they actually do! Journalists and bloggers
LOVE to visit a location because it helps them tell your story. Your
location should be interesting–fascinating, in fact. This really
helps tell your story.
Silicon Alley Reporter had a dirty old loft that looked like a sloppy
newsroom. It was charming in a scrappy startup way. No one who does a
story on TechCrunch can help but mention that Arrington is running the
most influential technology blog in the world out of a house with a
dozen folks sprawled out across halls and extra bedrooms. The fact
that he sleeps six feet from the news pit speaks to his dedication.
Gawker Media has a well designed, open-office plan that looks like
something out of Design Hotels. In fact, a design hotel would be good
to knock it off (as would Starbucks). Denton knows this and he has an
open door policy for his office.
This all goes back to my core belief that you have to live your brand
and be everywhere. Part of being everywhere is having folks visit you.
9. Attach your brand to a movement
Silicon Alley was a movement to showcase the amazing technology
companies in New York City. My magazine had the name Silicon Alley in
it, but I never tried to limit the use of the name. Lots of loser
types rushed in and created Silicon Alley SOMETHING and “Alleycat”
type brands that drafted off my brand. However, my brand was the best
and was the most out there–all their drafting did was secure our slot
as the leader of the pack.
With Weblogs, Inc. we were one of two companies trying to make blogs
into a business. We were, in fact, the lead example of blogs as a
business for a couple of years–and still to this day. Sure enough
folks knocked off our idea all around the world. Some even used the
exact name, like Weblogs SL in Spain. Now, Julio, who ran Weblogs SL,
was always nice enough to say he was inspired by Weblogs, Inc. which I
found very classy. Others just stole the concept and ran with it.
At the end of the day what all these knock-off blog networks did was
lift the leaders: Gawker Media and Weblogs, Inc. Most of the smaller
networks crashed and burned, or worse–just went sideways. Welcome
your competitors to the race, because no one is going to tune into a
Look at it this way, one boat coasting across a large ocean appears
lost and adrift, but ten boats trying to catch the lead boat makes it
look like a race. If you’re the leader, at least these copycats will
make it look like you know where you’re going–even if you don’t.
Today, we watched with delight as companies knock off the concept for
Mahalo’s human-powered search left and right. Many of these companies
release press releases saying they are the “Mahalo of INSERT VERTICAL
HERE.” The press then refers to our brand every time they do a story
on this company.
One company that did a “Mahalo of” for a specific vertical actually
stole our content, code and entire business process. As we launch
features or editorial standards they copy them *exactly* from our
site. When their CEO goes to speaking gigs–and I sat in the audience
for one of them–he actually lifts my lines about the value of humans
in search! Like word for word!
We laugh about this company because we know two things: 1. They will
never catch up to us and 2. All they are doing by stealing from us is
pushing us up the ladder as the lead company.
When I meet with VCs, if they know this company I show them the
examples of them stealing from us. The VCs ask why we don’t sue them.
I respond that it would be like Michael Jordan complaining about
playing against a sixth grade basketball team. The VCs get a huge
laugh out of this, and I get the satisfaction of knowing a) the
thieves are looked at as the dogs they are and b) their dog-like
behavior just reinforces our leadership position.
10. Embrace small media outlets
Getting someone at The New York Times, WIRED or The Wall Street
Journal to pay attention to you can take years. Small publications,
however, don’t get their calls responded to by the big companies. This
creates two big wins for you:
a) Small publications have more time for you
b) Big publications troll the small publications for stories
In fact, you might not want to waste too much time getting to Walt
Mossberg or John Markoff–those guys are jammed up big time. Great
guys, and they know a great story when they see it, but the amount of
incoming traffic they have is insane. Your best bet might be to find a
vertical blog or podcast and talk to those folks. After you speak with
them you can send the link to Mossberg or Markoff–or they might find
To this day I say yes to almost any small podcast or blog interview
request I can. As a nanopublisher for many years I know how hard it is
to get a “brand name,” and now that I’ve got a modest brand name I
like to help those folks leverage it. It’s good for karma, and it’s
good for keeping your ear to the street. These smaller, veritcal
publications sometimes have great information they can share with you.
Summary of part one:
PR is, by definition, a reflection of what you’ve done. All the PR in
the world will not make a bad business great, and some bad press
really kill a great company. Getting press is a great way to
accelerate the adoption of your brand, but truth be told, your brand
is going to rise and fall based on how valuable it is to your
That being said, your ability to hire people, get meetings, raise
money and form partnerships will be tied to your “PR footprint.”
Everyone wants to be involved with MySpace, Facebook, digg and Apple.
Folks will do business deals with these companies that lose money
because of the halo effect the association brings.
When a startup hits it’s not one thing that does it, it’s typically
many things working in concert. Getting your PR right is important in
the way the decor of a restaurant is important: folks like a
nice-looking restaurant, but they are only going to go to it once if
the food sucks. What you put on the plate–your product–is the most
John Brockman summed this up to me: always measure your press by the pound. ;-)
ps – If you made it to the bottom of this 5,000 word email I’m really
impressed. Feel free to hit reply to any of these emails and talk to
me directly (it goes to jason at calacanis.com automatically). Hope to
see everyone at the www.TechCrunch50.com conference.
Jason mailing list