Screwed by the Press?

After much debate, we made the decision to hire an independent public relations (PR) consultant a few months ago to help us launch SalesCrunch to the world.  PR is a very political business and a big financial investment that is very difficult to measure.  One good story can put you on the map, but more often than not companies spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on PR only to add more noise to the world than signal without much to show for it.  It can literally make you or break you.  I considered handling our PR myself.  At the end of the day, PR is mostly just sales – hardcore, phone pounding, boiler room pitching till you’re blue in the face kind of sales.  I am a sales guy to theUgly Head core, so that part I get and even thrive on.  Its the other part, the ass-kissing, soul crushing politics around who writes about who, what and when, that is mind boggling to me. So we decided to pay $8,000 a month for six months for 1/3rd of an experienced PR consultant that had the contacts and patience to play the game. Two and a half ass busting months and $20,000 later, we are ready for the public launch of our flagship product CrunchConnect.  Everything was going according to plan, until disaster reared its ugly head.

We lined up several days of back-to-back press briefings and demos the week before the announcement.  The first briefing is with a New York based online news rag.  The reporter is young, fairly new to the job and shows up wearing jeans, a flannel shirt and Chucks, typical for a reporter covering the downtown tech startup beat. We get to talking and he turns out to be a nice, wholesome, Midwestern kinda guy.  We get along swimmingly and the demo goes off without a hitch. We both follow up via email with niceties and it’s pretty certain he is going to give us a good write up. Score!

You know the saying that timing is everything?  Well, that’s absolutely true of PR.  You start pitching press a week or two before you are ready to send a release on the wire to give reporters enough time to do research and write an article in advance.  As soon as the first reporter writes about your news its basically old news and the desire for other reporters to cover it plummets like a man’s labedo after age 50.  To give as many reporters as possible the opportunity to break the news while it is still news you put an embargo on the release, which basically means the reporters agree not to publish their story until a certain date and time. In our case, we have reporters agree to it, we plaster it all over the advance release, we put it in our follow up email and we shake on it. Confused by all this? Don’t worry, so was the reporter from our first briefing.  Instead of waiting till the embargo lifted Monday at 7am he accidentally released it the very next day.  Ugh, can you say “train wreck?”

Train Wreck

After I pulled my heart out of my throat, I wrote him the following email:

On Wed, Mar 23, 2011 at 12:45 PM, Sean Black wrote:
Hey Dylan,

Can you please take down the story you posted ASAP? Per the press release, it is embargoed until Monday, March 28th at 7am ET.  We really appreciate the kind coverage and great story, but we want to make sure everyone has the same opportunity to cover it.

Best,

Sean

To which I got the following response:

On Wed, Mar 23, 2011 at 1:06 PM, Dylan wrote:

Hi Sean and Kristi:

This is completely my fault and I apologize for the carelessness on my end. Please trust that there was no ill will behind it. With that in mind, it’s the policy of ours and every publication out there not to remove a post. I’m between a rock and a hard place on this, and I hope it hasn’t caused exceptional damage or grief.

Very sincerely,

Dylan

OMG We're ScrewedLike any industry, the New York tech scene and the press that covers it is a pretty tight knit community. I happen to know the COO and the VP, Business Development of the company for which the reporter works and several of my investors and network know the CEO. A campaign of emails and calls ensues pleading to have the story taken down until Monday so other reporters will cover the story, but to no avail. Here is the verdict in an email from the CEO:

Sent: Wednesday, March 23, 2011 3:22 PM
Subject: Re: SalesCrunch Embargo Violated

Have now talked to everyone involved here.

Normally, in cases like this, companies reach out and ask us if we will agree to an embargo before providing us with any information. We agree or don’t agree to the embargo depending on the circumstances, and then the company decides whether or not to go forward and share the info.  My understanding is that that did not happen in this case.

My understanding is that when Dylan and Sean talked the first time, Sean did not mention anything about an embargo or the conversation being off the record.  He then followed up with an email saying that the information could be released on such-and-such a date that Dylan didn’t missed (our error).

If this is in fact what happened, the initial conversation between Sean and Dylan would be considered on the record.  And, for obvious reasons, we don’t allow folks to go on background after the fact.

We don’t ever want to surprise or burn anyone, and Dylan should have seen the language in the email and brought it to Sean’s attention (and his editor’s).  But at least from what I understand now, there was never any agreement to or mention of an embargo in their initial conversation.

If your understanding is different, please let me know.

Thanks.

So basically it came down to a he said, she said technicality and the decision went against us. Now, if this were any other outfit I might be upset, err livid. But then Dylan’s editor called me to apologize and assured me there was no ill-intent and said he even tried to lobby our case with his CEO.  The COO and I exchanged emails where she apologized and pretty much said the same thing. In the end I think my first impression of Dylan as a wholesome, good guy was the right one. He didn’t intentionally break the embargo, it was just a newbie mistake, as his editor assured me.  Moreover, I know the rest of the people within the organization to be of high integrity and I believe them when they tell me they took it very seriously and that it was a very difficult decision to make, but ultimately it came down to journalistic integrity for them. So in the end I wrote them all an email thanking them for tying assuring them there was no hard feelings, and I meant it.

Welcome to the roller coaster ride called a startup.  Stuff like this happens all the time, sometimes good and sometimes not so good.  You learn from it and move on better for the experience and determined never to repeat the same mistakes twice.   I’m sure this wasn’t a fun experience for poor Dylan either. Being the cause of a few hours of chaotic calls and emails from several influential people within the very tech community that you cover that involved your editor and entire senior management team culminating with the CEO had to be a pretty dreadful outcome for him.  So it looks like everyone involved learned a hard lesson this week and I am sure everyone wants nothing more than to put it behind them and move on.  So that’s exactly what we are doing.

We are not yet sure of the consequences of the broken embargo. Who knows, maybe it will turn out to be a non-event.  Then again, maybe our $20k and two and a half months of hard work will have been for not. But whatever happens, we will press on (no pun intended) and live to fight another day.

UPDATE: We ended up getting tons of press, so disaster averted after all

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