PR fundamentals for early stage founders

Four tech press experts decode the dos and don'ts of traditional and social media and offer practical advice on how to make the crowded headlines.

At the early stage of building a startup, the bridge between obscurity and traction can rest on your brand communication strategy. “Your story makes the market,” says Alex Constantinople, Bessemer’s operating advisor and former CMO of Zendesk and CEO of The Outcast Agency. 

However, with dwindling newsrooms and crowded social media platforms, it's never been more challenging for entrepreneurs to cut through the noise and gain the attention of journalists, new media, potential investors, and customers. 

As part of Bessemer's GTM series, we’re sharing an essential public relations guide for startup founders: How can entrepreneurs effectively harness the power of storytelling, media relations, and strategic communications to propel their business forward? John O'Brien, founder of SBS Comms, Alex Wilhelm, senior reporter at TechCrunch, and Kelly Ferguson, senior director of communications of Claroty, join Alex Constantinople where together these seasoned media experts share everything early-stage CEOs and their marketing teams need to know to be “press ready” and make the most out of an important milestone.

Go here to read the edited transcript. 

Advice for founders 

What are the “non-negotiables” startup founders must consider before speaking with the press?

Know your story and mission: A founder must deeply understand and be able to articulate the company's mission, vision, values, and the problem it's solving. John O'Brien highlighted the importance of being a good storyteller, focusing on why the company exists and its product-market fit rather than just the product itself.

Define your messaging:Kelly Ferguson emphasized figuring out your messaging, including the hook, narrative, and what makes your journey and story unique. Before talking to the media, you should be clear about how you stand out and what message you want to convey.

Prepare to share business results:As Alex Wilhelm pointed out, a willingness to share tangible, detailed business results is non-negotiable. Whether it's growth metrics, user numbers, or financials, providing substantive data can significantly strengthen your story and interest from journalists.

Be authentic: Being genuine in your interactions with the media, sharing your passion, challenges, and the real story behind your startup can foster stronger connections and more meaningful coverage.

Be prepared for commitment:Engaging with the press is not a one-off task but requires continuous effort and engagement. It takes time and resources to build and maintain relationships with the media, craft compelling stories, and follow through with communications.

Know your important terms:Founders need to know what information they are comfortable sharing and how it will be used by journalists. 

  • On the record: Anything said "on the record" can be used by the journalist in their story and attributed directly to the speaker by name. It's fully public and can be quoted verbatim. As discussed, if you're speaking "on the record," you should be comfortable with your words being published exactly as you've said them. For example, if you say, "Our company's growth has exceeded our projections this quarter," that statement can appear in the article with your name attached to it./li>
  • Off the record: When information is shared "off the record," it cannot be used for publication. This information is given to provide context or background to a journalist but is not to be directly quoted or attributed to the source. It's crucial that parties agree to this condition before the information is shared; otherwise, the default assumption is that the conversation is on the record. The key here is trust; while the journalist cannot use the information directly, they may use it to inform their understanding or pursue leads from other sources. For example, telling a journalist off the record that a new product will be launching soon means they can't report that fact, until they receive official confirmation elsewhere.
  • On background:Speaking "on background" allows the information to be used in a story, but without directly naming or attributing the source. Instead, the information might be attributed to a "source familiar with the matter" or a similar, non-specific designation that should be negotiated in advance by you and the journalist. This allows for the inclusion of the information in the journalist's reporting while maintaining the source's anonymity. For example, you could share details about company negotiations on background, and the journalist could use that information citing a "source close to the negotiations."

What is “founder-led communications”? What are the pros and cons of this PR strategy?

Founder-led communications refer to a strategy where startup founders take an active, front-line role in communicating their company's stories, values, and missions directly to the media, stakeholders, and the public. This approach leverages the founder's authenticity, passion, and deep understanding of the company's vision to engage audiences more personally and effectively.

Founder-led communications can significantly enhance a startup's connection with its audience by leveraging the authenticity and direct engagement of its founders. However, as the company scales and the complexity of media relations grows, the challenges of sustainability, skillset limitations, and the potential for missteps highlight the need for professional PR support to maintain a balanced and effective communications strategy.

Based on John and Kelly’s expert points-of-view, here are the four pros and four cons entrepreneurs need to keep in mind before attempting this approach. 

Pros of founder-led comms:

  • Founder-led communications are rooted in the genuine passion and vision of the founders, offering a level of authenticity that resonates strongly with audiences. As the primary visionaries of their companies, founders can share compelling stories and insights that PR teams might not be able to convey with the same depth of conviction.
  • Founders directly engaging with the media and public can streamline the communication process, ensuring that the company's messages are delivered accurately. This direct line of communication can foster stronger relationships with journalists and a more engaged audience on social media platforms.
  • Founders can quickly respond to emerging trends, news, or crises without the need to navigate through additional layers of PR or media relations teams. This agility allows for timely and relevant communications that can capitalize on current events or mitigate issues more rapidly.
  • Founder-led communications can also contribute to building the personal brand of the founders, which can become a valuable asset for the company. A strong personal brand can enhance the company's credibility and attract more attention and opportunities.

Cons of founder-led communications:

  • As the company grows, relying solely on founders for communications can become unsustainable. The time and effort required for effective media engagement may exceed what founders can manage alongside their other responsibilities.
  • Not all founders are naturally comfortable or skilled in public speaking, media relations, or social media engagement. This discomfort can hinder the effectiveness of founder-led communications and potentially harm the company's public image if not managed properly.
  • Without the buffer and guidance that a professional PR team can provide, founders might be more prone to communication missteps or controversies. These risks can be particularly high in crisis situations where every word is scrutinized.
  • Maintaining a consistent and professional message across all communications can be challenging when multiple founders are involved or when founders' personal views clash with company values. Professional PR guidance helps ensure that messaging aligns with the company's strategic goals and public image.

What are the best practices for founders who are new to building their social presence online?

For founders, building a social presence is key to engaging your audience, telling your company's story, and carving out your personal brand. The consensus was clear: not all publicity, especially the controversial kind stirred by figures like Elon Musk, benefits a company's reputation or stock value. In contrast, Box CEO Aaron Levie stands out on Twitter for his witty and relatable posts, setting a prime example of effective founder-led communication. 

Based on the expertise from our panelists, we distilled social media best practices for CEOs into these 10 commandments. (Note: Much of these lessons align with traditional news best practices!) 

      1. Know your story: Before diving into social media, founders should have a clear understanding of their company's story, mission, and values. This narrative foundation ensures that your social content is authentic and resonates with your audience. Reflect on what makes your journey unique and share those stories.
      2. Find Channel/Market Fit: Not all social media platforms are created equal, especially when it comes to engaging with your intended audience. Identify where your target audience spends their time and focus your efforts there. For some, it might be LinkedIn for professional networking, while for others, Twitter could be more effective for real-time engagement and news sharing.
      3. Be real, but appropriate: Share both your successes and challenges. Engaging with your audience in an authentic manner builds trust and humanizes your brand. Remember, social media is a two-way conversation. Respond to comments, participate in discussions, and show that there's a real person behind the account.
      4. Remember consistency is key: Regular posting keeps your audience engaged and helps build a loyal following. Ensure a good mix of content types, such as industry insights, company updates, behind-the-scenes looks, and personal reflections.
      5. Leverage visual content: Visual content, including images, videos, and infographics, tends to perform better on social media. Use visuals to complement your messages, making them more engaging and shareable.
      6. Monitor and adapt: Use social media analytics tools to track the performance of your posts. Pay attention to what types of content resonate most with your audience and adjust your strategy accordingly. Social media trends and platform algorithms evolve, so staying flexible and willing to adapt is crucial.
      7. Learn from others: Follow other founders, industry leaders, and companies you admire on social media. Take note of what they do well and consider how you can incorporate similar strategies or tactics into your approach.
      8. Set boundaries: While sharing personal stories and insights can enhance authenticity, it's also important to establish boundaries for what you're comfortable sharing. Maintain a balance between professional and personal content that reflects your comfort level and company culture.
      9. Don’t be afraid to ask for professional help: If social media is outside your area of expertise, consider seeking advice from marketing or PR professionals. They can provide strategic guidance, content ideas, and best practices to enhance your social presence effectively.
      10. Most importantly, stay informed and respectful: Be mindful of current events and social issues. Ensure your content is sensitive to the broader social and economic context to avoid unintentional gaffes.

What should a CEO think about when hiring for a PR role? What’s the right approach here?

Kelly Ferguson shares four recommendations founders and CEOs must keep in mind when they begin hiring for a communications leader:  

  1. View PR as a strategic partnership: Kelly suggests that CEOs should look for an agency or individual who can act not just as a service provider but as a true business partner. This means finding someone who understands not only the nuances of PR but also the company's vision, culture, and long-term goals. The right PR professional or team should align with the company's values and be able to think strategically about how to position the company in the broader market.
  2. Assess the maturity of your marketing team: The decision to bring in-house PR expertise or collaborate with an agency may depend on the current capabilities and bandwidth of your marketing team. If your marketing lead or team has a strong background in communications and the capacity to handle PR effectively, you might initially lean on their expertise. However, as the company grows and demands become more complex, bringing specialized PR talent onboard or partnering with a dedicated agency will become increasingly beneficial.
  3. Consider the timing and scale of your business: Hiring for a PR role often makes the most sense at certain junctures in a company's growth, such as scaling operations to a new level. For example, Kelly joined Claroty between its Series C and D funding rounds when the company had between 100 and 150 employees. This timing allowed her to leverage the momentum of the company’s growth while ensuring that strategic communications could support further scaling.
  4. Integrate communications into strategic decision-making: The PR function should not operate in a silo but be integrated into the company's strategic decision-making processes. This means involving the PR lead or team early on in discussions about company direction, product launches, and other key initiatives. Their insights can help shape not only how these initiatives are communicated, but also provide feedback on the initiatives themselves from a public perception perspective.

Hiring for a PR role requires CEOs to think beyond the immediate tactical needs and consider how PR can serve as a strategic lever to build the company’s reputation, engage with key stakeholders, and support long-term growth. The right approach involves finding a partner who is aligned with the company’s mission and capable of contributing to its strategic vision.

What should CEOs know about fostering a healthy working model with communications? 

PR isn’t magic. Hiring a PR professional doesn’t instantly result in getting your business featured in the New York Times overnight. In fact, those types of business story outcomes are a result of a communications team setting a strategy and building incremental momentum with the media of overtime. Just like any other function within a business, communications teams have structure, systems, and rules of engagement to be effective. Most importantly, CEOs must prioritize intellectually honest communication with their PR team to drive strategy forward. 

As CEOs look to bring on PR leadership and/or an agency, there are several factors that contribute to a healthy working model that sets communication teams up for success. 

Six rules of engagement for CEOs when working with PR 

  1. Early involvement: Bring in the PR or Communications Lead early in strategic discussions and planning sessions. This allows them to align communication strategies with the company’s overall objectives and ensures that key messages are consistent across all platforms.
  2. Strategic partnership: The PR or Communications professional should be seen as a strategic partner within the company, not just a tactical executor. This means giving them a seat at the table where key decisions are made and valuing their input on how various initiatives will be perceived externally.
  3. Set clear objectives and expectations: Establish clear objectives and expectations for the PR or Communications role. This includes defining key performance indicators (KPIs) related to media coverage, brand visibility, and stakeholder engagement that align with the company’s goals.
  4. Foster autonomy and trust: Grant the PR or Communications Lead the autonomy to execute their strategies and build relationships with the media. Trusting their expertise and judgment is crucial for fostering a healthy working environment and achieving the best results.
  5. Make communications cross functional: Ensure that the PR or Communications function is well-integrated with other departments, such as marketing, product development, and customer service. This cross-functional collaboration ensures that communication strategies are cohesive and support the company’s broader objectives.
  6. Give them budget: Provide the necessary resources and support for the PR or Communications function to be successful. This could include access to media monitoring tools, budget for PR campaigns, and support staff as the company grows.

Choosing the right time to bring on a PR or Communications Lead and fostering a healthy working model based on strategic partnership, early involvement, clear objectives, and cross-functional collaboration will position the company for successful external communications and long-term growth.

Advice for communication leaders

How can PR teams make things easier on journalists when working on a story? What makes a good pitch for tech news? 

Working in today’s media industry is a marathon in managing an overwhelming volume of information, maintaining speed and accuracy, and constantly seeking out fresh, compelling stories. 

"The pressure to be quick and reactive is, I think, the worst it has ever been in my experience,” Alex Wilhelm candidly shares. “Plus there’s more news to cover and more people reaching out to try to catch our eye than I recall ever seeing before in my career." 

So here are three things to remember when working with journalists— 

  • Prioritize transparency and sharing: Wilhelm pointed out the importance of founders being willing to share detailed business results, saying, "If you tell me that your business is going from one to 10 to 1,000, and you're willing to talk about that, then I literally can't not talk to you." Reminder for private businesses — only share the business information you think is strategic to share. You don’t want to tip your competitors off with information on IP or any competitive edge you may have. 
  • Be direct and prepared: The challenge for journalists is not just finding stories but sifting through the sand to find the gold. Founders and PR people can help by being direct, concise, and prepared with their pitches. "I only have two hands," said Alex, highlighting the need for pitches that are straightforward and easy to grasp.
  • Follow a reporter’s timeline: Acknowledging the difficulties journalists face can lead to more empathetic and effective communication strategies. Founders and PR professionals should understand that journalists are juggling numerous stories and tight deadlines, so once you have a story in progress, be prompt and responsive to journalists’ requests, if it’s strategic for you to land that headline. (See Rule 5 below.) 

The five rules of crafting a good pitch for tech news 

  1. Find that compelling narrative: Tell a story that goes beyond the superficial aspects of the product or the service. "Everyone starts a company for a reason, and that reason is really interesting," shares John O’Brien. Highlighting the unique problem your company solves or the gap it fills in the market can make your story stand out.
  2. Focus on clarity: Kelly Ferguson pointed out the importance of clear messaging: “What’s the hook?” Before you pitch, ensure you have a clear understanding of your company's message, how it differentiates from competitors, and why it matters to the publication’s audience. 
  3. Highlight the problem-solution dynamic of your business: "Advocate for the problem that you're solving," shares John. Discussing the problem before jumping into what you've built allows journalists and readers to understand the context and significance of your technology.
  4. Tailor your pitch to the journalist's interests and their publication's audience: Customizing your pitch to align with what the journalist covers and what their readers care about will significantly increase your chances of getting noticed. This requires doing your homework on the journalist's recent articles and the overall tone and focus of the publication.
  5. Keep it brief and to the point: As Alex W. mentioned above, journalists are inundated with pitches daily, so making yours concise and clear can help it stand out. Be sure to distill your pitch to its essence without sacrificing the compelling elements of your story.

How do you prepare your CEO before a media opportunity? 

Preparing a CEO for media opportunities involves both strategic and practical steps to ensure they can communicate effectively, confidently, and in alignment with the company’s goals. The key elements of preparation include:

  • Brief your leader on the media outlet and journalist: Provide an overview of the media outlet, its audience, and the journalist's style, interests, and previous work. Understanding these aspects helps tailor the message and anticipate the interview's tone.
  • Develop key messages and talking points: Develop clear, concise key messages and talking points that align with the company's strategic objectives. These should highlight the main ideas the CEO needs to communicate, ensuring consistency across media appearances.
  • Anticipate questions and practice responses: Prepare for potential questions, including difficult or sensitive ones, and practice responses. This helps the CEO navigate the interview smoothly and remain on message, even when faced with unexpected or challenging questions.
  • Practice, practice, practice: Regular media training sessions can greatly enhance a CEO’s communication skills, including how to control the narrative, pivot back to key messages, and handle tricky questions with poise.
  • Understand the format and logistics: Clarify the interview's format (live, recorded, audio, or video), duration, and any technical logistics. This helps the CEO feel more comfortable and avoid technical difficulties during the media appearance.
  • Review recent company news and industry trends: Ensure the CEO is up to date on the latest company developments and broader industry trends. This enables them to speak knowledgeably about current issues and position the company as a leader in its field.
  • Visual presentation: For video interviews, consider aspects like attire, background, and lighting. The CEO’s visual presentation should be professional and aligned with the company’s brand image. When appropriate, sharing important slides or compelling visual aids could help tell the story through data or provide concrete evidence to a CEO’s points-of-view. 
  • Always debrief: After the media opportunity, conduct a debrief session to discuss what went well, what could be improved, and any follow-up actions required. This continuous feedback loop is essential for ongoing development and success in future media engagements.

The transcript 

Alex Constantinople: Hi, everybody! I'm Alex Constantinople, a Bessemer operating advisor, and for those of you who don't know me, I help facilitate the amazing go-to-market community here at Bessemer. You might also have crossed paths with me. I ran an agency called Outcast for about 10 years and was most recently the CMO of Zendesk and prior to that had a bunch of fun jobs in the media side, in comms and marketing. I am really happy to be here. We've pulled together a really great group for you. I'd love to give you all a warm welcome and thank you for joining us today. So our topic is cutting through the noise: PR fundamentals for founders. It's great to have so many startup founders and operators in the audience as well as Comms folks and some marketing folks. Thank you for joining today.

As many of you may know, Bessemer launched their go-to-market course for entrepreneurs, and in it, we share best practices and insights to help startup leaders position their business, gain traction, and build engines necessary to drive your SaaS revenue. If you RSVP'd to this event, you'll be signed up to get free access to a special go-to-market course we put together. So if you have a friend or founder you think would benefit from this course, be sure to send them this link. As a foundation in this course, I also share a framework on how to build your brand communication strategy.

This is a great starting point when it comes to developing your company's mission vision values as well as your business positioning statement and key messages. Many people say that being a good storyteller is the number one job that you have as a founder. It impacts how you connect with your customers, teams, investors, and of course, the media. I've always had a phrase I've used, and especially I've been sharing it with folks, "The story makes the market." How you message and connect with your audiences really drives traction, shapes your reputation, determines your business future, and especially in all the crazy we've all been going through the last few years, you could say, but certainly in the last year. This is more important than ever to really own it as best you can.

That's the inspiration behind today's conversation. We wanted to share PR fundamentals with you all that you need to know as you're ramping toward really significant milestones and how to cut through a very noisy market. So to that end, it's my absolute pleasure to introduce you to our three fantastic experts who are going to join me today, and we purposely are going to do some Q&A upfront but really leave a bunch of time at the end for questions and to make this really interactive. So please know that we'll make sure to shut ourselves up and throw it back over to you guys. You could ask whatever you want. To kick it off, I would love for the panelists, and they're going to introduce themselves first, of course. But to also share what you think is an absolute non-negotiable requirement before a founder starts talking to the media.

Alex Wilhelm: Well, hi, everybody! Thank you for having me. I'm Alex. I'm on the equity podcast over at TechCrunch. I write our morning newsletter. I've been assigned a daily video. I do a lot of different things over there. I've known Bessemer forever. So it's great to be part of this. My non-negotiable, I think, is fully audited GAAP financials that are then shared with me in great detail so that way I can really get to the nitty-gritty of how a company is doing. No, I would say the thing that I care about the most is a willingness to share. I think we'll get into this later. But often, you talk to people, and they don't really want to talk about what they're building. They want to tell you this one tiny thing and nothing else about what they're doing, and that tends to lead to pretty flat conversations and kind of wasted time on everyone's side. So I would say, just like an excitement to actually talk about what they're building and how it's going would be my number one general thing.

Kelly Ferguson: Hi there! I'm Kelly Ferguson. I'm the senior Director of Communications at Claroty, which is a cybersecurity company. We're focused on protecting cyber-physical systems in critical infrastructure. Bessemer is one of our investors, so it's been great to have their support as well. Before Claroty, I was at a PR agency for many years. So I've been in the space for a while. My absolute non-negotiable requirement before talking to the media, I would say, is figure out your messaging. What's the hook? What's the narrative? What's unique about your journey and your story? That is going to make you stand out and make others want to learn more about what you're building. There's many other steps that should happen as well, but that would be the first place you should start from my point of view.

John O'Brien: Hello, I'm John O'Brien. I am the founder of SBS Comms. We've been around for about seven years. We work with mostly technology companies across, you know, AI, and Fintech, and Enterprise software, and even asteroid mining. Prior to SBS, I spent 8 years at the Outcast agency working under a horrible tyrant. Just kidding, Alex, is the best. My non-negotiable is the separation of go-to-market messaging and press messaging. It's not that those two things live in conflict. Go-to-market messaging is really really important. But it's not your story. I always tell executives, don't sit down with a journalist, and if they ask you, who are you, or what your company does? Don't just start with like a "we have built a platform to do X". Everyone starts a company for a reason, and that reason is really interesting. You saw product-market fit. You saw TAM that nobody else saw in a certain industry. You know there was something missing that. And you're filling the gap. So that's the story. And then the go-to-market messaging is kind of the table stakes like Claroty of like this is what we built and who we built it for. But everything around that makes you more interesting.

Alex Constantinople: I kind of don't need to paint the picture of startup PR. It's rough, right? I'm sure a lot of you are just saying, you know, what's the secret sauce. And there really isn't one these days. We're going to try to get some really good tips and tricks. Alex, give me a sense of how you're rolling these days, and what it's like for you.

Alex Wilhelm: There's more competing stuff happening in the tech world right now than I recall a few years past, and that seems to be drowning out or eating some of the space that might have been reserved before for startups, and I don't know if you wanna just put this on the shoulders of kind of the AI craze seems lost 18-24 months. But it does seem that big tech companies are doing so much that there's just less room for startups to kind of raise their hand and become part of the overall conversation. So that's the first thing that kind of comes to mind. The other thing is a bit of a sad point. But the world of media has been healthier in the past, and there are fewer of us than I think there have been for some time, if not ever, and so there are more total people out there reaching out to try to catch our eye than I recall ever seen before. So not only are, you know, Alphabet, and Microsoft and Apple stealing. I think some of the oxygen. There's just not that many of us left to talk to people.

And then the other thing I'll throw in there is just because of the economics of media. The pressure to be quick and reactive is, I think, the worst it has ever been in my experience, and so to take time to sit down with founders and so forth, is increasingly precious. And so it's kind of a trifecta of things that I think make it tough for everyone out there who's with us today, who's building something that they're really excited about to honestly get on my calendar. And as a response to that, I haven't really read email in the last, like five years. Which helps some. But it's not a commute kind of a panacea to. all the issues of inbound. That's an overview. Everything's really cool. I only have two hands.

Alex Constantinople: So what makes a good tech story pitch for you?

Alex Wilhelm: When I said audited GAAP financials, I was only like 80% kidding. When someone comes to me and says, “Hey, our ARR grew a hundred percent in the last quarter. And now we're at $3.5 million ARR, and we're gonna go out and raise our series A extension, or whatever, that tells me that that person is willing to talk about hard details, to dig into the nitty gritty, and to actually answer questions about the business itself. I think that sometimes founders can get a little bit more focused on trying to craft what appears to be the perfect narrative or to storytell in the way that they're often guided to when in reality at the very base level. I work for a business publication, and so business results are the thing that is the most important thing to me. Having a cool founding story is awesome, and having a cool pedigree or having worked at another cool company is great. Alright having investors that I know, sure. But if you tell me that your business is going from one to 10 to 1,000, and you're willing to talk about that. Then I literally can't not talk to you.

Alex Constantinople:Now for the Comms folks in the room. There's so much that leads up to an outcome like news in TechCrunch. So, John, on the other side, what's your winning formula in the background? 

John O'Brien: The key point is emphasizing the importance of storytelling in PR. Instead of directly selling your product or service, it's more impactful to frame your pitch around a significant problem your company addresses. For example, instead of merely stating that our client, Lightmatter, is developing a photonic computing system, we highlight the broader context—how their technology could address the massive energy consumption projected for AI inference, drawing parallels to pressing global issues and industry challenges. This approach not only captures a journalist's interest by tapping into larger trends and concerns but also positions your company as a thought leader working on solutions with far-reaching implications. It's about advocating for the problem you're solving, which naturally leads to a more engaging conversation about your product. This strategy transforms the interaction from a simple transactional pitch to a meaningful dialogue, potentially leading to stronger, ongoing relationships with the media.

Alex Constantinople: So the hard thing about this is, there's so much. There's some things in your control, and then there's a ton that aren’t. Again, this is earned press. So you have to pitch and win their attention and their space. What is in your control?

John O'Brien: That's a great question. Frankly, we've had situations where we'll do a briefing with the journalists, and the client will ask, “Can I see the story before it's published or change the headline?” I've been doing this so long that I forget to even set that expectation upfront, because most people don't don't think that way. They need to get comfortable with the fact that, again, the end result of any story is, gonna be a bit of your agenda, the reporter's point of view, the editors to sense, and you know, maybe you know a snarky headline, or you know something like that.

Alex Wilhelm: Let me jump in really quick. If you're a seed stage founder, I have no expectations that you have press literacy. But by the time you've got like a hundred employees, you should have your shit together. And so I do think there's probably some very slight willingness to be patient with people who are brand new, because those are the people, frankly, that are the most fun to talk to because they're still super excited. They're not jaded, they just want to vamp. And so if someone blurts something out and they have, you know, one employee, $4 and half a product, I'm going to be much more willing to be like we can just put that over there, for now, you know but I think definitely that that goes away as a company gets older and more sophisticated, and people get more more trained.

Alex Constantinople:Kelly, you’re inside. You’re building the team at Claroty. How should a CEO think about hiring the Comms role? And how do you think about timing? 

Kelly Ferguson: There's no single way to do it. But at least in my experience, in the early days, it’s pretty common for either the head of marketing, and sometimes even the founders themselves to be working directly with a PR agency (that's not an in-house role like what I have currently). I joined Claroty as the first in-house comms person when we were between our Series C and D rounds. I think we were maybe between 100 and 150 employees total. 

It’s all dependent on the maturity of the marketing team. Is there a head of marketing, do they come from a Comms background? Do they have the chops and do they have the bandwidth to work with the PR agency, or work directly with the press to handle everything that comes with it? Does a comms person have enough to work with in order to run a program? And that's not just based on funding rounds, but also all of the stuff that happens in between. 

In terms of what contributes to a healthy working model, I would say always bring in the comms person earlier than you think you should. If you've got something that you want to make noise out of, or you're not sure whether there's anything there, it's better to get the comms people involved sooner rather than later in order for it to be the most effective.

I would also say, find an agency – if that's the model that you want to go with –  that you can treat like a true business partner as opposed to just another vendor. In the world of PR and media, It's all about relationships and that can really make or break the success of the program overall.

Alex Constantinople: What do we mean when we talk about a rolling thunder campaign?

John O'Brien: Frankly, we've actually tried to do away with the sort of Comms plan of going launch by launch, and that takes a little bit of education. Even mature companies that come to us haven’t considered doing broader thought leadership campaigns, but we think that’s the way. Then those news announcements are kind of woven in throughout, for really early stage startups.

Kelly Ferguson: The rolling thunder is where the magic happens. That's what makes a PR program worth doing in the first place. It’s all about building relationships and getting your story out there. Any kind of brand awareness initiative is usually a long game. It's not a singular moment in time. There needs to be some level of consistency over a long period of time. If you're gonna take the time to invest in PR, you need to look at it as a long term thing, otherwise you're not gonna have the same impact. 

Alex Constantinople: The key to me always on this was being incredibly, externally focused. What are trends and themes? You can trend-jack and look for opportunities.

To that end, what about founder-led comms. Do you think that this works? Do you recommend this?

John O'Brien: The Comms world has been abuzz, especially after Lulu's manifesto, about the potential benefits of founders directly handling their communications. However, this approach typically favors high-profile founders or buzzworthy companies. It's challenging for lesser-known founders to manage their comms with the expectation of significantly boosting press, sales, and brand visibility. This strategy often confuses a single element with the entire solution. Success in this realm requires a founder's willingness to invest significant time and engage dynamically with current events. While some founders, including those at publicly traded companies, excel at this, others may resist extensive plans for amplifying their message, preferring spontaneous engagement like tweeting. Effective founder-led comms demand early commitment but can be a powerful strategy.

Kelly Ferguson: While I inherently advocate for involving communications professionals, I concur with John that direct engagement by founders can be highly beneficial in certain scenarios. For instance, immediate accessibility to media—such as providing a timely comment for a story—can be crucial for inclusion. Direct contact simplifies processes, aiding in relationship building over time and enhancing engagement, particularly on social media where personal posts outperform corporate ones. However, even in direct communications, the expertise of communications professionals is invaluable. They provide strategic insights and understand nuances that might not be immediately apparent, ensuring the message is correctly positioned. It's essential to recognize that the communications team plays a supportive role, not an adversarial one, allowing for a harmonious balance between direct founder engagement and professional comms support.

Alex Wilhelm: Can I jump in?

Alex Constantinople: Yes, please. Alex.

Alex Wilhelm: So yeah, the Aaron Levie comment from before really jogged my brain because I recall way back in the day when Box bought a company called Crocodoc. This is back in the ancient ancient past. I was actually at boxes headquarters for a meeting with Levi and some other reporters. And as I was leaving my phone died. I was stranded in their building lobby with like no phone, no uber. I think it was raining. It was one of those really crappy moments. And you're like fuck, am I gonna walk all the way across the city just to get home? And so I like talked my way back upstairs into the boxes office, and I ended up borrowing Aaron Levie's laptop to charge my phone while sitting with him in a little phone booth while he was working, and he didn't care, because he just wanted me to be able to charge my phone so I could leave, and that was that. But you remember little bits of actual human generosity. They stick out in your brain. And just throw one more founder led example into this. Bob from [company name] I forget to pronounce that they do vector search or something or other. Spent a couple of hours just sitting down with me and explaining what the hell vector search is, why, it matters an AI and I just learned a lot. And so there are just moments when people that have a high level of knowledge and charisma can put those things together. I just think often people don't have both. It's a pretty rare combination out there in the world period.

But I can see why, in certain cases you'd want to lead with the founder. In other cases, you want to take your CEO and put them under a blanket and not let them out.

Alex Constantinople: Alright first question. This is from Richard Hirsch. We are one of those startups that is a 10 year overnight success. The company got a lot of press when it first launched 10 years ago. So how do we get reporters to see the value of the story that is 10 years old, but is also fresh in certain respects.

Alex Wilhelm: What's fresh? What's different? And if a company has been quiet for 10 years, that tells me quite a lot about their growth rate. If they were growing at 200% per year for 10 years they would be a multi-billion-dollar company by now. So something in the growth curve there has gone flat. And so if the story is, we hit a growth plateau for eight years, changed up our business model, and now we've returned to triple-digit growth, then huzzah, that's fantastic. But that kind of writes itself. So I'm curious, John, Kelly, what do you think?

Kelly Ferguson:

Alex Constantinople: Alright, let's go on to the next questions. This is from an anonymous user: "It seems like more and more we're seeing founder-led comms. What tips do you have for companies where the founder is more of an operator and less interested in being in the spotlight?"

John O'Brien: That's a great question. In those situations, it's a bit of a negotiation of what they are willing to do, and then pushing them. I also think that founders often don't love doing comms because they didn't do it right for a long time, and they didn't get the results they were looking for. Once you turn that page and it becomes a positive thing for them, then it's addictive. They want to do more and more of it. So, it's about trying to get a founder to that place. However, it's really tough to take people who are plain not going to invest the time, not going to be dynamic on social media, and tell them to do founder-led comms.

Kelly Ferguson: And to add to that, it's crucial for founders, even those who are more operators, to understand the value of being part of the narrative. They don't have to transform into someone they're not, but finding a comfortable medium where they can still contribute to the company's story in a way that feels authentic to them is key. Sometimes, it's about highlighting their strengths as an operator and using that as part of the company's unique story.

Alex Wilhelm: As an example, have you ever met the CEO of GitLab, Sid? He's not the person who would audition for the lead role in a theater production. Through a lot of training, he ended up being pretty good at it. After they went public, you could tell he had gone through not just media training boot camp but a really long trek to where he became a very effective communicator. Earlier on, though less so. The first time I talked to him, he asked if we could record and broadcast our interview. So, you can learn this. It's something that some people are going to have an easier journey with than others, but it's not so impossible. Charisma is mostly a learned skill, I think.

John O'Brien:Going back to the last question about prep, prep has evolved a lot over the last 10 years. It's now about prepping for authenticity. I don't want to turn someone from a geeky engineer into someone they're not. People want the direct talk, the real stuff. If someone comes in and is not being themselves, I actually want to go the other way and practice not being over-rehearsed.

Alex Wilhelm: But earlier, Kelly mentioned how to pivot the conversation, how to make sure you're getting your points in there if you don't get a comfortable leading question. How do you balance what she said and also what you just mentioned, John?

John O'Brien: It's a fine line and a difficult balance. You need to know the things you want to communicate. I will tell founders often, "I don't care if the reporter just wants to talk about your shoes and your car, they're going to know these five things about your company, your product, or whatever." But don't be someone you're not. It's really about being yourself while also ensuring the key messages get across.

Kelly Ferguson: And that's where the magic of good comms strategy comes into play. It's finding that perfect balance between being prepared and being authentic. It's a skill that can be honed over time with the right guidance and practice.

Alex Constantinople: Well, we are a couple of minutes over. Thank you so much, really, really, deeply appreciate and thank you so much everybody who joined us.