One of the top minds in B2B PR I’ve worked with is Ed Zitron. We’ve had him at SaaStr Annual and SaaStr several times over the years, and we’ve worked together on over a dozen on my SaaStr Fund portfolio companies. I asked him to put together a primer on just what PR really is .. in 2023. Jason – ed.
Back when Jason wrote his SaaS founders’ guide to PR, he put out one of the most tangible and pragmatic guides to what makes hiring a PR firm truly worth it. Public Relations is not a monolith, it isn’t black magic, it isn’t something that is meant to be confusing to measure or hard to plan for. In about a decade of running my own firm – and working with Jason and his various portfolio companies (as well as other clients, of course), I’ve seen things change, but also stay remarkably similar.
What’s Changed In The Last 10 Years?
The Number of Outlets
Back in the day you had CITEWorld, IDG publications were better-staffed, and there were significantly more enterprise reporters than there are today. As a result it was easier for cheaper, crappier agencies to spray-and-pray, spamming 100 to 200 reporters at once and getting mediocre results for you. This has become significantly harder because of A) a much smaller media industry and B) a much larger amount of companies raising capital.
The Tech Press Grew Up
Enterprise and SaaS are no longer new and exciting industries that the press are jumping to cover – they’re mainstays, one of the few stable parts of a relatively chaotic tech industry. That being said, having a lot of customers – or even big-name customers – isn’t quite enough. You need to be ready to talk revenue, or have a big customer that will actually talk to the press with you – because these folks have been burned by taking the word of founders in the past. This is actually a huge boon for any company that has really great metrics that they’re able to back up!
If you’re pre-revenue, I’d recommend not hiring a PR firm unless you’ve raised a funding round, and be ready to back up whatever you’re saying with a defined path to making money. The press has tired of pseudo-companies – if you can’t prove that you’re a business, which should be a little easier if you’re selling software, you’ll be sniffed out (or, well, ignored).
Funding Rounds Can’t Just Be Funding Rounds
If you’ve raised anything less than $5 million at seed, you’re going to need to find an interesting angle, and I don’t mean one that kinda sorta sounds good but nobody really cares about. Are you connecting the fabric of a huge industry, untouched by other companies? Sketch out exactly how big the market is, and be prepared to back it up with independent metrics.
What Doesn’t Work Anymore (Or Didn’t Work Before)
Oh you’ve got 2 million concurrent sessions? You’ve got 200,000 “customers”? They don’t care. Nobody cares. If you can’t explain in plain terms why a metric matters, don’t use it. Vanity metrics don’t work either – the amount of users you have isn’t relevant if you can’t express why that’s important beyond “it’s good to have more customers.” If they aren’t paying, you need to explain why they’re still valuable. It sucks to admit, but you’re running a business and pitching business reporters.
Do not spam a list of reporters. Do not do it. Do not hire an agency that spams reporters. It didn’t work well before, and it doesn’t work at all now. What it does is give your company a bad name.
Stretching The Truth (Or Straight Up Lying)
It feels weird to write this, but don’t make up things. Don’t embellish stats or partnerships, don’t say a trial is a full customer, and don’t say that a firm invested if one of their partners invested personally. These things always come out eventually, and when they do it’s never pleasant for anyone involved. It used to be that you could be a little bit vague and let people fill in the gaps – I didn’t do this because, well, it’s unethical and crappy – but now reporters are fully prepared to sniff BS out and rip you apart for it.
What Worked Before And Still Works Today
Relationships and Reading
As Jason said, most PR firms (90%) can’t get you quality results, and the reason is because they don’t have the relationships with reporters. I spend 80% of my time working on these relationships, either actively through meeting them digitally or otherwise, or reading. I cannot explain enough how meaningful it is to sit down and regularly read the content that reporters put out, both on social media and on their respective publications. Wanna be on TechCrunch? Read goddamn TechCrunch, really read it, read everybody’s stuff and understand their coverage. If you can’t do that, hire a PR firm, and make sure that said firm can eloquently describe where they’d pitch you and why.
I’ll give you an example: Kelly Soderlund of Navan (one of my clients) is one of the most gifted PR people I’ve ever met because she obsessively reads and knows about what reporters are up to, both in what they write and what they’re up to on social media. She has an enviable rolodex too. How? Reading and meeting with them and not being transactional.
Being Useful – And Interesting
If you’re knowledgeable about a subject and a reporter needs a comment, give them one. People pick up the phone for helpful people.
And if you’re asked for something, provide it quickly. Respond quickly. Be useful.
There’s also really something to be said for having meaningful commentary on things that you truly understand. Usually founders are either scared to ruffle feathers or way, way too firebrand-adjacent – find your “thing” and really stick to it. Jason has done well getting quoted – when he wants to – talking about the state of major enterprise software companies. He’s a master of this stuff.
I do caution you to be aware of when you’re out of your depth. Don’t talk about politics. Don’t get into culture war stuff. Focus on your work, and the world around your work.
A Real Company With Real Money (Funding plus Revenue)
Wanna get press? Make money or raise money. Raising money works if backed by a good story – an interesting founder with an interesting background, with “interesting” meaning a story that is different to the regular “I did my time at (big company)” narrative. Funding can still work without that – especially if you raise over $10m – and really, if you’re profitable and making millions in MRR or tens of millions in ARR, reporters are interested because a depressing amount of companies aren’t doing so.
A Straightforward Problem, Solved
One of the coolest companies I’ve ever worked with was an AI-powered strategic planning company. They raised a bunch of money, but the real magic was that the problem was very much the founder’s – he needed a way to actually see how far his company’s money would go, and what future changes to their roadmap would cost them (or whether said changes were possible). Every single demo he did was exciting, because he was able to show in real time exactly what the problem was – not understanding whether, say, increasing headcount by 20 people would be too great a burden on the company – and the solution, his company (they’re called Runway).
To be clear, his demo wasn’t sexy. It was, however, extremely easy to understand both the problem and the solution. Find a way to explain the world before you existed and the world that can exist as a result of you founding this company.
And be honest. Founding a company sucks. It can be draining. If you’re solving a problem because you had a tough time, tell them.
And It’s More Important Than Ever
Social media is going through a huge upheaval thanks to the ongoing battle between Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. Paid advertising is tougher to convert. Real, meaningful press remains a consistent ongoing driver of social proof and at times traffic and business development that no other channel can really rival (other than warm introductions).
To paraphrase Jason: it’s good for fundraising. It’s good for social proof. It helps build morale for the team. And fundamentally, everybody wants to work for a winner – and that’s what being in the press frames you as.
(marketing image from here)