What Startups Can Learn About PR and Crisis Management

Posted on Aug 14, 2011 | 49 comments


I was recently approached by Fast Company to comment on “crisis management” at startups in the wake of the Airbnb “ranksackgate” story. I agreed to do the interview because the story was about what other companies can learn rather than about airbnb in particular.

What are the teachable moments? The short article in Fast Company is here if you’d like to read it.

In a nutshell – I think airbnb eventually got to the right place and I was impressed with the letter their founder Brian Chesky wrote and their new commitment to safety and damages. Obviously they wish they would have figured this out a bit more quickly, but as a young team I personally cut them a little bit more slack than I would if it were Oracle, for example.

And as long as people put things right and show contrition, situations like this eventually become a “tempest in a teapot.” Today’s Internet titans are filled with such momentary lapses.

But I thought I’d use the situation to talk more broadly about some PR lessons you might learn for your own business and also incorporate some situations I’ve faced recently with some portfolio companies.

1. If You Don’t Shape Your Story, Somebody Else Will
My golden rule of public relations is that “if you don’t shape your story somebody else will.” We see this in politics all the time. Think John Kerry and the “swift boat” scandal. Whatever your political view we can all agree that John Kerry is a terrible communicator. He’s verbose, often off message and wooden.

During the 2004 election he was accused of having made up material facts from his service in the Vietnam War in an election against somebody who didn’t serve in a war. How do you lose that debate?

Simple: he let other people tell the story. He didn’t respond quickly and forcefully. Journalists write stories that have an appeal to readers whether the accusations have merit or not. Just look at the silly Obama birther debate that we wasted so many news cycles on.

You know the saying, nature abhors a vacuum. The story will get written whether you want it to or not.

Don’t be “swiftboated.” Shape your own story.

2. Understand the Gravity of the Situation for Your Customers
So how do you know when to publicly come forward with information and when to not do so? Is it ever appropriate to just let a news cycle pass assuming the story will move on and die down? The obvious starting points to think to yourself are:

  • Has something happened that fundamentally affects my customers or partners?
  • Is there a story that negatively affects how people perceive my brand?
  • Is there a reason I need to communicate to my constituents?
  • Is there a need to change my policies, announce a mea culpa or get a topic focused on the right points?

If you’ve done something that is wrong you should put it right immediately. Do not expect it to blow over. The perception of your brand by not responding will not recover. You cannot seem overly defensive. If you believe that journalists or competitors are telling a story that isn’t right you need to put that straight. Do so by winning the hearts and minds on substantive talking points rather than attacking others. Attacking always comes across as petty.

3. Don’t Bury Bad News
If you have information about a situation that has gone terribly wrong don’t cover it up. Remember that the cover up always ends up worse that the actual infraction. We learned that from the original “gate.” If you were hacked and customer passwords were stolen, get the story to your customers ASAP. Yes, it will be bad. But imagine how much worse the story will be in 30 days when people find out you knew their information was stolen and they didn’t have a chance to reset passwords, cancel credit cards or whatever other remedies they would have preferred to make.

Consider the flawless response from Brian Norgard at Chill. His product auto-posted a testimonial from Dave Morin into Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg called the tactic “lame.” Pretty tough when you’re called out by Zuck himself. Yet a quick response clearly made this Chill moment into lemonade.

If you want to see flawless in action, read Chill’s post. They shaped the story. They reacted quickly. They didn’t try to bury the news of what they’d done. They turned off the feature (took the high ground) while defending the practice in their post. Moreover, they drove a lot of attention to social TV viewing and Chill through their response. 10/10.

4. Never Blame the Press
The most tempting thing for inexperienced entrepreneurs to do is to attack the press. It’s easy to say somebody hates you, got the story wrong, is lying, has biases, etc. In fact, some of these things may even be true in some circumstances. Your job is to change the situation, not shoot the messenger. Build deeper relationships. Have private conversations to change opinions. Find other media outlets to tell your story. Know your positive talking points. But don’t pick a fight with the press. That’s a war you’re not going to win.

We live in a free society. It’s the job of the press to hold us all to account and question our conduct, our performance, our accuracy our businesses. Sometimes the story will be dead-on and will benefit us all by protecting consumers, sometimes I won’t agree with the story and think it will be proven largely wrong. In any event, I’ll take a free press any day. Journalists are doing their jobs. When many do it simultaneously – even when some stories aren’t 100% accurate – we have way more transparency in our system.

The positives far outweigh any possible negatives.

5. Know Your Key Messages
I was recently talking with an entrepreneur who had just gotten a ton of press around his company for an interview he gave to a journalist. The story was controversial enough that it created follow-on articles. He seemed proud, “all press is good press, right?” Wrong. I told him,

“Look, all of the press you got was totally ‘off message.’ You’re being talked about for the wrong thing. I don’t mind controversy. But if you’re going to say something controversial make it about the market you serve. Make it about the point-of-view you’re trying to change.

Make the story be about your market. Journalists aren’t going to write about you all the time unless you’re Facebook. You just burned a story. You wasted that opportunity with that journalist and that journal. What a shame.”

Know your talking points at all times. Know what you want the market to talk about. Stick to your script. All press isn’t good press. Off message press is a wasted opportunity.

6. Don’t Take the Bait
Another entrepreneur contacted me recently because a competitor had attacked his company in the press. I’ve written about this topic before – you should make your competitors frenemies, even when the do stupid things like attack you. Sure, if it’s a major attack that you believe will hurt your business you need to respond. But my view is that you take the high ground. Attacking back makes you both look petty. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Lead in the press with your positive attributes. Use it as an excuse to get a journalist to write about you.

The story of X company attacks Y, how does Y respond is an angle journalists can sink their teeth into. Of course they want you to attack back hard – that makes a great story for them. It doesn’t help you. Stay focused on your message.

And privately reach out to your competitor. Go meet them in person. Explain that your biggest competitor is inertia as it almost always is for startups. That, or incumbents. But tit-for-tat between small companies NEVER makes sense. Don’t do it.

See here how much perfect bait was tee’d up for MG at TechCrunch in this public fight between Google & Microsoft and again and again. Public fights are the gifts that keep giving for journalists and those fighting never come off looking good – they just convince themselves they do.

7. Develop Trusted Advisors
Like in every part of your business you need advisors. Startups often have advisors that help on recruiting, fund raising, biz dev, sales, etc. You need friends who have lots of experience in dealing with the press and hopefully relationships with journalists themselves. Trust me, these advisors will prove invaluable if you don’t have a lot of media experience. It isn’t something that comes naturally to most.

I’m always surprised how friends ask me for media help after they fawked up a story and never in advance when they’re planning. With portfolio companies I’m always involved in the planning phase. I want to know our media roadmap.

8. Get to Know the Press Now
Most startups talk to the press when they have a big event they want to talk about. That’s too late. I know it’s counter-intuitive because it seems like you shouldn’t talk with the press until you’re ready with something to say.

The reality is you want to have journalist relationships well before you have a story. Help them with other stories. Get to know what areas they’re knowledgeable and passionate about. Become interested in their profession and in them as people. Just like I advise people to get to know VCs early, so too with journalists. Here is a quick action plan for you in how to build journalist relations.

9. Get Media Training
I do a lot of public speaking and that includes speaking on television. Very few people are good at TV and many are sh*t scared of it. Yet with some simple media training you can be an effective communicator.

The same goes for press interviews. Knowing how to stay on message, knowing what your talking points are, knowing what the journalist’s angle in the story is, etc. are all parts of effective media training.

And any great PR firm will have a media training department. It’s how I learned the golden rule of TV interviews – ABC. Answer, bridge, communicate. Answer the question your asked briefly, use a bridge sentence to change to what you want to talk about and then communicate your key messages. It works every time. No media training for me = no ABC. It was worth every penny.

10. Have a PR Strategy
You probably also want to have PR people with whom you work. Sometimes they will work inside your company, sometimes they will be external. Here’s a 10-point guide on how to work with PR firms.

PR doesn’t happen by accident. It’s a business function and a very important one at that. Good PR will help you punch above your weigh class. Bad PR will bury you and make everything harder: funding, recruiting, biz dev, sales.

Draw yourself a chart as a CEO of all the activities for which you must dedicate time. Make sure at least 5-10% of your time allocation is in this bucket. Year round. PR is a continual process, not an event.

Image courtesy of Fotolia.

  • http://about.me/bradleyjoyce bradleyjoyce

    Mark, really like “if you don’t shape your story, someone else will.” This applies to sooo  many things and not just crisis management or PR… who you are as an entrepreneur. So many people out there today are simply willing to let other people write their stories. 

  • http://www.moderninsider.com Ted Sindzinski

    All around great advice.

    The most common issue I see with startups in PR / crises is the team emphasis and competency. While marketing / business has become more important to successful growth, building product remains the focus [generally rightfully so] and this often results in a  development and operations heavy team.

    Early stage it’s hard to justify the big costs of a full time pr / social role and since it takes a great pr person to get great results, the tasks most startups deal with day in and day out in this area are minimal — it’s easy to back yourself into a corner thinking you have it covered but when something goes awry, without a solid direction and really a pre-built plan, it becomes frantic deliberation rather than swift action.

    It’s not just a matter of external crises either; without some planning “at the top” it’s easy to back yourself into a corner over a rollout decision [can anyone say "beacon"], a quote to the media, or even sink a deal speaking the wrong way personally as a founder / lead.

    Having done a lot of work in crises management over the past few years, your points in #7 & #10 are dead on — just as you can’t forgo a solid design, legal foundation or other common “critical” items, it’s a mistake to put PR off until down the road and it should be a regular part of your business. The media is rarely won overnight but it’s a great opportunity to get covered… and too much risk in things going wrong not to find a decent advisor, firm or combination thereof.

  • http://www.drewolanoff.com drewolanoff

    PR rarely helps, sometimes hurts, is only good to guide.

  • http://www.gamerspath.net Dennis Buizert

    There are 12 principles for Crisis Management that every company should follow. 

    http://agile101.net/2009/07/28/12-principles-of-risk-management-pmbok-with-an-agile-slant/
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crisis_management

    But there are also standards for Crisis Management, one of them is ISO/TC 223. 
    More on that can be found here – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ISO/TC_223

    But I have noticed a lot of businesses only think about just making money but not thinking about laws, regulations and industry standards. Which like happened with AirBnB will result in a huge negative image. 

    Stuff like that can be prevented by a simple process called – Plan, Do, Check, Act. 
    If they planned it better it would have never existed. If they had checked better it would have never existed. If they had acted it would have never reached the press. 

    ** Disclaimer – I am an information security management student. **

  • http://www.yibish.com Michael Gnanakone

    With more and more coverage of startups in the press, the journalists make a name for themselves writing juicy headlines, trying to bring companies down sometimes. With Air BnB having a billion dollar valuation, it put a big target on its back for a scandal. Bu tI guess every billion dollar startup has a scandal or two.

    BTW any news on Lauchpad LA, I would really like to shoot some video and promote the incubator online! Let me know I have an HD camera ready for you!

  • http://twitter.com/V_xklsv Vineeth Kariappa

    Why are you a VC?

  • Mat Tyndall

    I find storytelling to be fascinating and am constantly amazed at how important it is for success in the world. It’s not just about what happens, but how the story is told, embellished, twisted, and perceived. In fact, all the twist and turns that go into a good crisis become a part of the story, which is why companies must maintain constant vigilance to stay on top of a story as it evolves. To resolve a crisis well, it is essential to be aware of all the actors, because if efforts to manage the crisis ignore those key parties, the story will just keep dragging on.

    Someday, many years from now, I want to share two stories with the world, one fiction, one non-fiction. In the meantime, I’ll leverage those skills and observations to shape the story of my startup as it grows, through the calm, the storms, and everything in between.

  • http://blog.scoopst.com/ David Ambrose

    Always great to see more visibility into this topic. More first time entrepreneurs need to hear these lessons from experience and use current case studies to see what works and what doesn’t. Kudos and thanks for sharing.

    We did something similar to this late last year here in NYC called “Demystifying PR for Startups” which we webcasted across the US. Folks from PR agencies, reporters and founders all chimed into their strategies for PR: http://vimeo.com/16951658

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    great way of looking at it. thanks.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    thanks, Ted. I agree that startup teams don’t dedicate enough time to press relations early enough.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    PR rarely helps? I’ll have to agree to completely and utterly disagree. PR = public relations. Avoid PR at your peril, startups

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    thanks for the links. re: airbnb – sometimes easier said than done. when you’re moving at the speed of light and growing as rapidly as they have it’s hard to have all bases covered.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    re: LPLA – get in touch with Josh Webb. He’ll set you straight

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Why not?

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    for storytelling in business – see Peter Guber’s latest book.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks for the link, David.

  • Anonymous

    Do you suggest early engagement with the press as risk mitigation? Or reputation / brand building?

  • http://www.gamerspath.net Dennis Buizert

    You mean it becomes harder to acknowledge the fact you missed a great and important factor in running a business? I think its a lame excuse to ignore security, just because you a growing. More so and an organizational level than it is down to the code. A lot of tech startups have that covered like kids in a candy store. 

    You are taking a lot of risks by not finding someone to cover that for you. There is much regulation, more so in the US than here in Europe. Think about sOX, COSO, CoBIT, ISO27001, BS25999, Data Protection Act, Copyright laws and more. If you don’t do the research or spend at least 1 day a week thinking about new risks ahead, than yes if becomes hard to manage and you will eventually crash. And if not handled correctly and with in set time-frames, than yes, burn as well.

    I totally agree with you an entrepreneurial level, but as a “professional” I think startups are losing sight of other things important. You are growing up, the sooner you start with information security the better it will be in the long run. :-)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I suggest it just generally. As good practice in building a business. The press is an important part of one’s ultimate success. So start now.

  • Jeremy Schwartz

    Hi Mark — I wanted to point you to a recent article (http://tinyurl.com/RepWar) about the challenges facing large corporations in asymmetrical battles with individuals wielding social media as weapons to attack them. (Full disclosure: The author is my future mother-in-law but she did not ask me to post this comment, which reflects only my opinions.)

    The article focuses specifically on large non-tech-savvy corporations and some of the advice is not relevant to startups but there are insights that apply even to young companies.

    In light of “ransackgate”, which is an example of a startup being brought low by a single person, I think the most relevant piece of advice is that companies should “go into battle with credentials in place” since after-the-fact explanations and changes always ring hollow. For Airbnb, user safety was a clear, obvious and well-known risk, and I wonder whether they could have developed relationships with independent security groups who might have been willing to attest to Airbnb’s deep commitment to mitigating those risks when the nightmare cases inevitably occurred.To take an example close to your heart, a major risk for a company like textPlus must be data breaches. If that’s actually the case, then I wonder whether they’re developing relationships now with privacy advocacy groups (maybe the Electronic Privacy Information Center?) who could help establish textPlus’s privacy bona fides even if its security systems happen to fail.Of course, the major challenge is to predict what kind of credentials you might want before the PR disaster occurs but good companies should already have a sense of where their risks lay. IFCO Systems has identified environmental impact as both a selling point (on their website) and a risk (in their annual report) and manages this risk through internal procedures. While internal procedures are necessary, it would probably make sense for them to develop relationships with environmental groups now in case that risk materializes in the future and they need someone credible to say, “We’ve known IFCO Systems for a long time and they are truly committed to helping  protect the environment.”

    ~jeremy

  • http://www.feld.com bfeld

    Mark – this is a superb post – one of your best ones. I just put it up as the post of the day on Ask the VC

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com awaldstein

    Nice one Mark.

    I would change the title and just remove ‘crisis management’.

    If you have a product you need to have a relationship with the influencers and press. Before the crisis. Everyday.

    Surprisingly I see marketing as an afterthought in a lot of companies. They build the product then look for community then look for communications strategies.

    So yes…great post. But yes…these are great rules (with some mods) for every company in all stages.

  • http://www.justanentrrepreneur.com Philip Sugar

    I’m sorry, I just can’t give them a pass on that one.  I know don’t judge lest you be judged, but the first thing I and many others thought of when I saw them or the car share guys was: Holy shit, I’d never do that for fear my house/car would get destroyed.  My only surprise was it didn’t happen sooner.  I would have thought the first thing you would do after a big round is hire a person that was used to dealing with this with hotels: I know every hotel has a team that deals with all of the issues: people dying in rooms, tearing up rooms, etc.

    It does give me a data point on whether we’re in a bubble.  When you have big companies trying to get built where the only perspective is the Valley/Alley it worries me.

  • http://www.twitter.com/Spartz Bas Grasmayer

    Just wanted to say that this is really excellent advice. It’s important people recognize the value of PR.

  • http://www.francis-moran.com Francis Moran

    I’ve been advising companies and executives on crisis management and effective public relations for 30 years and I can add little to this excellent column. I have always based my counsel in such situations around a line that is usually attributed to Mark Twain: “If you’re going to be run out of town, get out in front and make it look like a parade.” A lot your advice here, Mark, follows that of your sage namesake.

    The one comment I would offer is on point 7. Airbnb had trusted advisors, one of whom is celebrated for his supposed special relationship with TechCrunch. This stood the company in no good stead whatsoever. I see many other trusted advisors counsel their startups — yes, I’m looking at you, Fred Wilson — that they don’t need professional help or any sort of strategy when it comes to PR and marketing. Its refreshing to see that you don’t subscribe to such a view, Mark, and I’d add to your point 7 just to say please make sure the advisors to whom you turn in a time of crisis actually have some experience at this sort of thing.

  • http://www.drewolanoff.com drewolanoff

    With all due respect, your logic and your comprehension of my actual comment are flawed.  Read my comment.  Then chew on this:

    If your company doesn’t know how to handle the public as it relates to your product, then you should start working somewhere else or doing something else.

  • http://pivotpointsolutions.net/ andy_mcf

    Another good post, thanks.  One aspect that is often over-looked is what employees read into the  response.  Do they see obfuscation and denial or honesty and integrity?  Customers get impacted for sure http://bit.ly/c8XNwx  But employees impact the culture/brand… don’t neglect how they react to your company’s response to calamity.

  • http://twitter.com/kiwioconnor Kieran O’Connor

    Great post Mark. We (@Loughshore) work off a 6-month messaging calendar. Place a great deal of focus on matching content themes with external / portfolio events.

  • http://www.patternbuilders.com Mary Ludloff

    Great article–I am often surprised at how companies, big and small, poorly handle the crisis of the day and how little regard many companies have for the PR function. The true test for any company when it comes to ethics and what it “stands for” is how it operates in a crisis. I would add one other “lesson” to your list (and this is the one I start with): Fall on your sword, admit your mistakes, explain how you are going to rectify them, and then show “us” that you mean what you said. Too often, companies talk a great PR game but never “walk their own talk.” Everyone makes mistakes, it’s how you deal with them that matters.

  • http://blog.openviewpartners.com/blog/the-open-marketer Amanda Maksymiw

    Mark,
    As always great tips.  I especially like #8.  Building relationships with traditional media takes time and you’ll want journalists to understand your company and brand  well before any crisis occurs. 

  • http://twitter.com/timbarnes10 Tim Barnes

    Solid paste.  Specific to the AirBNB case, the recommendation that “if you don’t shape your story, someone else will” applies to all of the AirBNB competitors.   Firms like Roomorama should now take extra time to highlight their security/safety to users if not already.  The AirBNB news hurts the entire market for these types of rentals.   

  • http://www.conniesungmoyle.com Connie

    The rules of PR have definitely changed and what worked then no longer works now. Very insightful article and thanks for sharing, Mark!

  • http://blog.chargebee.com Krish

    Great post Mark. Fantastic advice with very useful references. I really liked the blog post on Chill and how it was handled. Thanks so much.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Um, ok I’ll take the bait. I read your comment 5 times. I don’t fucking get it. So here’s one more PR tip … “don’t be too clever by half.” Wit in messaging might win you kudos from the wise crowd but will leave us dense people scratching our heads.

    Honestly, I don’t get it. Are you pro PR or anti? The argument that if you “don’t know how to handle the public you shouldn’t do a startup” is sophomoric. Many talented startup teams don’t yet have this experience.

  • http://www.drewolanoff.com drewolanoff

    Giving a crap about what you do isn’t sophmoric.  PR teams help amplify your crap giving and channel it to the right parties and other amplifiers.

  • http://www.drewolanoff.com drewolanoff

    PR firms work for you, you don’t work for PR firms.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    It’s not the “giving a crap” but I take umbrage with, it’s the, “If your company doesn’t know how to handle the public …” bit. Those are different things, Drew. Caring versus knowing how.

    Plus, we got to have a whole discussion, which is nice! And … I got to use both sophomoric and umbrage in real life ;-)

  • Mat Tyndall

    Looks like an amazing book, can’t wait to read it.

  • Anonymous

    In the distant past, it might have been easier for a company to bury a negative story when newspapers and tv and radio were where most people got their news. But I think that social media makes responding to negative press much more vital a function because you’re not insulated from the people anymore. Most companies view social media positively and only look at the positive aspect. The size of the marketplace at http://www.buyfacebookfansreviews.com for Facebook fans alone only illustrates how important businesses view social media as avenues for gaining growth. Managing a crisis is not yet as widely discussed, but might also be similarly as important and managing the negative factors of social media is an extremely important but ignored skill.

  • Jacob

    100%, one of the most important things to learn.
    Jacob Evans

    PPM.net, CEO

  • http://www.plugandplayegypt.com Roham Gharegozlou

    Mark, what do you think about PR firms for early stage social/web startups? What if they’re a top firm willing to do the work in exchange for equity only?

  • http://www.plugandplayegypt.com Roham Gharegozlou

    I agree with you completely Philip. I was very surprised that a) this was the first time this had happened, b) they had no process in place whatsoever to deal with this poor woman’s disaster, and c) the person who did the trashing was a San Franciscan! And a woman! 

  • http://www.plugandplayegypt.com Roham Gharegozlou

    Because he gets to meet the best young minds in the world, be part of the next generation of industry-disrupting companies, and leverage his massive knowledge-base to help 10x more people create 100x as much value as he would by himself. It’s an awesome job, especially when you’re at the top. 

  • Steve

    I cannot be more impressed by the relevance, value, and importance of the topics you chose, the clarity of the writing, and overwhelming practicality of the advice. Is it too soon coin, Suster, Sage of Start-ups?

  • http://twitter.com/Rick_Olson Rick_Olson

    First time reader…  Great post!  You hit the key aspects of PR.  There are too many media outlets looking for ‘errors’ or ways to capitalize on finding ‘ the hidden information.’  Be straight forward and you will avoid the swirl of adding onto the PR nightmare.  Enjoyed the post!

  • http://twitter.com/wadvisor A Homayoun Rafizadeh

    What a great post!

    #7 is key and most people miss this or don’t have a good network in place. We also see that most of the customers we win are looking to get new advisors simply because when the problematic time arrived, their trusted advisors were really not “trusted advisors”. We did a trusted advisor post recently and this is such a critical point.
    We also see situations where people start to form their trusted advisors when the problem shows up. Per your note you need to set these up WAY before the problem comes.

    Love #8 as it is proactive. Get ahead of it.

    Your #5 hit it home. Own your message.

    #3 always is an issue. We get involved in a lot of situations when bad news hit and they did nothing. I ask the business owner, what if that was you on the recipient end? How would you feel? He mentions bad so I suggested sit in your customers shoes. Great point.

    Excellent job!

     

  • http://about.me/matthew.trifiro Matthew_Trifiro

    You forgot rule #11:

    Don’t piss off Michael Arrington ;-)

  • http://www.punit.co Punit Shah

    What are the elements of a media roadmap for a startup and is there a common set of activities that should take place?

  • Timoneyrms

    Local public sector could benefit from this info. Great. Thanks. Noreen I