PR for VC from a16z

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

Shannon Brayton (CMO LinkedIn) and Margit Wennmachers (SV spinmaster) spoke with Sonal Chokshi on a September 2018 a16z podcast. A Wire Magazine profile of Wennmachers wrote, “She has a sixth sense for communications strategy, which has helped her educate the world about the revolution technology is powering.”

Brayton and Wennmachers take Chokshi on an expedition of public relations. There were more types of PR than I would have guessed (pre-IPO, crisis management, media relations, consumer-facing, product reviews, executive comps, etc). But every company needs someone to tell their story. Ideally, it’s the founder, but that’s rare. One said, “If you’re a founder and don’t have the storytelling gene, you need to let the PR team in so they can discover those stories and tell them for you.”

Companies are like restaurants, they need sizzle and steak. Josh Wolfe said, “There are amazing credible people. And there are amazing salesman. And sometimes those two people are one. When they are you have an amazing entrepreneur. But often times they’re not.”

And the sizzle can really move the steak. Hit Makers is a book devoted to this idea. “Content may be king,” Derek Thompson told Barry Ritholz, “but distribution is the kingdom.”

CEOs that don’t communicate well need PR. Brayton and Wennmachers praise agencies because they feel the winds of the real world. Andy Grove inspired Ben Horowitz and wrote, “Our IT manager said, ‘Well, that guy is always the last to know.’ He, like most CEOs, is in the center of a fortified palace, and news from the outside has to percolate through layers of people from the periphery where the action is.” Agencies do this.

Agencies also remove the challenge of hiring well. Sam Walton wrote what many leaders repeat, “My role has been to pick good people and give them the maximum authority and responsibility.” Finding good employees is onerous, hence agencies.

There’s other advantages. Brayton and Wennmachers point out that they can act as touch points for the world outside the company. Brayton added, “Agencies can tell the CEO they look like a complete dweeb where the employees have a harder time landing that message.”

What kind of an agency does your company need? “It depends,” Brayton said, “what you’re trying to solve for.” To start, companies submit an RFP (request for proposal) to find an AOR (agency of record). Both women urge honesty, if their acronym alphabet soup is hard to digest, tell them.

In fact, tell them everything. Wennmachers said, “Lawyers will tell you if they don’t want to know about a thing – but PR people do… I cannot steer the ship story wise if I don’t know what to stay away from.”

When vetting, ask a lot of questions. Find out, for example, that holiday gift guides are compiled in July. For retail products, ask what kind of media the agency selects. “For a consumer-facing product, the Nirvana is to have a Today Show spot,” said Brayton.

A multinational company will probably want a multinational agency. But, Wennmachers explained, “No agency is equally excellent in all their shops.” Like Ben Thompson reminded Shane Parrish, each strength is a weakness and each weakness is a strength.

The key may be communication. Companies and agencies don’t need to talk all the time, but “You need to communicate enough that you’re in a groove.” Companies need to be clear about what problem they’re trying to solve and give an agency the raw materials to do so. “During the building phase,” Wennmachers said, “you’re trying to see stories that don’t exist.”

As an agency manages relations they need access to the CEO. They know the story best and their involvement demonstrates how important a PR agency really is. Wennmachers advised to, “take as much care as you take with your product and your first hires, take as much care to decide if you are going to take this function seriously or don’t bother.”

Bill Simmons noted that the best NBA teams have organizations in lock-step with each other.

A PR agency is not a silver bullet, nothing is. Rather, the company story is built like the company product; by good people with the resources they need.

Thanks for reading. (An initial version of this post spelled Wennmachers’ name every conceivable way, and only one correct one. Thank you to the reader who pointed this out.)

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