Thrill The Messenger – How An Entrepreneur Can Put Words In Media Messengers’ Mouths

KickAfter patiently listening to a messenger deliver the Persian King Xerxes’s request for Sparta’s capitulation, the Spartan King Leonidas unceremoniously kicked the messenger down a well.

Anger at receiving bad news is a natural human reaction. Sophocles, Shakespeare and the Bible all reference the killing of the bearer of bad news. When someone is critical of your adVenture, it is natural to dismiss the detractor and even demonize them to undercut the validity of their message. Fortunately for your competitors and detractors, you do not have a license to kill. However, as an entrepreneur, you do have a license to thrill.

Every successful entrepreneur must eventually learn to delegate. An even more challenging skill is learning what to delegate. As noted in PR Passion, shaping your adVenture’s messaging is not something you should leave to others. Control your messaging by crafting it yourself and exciting your messengers to the point that they willingly deliver your company’s message on your behalf.

Energize your messengers and encourage them to tell your story in a spirited, fervent and accurate manner.

There are a variety of ways to control the messaging delivered by a trusted third party. The most direct manner is to create your messages in the form of third-party quotes, articles and product reviews. In many cases, once you gain the trust and respect of your messenger, they will welcome your help crafting the messages.

Validation Proclamations

cnetSometimes finding a powerful messenger is a matter of timing and luck. For instance, during the early stages of one of my adVentures, I Bro’d up with a Vice President at a large Internet Publisher. During a casual conversation, he said something to the effect of, “Your product is great, our users would be nuts to not try it.” I asked him if I could quote him on that, to which he agreed.

We added his company’s logo next to the quote to enhance its impact and proceeded to use it for the next several years, displaying it on millions of banners, landing pages and promotional emails. We preformed extensive “A/B” marketing tests with and without the quote and the ads that included the quote consistently outperformed their non-quote counterparts.

Lesson learned? Do not underestimate the influence that such seemingly innocuous endorsements can have on your adVenture, especially during its early stages.

At the outset of your adVenture, you may be forced to rely on endorsements from friends and family. However, over time, your growing credibility will allow you to obtain validation proclamations from progressively more and more influential messengers, as shown in the following table.  Such validation proclamations often begin with a simple endorsement quote and may eventually evolve into more powerful and collaborative messaging, such as a joint press release, if you properly cultivate your relationship with the messenger.


Progressively Increase The Number of Validation Proclamations Delivered By Your Messengers

I Will Quote You On That – Write Stakeholders’ Quotes

I have written hundreds press releases in which I drafted the quote attributed to the other party associated with the release, (i.e., the partner, customer, distributor, etc.).  In nearly every case, the Stakeholder accepted my suggested quote with no changes. When changes were made, they were generally immaterial. In fact, it was more common for a company to refuse to include any quotes from their employees, as opposed to heavily editing a quote drafted on their behalf.

Take advantage of this rare opportunity to put words in someone else’s mouth. In order to ensure that the other party will approve your quote, compliment the Stakeholder, while making a strategically important statement about your company. For instance, you might put the following words in a Partner’s mouth, “As the market leader, we are always looking for best-of-breed solutions to incorporate into our award-winning products.” Identify your Partner as a “leader” while they tell the market your solution is “best of breed.”

Most people are busy, some are lazy and a few are both. As noted in Your Personal Pitch, do all the heavy lifting for your Stakeholders, including drafting their quote. I wrote the two sample quotes shown below. Both were attributed to senior Fortune 500 executives and both were virtually unchanged from my initial draft:

First Example

Small Company’s fast, easy interface and high levels of security present an ideal solution for the large and growing number of Big Dumb Company (BDC) customers who need to access and work on their office PCs from remote locations,” says Executive X, BDC’s Communications Group President.  “This alliance reinforces our commitment to offer both our narrowband and broadband subscribers the highest-quality services for enhancing their experience on the Internet.”

In this case, it was important to communicate that our product was secure and that it worked in both narrowband and high-bandwidth environments. By directing an executive from a notable company to parrot this positioning on our behalf, we were able to gain significant market validation.

Second Example

“We are committed to providing BDC members and Web users with the very best in online tools, content and convenience,” states BDC Executive X. “By leveraging Small Company’s products, users have greater flexibility to be productive on their desktops from any online location. Small Company’s product is a great application for making the BDC Service and the BDC brands an even more central and valuable part of our members' daily lives.”

In this example, we wanted to sign up additional Internet Service Providers (ISPs), so I referenced the value that we brought to our ISP partners. I also reinforced our end-user value proposition (i.e., a work productivity solution that enabled users to seamlessly work remotely).

As previously noted, most of the quotes I wrote for partners were published verbatim. However, in some instances, the BDC did make some modifications. Even when changes were made, the final quote usually retained the key aspects of our desired validation proclamation.

Below is an example of an initial quote, followed by the final version that was included in a joint press release with a BDC. The salient points, which were carried over from the initial quote I drafted, are shown in bold.

Initial Quote Submitted To Partner

“The ability to quickly and seamlessly share a remote desktop within our chat solution, even via a dial-up connection, is a feature that many of our customers are demanding. This feature greatly expands the utility of our CRM solutions, as customer support agents can escalate a chat session to a shared desktop session and address an issue directly on a customer’s PC. This functionality will decrease the length of customer support sessions and increase their effectiveness. Our extensive investigation of the remote control market led us to conclude that Small Company’s solution is the best-of-breed remote control solution.”

Final Quote Released By Partner

“The technology integration stemming from this partnership will make the <BDC’s Product> even more appealing to companies seeking ways to optimize customer satisfaction through rapid resolution of inquiries while at the same time keeping operational costs down and simplifying the ways in which employees work with customers. The ability to quickly and seamlessly share a remote desktop through <BDC’s Product>, even via a dial-up connection, is a feature that many of our clients are demanding,” said Executive X, BDC’s senior vice president of worldwide alliances, business and market development. “Our extensive investigation of the remote-control market led us to conclude that Small Company’s solution is a high-quality solution offering clear value to our clients.”

No Comment - Avoid Too Many Quotes

At BDCs, press coverage often serves a branding function. As noted in Pulp Facts, a startup’s press coverage should stimulate revenue. One way to facilitate revenue creation is to quote the member of your team who is primarily responsible for the particular issue addressed in the release.

For instance, a partnership announcement should reference the VP of Business Development, while a product-oriented release should include a quote from the appropriate product executive. This approach makes it easier for third parties, such as industry analysts and potential partners to contact the appropriate member of your team. If you only quote the CEO in each release, you are increasing the friction associated with getting a third party in front of the right person in your organization.

When drafting your quotes, avoid PR clichés like, “pleased, delighted, excited.” If you cannot think of anything more creative than, “We are delighted to partner with XYZ” than consider excluding quotes in your release. These words are so overused that they have lost all meaning in a PR context.

Avoid an excessive number of quotes. For partner-oriented releases, two is usually adequate (one from each partner), unless it is germane to include a quote from a customer or Industry Analyst. Irrespective of the release type, in most instances, a single quote from a member of your team should be adequate. At one startup I was associated with, both the Chairman and the Founder insisted on being quoted in nearly every release (see Founderitis for more background regarding this particular adVenture). This sort of ego indulgence can cause your company to appear unsophisticated and amateur.

Partner Piggyback – Leverage Your Partners’ PR Channels

Bilateral releases that include a quote from both parties are the most impactful type of Partner release. Bilateral releases are issued both by your firm and the BDC and thus garner significantly more attention than a release distributed solely by your company.

A bilateral release with a quote from your company, but not from the BDC, is the next most effective type of Partner release. In such instances, consider adding a customer or Industry Analyst quote to bolster the third-party validation of your message.

An even less-desirable Partner release is one in which the parties independently issue unilateral releases. The obvious downside of this approach is that you cannot control the content of the BDC’s release and thus it is likely that the manner in which your company is depicted in such a release will be diminished. In fact, it is possible that your company may not even be mentioned in the BDC’s version of a unilateral release.

Last in the Partner-release pecking order is a unilateral release that does not include a quote from the BDC. If the BDC will not even allow you to specify them by name, do your best to describe them in such a way that even the most casual dolt can figure out which company you are referencing.

release graph

A Joint Release With A BDC Quote Is The Most Desirable Type Of Partner Release

Ultimately, the least desirable form of Partner release is the one that is never issued. As noted in Kiss Of Death, maintain control of your public relations strategy when negotiating agreements with BDCs. In some BDC partnerships, the public validation you derive from your association with the BDC will be the most valuable aspect of the relationship. As such, do not relinquish your ability to control your PR destiny when partnering with a BDC.

All The News That Fits Your Message – Video News Releases

A Video News Release (VNR) is a brief, two- to three-minute video that your company creates and distributes to local news affiliates across the country. TV stations have the option to show it intact with your narration, or they can localize the piece by overdubbing the script using one of their on-air personalities. Larger, more enterprising stations will occasionally edit the video and rewrite your script. However, in most instances, just as most press release quotes are published by BDCs unaltered, most TV stations run VNRs with no changes. VNRs can be very powerful, as they couch your messaging in the context of news.

As noted in Kiss Of Death, incentivize the VNR distributor with a performance-based bonus, predicated upon the number of TV stations that pick up your release. This will encourage them to promote your VNR more heavily and to leave it in rotation for a longer period of time than they otherwise would.

VNRs can be produced economically. You can spend as little as a few thousand dollars per release. One way to reduce the cost of your VNRs is to shoot footage for several concurrently. In this way, you can interview your Industry Expert on several subjects in one sitting, changing their wardrobe at the start of each interview, in order to give the appearance of multiple, disparate interviews. You can stretch your production dollars even further by utilizing B-roll footage shot in one sitting in multiple VNRs (e.g., screen shots of your website, people using your solution, etc.).

If your VNR is an overt sales pitch, it will not gain wide exposure. Care should be taken to discuss the “problem” and list various “solutions,” one of which includes your product. Include in your script phrases such as, “Products like, <your product> have proven effective” or “There are a number of solutions on the market, including <your product>.”

For instance, at one of my adVentures, we devised a VNR that focused on what to do during a natural disaster or significant weather event. Included in the preparation tips was the suggestion to “subscribe to a remote access solution” in order to work from home when weather or any other uncontrollable circumstance made it impossible for the viewer to commute to their office.

One technique we used to camouflage our sales pitch was to direct the Industry Expert to reference our product rather than include our product’s name in the narrator’s script. In addition, rather than saying our company’s name, we displayed a screen shot of our website, emblazoned with our corporate logo while the voice-over narration generically described the various solutions to whatever problem the VNR was addressing.

The Danger Of Improv

In addition to their status as “news,” VNRs are highly effective because they are delivered by TV – a costly and powerful advertising medium that is otherwise not available to most startups. The power of TV was made clear to me during the late 1990s, when I was introducing one of my adVenture’s medical robots to the world’s top cardiac surgeons. A top-rated TV show, “ER,” incorporated our robots into several episodes.  I was a bit appalled by the extent that our robots became more real, to these highly intelligent people, by their inclusion in a fictional, high-brow soap opera. Value judgments aside, Hollywood’s use of our robots as props significantly helped us in our missionary sales efforts.

Although we were delighted with the validation our robots gained from their use as TV props, it was a dangerous dance with potential disaster. We did not have any direct influence on the scripts and thus we could not control this powerful messenger.

For instance, one of the proposed plot lines was for our robot to lose control and injure a patient. This was clearly detrimental to our claim that our robots were always under the surgeon’s direct control and thus could not become “rogue” killers. After we threatened to remove our robots from the set, the scriptwriters rewrote the script and made the robot a source of conflict between two of the surgeons. One surgeon feared that the introduction of robotics into the operating room would result in patient injury and another was depicted as a visionary who believed that robots represented the future gold standard of medical care. We were pleased, as the visionary surgeon was one of the show’s attractive protagonists, while the other surgeon was a bald curmudgeon. This storyline was carried through several episodes, viewed by tens of millions of people and fortunately no fictional characters were killed by our robotic props.

Ghosting For Journalists – Generating Article Content

Although journalists and editors will not relax their editorial standards to the point of shilling for your company, they are often willing to utilize text written by companies and incorporate it into their articles and reviews. As noted in Pulp Facts, an effective way to work with media gatekeepers is in the guise of an industry opinion leader.

By creating verbiage to be used by a journalists, you can guide the manner in which journalists describe your industry, the users’ pain points, etc., such that it is congruent with your company’s messaging.

One way to have your language accepted by editors and journalists is to submit it in the form of an article. Often, the byline for such articles is the company’s CEO. This approach can work for trade publications, but most popular press publishers will not print articles written by CEOs. However, if you give the publisher the latitude to reference such “CEO text” in an article or product review, you may be surprised by the extent to which such text is repurposed verbatim.

Antiparalysis Analysis – Spoon Feed Product Reviewers

Setting the proper expectations of Product Reviewers is one of the most important determinants of whether or not you will be skewered or obtain a positive review. For instance, at one of my companies, we released a minimally viable product that could not compete with the more established products on a feature-by-feature basis. Our value proposition was in our solution’s simplicity and ease of use. However, to the uninitiated, there was a risk that our product would seem thin and not suitable for our target market of prosumers.

Fortunately, we effectively managed the messaging surrounding our product by clearly defining our positioning vis-à-vis the existing offerings. We invested considerable time with journalists, discussing our product’s proper place in the market in order to ensure that any comparisons with competitive solutions would be done in the proper context.  A significant portion of the text we created and provided to journalists found its way into a number of articles, analyst reports and product reviews.

extra!License To Thrill

Extra! Extra! Read all about it! You have a license to thrill and you are not afraid to use it.

Reducing all aspects of uncertainty associated with your adVenture is something you should do whenever possible. You can reduce the uncertainly of what others will say about your adVenture by thrilling your messengers and exciting them to tell your story off of your script.

Copyright © 2008 by J. Meredith Publishing. All rights reserved.


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John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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