Blog - Written by on Monday, July 6, 2009 13:05

Spinning the Web: P.R. in Silicon Valley

The New York Times

Menlo Park, Calif. — Brooke Hammerling (publicist) and Erin McKean (entrepreneur) are in a Sand Hill Road conference room, hashing out plans to unveil Ms. McKean’s new Web site, Wordnik.

Ms. Hammerling, while popping green apple Jolly Ranchers into her mouth, suggests a press tour that includes briefing bloggers at influential geek sites like TechCrunch, All Things Digital and GigaOM.

But Roger McNamee, a prominent tech investor who is backing Wordnik, is also in the room, and a look of exasperation passes across his face at the mere mention of the sites.

“Why shouldn’t we avoid them? They’re cynical,” he says, also noting his concern that Wordnik would probably appeal more to wordsmiths than followers of tech blogs. “That’s where I would be most uncomfortable. They don’t know the difference between ‘they’re’ and ‘there.’ ”

Without missing a beat, Ms. Hammerling changes course, instantly agreeing with Mr. McNamee’s take. “I love you for that,” she intones. “I’ll leave the tech blogs out. Let them come to me.”

Instead, she decides that she will “whisper in the ears” of Silicon Valley’s Who’s Who — the entrepreneurs behind tech’s hottest start-ups, including Jay Adelson, the chief executive of Digg; Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter; and Jason Calacanis, the founder of Mahalo.

Notably, none are journalists.

This is the new world of promoting start-ups in Silicon Valley, where the lines between journalists and everyone else are blurring and the number of followers a pundit has on Twitter is sometimes viewed as more important than old metrics like the circulation of a newspaper.

Gone are the days when snaring attention for start-ups in the Valley meant mentions in print and on television, or even spotlights on technology Web sites and blogs. Now P.R. gurus court influential voices on the social Web to endorse new companies, Web sites or gadgets — a transformation that analysts and practitioners say is likely to permanently change the role of P.R. in the business world, and particularly in Silicon Valley.

While public relations is just one arrow in the marketing quiver for most companies, it plays an especially crucial role in a region where dozens of start-ups are born each month. Without money for advertising, these unknown companies have to promote themselves to potential users, investors, employees and partners.

“Few tech companies with absolutely no P.R. have built a user base successfully,” said Margit Wennmachers, a co-founder of OutCast Communications, a P.R. agency in San Francisco that opened in 1997. “They need P.R. to put the booster under that rocket ship.”

In the new world of social media, P.R. people must know hundreds of writers, bloggers and Twitter users instead of having six top reporters on speed dial. Ms. Hammerling, the latest example of the omnipresent start-up pitchwoman, is the doyenne of who-you-know P.R.

She arrived in Silicon Valley from the East Coast in 1997, just when the dot-com craze was reaching a crescendo and P.R.’s pivotal role in the start-up world was being cemented. And the evolution of her own tactics has run parallel to the ever-changing marketing forays that make this area a singular hotbed of promotional experimentation.

Dena Cook, Ms. Hammerling’s business partner at Brew Media Relations, recalls the boom years when start-ups sent P.R. firms handsome checks that the firms had to return because they didn’t have room for new clients. For start-ups that did corral a P.R. adviser, it often didn’t matter if they had a solid business; Ms. Cook says a regional newspaper once ran a glowing article about one of her clients the same day the company went out of business.

At the time, tools of the trade were largely limited to press releases and pitch letters, embargoes and exclusives and, of course, the legendary and often criticized parties. Those events included martinis and Champagne, lobster and shrimp, Tori Amos and Aerosmith, all to celebrate companies that had yet to make a cent.

In those days, it took about six months to bring to market a new product or a start-up, Ms. Wennmachers recalls. First came East Coast tours with analysts and monthly publications, followed by visits to weeklies, then dailies.

But the rise of blogs and social networks — and companies’ ability to post information on their own sites — transformed all this. Gradually, deadlines disappeared, as even monthly magazines offered Web sites that published stories by the minute.

“Now the best ideas bubble up, which is great for start-ups,” Ms. Wennmachers says. “It’s no longer, ‘if you can’t get so-and-so to do a story, you can’t make it.’ ”

For new companies’ trying to get the word out, there’s a healthy measure of liberation in all of this. For publicists, the era of e-mail, blogs and Twitter has the potential to turn the entire idea of P.R. professionals as gatekeepers on its head.

Donna Sokolsky Burke, co-founder of Spark PR, another influential firm in San Francisco, acknowledges that the advent of social networks has upended all the traditional marketing and promotional practices that once helped make Silicon Valley, well, Silicon Valley. But she says that publicists will continue to play indispensable roles.

“You absolutely have to be aware of power users who put things up on Facebook, Flickr, Yelp,” Ms. Burke says. “P.R. is important because it’s pretty intensive to figure out who they are.”

Exactly, Ms. Hammerling says.

“I think it’s key to have a personal face, to not be filtered. Does that mean we lose our value? Absolutely not,” she says. “As the world has exploded into so many ways of communication, we’re helping them navigate it.”

Ms Burke says that when her firm began representing Flickr, the photo sharing site, in 2004, she never issued a press release for it, even when it was acquired by Yahoo. Flickr would publish news on its company blog, a few more blogs would pick it up “and two days later, BusinessWeek would call,” she recalls.

Some business people say that because journalists would rather hear stories directly from the entrepreneurs who are genuinely excited about their companies — rather than from publicists’ faking excitement — the role of publicists becomes less crucial. Glenn Kelman, chief executive of Redfin, a real estate Web site, says he has never hired a P.R. person. “Besides,” he says, “with the real-time Web, there’s no time to vet every message through three layers of spin.”

Indeed, irritation has been rising among tech reporters forced to field as many as 50 canned pitches a day from publicists representing start-ups desperate to break through.

Recent missives from the influential tech bloggers Michael Arrington and Robert Scoble have attacked the P.R. industry as being out of touch. Rafe Needleman, an editor at CNET, has started a blog called Pro PR Tips that gives publicists elementary guidance, such as “Before you press ‘send’ on your bulk e-mail press release, make sure the site you’re pitching is actually live.”

In response to dissatisfied clients and huge shifts in the media landscape, a new breed of publicist is emerging, says Brian D. Solis, a P.R. guy who writes a blog called PR 2.0. His firm, FutureWorks, has a broad definition of “writer,” a category that includes those in mainstream media as well as the tens of thousands of bloggers and Twitter users who have developed avid followings by writing about niche topics.

“Mommy bloggers are the new TechCrunch; they’re such an influential crowd,” Mr. Solis says.

Instead of calculating the impressions an article gets by estimating a publication’s circulation and pass-along rate, Mr. Solis counts the number of people who tweeted about a company and their combined following, the number of retweets or clicks on links, as well as traffic from Facebook and other social networks.

Despite all these new channels, Ms. Burke says it’s still essential to know which mainstream publications to approach. If a start-up is seeking venture funding or new engineers, she says, Sparks PR still looks to The San Jose Mercury News, VentureWire or TechCrunch to get the word out.

AS with so many professions in the digital era, public relations boils down to a juggling act, an effort to weigh and exploit the varied strengths of old media and new.

Ms. Hammerling, at 35 years old one of the ubiquitous presences on the Silicon Valley publicity scene, has navigated these waters for years. In 1999, she got a job at MobShop, a group shopping Web site, where she got a taste of P.R. in boom-time Silicon Valley. She no longer had trouble getting reporters to call her back; instead she had trouble getting them to stop calling.

“I didn’t have to pitch; I just had to pick up the phone and say no,” she recalls. “Everybody wanted you. How do you say no to that when your competition is absolutely saying, ‘Yes, we’ll be in Fortune and on the cover of Fast Company’?”

Then, in 2001, after getting “more press than I’ve ever seen,” she says, MobShop died. “It shows that P.R. can’t be the end-all and be-all,” she says. “Everyone knew who they were, but at the end of the day, they couldn’t make any money.”

Many other small P.R. shops that had sprouted up went out of business or were acquired. Ms. Hammerling moved back to New York, where she eventually joined the Zeno Group, an offshoot of Edelman. There, she focused on getting to know journalists and making sure that she was at every tech conference and party.

One day in 2005, she went into her managers’ office to tell them she wanted to focus more on her relationships with the media and less on writing press releases and handling administrative tasks.

“There are no stars in P.R.,” she says one boss told her — the job should be about behind-the-scenes teamwork, not individual personalities. “That literally hit me like a ton of bricks,” she says. She quit. (Citing firm policy, Zeno declined to comment on Ms. Hammerling’s tenure.)

Ms. Hammerling then hired a financial manager, persuaded some of Zeno’s clients to come with her and started a new firm in New York that she named Brew (her childhood nickname).

From the get-go, she focused on one-on-one communication and relationships with hundreds of writers and pundits. Over the years, her contact list swelled to the point that her stories now overflow with dropped names. There are the e-mail messages from Larry Ellison, the chief executive of Oracle, and the time she handled a client’s crisis from her BlackBerry while traveling to St. Barts to join the former Hollywood überagent Michael Ovitz and his family on his yacht. Or the time she was in her bikini at a Mexican resort, checking her e-mail at the hotel’s computer, when Ron Conway, a veteran tech investor, walked in.

Or the purportedly secret poker party she threw in her suite at a recent tech conference: “All my friends were there — Arianna was there, the Twitter boys were there,” referring to Arianna Huffington of The Huffington Post and Evan Williams and Biz Stone, Twitter’s co-founders.

“Arianna told me I was a great hostess, and I thought I was going to die,” she said, putting on a Greek accent to imitate Ms. Huffington: “I’m Greek, I know what it’s like to be a hostess.” (She would repeat this story several times in the weeks a reporter spent following her around.)

Though Ms. Hammerling may be known in the Valley more for whom she knows than for the clients she represents, she shares something else with Ms. Huffington: an astute understanding of how valuable strategic name-dropping can be. It is the currency she uses to make sure people know she is someone worth knowing, and it has paid off.

“I will listen to her pitch on some little fledgling start-up I have no interest in, in part because of the coterie of connections she brings with her,” says Dennis Kneale, the media and technology editor at CNBC.

Ms. Hammerling’s connections have been crucial for Brew in finding and serving clients, says Ms. Cook, her business partner: “Without question, that allows us to play at a different level, because we’re not just doing P.R. and media relations; we’re connecting people at the highest level, helping deals get done.”

Ms. Hammerling landed Brew’s most successful client, NetSuite, through her relationship with Mr. Ellison, who was a co-founder of the business software company. While dating an R.E.M. band member she met Bono, lead singer of U2, and then Roger McNamee, Bono’s investment partner. When Mr. McNamee personally invested in Wordnik, he called Ms. Hammerling.

All of which gives rise to a series of Brooke-isms: how many executives and reporters are “dear friends,” how she “worships at the altar” of a NetSuite board member and likes a team of venture capitalists so much that “I just want to put them in my pocket.” Yet by most accounts, the relationships she builds are real and deep.

“She drops names like a boat anchor, so shamelessly, but at the same time, it’s, ‘Larry, Larry,’ and I think she’s lying and then I get on the phone and it’s Larry Ellison. She got him on the cellphone; I didn’t,” says a journalist who did not want to be identified to avoid the professional risk of offending Ms. Hammerling.

Her job is all-consuming. This last spring, she held bicoastal 35th birthday parties for herself in New York and San Francisco. The guest lists were filled with clients and reporters.

“They’re my real friends,” she says. “My job has become my life and my life imitates my work, but I love that.”

Her effervescent personality and proximity to the people she works with have sometimes set tongues wagging in Silicon Valley. “That prejudice is something we all suffer through,” she says. “When smart women interact with smart men, there is always a dynamic there.”

She ponders the issue further.

“I had to struggle when I was younger to be taken seriously and not just be considered to be a cute girl,” she adds. “If I gain 100 pounds and my skin broke out and I had glasses and frizzy hair, would I be as effective at my job? Yes, because of the relationships I built.”

If there’s a madness in her lifestyle, there’s still a method behind what she does. And time spent perched on her shoulder offers some insights into how the publicity game is shifting.

MS. HAMMERLING’S presentation on Erin McKean’s start-up, Wordnik, is a case study in how relationships still matter in the Valley (as they do elsewhere). But it also shows how the Web’s amplification of many voices, and not just those of professional writers, has transformed P.R.

Ms. McKean — the former editor of the New Oxford American Dictionary and author of a blog about dresses and sewing — is an unlikely tech entrepreneur, and Ms. Hammerling is her guide through Silicon Valley. As they discuss whom to pitch Wordnik to, each name that came up elicits a knowing squeal from Ms. Hammerling.

A tech blogger? “A dear friend,” she says.

The writers of DailyCandy? “They are all my friends.”

Barbara Wallraff, who writes Word Court, a syndicated column about language? “I love her, love her,” Ms. Hammerling says, her voice rising.

Biz Stone, of Twitter? “I was just talking to Biz on the plane and he’s excited about Wordnik; I’ll ping him.”

Executives from, a potential partner for Wordnik? “We could get in front of the top guys there,” Ms. Hammerling responds with a coy smile.

“It didn’t matter what name we came up with, Brooke knew them, or knew somebody who knew them,” Ms. McKean says later. “If she is not the mayor of the town, then at least she runs the post office and knows where everybody gets their mail.”

In the end, Ms. McKean and Wordnik’s advisers and investors decide to talk to a handful of bloggers who focus on language and to only one tech blogger, Caroline McCarthy at CNET, because, as Ms. Hammerling notes, “she could have fun with it, as opposed to writing a business story.”

Ms. Hammerling plans to approach one journalist, Quentin Hardy at Forbes, not because she wants him to write about Wordnik in the magazine but because she hopes he’ll mention it on his personal Twitter and Facebook feeds.

“I don’t know if this is a Forbes story at this point,” she says. “I see it more of Quentin as an influencer, Quentin the person.” Wordnik hasn’t announced how it will make money, and its backers are worried that some reporters and writers will pick apart that fact. So the group decides that Wordnik will be presented as a “project” instead of as a “company.”

A few weeks later, Ms. Hammerling sets up a phone call with Ms. McKean and Mr. Adelson, the Digg C.E.O. He advises her on building mobile sites, offers to share Digg’s research on user-generated content and asks her to call back when she’s ready for partnerships.

When Wordnik went live last month, Mr. Adelson tweeted about it. Digg’s founder, Kevin Rose, later tweeted to his then 759,310 followers that Wordnik was “truly amazing.” Most of the other tweets and blog posts described Wordnik as “an ongoing project,” adopting the language the P.R. team had decided on.

BY 6:30 p.m. on the day Wordnik went live, Brew’s staff had calculated that 1.43 million people had seen tweets about it. CNET and a handful of blogs also wrote about the site. None of the coverage was in print, and most wasn’t by professional journalists.

The publicity sent 40,000 people to Wordnik’s Web site to perform 170,000 searches the following week and caught the attention of reporters at USA Today and The Wall Street Journal who hoped to write articles. A couple of media companies have contacted Wordnik to talk about potential partnerships and mentioned that they read the tweets of Mr. Adelson or Mr. Rose.

Ms. Hammerling says the approach she took with Wordnik accounts for about a third of Brew’s pitches and is becoming more common. Today, she says, people want to broadcast on Twitter. Tomorrow, the medium could change. But the core of her job won’t, she says:

“It will morph, but it’s still about relationships.”


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