I am loath to publish yet another take on the Theranos debacle. The gradual but absolute demolishing of its trust and value has been well documented. And frankly the, “I told you so” (along with the, “look at all these people who thought it was the best thing since sliced bread but were wrong”) missives are pretty tiring.
But the unfolding does serve as a good reminder about the important role PR and communications professionals play in introducing the world to new technologies.
There are a few lessons all marketing and communications people can take from what we’ve seen unfold with Theranos.
I’ve always said that doing startup and tech PR is akin to being a VC. Or to be more specific, the best people doing this type of PR act like venture capitalists.
Of course, we do not invest money. But we do invest the resources we have: our time, knowledge, and credibility.
Anyone worth their salt in startup PR now has their pick of clients to work with. There is far more demand for smart entrepreneurs doing interesting things than there is supply of good agencies.
It can be tempting to hear about the next great thing to change the world, get excited, sign a contract and get going. That passion and bias towards action and speed is good when you work in the communications industry. Especially so when you partner with high-growth disrupters.
Many venture capitalists did their due diligence with Theranos, and decided the technology was not up to scratch. It is incumbent on PR agencies and professionals to do the same.
Be picky. You aren’t investing money but you are absolutely investing the most valuable resource you have.
If you think this is a silly comparison to make, try this thought experiment out. You promote disruptive new technologies for a living. You help build a lot of excitement about a new startup, whipping up a frenzy in the media and the public. Turns out, it can’t do what you said it would. Then, this happens again. Another startup you have promoted falls apart in a controversial heap. Do you think people will continue to trust you?
How to be selective
You absolutely should listen to the founders and soak up their passion. It’s probably your first port of call when considering representing a new company.
But don’t just take their competitive analysis at face value. Many founders will say they don’t have any competition. That sounds nice, but it’s unlikely to be true. Make sure you:
- Do your own research.
- Speak to experts in the field you are looking at delving in to.
- Actually use the technology.
- Test out competing platforms, products, or services for yourself.
- Do not take what you are told at face value.
- Question everything.
If you work in marketing or comms and take one thing from this, it’s that you should be more selective in choosing the startups you work with.
What about once you’re on the books?
Clearly, the chest-beating bravado will only take you so far. In fact, the aggressive style of challenger communication can work in getting you noticed. But it can also be extremely risky, and will rarely continue to work for your client beyond the initial hype cycle.
We’re entering an era where entrepreneurs need to speak in plain and direct language. Of course, have (and share) a grand vision, but don’t bullshit everyone about what you have built.
There is something comforting about a straight-shooting entrepreneur who can articulate where their technology is at today, where they want to take it, and how they will get there.
It’s the role of communications advisors to work with their clients to stop the fake it till you make it approach.
Think like a VC
Of course, marketers and communications professionals in the startup and technology sector have a job to do. But they also have a responsibility — to their own shareholders, to the media, the public, and themselves — to be direct and honest about the new things they introduce to the world.
It can be a difficult job to learn about a new technology that is trying to do something no one has ever done before. Parsing and transmitting these complex ideas is extremely time-intensive, and can be a labor of love.
Uncovering, learning, and sharing new technologies is rewarding and important work. At its best, it is an example of the most important purpose of our industry as communications professionals.
Be a better PR person: think like a VC.