Menlo Park, California: Brooke Hammerling (publicist) and Erin McKean (entrepreneur) are in a Sand Hill Road conference room, hashing out plans to unveil McKean’s new website, Wordnik.
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, Hammerling changes course, instantly agreeing with 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 websites and blogs. Now PR gurus court influential voices on the social Web to endorse new companies, websites or gadgets—a transformation that analysts and practitioners say is likely to permanently change the role of PR 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.
“Few tech companies with absolutely no PR have built a user base successfully,” said Margit Wennmachers, a co-founder of OutCast Communications, a PR agency in San Francisco. “They need PR to put the booster under that rocket ship.”
In the new world of social media, PR people must know hundreds of writers, bloggers and Twitter users instead of having six top reporters on speed dial.
Dena Cook, Hammerling’s business partner at Brew Media Relations, recalls the boom years when start-ups sent PR firms handsome checks that the firms had to return because they didn’t have room for new clients.
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. But the rise of blogs and social networks, and companies’ ability to post information on their own sites, transformed all this.
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 email, blogs and Twitter has the potential to turn the entire idea of PR professionals as gatekeepers.
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.
©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES