Public relations is one of those disciplines that tends to get short shrift in conversations about building a business. “It’s talking to people,” the thinking seems to go. “And how hard can talking to people be?” I think if you asked HQ Trivia founder Rus Yusupov, he’d tell you: pretty freaking hard.
In fact, if you’re not careful, it can lead to headlines like this:
And that’s not all. Some other highlights from the story:
- Rus demands that the journalist read him the story word for word
- Rus is horrified at the idea of Scott mentioning the salad chain Sweetgreen when “we do not have a brand deal with [them]”
- Rus “implores” the Daily Beast not to publish a quote from Scott suggesting that “people want trivia”
- Rus proclaims at the end of the heated exchange that the entire conversation is “off the record” (which, in case you were wondering, is not how going off the record works)
The story went viral, and Rus found himself facing down some less-than-stellar attention. Twitter, in particular, really let him have it.
HQ is one of the most popular phone apps out there today (78,000+ ratings on the App Store and counting). Two times per day, you log in to the HQ app on your phone (along with several thousand of your closest friends/strangers) and compete in what is basically the biggest game of bar trivia ever invented — with the chance to win hundreds or even thousands of dollars in a matter of minutes. It’s like “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” except anyone can play — and see their life change overnight.
But after that Daily Beast article, HQ Trivia was in real danger of losing all of its momentum. They pulled themselves out of trouble, but only through some savvy countermeasures — countermeasures we all can learn from.
You may not be at the stage where major outlets are knocking down your door. But if you reach a certain level of success, publications that your customers care about will come calling. And before that ever happens, you may decide that press coverage is the natural next step to grow your audience, and start pitching journalists yourself.
It’s worth having a handle on PR “do’s and don’ts,” because when things go wrong, they can go really, really wrong.
What made the kind of attention Rus got so bad?
It costs you customers
Press is like a business magnet: positive mentions attract attention, customers, and the big one: sales. Negative attention, on the other hand, drives those things away. Bad media vibes can send customers, even loyal ones, running for the hills. HQ Trivia learned this recently when a different news story broke and sparked a campaign to #DeleteHQ on Twitter.
Can you bring customers back once they leave you? Sure, maybe. But it will take 10X the time and energy it took to get them in the first place.
It costs you time
Speaking of time, that’s the next thing a bad press mention can lose you. A PR crisis is a black hole where time goes to die. That wishlist of 20 ambitious projects you’re planning to move your business light-years ahead? You can kiss that goodbye, because until damage control is completely done, cleaning up after a PR mess will become your life.
It costs you sanity
Let’s face it: building a business from scratch is stressful enough as it is. Who needs five years taken off their life due to totally avoidable missteps? Who wants to spend months scratching and clawing to gain every bit of ground you gain with customers, only to have all of that progress — and then some — erased in a matter of minutes?
Here’s the thing: it’s tough to know how to avoid PR land mines if you don’t know where they are to begin with.
Rus’s tangle with the Daily Beast can show us exactly where some of those land mines are. Let’s start with lesson #1.
Lesson #1: Journalism and PR are not the same thing
This first one is a biggie, so write it down if you need to. Carve it in stone. Have it printed and framed and hang it in a place of honor over your desk.
Journalism is not PR.
PR is not journalism.
Journalism and PR are not the same thing.
Rus Yusupov is not the first entrepreneur to misunderstand the relationship between PR and journalism. Plenty of entrepreneurs get so caught up in the game-changing impact that good press can have for their brand, they forget that journalists don’t actually exist to write nice things about businesses.
As an entrepreneur, you are the one who is doing PR. You are trying to get journalists to write nice things about you, so that people will:
- Know who you are
- Feel good about what you are doing
- Buy your product
Journalists, on the other hand, are not doing PR. Journalists are doing journalism. They’re there to write the story, whatever the story turns out to be. Whether you and your company come off in a good light is, from their perspective, beside the point.
It’s not that they’re out to get you. In fact, Rus probably would have had a much easier time if he’d treated the Daily Beast a little less like the enemy, or a ticking bomb that was about to blow his business to smithereens.
But if a journalist uncovers some unflattering aspect of your company, and that unflattering aspect turns out to be more interesting than the flattering one, they’re going to go with the story that catches their interest.
Your job as the entrepreneur — as the person who is doing PR — is to point the journalist toward the story that is good for them and good for you. Which brings us to our next point.
Lesson #2: Have a story
We’ve established that journalists are looking for a story. So it follows that if you’re trying to get a journalist’s attention, you need to have a story for them to tell.
One big mistake entrepreneurs make when they are new to PR: thinking that they can just tell a journalist what their company does, and the journalist will be jumping to write about it.
Nine times out of ten, “Hey, we’re a company, and we do this” is not going to capture a journalist’s imagination. And if a journalist’s interest is not piqued, one of two things will happen:
A. Nothing. You’ll never hear back from the journalist, and your pitch will be relegated to journalist inbox hell, along with a billion other forgotten pitches.
B. The journalist will find something about you worth writing about — but you may not like what they land on.
It’s never good when “nothing” is the best thing that can happen. So if you want to get a journalist’s attention, you have to have a story. What does a story have?
- A beginning, a middle, and an end
You probably remember this one from middle school. We English nerds call it “plot,” but a more practical way to think about it might be change. You have a status quo — the way things are. Then something happens, and after that, things are different. This is what makes the story interesting, and keeps the audience reading.
As humans, we identify with other humans. That’s just how we’re wired. A good story needs characters people can identify with. Someone to root for. Or root against.
- A setting
This is another one that’s straight out of middle school. But establishing a setting is not just about having a place where your story happens. It’s about creating context. It’s about setting your story and your company within a landscape where they intersect with other things and other ideas that people care about.
To be clear, your job when you’re pitching journalists is not to write the story for them. But it is to convince them that the elements of a story are there.
The Scott Rogowsky story had the hallmarks of a great story in spades. Scott is a likable, charismatic character. He experienced a profound change when he rose to internet fame virtually overnight. And his story is set in a world that has tons of built-in relevance and interest: the world of tech startups and social media.
Rus’s problem: He didn’t have a story. He only had the story he didn’t want the Daily Beast to write.
There are a lot of stories that Rus could have pitched in exchange for the Scott story. He could have invited the writer to HQ headquarters for a behind-the-scenes peek at what goes into a round of HQ Trivia, for example. Or he could have offered to see if any HQ winners wanted to talk about what it was like to win thousands of dollars in a matter of minutes.
How do I know these could work? Because I looked up the author of the final Daily Beast story and, presumably, the planned Scott Rogowsky profile as well. Which brings us to our next point…
Lesson #3: Know who you’re dealing with
You know when you’re learning about how to write a cover letter, and you’re taught to personalize each cover letter to the specific company you’re applying for? Think about pitching stories to journalists like you’re applying for a job for your company.
Journalists get dozens, possibly even hundreds, of pitches in their inbox every week. They get good at spotting emails that have gone out to a hundred other journalists as well.
If you’re trying to get a specific journalist to write about your company, take the time to read up on that journalist, their work, and the kinds of stories they’re interested in writing. Then, make the case for how your company and your story fit within their sweet spot.
For example, here are the first two sentences on the journalist’s website:
From there, you can dive into Taylor’s clips for a specific sampling of the kind of stories she writes. But honestly, that intro tells you all you need to know.
Taylor writes stories about the intersection of tech and culture, with a particular focus on the impact of social media and how it’s shaping and being shaped by youth culture. So if I’m trying to get her to write a story about my company — or not write one story about my company and write a different one instead — I need to give her a story that checks all of those boxes.
It’s called a “pitch” for a reason. Throw journalists something they can hit out of the park.
Lesson #4: You can recover from any mistakes
Rus Yusupov may have given us a case study in how not to deal with the media. But he also gave us a case study in how to recover gracefully if you should happen to find yourself with a case of foot-in-mouth disease.
The day after Taylor Lorenz’s story went live, Rus posted an apologetic tweet featuring himself and a still-employed Scott Rogowsky, enjoying a tasty Sweetgreen salad — presumably still without a brand deal in place. Although who knows? Maybe they got that brand deal after all.
He followed it up with a call for a PR agent — probably not a bad idea for a company that has grown to the size and prominence that HQ Trivia has.
A month later, Jimmy Kimmel was talking up HQ Trivia, and order was restored to the universe.
The digital news cycle can be brutal. But, mercifully, its memory is short, and it’s willing to forgive minor transgressions.
That said, while Rus Yusupov’s brush with media infamy may not have hurt HQ Trivia, it definitely didn’t help, either. You have to imagine there was a lot of chaos and confusion going down at HQ headquarters as they scrambled to control the story.
But maybe that’s the final lesson we can draw from Rus Yusupov’s brush with internet infamy: try too hard to control the story, and the story might just wind up controlling you.
The good news: you’ll never find yourself where Rus did, as long as you keep these three things in mind:
- PR outreach is an exchange. There’s something in it for you, yes. But there needs to be something in it for the writer, too. Just as you sell your product to your audience, you need to sell your story to journalists. That starts with understanding what they want, and what you have to offer.
- It’s okay to not want press. Our culture hard-wires us to think more attention and more eyes on us are an unalloyed good. But if your product isn’t ready for the glow of the spotlight, that’s okay. Flying under the radar can be good — especially if you’re still smoothing out the kinks with early customers, or you’re just not ready for the massive influx of sales that press attention could bring. One of the hardest things for an entrepreneur to learn is that it’s okay to say “no.” But it is. It really is. In fact, sometimes, it can be the best thing you can do.
- Relax. Putting the future of your business into someone else’s hands — even on the small scale of letting them write about you — is an act of trust. But you have to have that trust in order to get all the good things that PR can bring to you. Understand what you can’t control (what journalists do) and what you can (what you do). And remember: if journalists want to share your story, that’s a good thing. Take a second to celebrate the win.