If you work long enough in technology, you come to realize that most years fall into one of two categories: good news years or bad news years. Not quite three months in, it’s clear that 2023 is going to be one of the latter. Not a bad news year, but a bad news year — a year where bad news sets the tone.
It’s not hard to tell the difference. In good news years, funding is abundant, hiring is strong, and aspiring entrepreneurs spend their off hours hopping from tech talk to networking cocktail. Faith in founders is high. In bad news years, coverage focuses on layoffs, cutbacks and slashed valuations. Instead of encouraging founders to think bigger and spend more, VCs compete to craft the most harrowing “winter is coming” threads on Twitter.
If you’re a startup out there trying to tell your story, you need to understand how the macro context affects your public relations (PR) program.
In bad news years it is harder to reach reporters. Journalists are just as affected by downturns as other tech workers, if not more so. In bad news years (and the crucial months just prior), the slow bleed of media business models often deteriorates into carnage. Beats are reduced or eliminated. Senior reporters retire. Staff positions evaporate. Entire publications poof out of existence. The reporters who remain are stretched across more news with less time to cover it.
Finding the right reporter to cover your announcement will take longer than it did last year. The right reporter may not have time. The right reporter might not even exist. In some highly technical fields, like databases and networking, the number of US reporters who regularly cover the subject can be counted on one hand.
So pitch early. For important news, start no later than a week before your target announcement date. For funding you’ll need at least two weeks. Depending on the reporter, you may need three or more. Don’t expect to drop your press release the day of and see significant pickup.
If you’re releasing research, make sure your media plan includes a pitch that will stand up for months. It may take that long to catch a reporter’s attention, especially if this is your first contact. This story needs to be durable, and connect with national news or macro trends in your industry to stay relevant over time.
In good news years, it’s easier to make the case that you’re onto something big. Everywhere you look, someone’s raising a nine-figure round, launching a buzzy new product, growing staff by hundreds of percent. Founders appear visionary simply by virtue of being in business. After all, smart people gave them millions of dollars to execute their plan. Surely they knew what they were doing. If you’re on the fence — if you don’t “get it” — then the problem is probably with you.
In bad news years, it’s the opposite. Everyone is aware of the overhyped technologies that just tanked, the promises that failed, the dazzling young things who turned out to be thieves. Founders are presumed to be full of it until proven otherwise.
To succeed in a bad news year, you have to be authentic and you need to bring the goods. If you’re trying to secure business coverage, be prepared to reveal revenue and valuation. Customers you can name. Customers who impress. You’re asking reporters to believe that you’re a big deal at a time when many of the big deals they just covered have been exposed as empty vessels. Your job — and the job of your PR program — is to show you’re worthy of their trust.
Know your advantages
Despite their challenges, bad news years can bring opportunities too, especially for companies that thrive when times are tough. Market downturns inspire stories about sectors and startups defying the downward trend. If you’re hiring when others are laying off, that’s a start.
If you have insights into industry hiring, employee behavior, consumer spending and saving patterns or perceptions of work/life balance, those can be valuable for reporters trying to chart the impact of the downturn.
If you’ve just raised a round, it’s a bigger deal than it was a year ago, when every day brought another herd of newly minted unicorns. You still need a good story. The number of publications that cover funding as breaking news is smaller than ever. But funding is a more impressive signal than in 2022, and far more than in 2021.
And of course, even in the very worst news years, the next great world-changing advance is out there. News organizations have to assign beat reporters somewhere. Right now, the balance seem to favor fintech (non-crypto), foodtech, greentech, healthtech, logistics and robotics. Coverage of Microsoft’s $14B investment in ChatGPT, along with its controversial new chatbot and Google’s own chatbot, Bard, confirm that generative AI will be a big story, if not the big story — for the next several years. Much of that coverage will revolve around “big tech” (Google, NVIDIA, Facebook, Microsoft, and so forth) but startups with a compelling angle on generative AI will be well positioned to succeed in 2023.
Experienced PR practitioners will have noticed that all this advice applies in good news years as well. It’s true. PR in bad news years is still PR — just more so. The fundamentals of good PR don’t change, just the difficulty setting. Good stories will still get told, and good companies will still get recognized. With the right approach, a bad news year doesn’t have to be bad news for you.
SVP of PR and Content at Firebrand, Chris is responsible for messaging and positioning, media strategy, content creation, campaign planning, media training and senior counsel. A skilled writer and business press specialist with deep tech expertise, Chris has previously worked as a journalist and a data-team manager.