My first PR agency was founded in 1996. If that year doesn’t mean anything to you, you’re either young, or you’re not very interested in technology startups. 1996 was a fantastic year to start up just about anything, including a New York PR agency. The “dot-com” boom was roaring, there was far too much VC cash chasing after the next big thing, and simply putting your brand online was considered startlingly innovative.
Of course, when the meltdown came, it was ugly. But even before the great collapse of 2000, and during better economies since that time, PR agencies have been challenged with an embarrassment of options – multiple prospective clients, sometimes within the same flavor-of-the-month category. Depending on where you are in the economic cycle, the most important – and the toughest – decision we make can be which horse to back in the great race to a successful outcome. And creative services professionals don’t always have the keenest judgment when it comes to evaluating clients.
That’s why it was fun to read Jenna Wortham’s piece on the “freshman class” of technology startup companies and, even more interesting to PRs, a sidebar about how the New York Times decides which startups are most worthy of their time. As the piece was furiously tweeted around this week, it seemed to promise the breathless type of “ten tips”-style insights for PRs and others on how to position our clients to best advantage. Here’s how they do it! Wortham shares NYT secrets!
But the real point of the sidebar was more prosaic. Wortham and her colleagues do their research, of course, They look at the VCs attached to a given company, study data, and talk to entrepreneurs. But the bottom line is that determining the most worthy startups is often “a feeling based on experience. The app, game, service or idea that you have had your eye on starts to pop up all over — in casual conversations at parties or in a conversation overheard on the subway.”
Buzz. “It” factor. The breakthrough, leap forward, or tipping point. Bottom line, even professional journalists at one of the world’s most prestigious news outlets use a blend of experience and gut feeling. Similar to the ways that PR agencies evaluate prospective clients during fat times (and what we should do more of during lean ones.)
So, there’s no magic formula for deciding which startups are most mediaworthy, and perhaps even less so for those trying to gauge which might make the most exciting, lucrative, and successful client case study. By the time a given company get the attention of the Times or other outlets, chances are good that it’s been researched and vetted by others more expert in a given technology or vertical market.
But having some kind of stake in the game makes it fun, interesting and important. On the agency side, we keep trying, and some of us get better at it over time.