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Tech Startups Need PR Counsel Now More Than Ever | Sternberg Strategic Communications

Tech Startups Need PR Counsel Now More Than Ever

July 7th, 2010
Blippy’s recent #EpicFail involving the release of four users’ credit card numbers via a Google search caused quite a stir within not only the tech media, but also the mainstream press, as people started to question how supposedly secure social networking services, such as Blippy, Foursquare, Gowalla and the like, could allow sensitive information to leak online for the entire world to see. The bigger issue, however, is that the company wasn’t prepared with a communications strategy because of an epidemic pervading the tech startup culture: the belief that public relations isn’t necessary.


First, though, a bit about the Blippy Situation and why what happened is no good.

As disconcerting as the public release of Blippy users’ credit card numbers is, even more astonishing is how little time and consideration Blippy had apparently given to the possibility that larger, strategically-flawed situations like this might occur on its service.

Indeed, the company seems to be misguided in its handling of this situation. For example, The Wall Street Journal points out how Blippy appeared to have created its first corporate blog solely to try to deal with this situation.

Unfortunately, for Blippy, without a strategic communications plan in place the company was left quite vulnerable, and it showed (taken from the Blippy blog):
While we take this very seriously and it is a headache for those involved (to whom we apologize and are contacting), it's important to remember that you're never responsible if someone uses your credit card without your permission. That's why it's okay to hand your credit card over to waiters, store clerks, and hundreds of other people who all have access to your credit card numbers.

We're making efforts to bolster our security to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again. That includes third-party security audits, and in general being a lot more careful before new features are released, even if it's during a small, limited beta test period.
Contact us for any reason at hello@blippy.com

Simply put: Anyone reading Blippy’s response would have gotten the impression that the company’s general attitude toward this quite serious problem was something along the lines of: “What, we messed up? No way. Couldn’t have happened. And, oh yeah, if you want to get in touch with us, go ahead and send us a note to the generic e-mail address above. We’ll get back to you in about three weeks . . .”

And for a service that allows users to update friends anywhere with their most recent credit card purchases, this is really not the way for them to react. As a user of Blippy, you want a response; one that assures you your information is safe. You want action, where you see the company’s executives explaining how this happened and why it will never happen again. You want accountability and to be told that you’re valued as not just a customer, but a human being who needs to earn back the company’s trust.

What you don’t want is a hastily created blog written after major news outlets break the story, or some random person to find a problem of this magnitude before your service becomes aware of the issue.

But, should we push all of the blame for how this situation was handled squarely on Blippy? Unfortunately, there are larger issues at play here, specifically within the technology startup culture and how these companies plan their businesses, particularly their communications strategies.

It’s no secret that tech fan-boy sites like TechCrunch have largely shunned the public relations industry to the point of telling their loyal readers that public relations is not necessary for companies to succeed. With the many—many—rants (some, albeit, are quite justified) by Tech Crunch against the PR industry, one can see how many startups are eschewing public relations. In the case of Blippy, not having a strategic communications plan is a detriment to their long-term viability and trust with users, advertisers, investors and their own industry colleagues.

With Tech Crunch being the go-to site for many tech startups to announce they’ve arrived on the scene, it has set up a false positive in terms of building their brand. While yes, getting placed in TechCrunch can be very beneficial; it’s not the end-all-be-all to building and sustaining a brand. There needs to be a broader communications plan than TechCrunch.

Just like in the traditional media world, one big media placement will not make a tech startup suddenly the next greatest thing since Google. No, it takes years of patience, terrific products and services. But it also needs the strategic brand-building and messaging only communications counsel can provide.

And TechCrunch won’t offer that to you. What will do that for you, today’s hot tech startup, is a strategic communications/public relations team sitting next to you at your strategy table, alongside your senior management team, investors and other primary decision-makers to ensure the values, goals and initiatives you are putting into place align with those that will build your business, help acquire brand affinity, and most importantly in today’s fractured consumer world, keep customers coming back for more.

Again, TechCrunch isn’t going to tell you that, and it’s definitely not going to help you make those often tough decisions. But strategic communications/PR counsel will, and that service shouldn’t be shunned by tech startups. In fact, communications counsel should be a part of any startup’s strategic growth plans from day one.

Because who knows: You could be the next Blippy and hit on a great, innovative idea securing you a lot of users (and advertisers/revenue) in just a couple of months of existence. But, do you want to end up like Blippy, facing a major crisis with no strategy in place to handle your response?