Unveiling the Truth About PR and Its Untapped Potential with Upright

Summary of Episode

#74. Are you undervaluing PR as an IPO strategy? Paul Wilke, founder of Upright Position Communications joins the podcast to discuss the relationship between PR and exiting. Paul also provides valuable advice on evaluating PR firms, identifying your internal PR person, representing yourself as an executive during an IPO, and the importance of clear communication in promoting a company.

About the guest:

Paul Wilke is the founder of Upright Position Communications. Paul started Upright in 2012 after playing the employee role in high-level PR positions for companies such as Splunk and Visa. Upright has worked with companies such as Rivian, Honey, Garmin, and PlayStation.

Podcast Episode Notes

[00:01:26] What is Upright Position Communications? 

[00:02:22] Can you tell us about your hikes? 

[00:03:25] Has there ever been a time where you couldn’t hike in the morning?

[00:04:09] Do you make sure that you wake up early to ensure you can do this? 

[00:05:15] What differentiates Upright from other PR agencies?

[00:07:30] What gives you the confidence to push back with clients? 

[00:09:10] Have you always been able to be this selective? 

[00:11:56] How can entrepreneurs gain the confidence to be choosier about who they partner with early on?

[00:13:45] Can you tell us how Upright got its first customer?

[00:15:43] What’s your definition of PR?

[00:20:30] Can you explain this quote? 

[00:24:44] What is the triangle of dysfunction?

[00:27:00] What created this dysfunction between the businesses and the journalists?

[00:29:35] When should founders start thinking about PR? 

[00:31:36] Where can people find out more about DIY PR?

[00:33:32] How can this type of entrepreneur build an effective PR strategy?

[00:37:40] How should founders determine if they should do PR internally or use a PR agency? 

[00:38:39] Should that internal PR person be the CEO? 

[00:39:14] How do I find the right PR firm for my startup? 

[00:41:40] How much should founders spend on PR? 

[00:44:14] What are the traits that Jack Ma showed that you think founders should embody?

[00:47:03] Will the press release die? 

[00:49:25] What's a new trend or a new prediction that either you're seeing or a prediction you'd like to make?

[00:51:00] Is PR just becoming another type of content marketing? 

[00:51:48] What is your #1 piece of advice for early-stage entrepreneurs?

[00:52:30] What is next for Upright Position Communications?

[00:54:20] Where did the name Walking Duck come from?

Full Interview Transcript

Ethan Peyton: Hey everybody and welcome to the Startup Savant podcast. I'm your host, Ethan, and this is a show about the stories, challenges, and triumphs of fast-scaling startups and the founders who run them. Our guest on the show today is the founder and CEO of Upright Position Communications, Paul Wilke. Upright Position Communications, which we will just refer to as Upright, is a PR firm specializing in IPO communications. 

Paul started Upright in 2012 after playing the employee role in high-level PR positions for companies such as Splunk and Visa. Upright has worked with companies such as Rivian, Honey, Garmin, and PlayStation, just to name a few. Paul's not afraid to share his in-depth insights into the world of PR, so my goal for this conversation is to build a strong base of knowledge for company communications and create an actionable jumping-off point for founders who are starting to think about the outward-facing aspects of their startup. 

But before we get into that, remember to hit the like button, the subscribe button, the follow button, the little bell thingy, just hit all the buttons. All that signal tells the algorithms that this is an awesome show and should be served up to everyone. All right, let's get into this conversation with Paul of Upright. Paul, thanks for hanging out with us today.

Paul Wilke: Oh, thanks for having me. It's great.

Ethan Peyton: All right, let's jump in right at the beginning. There's some other stuff I wanna get into that's not business, but we're gonna talk business first. What is Upright Position Communications?

Paul Wilke: Upright Position Communications is what I call an old school PR firm. We've been in business for over 10 years now. And everyone at Upright is either an ex-journalist, ex-in-house PR person, or large PR firm background. And we do media relations, we do writing, we develop content for our clients. And most of our clients are... what I sort of call late stage startups, but we do a lot of work across the spectrum of companies, whether it's late stage startup, series A, series B, or a company about to go public with an IPO.

Ethan Peyton: All right, so we're gonna dig deep on all this business stuff, but before we do, I wanna give people a little bit of a sense of you and how you personally operate. So can you tell us a little bit about your hikes?

Paul Wilke: Yeah, every… most days, probably five to seven days a week, I try to go for a hike. First thing in the morning, I live in Southern California. We live in the Coachella Valley. And one of the things that I've found over the years, I used to do it with running, but now I do it with hiking. My knees thank me for this, by the way. I find just taking anywhere between a half hour to an hour in the morning to go for a hike, go for a walk, go for a jog. It clears my mind and also sort of just gives me an opportunity to think about what I've got to tackle that day. And also what are the things I want to concentrate on the weeks or months ahead? It's just, it's just a, it's a, I find it very grounding. It enables me to sort of turn off the outside noise. Even though I might listen to music or a podcast or something, it's just a way for me to connect with my surroundings and correct, connect with my mind.

Ethan Peyton: So have you ever had a stretch of days where you weren't able to get out there and be in nature and go for that hike?

Paul Wilke: Yeah, ironically enough, during the pandemic, I kind of stopped. I, you know, even though the only thing you could really do was walk amongst yourself and go out, that was mentally, it was my way of dealing with was not to do it. And it was a mistake. It was, you know, I felt anxiety. I felt anxious. I put on weight. You know, it was all the things that kept me grounded and I didn't do it. And once I picked it back up again. It was, it was, you know, eye-opening.

Ethan Peyton: So let me ask you kind of an in-depth question. Do you get up really early to go on these hikes and get them done before the kind of like, quote unquote work day or rather work time for everybody else starts or do you wake up at more than normal time and allow this process to kind of to exist in the beginning stages of what everybody else's timeline of their day looks like.

Paul Wilke: Fortunately, I'm an early riser. I get up early. And like you said, I get up before, I try to get up before our clients start working, our team starts working. We have folks on the East Coast, so that's not always easy to do. But I wake up at like 5-5:30, and very often I'll read the news or just sort of sit quietly or watch TV or something until sunrise or until it's light out, and then I can actually go out. But I do find that if I get a late start, I feel like I'm playing catch-up all day. But if I get out early, you know, get started early. I feel like I'm ahead of the game.

Ethan Peyton: All right, thanks for indulging me in those depth of details. Let's jump back into Upright. What differentiates Upright from other PR agencies?

Paul Wilke: I think it's our ability to kick the tires. One of the things that's quite common in the PR industry, PR people are people pleasers. It's our nature. Our client says, can we do something where it's like, how high? Jump how high, that type of thing. We try to, we're fixers at heart. So. One of the things that took me a lot of time to realize is you can be a people pleaser, but you can also say no. You can say this isn't going to work out or something along those lines. If a client says to me, you know, we want to do a press release on this. 

My instinct now versus 20 years ago is why are we doing this? Kick the tires of it. Why do you think this is a great idea? Press releases on their own aren't a great strategy, they're not a strategy at all. So let's step back and say, okay, let's think strategically about this. And we try to do that with everything we do. I feel like we're as much writers and content developers as we are counselors. We provide counsel to our clients. We provide therapy sometimes. 

One of the things that I learned working in-house is when you work in-house for a company that is focused on a certain area like tech or... you know, sort of B2B stuff. You're surrounded by people that don't speak your language. They're not communications people. They're not PR people. They're developers. They're, you know, they're very, they're tech folks. They're people that, accountants, you know, you're working around, surrounded by people that don't speak your language.

So when you work with a PR firm, an external PR firm, they speak your language. They understand what you're talking about. They understand what you're trying to achieve. I experienced that firsthand when I was a client. And I appreciated the agency that I had that I could riff with them. I could say, well, is this a good idea? Is this a bad idea? The CEO says they want to do this. I'm not sure it's the right thing to do. That's invaluable to a client.

Ethan Peyton: So what do you feel like gives you the license to kind of push back on things like that? If this is the thing that differentiates you between other PR firms, that means that some of these other PR firms aren't doing this and therefore they don't feel like they have the kind of, I guess, permission or agency to offer that pushback and let's take a step back. What do you feel like gives you license to do that?

Paul Wilke: Well, I think it's time and experience, but there's a power dynamic between client and agency. And the challenge is always finding that balance. And I think what gives us the agency to do it is we're picky about the clients we choose. Any PR firm can do what we do, and we can do what any other PR firm does in terms of experience, media access, writing. All PR people. is what we went to school for, what we train for. But one of the things that sort of separates us is, it's a relationship. Do I get along well with my client? Does the client like working with our team? And if you've got that rapport, that chemistry, that's what makes a client agency relationship work.

Ethan Peyton: So your website mentions that you specialize in IPO communications. You've mentioned already in this episode that you work with late stage entrepreneurs or late stage companies and some, you know, series A, series B. Have you always been able to be this selective or was there a time when you were like, okay, I'm going to take any, you know, any work we can get?

Paul Wilke: Well, you learn, you take on, when you start, you're willing to take on anything and everything. And as you go along, you learn. I'm like, this is, you know, one of the biggest lessons I learned over the years is don't take everything on because you can't do everything. Work on the things that you do well. I mean, one of the things when I started Upright is I basically whiteboarded and decided, okay, these are the things I like doing. These are the things I don't like doing. 

And I made the conscious decision, we're not going to do the things I don't like doing. And with that, it creates an environment and an ability to do the things you do very well. One of the things I say, very often, we'll have new business calls with potential clients. And they say, well, you guys do IPO PR, but we're not even close to going public. Why should I work with you? Or why do you want to work with us? And I explain to them that IPO communications is unique in the fact, well not unique, but it's a specialty in the fact that when a company's going public, they're talking to reporters and editors and publications they've never talked to before because it's so financially driven, it's so business driven. 

So not only do you have to explain to a reporter what the company does, you also have to explain the whole space they operate in many cases. And with That's a transferable skill to a startup or a company on the rise. You have to put into context what the company does in sort of the greater form of what problem they solve or what they do and how they do it.

Ethan Peyton: So I think this is something that translates to a lot of early stage companies, especially those that are working B2B or definitely the kind of agency model. I think that if some sort of work comes along or some sort of potential client comes along and there's maybe a 50% good match or a 60% good match, I think especially for these early-stage folks who maybe don't have a whole lot of revenue coming in, there's kind of this fear of if I don't take this business, then I'm kind of like creating a hole for myself, as opposed to saying if I don't take this business, that means I have that much more time to find the right partner, the right clients to fill that hole that was created by not taking this business. Do you feel like there's any sort of... mindset or process that people can go through to kind of push past that fear and to take work that makes more sense for them as opposed to taking work for work's sake?

Paul Wilke: I'm not sure there's one thing about that, but one of the things that we have the luxury of in the PR communities is there are a lot of PR firms out there. And they each have their own little niche. I mean, I think I read something the other day for every PR person, for every journalist, there's four PR people, which is crazy. But one of the great things about our industry is we're all fairly... interconnected, we've worked with each other over the years. And we talk. 

So if, for example, there's a piece of business out there that five agencies are either pitching for or fighting for, we'll talk back channel, we'll be like, you okay, so what are your observations and what do you think? Or, you know what, this isn't quite right for us or maybe we'll team together and put two agencies together to work on something. So there's that flexibility, I think. I think you start off, you look at something and say, if this business isn't right for me, or this isn't the partnership I should go into, or this isn't the client I should work with, you should follow that instinct, but also find out, find ways to share the love. If there's a piece of business I don't think is right for us, I know there's another agency that I've worked with in the past, or someone I know that I could say, look, refer the business. That's just sort of setting up karma. And that's served, I think, people we've worked with well, and I think it's served us well.

Ethan Peyton: All right, so speaking of getting new customers, I know that there's a fun story around this. Can you tell us how Upright got its first customer?

Paul Wilke: Yeah, well, back when I started Upright, it was literally a one-man band. It was just me. So, you know, I talked early on about sort of whiteboarding. These are the things I like doing. These are the things I don't like doing. This is what Upright is going to be. And one of the things at the core of it was IPO communications. I had taken… I'd worked on Splunk's IPO. I worked on Visa's IPO. And I knew I loved doing that. 

So I sort of put that at the core of what Upright does. So when I was, once I decided that, I basically went on to TweetDeck, which, you know, before the Elon Musk era of Twitter, it was a great app for sort of filtering content. So I did a search, sort of a filter search that would come up anytime someone typed IPO-PR or IPO communications. I would see it. So I set that up like day one of upright existence and maybe an hour. less than an hour later, something came through and it was someone sort of tweeting, anybody out there know anything about IPO PR? And it's such a specialized area, I of course wrote back, ended up being our first client. It was Tableau Software. It was the first IPO that we worked on at Upright, probably one…

Ethan Peyton: Wow.

Paul Wilke: …of the bigger ones of that year. And it's one of those great things, right place, right time. We had the right skill at the right moment. And you know, we haven't looked back ever since.

Ethan Peyton: I call that manufactured serendipity.

Paul Wilke: I love that. That's a great way of putting it.

Ethan Peyton: You can call it luck, but you were taking the actions to increase your surface area of luck. So right place, right time.

Paul Wilke: Exactly.

Ethan Peyton: That's an awesome story.

Paul Wilke: Thank you.

Ethan Peyton: All right, let's jump into kind of PR and the philosophies of the craft of PR. So to start off with that, I wanna get your definition of PR.

Paul Wilke: There's there everyone's got their own definition, you know sort of promoting your business promoting your cause my the simplest deflation that I always provide is PR is not about you and by you I mean the person trying to do PR It's about it's about what you're working on and how you can help others or what you're doing in the larger space I call you I call for a high hyperbolic PR very I call it chest thumpy. It's very chest-thumpy PR, which is, which never works well. It's never sat well with me. It's like, hey, how great we are. This is how awesome we are. We're doing this because we're great. 

Journalists don't care about that. People sort of reading about you don't care about. They want to know about how you can help them, what it means in the context of something larger. And that's something that gets lost a lot with companies that are on the rise or companies that are very successful. They forget that it's not about you.

Ethan Peyton: Yeah, so I think you moved right into my next topic here, and that was that you had a quote that's, I split PR into two different categories. The first is, it's about me, and the second is, it's about you. Is that kind of what you're talking about here?

Paul Wilke: Yeah, that's the heart of it. And you can make PR about me. You think throwing me and you interchangeably doesn't always work. But, you know, getting that fuel mix right is, you know, how much do you talk about what you do, how you do it, why you do it, who you do it for versus how much you talk about yourself, you know, and each company is different. You know, certain companies can do a lot of that chest-thumpy stuff. But at the end of the day, it's like understanding what your audience needs is really what drives the kind of PR that you do. And that's important. And you don't see too many PR success stories when it's just the chest-thumpy stuff.

Ethan Peyton: So would this be like, and it's about me, it's kind of like, hey, we are company X and we make super cool cars and come buy our super cool cars. And maybe it's about you would be more like, hey, we're company X and we know you want this kind of car so we built you this kind of car. This is how it's gonna fit into your life. Is that kind of maybe an example or am I off-beat a little bit?

Paul Wilke: No, that's part of it. And I think the former, it's about me PR is when you talk about, this is why we're great. This is the award we won. This is why my CEO is awesome. And when it's done poorly, PR doesn't do what you want it to do. It doesn't engage the audience. It doesn't motivate someone to test drive the car or try the product or understand what they do. 

You look at so many companies that have come out of Silicon Valley or the tech world over the years. You look at their website and you read the website. You're like, I don't know what the hell these people do. I always joke about sort of anytime there's a company that starts like blah, SaaS in the cloud, blah, blah. But at a basic level, if you can't explain what you do, that's a problem. 

One of the things that we did at Visa and it was one of my managers over the years basically laid down the law and said, for any interview that you've got a Visa executive in front of a reporter, take a minute or two to explain what Visa does. You know, this is a company where the majority of the world has a Visa logo in their wallet. And we explained to a reporter, Visa isn't the company that issues your credit card. Visa isn't the company that sends you your credit card bill. Those are the banks. Visa is really the payments network. And if a company's big as Visa needs to do that, you can bet your ass any smaller company needs to do that as well. There's no shame in explaining to a reporter what your company does.

Ethan Peyton: All right, let's move on to another one of your quotes. I'm just gonna do this whole episode based on things that you've said in the past. There's plenty.

Paul Wilke: My world philosophies of life.

Ethan Peyton: Exactly. All right, so here's another quote. "'There's a PR solution for nearly every business issue or challenge.'" And actually, there's like three quotes that I found that basically say that exact thing, but instead of me just reading all of them, I want you to tell us what that means and how you've come to this theory.

Paul Wilke: I don't love doing PR for PR sake. So it's sort of like, oh, let's do a press release. Let's write this. Let's do this blog post or whatever. One of the things that the origin of that quote came from when I was doing PR for a shipping container company in Singapore. And I was actually sitting down over a drink with the country manager for India. And he, and it's just one of those. you know, just over cocktails question, what's keeping you busy? What's keeping you awake at night? And he said to me, he's like, the government won't let us bring our larger ships into their ports. 

There's no reason why they couldn't. It's not a capacity issue. It's not a depth issue. They just won't do it. And so I was like, well, what if and we just started to think we started just talking and riffing and stuff. I said, well, what if what if we go? And at the time, the company was building a ton of new big ships. And through the story, what we came out of agreement is one of the ships was called the APL India, which was the name of the company, and all the ships were either named after a country or a president. I said, what if you approached the government about bringing the APL India into one of the Indian ports on its maiden voyage, and all the bells and whistles, all the publicity, we'd work with reporters, we'd work with events and bring this flagship into the country to showcase that this is something that could happen on a regular basis. He liked the idea. 

Logistically, it worked. And we did this great PR push around the largest ship to come into this harbor at a particular time. And it ended up opening the way for the business. And that was a communications solution for a business problem. And it's not always at that scale, literally and figuratively. But you know. If a business leader or a CMO or anybody can sit down with a communications person and say, these are my problems. Is there something that we can do from a PR side or a communication side that will move the needle or make the difference? That's fun to me. That's what I really enjoy doing what we do.

Ethan Peyton: So there's a point where if you're a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. But it seems as though in this case, you were creative enough and you were able to, with the tools in your tool belt, to create a win-win-win type of situation. And I'm sure that the government or the port that ended up getting a lot of... essentially, you know, positive publicity off of this, they probably saw, they probably saw other benefits beyond just, hey, we're going to bring in, you know, we're going to be able to bring in more ships. 

So that's pretty, I mean, that's a pretty sweet solution. And obviously it shows that yes, this business issue could be solved with a, with a communications solution. But I also think it just goes to show that creativity and finding a way to make a win-win can solve a lot of issues.

Paul Wilke: It really can. And the other factor is working with people that trust the process and recognize that sometimes it's an unconventional solution that's going to make a difference. I've been lucky in all the years I've worked in PR to work with great country managers, CEOs, people that don't easily or tend to embrace PR as something other than sort of a fig leaf or a necessary evil. They embrace what we do and something like that is proof that what we do does make a difference sometimes.

Ethan Peyton: All right, so we've talked about the positives of PR. Now I'm not 100% for sure if this next thing is a positive or a negative, but the words sure make it look like a negative. Can you tell us what is the triangle of dysfunction?

Paul Wilke: Triangle dysfunction is something I came up with. It started out in a business pitch. I describe the environment that we work in as the triangle of dysfunction. And what the triangle of dysfunction is, you've got three key stakeholders in what we do in PR. You've got the client, you've got the journalist, and you've got the PR function, PR agency or PR infrastructure, whatever. I call that the triangle of dysfunction because we each point on that triangle speaks a different language, has different objectives, and doesn't always see the perspective of the other point. 

And when I started Upright and when I started talking about this, I recognized this is I'm trying to smooth the edges of this triangle. That's what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to make the journalists understand what the client is doing. I'm trying to get the client to understand that what we're trying to do to connect them with the journalist works. And I'm trying to get the journalists to understand that we're not, we're not a blockade. We're trying to facilitate the information flow and make their job easier for the client. We're trying to make their job easier. And that triangle of dysfunction exists a lot today. And you know, you know, call me Don Quixote or you know, crick-sodic or whatever, but it's a windmill I've been tilting for a long time and I'm determined to smooth those edges.

Ethan Peyton: What created this issue? I mean, it seems like, you know, if, if this dysfunction didn't exist, maybe, you know, the, the job of PR wouldn't even need to, to be there that, that the businesses could just send, you know, whatever information over to the journalists and the journalists could print it and, you know, they've created news and the, and the, and the business has gotten coverage and everyone would be happy. So, but clearly that's not the case. And, you know, PR, folks have, have been able to. You know, obviously, you said there's what, four PR people for every one journalist.

Paul Wilke: Reporter. Yeah.

Ethan Peyton: So clearly this is a necessity. But what's created this dysfunction between the businesses and the journalists? Is it just that they speak different languages?

Paul Wilke: No, the different language is one of the main things, but the other thing is just general animosity between each point. Journalists don't love dealing with PR people. PR people don't love dealing with journalists. PR people don't love dealing with clients. Clients don't love dealing with agencies. So there's mistrust, there's misunderstanding. There's a genuine disdain more often than not. 

And very often... One of the problems is, at least from the PR perspective, we have two stakeholders. We have two, our clients are not just our clients, but our clients are also the journalists. There's this terrible moment when we set up an interview between an executive and a reporter that you don't know if both parties are gonna show up on the call. And... or they're not gonna show up at the cafe and there's that awkward moment, it's like, ah, just these, this didn't work. And it's probably the greatest pit in your stomach you're going to have in your job on a day-to-day basis. But when it works, it's a beautiful dance and part of it is getting to that point and it's making the client feel comfortable, making sure there's trust between you and the journalist. 

One of the things that we do best, I think, is I try to make sure that we're very selective, very careful who we reach out to. If we've got a story idea for a reporter, I'm not going to send it to every reporter in the world. I'm going to send it to the ones I think it's relevant to because, you know, I want that reporter down the road to open my email when they see it or answer the call when I call them because if I send them garbage, they're, you know, it's... It's the chicken little effect. It's like the sky's falling. I'm not going to respond to this guy. So that's sort of, it's animosity, fear, distrust, different language. Those are all key components of the triangle of dysfunction.

Ethan Peyton: All right, I'm loving this because you're basically doing my job for me. We've pretty clearly defined the problem here and why PR is, you know, it exists and it's not easy. So I wanna get into the actionable strategies and tactics that founders can use to improve or maximize their communications. So with that, let's start at the beginning. What do you think the stage is in the lifestyle of a startup that PR should enter the mind of the founder?

Paul Wilke: PR should enter the mind of the founder very early. That's, I know, I wanna table that by saying that doesn't mean they have to hire a PR person or engage with an agency. I do a series of presentations for startup incubators and startups, it's called PR 101. And, no, it's called, sorry, it's called DIY PR. And it's for founders and entrepreneurs who don't have. money or space or time to commit to a full blown PR strategy. 

Because, you know, let's be honest, if you're just starting out, you don't need to do a big media push. But there are things that you can do that don't cost anything, that don't require any investment. You know, something at a very basic level, befriend reporters who cover the space you work in, understand what they write about, what they read. Retweet what they write and develop it and write and drop them an email say ‘look, I love that article that you wrote about, you know AI and sports.’ You know, start there. I call it professional stalking, but it's the basis. It's the easiest thing a founder can do to start cultivating a media audience. 

Understand what the reporters in your space write about what interests them, what makes them? what motivates them to write a story. And hopefully you find a way or you find something or a nugget that you can say, at some point you can write to that journalist like, hey, I think I've got something you might be interested in. And that's how it starts. That's how good PR starts. So then you build the strategy and the writing and the content and the engagement.

Ethan Peyton: So first off, that's excellent, awesome, very actionable advice. Thank you for that. Where can people find more about this DIY PR?

Paul Wilke: They can go to our website. I think we've written about it a few times, and you can always reach out to me. I'm, you know, one of the things I love doing, and this is why I do it. You know, there, you know, we have people reach out to us and say, hey, look, we'd like to talk to you about, you know, hiring you as an agency. And you know they're not ready. And it's not, I don't mean to diminish their accomplishments. It's just that they don't need a big agency. They don't need to pay five, 10, 15, $20,000 a month. for a PR program when they just need to sort of come up with or identify or connect with three or four reporters. So one of the things that I do when I present, when I give that DIY PR presentation to founders, I say, look, you know, reach out to me, use me, you know, call me, drop me an email. I would rather you be on the right path on PR than like two years down the road, you're like, you call me up, it's like, you know, I've... I put a pressure release on the wire and no one's covering it. I don't know why. It's like, well, no, there's a reason why because it takes more than just a pressure release to get coverage. But yeah, it's as simple as reaching out and say, “look, I'd love some guidance.” Doesn't cost anything.

Ethan Peyton: So I think there is a big discussion around doing this internally or using an agency, and we're gonna get into that in just a second. But let's not put the cart before the horse. Let's talk about early stage entrepreneurs. They've started this business. The question I'm gonna ask is, how can this entrepreneur build an effective PR strategy? So let me give you kind of maybe an example of the founder that that we're kind of gonna play the role of here.

Paul Wilke: Okay.

Ethan Peyton: So let's say I'm the founder of a SaaS company, we've got a product, we've got a few customers, but we haven't really found product market fit yet. How should I, as the founder of that company, be thinking about PR and communications?

Paul Wilke: I think the biggest thing is can you effectively and shortly and succinctly answer what problem you solve? If you can answer that question in a way that's unique, interesting, that's the foundation for everything you do. That's the foundation for your messaging. That's the foundation for your media outreach. If you solve a problem that no one else is solving, but it's a problem that... reporters write about, find out who's writing about them, and then you'll figure out how to connect with them. If you can talk about it from that perspective, that's the start. 

And the next thing is, do you have practical, real-life examples of why your problems, your ability to solve the problem works? It's hard for a founder or someone who just started a startup to connect with reporters if they don't have a case study. So you really have to have that. You have to have a practical example or something that you can hold, something you can hold and you can show to them, say this is what I invented, this is why it works and I'm gonna show you why it works. If you don't have that, you have to kind of keep going back to the drawing board. But identifying and talking about the problem is really the first step.

Ethan Peyton: So that's this case study, this what problem do I solve? That's really, I mean, yeah, it's kind of square one. And that's actually a question that we ask in most of our interviews is right after we say, hey, what is your company? The question that we ask next is what is the problem that you solve? And you can tell when people kind of have to either think about it or their answer is kind of, not necessarily. long-winded, but just not succinct, not totally buttoned up. And I think that if you can't answer that question, then that's kind of the only thing that you should focus on.

Paul Wilke: Yeah, and it's interesting. I was just talking to someone and she said this to me the other day and I wish I had come up with it. She said, you never read an eight sentence quote in a Wall Street Journal article. And that sums up exactly what we try to do with PR, recognizing that if you're going to get in the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times, you're only going to get like you're only going to get 20 words and they're going to build the story around that. So if you can't say what you do, talk about what you do succinctly and tightly in a messaging, in a way that's going to connect with an audience, it's going to be hard.

Ethan Peyton: And I think that kind of feels to me like maybe a stand in for that product market fit. You know, if you are very sure what problem it is you're solving and that is resonating with, you know, with people that are willing to pay for that solution, then it sounds like you kind of have product market fit. 

So let's then take our example of this SaaS company and let's assume that we can answer that question, specifically what the problem is. that we're solving, let's assume that we just hit product market fit. So let's assume we are that company. We don't have that case study. We just hit product market fit. So then let's move on to the question of, do we go internal or do we use an agency? And what is the, is there a process or series of questions that can help us answer that question for ourselves?

Paul Wilke: The one I use is, you know, is your staff overwhelmed? Do you feel like you've got enough to tell that you need someone to sort of coordinate, you know, your external story? And you'll kind of know that because, you know, you'll start getting some proactive interest. You know, people will start reaching out to you. One of the great things is sort of understanding. understanding that tipping point and it's different with every company, different with every organization. 

But if you find in one of the things it's hard, it's hard for that lone person in a company to, to spin the plates, that is PR. And if you find that person is not able to react as rapidly as you'd like them to, or if it's, it's taking away from their day job, then it's time to look into a PR infrastructure. I've often said to founders, if they've got a small staff, find your champion. Find someone who's passionate about what the company does and can talk about what you do and the problems you solve to a reporter before bringing it to the CEO. That's a great way to start. That may be your internal PR person, and then you just kind of grow from there. It's just putting the building blocks down and laying the foundation.

Ethan Peyton: Should that internal PR person, should that champion be the CEO or should it specifically not be the CEO?

Paul Wilke: It depends on the CEO. Some CEOs like being their own PR person. I tend to advise against it because it gives you a little bit of control. And one of the things I love doing with companies, especially ones that grow, is showcasing your bench strength. If you've got a CEO, he can talk about the vision. He can talk about the big things. But then if you've got a co-founder or a CTO or a CPO that can talk about the issues or the product or something else. at a more granular level, granular level. It's a great divide and conquer, and it shows the company in a great light.

Ethan Peyton: All right, so then let's assume we're that company again. We have decided that we need to hire an agency. You know, we have some folks on the team who might be able to do it, but they're busy, they're working on other things. So we're gonna go out and hire a PR agency. How do I go about looking for not just a PR agency, but the correct PR agency, the one that is most suited for me, my company, and is going to best help us achieve our goals?

Paul Wilke: I think it's a couple of things. One, do they have the chops to help you? Do they have the experience? Do they, have they worked in your industry space and do they have results? That's not necessarily a sure thing because if you're in an emerging space where, five years ago, you'll try to find a PR firm that did crypto, you have no one, there weren't that many out there, if any. 

So you have to take a bit of a leap of faith if you're in a sort of a new... business area, but you can tell if they've gotten coverage. Ask them if they've gotten coverage in the publications that matter to you. If TechCrunch is your holy grail, say, hey, who have you gotten into TechCrunch? If Wall Street Journal is your North Star, tell us, give us an example. That's a good way of doing it. But I think equally important, do you like the people? Can you work with them? Is there a fit there? That's in many cases more important than the other. 

If they're good at what they do, and if they haven't gotten a story in TechCrunch before, that's a transferable skill if they've gotten one in Business Insider or a trade publication down the road, because that's just establishing great relationships. But it's that, can I work with them? Do I wanna work with them? Can I sit on a call with them once a week? Can I exchange email? Do they understand what I do? Do I understand what they do? That's... That's, it's as much chemical as it is ability.

Ethan Peyton: So this is going to be a really specific question and there may not be a good answer, but you're pretty darn good at answering everything else, so I'm gonna shoot for it. Is there a specific amount or kind of a range of maybe percentage of revenue or a percentage of whatever my seed funding is that I should know, I... think that I should spend this on a PR firm or I think that, you know, this firm is way too expensive and this firm is not asking for enough and therefore it's, you know, suspect. Is there a right amount?

Paul Wilke: I've spent years trying to figure that one out. There must be an algorithm somewhere, but I haven't figured it out. But one of the things I work with, each agency's got its own price threshold. We can do this for you, man hours, time. And my advice to clients is, if you've found an agency that gets what you do, try to find a way to work with them. You know, I've always said, I try not to let price get in the way of working with a client that I believe in or I like working with. So if I have to say, you know, normally something that you're trying to do, it's going to cost X,000 a month. But I recognize you don't have that budget. Let's find some things to do that will set you on the right path. So when you do have that, we can do it. I don't know if every agency's that way, but that's how we work. But it's ethereal. It's one of those hard questions to answer.

Ethan Peyton: Yeah, it is hard and I think that your answer is definitely better than the, I don't know, we'll shoot in the dark.

Paul Wilke: How much you got? 

Ethan Peyton: Yeah, exactly.

Paul Wilke: I mean that is a question, that is a question I've never replied with. And, and, cause it's offensive. It implies that, you know, I'm gonna, you know, there's a fleece thing involved there. I don't want, you know, that's, that's a tough image. You know, PR has got a tough reputation. And, you know, we're not, we're not out to fleece you. We're just out there to tell your story.

Ethan Peyton: All right, so something that you mentioned in a previous interview is Alibaba. And when they went public, their founder, Jack Ma, you said, he showed the world how an executive should look and sound around an IPO. And I think that companies out there that are looking to IPO can definitely learn from this. But I think that if somebody is looking to bring on traits, they don't need to wait until they're about to IPO. They can bring positive traits on as early as possible. So what are the traits that Jack Ma showed that you think founders should embody?

Paul Wilke: Yeah, and I advise all of you to watch his interview. It's on YouTube. It's CNBC. Type in CNBC, Alibaba, Jack Ma, IPO. Combination of those words, it'll come up. It's like a 15-minute interview. It's a master class in how to handle such an interview. And any executive can learn something from it. He brings enthusiasm. He brings vision. He's able to... to talk about everything related to an IPO. The challenge with an IPO day interview is, there's so much that you can't say because the SEC kind of puts you in a pen. You say, you can't provide numbers, you can't provide projections. And he dances through all of that in a way that few CEOs I've ever seen do it, in a second language, of course. 

But one of the things that's great about it is he came to the interview prepared. knew what the tough questions they were going to ask were going to be because he studied and figured out you're gonna ask me tough questions about China correct trade they're gonna ask me about the competition they're gonna ask me a bunch of stuff I either don't want to answer or can't answer so in many cases he answered the question the best way he could before the reporter even asked the question and with that and it's one of the one of the on media training is you have more control in an interview than you realize. You're the person who has all the information the reporter is trying to get. So there's a power dynamic, but the person being interviewed doesn't always realize they're the one that has control. Jack Ma controlled the interview without looking like he controlled the interview. He just looked easy breezy, comfortable, and you know, anticipated the tough questions he was going to get, answered them, and then just kind of went through the interview wonderfully.

Ethan Peyton: That's awesome. I've heard a lot of great things about Jack Ma and seen him in the news over the past decade as being just an awesome founder, an awesome CEO. And so that's definitely something that I'm gonna go watch on YouTube is that IPO speech. And for those out there listening, it sounds like there's a lot to be gained. So maybe you should check it out too. Let's move into some trends and theories. And I saw in the past that you've shared some trends and predictions about the PR industry. And I'd love to address one of these predictions that you've made and then maybe we can get a new trend or prediction from you.

Paul Wilke: Sure.

Ethan Peyton: So this previous prediction that you've made is the press release will die. I wanna hear all about this.

Paul Wilke: And that's as much wishful thinking as it is a prediction.

Ethan Peyton: Hahaha.

Paul Wilke: Here's the thing, and I think I've said this until I’m blue in the face, press release is a tactic, not a strategy. And so many people outside of PR don't see it that way. I've had founders come up to me and say, look, we put out one press release a month, no one covers us. And I'll ask them, I'm like, well, so have you sent their press release to any reporters? Have you have you put it in front of a reporter? Have you pitched any reporters? No, that's why.

Ethan Peyton: Hehehehe.

Paul Wilke: Journal, the dirtiest little secret is reporters don't read press releases unless they absolutely have to or unless they're researching an interview they're about to have. I tend to use press releases as. writing exercise. It's a great way to crystallize messaging. It's a terrible way to get media coverage. And it's a great shiny object to give to people, you know, who want to comment on something while we're writing something and crystallizing the messaging. It's like, okay, here, play with this for a while. We'll go talk to the reporters about what you're actually doing. And then from there, hopefully, you'll get the coverage. But press release, yeah, I'm wishing it will die. It'll be the heart and the sentiment of a press release, it's already dead.

Ethan Peyton: Yeah, I think it's been taken over by the crazy SEOs out there who want free backlinks.

Paul Wilke: Yeah.

Ethan Peyton: And say, let's do it, let's do this press release, even though I have literally nothing to say, it's going to be a backlink.

Paul Wilke: Well, so many companies don't issue press releases. You know, they can put it on a tweet. They can put a blog post in that explains everything. So, you know, the press release has evolved to the point where it's not this thing you put on a wire service anymore. A press release can be a tweet. It can be an Instagram post. But the spirit and what it's trying to do has evolved to the point where I think the traditional... thing we used to fax to reporters back in the day, that's dead.

Ethan Peyton: All hail good communication and down with the press release. So what's a new trend or a new prediction that either you're seeing or a prediction you'd like to make?

Paul Wilke: I'm going to go with two quick ones. One is probably something that everyone's talking to you about, and that's AI. AI is going to change our industry. It's already changing it. You know, I've used ChatGPT to fight writer's block. You know, I've got to write something and it's always easier to edit text than it is to start with a blank page. That's just going to grow and increase. I think the other trend or prediction is. PR is going to be more than media relations. It's already become that. We develop so much content that doesn't rely or depend on a reporter covering. We do a lot with videos and podcasts and blog posts and put them out there for the audience to see. The journalist is a direct contact and an important channel for us, but it's also great that we can now go direct to... to the consumer or direct to the customer in ways we couldn't 10, 15, 20 years ago. So that's going to continue.

Ethan Peyton: And is this because of the creation of these new channels like the Twitter, like the blog? New, I mean, obviously both of those things are 20, 20-ish years old. But, you know, it seems like PR agencies are not going to use the word merging, but kind of drifting over into the lane of maybe like content marketing or just, you know, marketing in general. Is this something that you're seeing as well?

Paul Wilke: Oh, absolutely. The line is so blurred. You know, I think you've got PR for, you know, there's a spectrum of marketing and PR firms. Some are more PR centric, some are more marketing centric, some are more content dev, you know, and I think we've shifted, we were pure media relations PR, you know, five years ago, but we've moved to the center of the spectrum where we do, you know, we do a lot of... We do so much that's not traditional PR, and we love it, we love it. It's freeing, it's liberating. We're able to do things for clients that we weren't able to do in the past.

Ethan Peyton: All right, let's jump into my favorite question of every one of these interviews. What is your number one piece of advice for early stage entrepreneurs?

Paul Wilke: It's the same piece of advice I give to a CEO who's about to go public. And I believe Vince Lombardi said it, and it's, act like you've been there. And it goes a long way in so many areas, whether it's a media interview, or it's ringing the bell at the stock exchange, or going into a meeting with a VC. Act like you've been there, act like you belong, and that makes a big difference.

Ethan Peyton: That is an extremely succinct and excellent piece of advice. Thank you very much for that. All right, what is next for upright position communications? What are we gonna see here in the next few months?

Paul Wilke: I think you're going to see more of that moving along the spectrum. We started a video over the pandemic. We started a video production sub company called Walking Duck Productions that focused on generating video content for our clients. And what we've found is there's an audience for companies who want clean content. interesting things like focus groups, panel discussions, things they can put online, panel discussions over Zoom that don't necessarily look quick and dirty, have a professional look to them, but don't cost a lot to produce. 

And we found very quickly that people don't like dialing into webinars, but they'll gladly download a panel discussion or a webinar that was already aired. So why don't we just record it and make it available instead of going through this song and dance of, OK, everyone, let's log in and let's just make the video and put it out there. And it's content that can be cut, sliced and diced in so many ways. You can put the full panel discussion out there on YouTube for people to watch, or you can snip it into sound bites that you can send to reporters or you can order a transcript of it and write three or four blog posts from it. So it's. It's a great way to, great economy of scale for developing content that you can use in so many places. And I've become a very big fan of doing that. And thankfully some of our clients have too.

Ethan Peyton: Yeah, you can also do that with this little thing called a podcast.

Paul Wilke: It's amazing.

Ethan Peyton: So I can't not ask, uh, where did the name walking duck come from?

Paul Wilke: It was… naming companies has always been a fun thing for me. Me and my co-founder met over Curry in Los Angeles and we were coming up with names. Somewhere I've got like the envelope back that's got like the names we came up with. And we were doing a lot of political video production at the time. And so, you know, it's really the origin of the phrase, if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck. And also, it also will play on the political term lame duck. What's the opposite of a lame duck? Well, it's a walking duck.

Ethan Peyton: Hahaha

Paul Wilke: And those two things sort of quickly we realized that's the name we liked and that's where it came from.

Ethan Peyton: Fantastic. Paul, this has been a ton of fun.

Paul Wilke: I've so enjoyed this.

Ethan Peyton: Thanks for coming on the show. Everybody, we're gonna put all of the links to Jack Ma's IPO, the DIY PR. We're gonna put links to everything that we talked about in the show notes. You can find those over at startupsimant.com slash podcast. Paul, this has been so much fun. I wanna give you the last word.

Paul Wilke: Oh, Ethan, thank you so much. It's just been great. And we could have done this another hour. I've just enjoyed talking shop with you, and I hope…

Ethan Peyton: Don't tempt me.

Paul Wilke: I'll come back any time. We just scratched the surface.

Ethan Peyton: All right, cool. Well, I wasn't fishing for compliments, but I will surely take them.

Paul Wilke: Thank you. 

Ethan Peyton: So thanks for coming on.

Paul Wilke: Oh, my pleasure.

Ethan Peyton: Alright that’s going to be it for this week’s episode of the Startup Savant podcast. Thanks for listening in!

Hey before you go, could you do us a favor? We’re in a challenge to get 100 reviews before episode 100. If you’d like to help us hit that goal just head over to Apple Podcasts or Spotify and leave us a review. And if you do, thank you.

We’ll be back next Wednesday morning with another awesome founder and more fun stories. We’ll see you then. And until then, go build something beautiful.

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