Opinion

Shiny foreign things – why Australia’s startups are terrible at PR

Australia's tech startups are as a group terrible at telling their story. Cutting through an indifferent media and governments focused on shiny things from overseas means they are going to have to lift their game if they want to have media coverage, argues Mumbrella's Paul Wallbank

Last week’s media blitz around Elon Musk’s visit to South Australia threw into stark relief how poor Australian startups are at PR.

Of the many things Silicon Valley is good at, the Bay Area startup community excels at courting the media as Tesla, Uber, AirBnB and a host of other startups show. Strangely it’s something their Australian counterparts, with a few notable exceptions, struggle with.

For startups following the classic Silicon Valley model success is based on attracting customers and finding a cashed up buyer to finance a lucrative exit for the shareholders, so PR matters.

One venture capital manager explained to me how the typical spend for a Bay Area startup that’s attracted VC funding is one dollar on product development, four dollars on customer acquisition and five dollars on PR as the founders and investors look for a ‘greater fool’ to buy the company based on ‘hockey stick’ user growth.

A good local example of this was during the group buying mania in 2011 where a plethora of Groupon copycats flooded the Australian airways flogging their wares – the biggest battle though was getting into the business media to attract attract corporate buyers.

In that case it turned out there was only one Greater Fool in the Australian market and Yahoo!7 purchased Spreets for $40 million in 2011.

However the group buying mania is an exception and for the most part Australian startups are pretty poor at banging their own drum, leaving the few that are adept at telling their stories overexposed in the local media.

The reasons are varied, with one of the main ones being the nature of Australian commerce with the insular nation of the local business community meaning deals are often done at the Balmoral Beach Club or Bondi Icebergs, far away from the attention of the media. For many Australian investors, PR isn’t seen as a priority when mates can stitch up deals over lunch.

Another reason is Australians are naturally shyer than their American counterparts, selling the vision is far harder for the typical Aussie business founder. Coupled with media expertise not being a core skill for those likely to be starting a new venture and its not hard to see why they struggle with broadcasting their message.

Even when they do get publicity, many of the local startups blow their opportunity. One of the worst examples I came across in burning bridges was a publicity hungry founder who, to put it bluntly, lost her shit over an innocuous story.

Her complaints to the management of the major masthead over what were a bunch of largely imaginary complaints cost the writer her freelance arrangement with the outlet, forever souring that writer on the startup community and warning other journalists that covering that space is too hard.

And sometimes when startups get too savvy, they overreach as we saw with the rise and fall of social media app Sociabl.

Sociabl spectacularly imploded when co-founders Brandon Reynolds was interviewed on Channel Nine’s Today Show by stand-in host David Campbell who was touted as an endorser of the app when in fact the presenter knew nothing about it and said so on air.

The naivety of Sociabl’s founders is common among most of the local startup community which regularly posts incomprehensible media releases to the wrong journalists or outlet and, even more unforgivably, promises exclusives to multiple publications at the same time.

While it’s understandable startup founders with little media experience struggle with getting the PR strategy right, well staffed ministers’ offices and governments departments don’t have the same excuse.

The most stunning of this was the Federal government’s, $28 million dollar massive promoting its Innovation Nation initiative that quickly fell flat on its face. The National Broadband Network’s well staffed corporate communications team has spent tens of millions on PR only to find public sentiment souring against the project.

Another weakness is government story telling is ministers’ attraction to shiny, usually foreign, things. Turnbull’s adoption of Silicon Valley terms sounded good but fell flat at the feet of Australian voters while the Victorian Government’s duchessing of Sydney and Silicon Valley startup organisations has resulted in continual embarrassments for the state’s media hungry innovation minister.

The Victorian Government’s, NBN’s and Innovation Nation woes could be attributed to public disappointment when the products didn’t live up to the hype but there’s also another fundamental issue at work – the Aussie media really doesn’t understand tech.

For the general Australian media, technology stories are usually about internet threats to your kids or reviews of shiny gizmos rather than any substantive coverage of broader issues and the business press prefers to ignore tech unless its about Amazon and Bitcoin threatening our cosy retail and banking oligopolies.

That media disinterest in technology means a PR strategy has to be well crafted to get attention. Some Aussie startups are good at this including Shoes of Prey, Canva and Atlassian – the former’s co-CEO public challenge to Elon Musk being responsible for the Silicon Valley icon coming to South Australia.

While a PR success for the South Australian government, the Elon Musk visit again illustrates the shiny foreign things syndrome of local tech coverage along with the local startup’s community’s failure to tell its message, given there are dozens of domestic energy ventures which have failed to get any media traction at all.

The sector as a whole has to lift its game, maybe spending a few more of those investor dollars on professional PR advice would be a good idea if they want customers and greater fools.

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