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Building a Media Empire for Your Tech Company: a Q&A with Gary Bird from FortyThree PR

Building a Media Empire for Your Tech Company: a Q&A with Gary Bird from FortyThree PR
Gary-Bird-FortyThree-PR

FortyThree is one of the best kept secrets in Santa Cruz. A tech-focused PR agency with international reach, the company quietly resides in an office overlooking Pacific Avenue. Founded by Gary Bird, FortyThree rarely works with local companies, so the team keeps a low-profile by design.

Bird, who started his career as a journalist, spent time covering the fall of the Berlin Wall, and contributed to a number of publications, including the Economist, has a wealth of knowledge to share about outreach and PR for tech companies. I spoke with him about getting press coverage, disintermediating the media, and when it’s time to bring on a PR pro. Here are the highlights of our conversation.

Cat Johnson: Let’s start with some background on you. How did you get started in PR?

Gary Bird: I wanted to be a journalist. I graduated from UC Santa Barbara and my girlfriend at the time—now wife—and I moved to San Francisco where I worked for the San Francisco Business Times.

That’s when the Berlin Wall came down. We set off for Eastern Europe and set up shop in Prague. It was good because, at the time, most of the established publications wouldn't send their seasoned journalists because they were afraid the Russians were going to come back in. I was a business reporter for the San Francisco Business Times, so if the London Times or USA Today or the Economist wanted a story from there, on paper I looked great, so they would hire me to do those stories.

I ended up getting a job with the Economist, which was great. Then Knight Ridder wanted to open up a bureau in Eastern Europe so they tapped me to open it in Prague. We spent four years there and, after that, we moved to Santa Cruz. That was 20 years ago

How did you go from Prague to Santa Cruz?

I blame my mother for it. When we lived in San Francisco, my mother was building a house in Boulder Creek. It was above a golf course and you could see Monterey. We lived in the Mission, which was really dangerous back then and we would drive down on the weekends. I would help them build the house and we would camp. We basically went camping every weekend and I made extra money building the house. We got to know the area and, after our time in Prague, we wanted to buy a house raise a family. This was a great place—the climate’s great it's not too crowded and I surf, so everything was good. Twenty years later, we’re still here.

So you started FortyThree once you were back in the States?

When we came back, I didn't want to do journalism anymore because we were going to have our first child. But I did go to the Mercury News because they were owned by Knight Ridder. They said I could cover telecom. In Prague I could basically cover whatever I wanted to. At the time, the president of that country was a dissident and a kind of hippie poet. He lived in the castle and he liked the Rolling Stones, so he would have the Rolling Stones come play in the castle and, of course, all the journalist got to go. That's the kind of reporting I was doing—and they wanted me to cover telecos. I didn't want to, so I joined a PR agency. There's more money, the hours are way more stable, and you don't have to cover elections and things like that. I became the came vice president after six years then started FortyThree. That was 14 years ago.

What do you think is at the heart of a good PR strategy?

It changes. When I got into PR, we’d all get in a room, fold press releases, and put them in envelopes to be mailed to press. Obviously that's long gone—it's changed radically, and it does change radically every couple of years.

One of the things that's hard for people to grasp is just knowing the best way to do PR. From our perspective, we’ve really branched out, not only to just do media relations, but a lot of other kinds of things as well. Our clients need it and we can provide it, so we do. PR is not just calling up a journalist and the journalist writes about your client. Although that still happens—that's very much the same. But that journalist may have to take their own pictures or take their own video. What we do is help them in that sense by creating images for them, creating video for them, and helping supplement their story. Or, if they have a follow-up question, we’ll get them an answer within the hour.

Those kind of things have evolved. They've changed, but they're not radically different. The thing that is radically different is the ability of companies to disintermediate the media. That’s something that is very new. It’s not just going to the publications—although if you get an article in Fast Company, that is super important (FortyThree got a client the lead story in the publication recently).

But that’s no longer the only way to get coverage.

There are things you can do to create the news yourself. There are so many interesting tools out there, such as Survey Monkey and Mechanical Turk. I can do a survey of 1,000 people on how many robo-calls they get on their phone, for $300, in two days. Then I can go to the Wall Street Journal, or someone else, tell them I’m going to survey 1,000 people. I’ll tell them that, if they want to put a question in there, I’ll make that answer exclusive for them.

Or, we’ll just take the whole survey and do an executive summary. Our clients are experts in that particular space, so they can provide commentary. So we have a report we can do very quickly, and it’s not hard, and it’s very accurate. Oftentimes we’ll see a report in USA Today or something, and we’ll throw that same question into our survey. Our data is almost identical. We just always want to make sure the Mechanical Turk people—and there are hundreds of thousands of them—are legit. And they are.

It’s all about creating content.

You can create a lot of good content. And, of course, writing good posts is very important. Then you have all the vehicles: you have Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and your blog. You have all those pieces and it’s important to use all of those, but also create your own newsletter. Your newsletter is the most effective because you’re developing a one-on-one relationship with your whole ecosystem.

The beauty of that is, if you need them to take action—whatever that may be—you have a direct line to them. You can use Mailchimp or one of these other tools, and it’s drop dead simple to create a really sparkling newsletter. We encourage our clients that all those mechanisms are designed to build their newsletter list. That’s what I mean when I say their job is to disintermediate the media: their job is to communicate one-on-one with their people.

I know a guy who does digital marketing for Microsoft. He said that, of all the ads, paid acquisition, Google AdWords, Facebook, Twitter, far and away, no comparison on what’s most effective is the newsletter that says, “You need to update your Windows," or “You need to update Microsoft Office.” The return on that—you can’t even compare it to the others, it's on a different planet.

There’s so much noise going on out there. You still need to do the blocking and tackling you’re doing with your media relations, but all of that stuff really supports your idea of building that one-on-one relationship with your customer. It doesn’t have to just be Facebook posts, or Twitter posts. You can use paid acquisition. We just did a video for one of our clients. The video was 20 minutes long and very boring. We just chopped it to 80 or 90 seconds, get the b-roll and used his voice. Then we sponsored it on YouTube to the global audience they wanted. We got 4,000 views in two days for two cents per view.

It’s really building your own little media empire. That’s what companies have to do. People will freak out and say it’s expensive, but it’s not terribly expensive. It’s not free, but it’s a fraction of what it was five years ago, and you need it. You can manage that internally with one or two people, and that is freakishly different than five years ago.

What are some common PR mistakes you see companies making?

A lot of engineers think of measurement goals. With PR for articles, it’s very difficult to measure the ROI because they live forever. A Facebook ad is super-easy. You turn it on, you turn it off, you get this many clicks, it cost this much, so you made this much money. But if you put a Verge article, or a Wall Street Journal article on your website under "News" and someone goes there to take a look at your company and find out if it’s real, that article will make it real. That’s really hard to quantify.

Another thing is that people try to silo paid acquisition, digital marketing, and PR. It’s a waste of money and it’s a waste of everyone’s time. Any time you create silos you create fiefdoms and political battles that are completely unnecessary.

When is it time for a company to reach out to a PR pro?

It depends on what they plan to accomplish. Some companies just want to get the product out there, they want people using it, they want to learn from those people, and they want it to be small. In that case, you don’t need a PR pro.

Once you enhance it, and perfect it, and you’re ready to go to a bigger market and go to everybody, that’s when you need to bring a PR pro in. It could be a year into a company’s life, or six months, or two years—whatever it is. You should bring the PR pro in two months before you’re ready to launch.

Any thoughts on the Santa Cruz tech scene you’d like to share?

There is a community here. They need some success stories, which they’re beginning to have. I’d like to see fewer big companies leaving. The only reason Seattle has a tech scene is because they have Microsoft. People work for Microsoft and get ideas, then start companies. They do it in Seattle because that’s where they live.

We have a lot of people coming out of university, or people who want to live by the beach, and they start companies. But you need to learn how to manage people. You can have great ideas and be a great engineer, but the process of running a company is not just about great ideas. You learn that working in a company. We need more nurturing from the standpoint.

I hear there are a lot of big tech people getting second homes here, and spending more time here. That means they’re getting closer to coming here. Once they get here, it will do well. Look at Venice or Santa Monica. They’ve totally changed in two years with Snap and some of the other companies. If there was one company that did that here, it would change Santa Cruz forever. Once people come here, and realize they can make a living here, they won’t live in San Jose. They won’t. Let’s just be careful what we ask for.

Thanks, Gary, Is there anything you’d like to add?

This blockchain thing is the real thing. It’s going to change a lot of things. The ability to raise money without going through the traditional channels of VCs has really, really upset the apple cart. If I were an investor, or entrepreneur, or looking to start a company, it would be something on the blockchain. We have a client that raised $20 million in seven minutes. They’re 23 years old. These young people raise a lot of money and they have good ideas. Their investors are from Japan, and Korea, and Norway, and all over the world.

Everyone talks about crypto, but that’s not what it’s about—it’s about being able to invest in shares of this good idea, but not have to know a venture capitalist. They’re going direct to the entrepreneurs. If I’m in Santa Cruz and I’m thinking about how to make it work, you don’t have to follow those traditional channels. I’ve got 10 clients who will show you exactly how you don’t have to do it. That changes the whole economics of how tech is funded, which changes the whole economics of how much money you have to make, which changes everything.

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Cat Johnson is a writer and content strategist focused on brand storytelling and community.