Former communications lead at Runa Capital, producer/director of the documentary film Crypto Rush, and Techstars Berlin Accelerator mentor Liliana Pertenava speaks about building relationships with TechCrunch reporters and other industry journalists, and talks about her Axxilion communications consultancy.
Your main specialization is PR for tech companies. How do you build relationships with journalists?
I broke fresh ground in international PR while working in the edutech startup Dnevnik. In 2013, while at Dnevnik, I worked to create coverage in Spanish and French. Later, I became the communications director for the venture fund Runa Capital. After that, I began to publish the Fund’s news stories in the main technology blogs — TechCrunch, The Next Web, and other international media.
While working at Runa Capital, I attended technology conferences in New York, Berlin, and San Francisco and established contacts with journalists. These trips were a great thing, but Twitter, the main social network for international technology and financial journalists, turned out to be the most valuable in terms of new contacts. Even before I started working at Runa Capital and attending conferences, I began building online business relationships with the press. In 2014, the American edition of Business Insider included me in their list of “Top 100 influential tech women on Twitter.” Face-to-face meetings are not always necessary now that many people “live” online.
I advise all my colleagues in the field of PR to maintain a presence on Twitter and LinkedIn. Follow journalists and influencers in the industry. And, it’s not only about corporate or news accounts — The Verge, for example, is one of the technology news websites I recommend following. Be sure to subscribe to journalists who are interesting to you and who write about your topic.
How do you find the right journalists?
Every industry has a number of specialized publications. If you don’t know which publications you should be following, you’ll need to do some research. Consult your colleagues and do some internet searches about your industry. By the way, your searches can include looking at your competitors’ websites and overall mentions in the media. The news sections of competitor’s websites always contain information on publications that have mentioned the company or their products and services. If those publications wrote something about the competition, they may write something about your company. Also, seeing what the competition is already performing at is a good way to start. This could give a broad picture of content and news topics relevant in your industry, and inspire to work on your own ideas.
So, first, identify which media sources pertain to your industry, and then search for keywords on the pages of these publications. You can also use specialized tools, like SEMRush, Buzzstream, or Buzzsumo, among many others. Some of them will allow you to find the most viral content, or top organic keywords and much more. This research will also help you identify editors and journalists who write about the topic that interests you. Tabulate all this into a database and search for editors and journalists on Twitter or LinkedIn and subscribe.
“It’s important for a PR specialist to have an active profile on social networks, including Twitter and LinkedIn. Take your time and fill your feed with relevant messages. Share industry news or interesting projects.”
Be patient and build relationships gradually. Journalists want to deal with real people who do not unload their problems on them or demand urgent publication of their breaking news. Therefore, in the beginning, you may joke with them or send a funny gif in response to a journalist’s tweet. Or leave a thoughtful and informative comment. It depends on your genuine style of communication. Be yourself.
By being authentic and sincere, you generally get in touch with people more easily and create a positive impression. Further cooperation may develop if you have interesting information to share on issues that are relevant to the media. Send focused, relevant content ideas to the right people at the right time. Familiarize yourself with their beats and existing work.
It’s much easier to develop content for a narrow niche, reporter and/or editorial than to come up with something on your own and then try to pitch it. There has to be a different strategy for each particular company, for each startup.
“Tailoring your content in order to help the journalist build up on their previous news stories and/or interests, is usually very effective.”
As a PR person, your value is to communicate relevant information, but don’t be surprised when a journalist prefers to use his or her independent sources to add context to the story. PR job is the corporate/brand perspective, and journalists want to have a broad perspective that brings value to the reader. But what I find important to remember, that the corporate brand also needs to connect to the reader, the client, and there is the point where interests align.
Liliana Pertenava, Kirill Bezverhi. Photo taken during the interview, which was conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic. © Oleg Yakovlev
What else would you recommend to beginner PR managers for startups?
A communications specialist should not be limited to caring only about his or her company. It’s important to navigate the broader business environment, to keep an ear to the ground. Beginners should seek to connect with their professional and industry communities.
It’s worth visiting large startup or tech conferences at least once, if possible. For example, if you reside in Europe, The Next Web announced the postponement of their annual conference to October. The event, which usually takes place in Amsterdam, has an atmosphere that’s both businesslike and friendly. Attending such an event is a great opportunity to establish contacts with journalists. The US traditionally has even more startup events, just google “tech conference 2021”. Let’s hope that the coronavirus situation will be resolved by autumn this year and everything will be back to normal!
Meetings must be arranged in advance if you want your attendance to be truly valuable. This recommendation also applies to online events. Prepare for events by creating a short pitch about the information you want to share. The essence of your news should be expressed in one minute, like a headline. It also takes time to master the email pitch, in order to secure a meeting. Find out which of the journalists that interest you will be at the event and might speak with you. Think of those who regularly cover topics concerning your company or industry, but who don’t just focus on major players such as Facebook or Apple. (They probably won’t be interested in news about startups.) Contact the ones you’ve identified as possibilities and ask if they will have a minute to meet you during a coffee break.
The email could look like this:
I saw on Twitter that you are writing a piece about [topic],
We just recently had the same issue at [company] and came up with a solution that saved us over $50K.
Happy to provide a few solid insights on how to use this approach to save even more time and money.
I saw you were also attending [this conference].
If interested, I’m happy to provide the rest of the details during the coffee break at the event.
Surely, during major events, everyone is busy with work. Journalists will be occupied with reporting on the event, but you can meet many of them for 1–2 minutes or later, at evening parties. There are always parties during any major conference. By coming to an event, you may see a familiar journalist with whom you recently talked online. The art of networking and small talk gets you in the game.
I also recommend reading current news on your topic and staying up to date on your industry. This will always give you something to talk about with reporters at conferences. Especially if you read their news stories.
Attending a conference means paying for tickets, travel, and accommodations. That can be expensive, right?
Right now, due to the global pandemic, people aren’t attending physical events, but they’re open to meeting online. Many interesting events are taking place as video conferences. Look for ones you can join and make friends with other participants. To do this, it’s important to observe the development of events in your network and then do an internet search using keywords like “meet up” around that event. Also, following journalists might help, someone like Mike Butcher (TechCrunch), Stewart Rogers (GritDaily) or Josh Constine (currently moved to become a VC) participate in many public online events, pay attention. This also will help when the quarantine is finally over.
Tell us about your Crypto Rush movie that you created and directed. How did you get into the blockchain sphere?
In 2017, there was a lot of hype about cryptocurrencies. I invested a bit in the mining of one of them as an experiment. That got me intrigued, and I set about making a film about what was happening. Suddenly, the whole world was talking about bitcoins and blockchain, yet only a select few understood it. Crypto Rush is an attempt to comprehend the phenomenon of this new global industry and the people who created it through the prism of their experiences. By the way, we recently released the movie and it was covered on TechCrunch.
Footage from the Crypto Rush movie © Liliana PertenavaFootage from the Crypto Rush movie © Liliana Pertenava
In Crypto Rush, we tell different stories and describe experiences on the subject of cryptocurrencies and blockchain. Some of the essential parts of the story are my own not so happy experiences. I didn’t want to put myself at the center of the film at first, but my friend and Crypto Rush creative producer Kostya Bushmanov convinced me that it would make for a better story. Since I didn’t know much when I started, I was able to ask questions that could help people outside the tech and crypto worlds understand what’s going on.
Viewers will get acquainted with 32 characters who have become key players in the industry. There’s one person who lost $30 million in his crypto business. There are some guys from Switzerland who sold their apartments and cars to invest. Some Chinese businessmen have made a fortune. So did some entrepreneurs in South Korea who bought Bitcoin when it cost less than $600. Our movie also features co-founder of Blockstack, a New York City start-up working to create a decentralized internet based on blockchain technology, which would offer greater privacy. If a decentralized internet sounds familiar, that might be because it was a major plot point in the final season of HBO’s Silicon Valley. In fact, Ryan Shea, the Blockstack co-founder featured in Crypto Rush, was an advisor to Silicon Valley show and appears in the show’s credits.
Footage from the Crypto Rush movie © Liliana Pertenava
We managed to talk both with large players, such as IBM, and with all kinds of “gentlemen of fortune.” I think it turned out to include lots of interesting information about an industry that’s still very novice.
At first, we planned to introduce the film at the festivals in the middle of this year. The coronavirus outbreak forced us to change our plans, so we decided on an earlier release. Now that people are quarantined, I want to cheer everyone up a little by enabling them to “travel” across the globe as they watch the film. Crypto Rush is a travel movie, a road movie. We shot in China, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland, the USA, and Russia.
Crypto Rush is available to view online. Everyone in quarantine can watch it at home.
Tell us about your communications consulting, Axxilion. Where does this name come from?
I love symbolism. Our culture contains many different symbols with encrypted meanings. Initially, Axxilion was a brand name I came up with for a new venture capital fund at the request of an agency. But they chose a different name, so I decided to keep it for myself. It’s made up of two words: axis (a deer in heraldry) and lion (a lion). Both symbolize nobility, strength, courage, and ferocity. It provokes a response in me. An “axis” is also the center around which something rotates. The idea is that Axxilion is a comprehensive brand around which various projects are implemented: branding, PR, online communications, and video production.
What does Axxilion do?
Axxilion is a consulting practice, our specialization is external communications, branding, crisis communications, B2B marketing, and marketing communications. We provide a variety of services, from forming a PR strategy, working with a digital environment, and social media to organizing business events and creating a visual corporate style. Our main principle is cooperation. We consider ourselves to be our clients’ business partners. We share the business interests of our customers, and offer them solutions that have a beneficial effect on the growth of their capitalization.
Axxilion is a communication partner of startup incubators correct?
Yes. We are building a partnership network in different countries and industries, most of Axxilion’s customers are in the US and EU. Key customers included Digital Spring Ventures, a venture fund in Abu Dhabi that manages over $200 million and invests in Southeast Asia, Europe, and the CIS. We recently began working with the DIAWAY team in Estonia. They are architects of global information systems and partners of Western Digital, AMD, and Acronis.
Where is your team located?
Axxilion partners are located in the US, Europe, Africa, and Asia. The core of the team is distributed because I am a proponent of remote work and a decentralized approach. We work in a flexible and global information business. It seems strange to make everyone sit in the same office unless there’s a direct need for that. Maybe someday the team will want to come together in a central office where they can invite large clients for meetings in beautiful conference rooms. Fortunately, that’s not necessary for now. Some team members are in the Netherlands, one is in the States, and there are some in Singapore. The current pandemic has shown this is a sensible and workable approach.
Liliana Pertenava, Kirill Bezverhi © Oleg Yakovlev
What companies are contacting you?
Most often, they are people who heard about me from satisfied customers or who come from the venture accelerators community, including through connections at the TechStars Berlin Accelerator. I worked with technology startups there and served as a mentor for the past six years.
PR is necessary for those who want to attract investment or hire people. They need to have a strong corporate brand. Or, they may need to attract interesting partners or bring a product to a new market. If companies have business development goals and I can help them achieve those goals through PR or through my connections, these companies can become my clients.
Sometimes it happens like this: a client requests help with PR, and I flatly tell them, “You do not need it!” I might say that because PR can be ineffective if, for example, a company has poor customer service.
As a consulting firm, we start by taking a comprehensive look at each client’s business because the right communications strategy is derived from their business as a whole. We look at what the core business targets are in the bottom line. Is it a case of having a new type of client? Or is the goal to generate more customers? Is it about improving the relationship between you and VCs or the financial press? Seek creating yet another investment round? Is the company attempting to put itself among the most forward thinking in the innovation policies?
In other cases, the target audience of a business will be other businesses. That’s B2B, of course, and B2B customers are interested in practical benefits and real cases. So, their communications plan must reflect that. I tend to analyse the business objectives first, and then craft the communications strategy.
So, the focus of Axxilion is not only PR but also strategic communications and B2B communications.
Recently, for one of the clients, we thought of, coordinated, and conducted a business webinar with key potential customers. Webinars are one of the main B2B marketing tools. The client was very satisfied with the webinar’s results because it generated active leads, attracting participants who had an interest in buying the company’s product.
For another client, we developed a positioning and content strategy, and we launched a web portal that included integration with reporting for large investors. For a different client, we created a community strategy and then organically grew an online community to 10,000 participants within a couple months. There have been several times when we have solved serious crisis management tasks, organizing a system of response strategy.
Right now, due to the quarantine and the overall uncertainty of this situation, Axxilion has launched a free, 30-minute consultation for businesses. During this consultation, we analyze their current situation and evaluate which communication format to apply in their particular case and for a specific task. We provide them with specific recommendations. To receive a pro-bono consultation for your business, contact email@example.com.
What sorts of literature or TV series would you recommend to those who want to get involved in PR?
First of all, read a couple of industry articles a day, subscribe to some PR-themed podcasts, and start reading books in English. Gradually, day by day, you’ll see results.
I advise searching for materials under the tags “PR,” “startup,” and “communications” on Medium, and reading pieces from experts. There is a lot of useful information there, as well as practical advice. As for some television series, “The Loudest Voice” is very interesting — it’s about the creation of Fox News.
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