The Cryptoasset PR Problem

Perspectives on PR in the crypto space

PR is an arcane and ancient art. Spin doctors, spymasters, gossip columnists, historians, courtiers, fixers, ad men, politicians — shaping opinion and projecting certain perspectives of reality on to other eyeballs. It is at once both impalpably nebulous, and — when properly applied — ruthlessly direct.

2017 saw “cryptocurrency” become one of the most commonly searched terms on the entire internet. The underlying rationale for the bulk of that trend can be surmised in three simple words: get rich quick. Any time that such a proposition dominates global consciousness the public relations aspect becomes impossibly fragmented and quite difficult to steer.

For an ICO there are two avenues of media worth thinking about, the mainstream and the blockchain specific. It may come as a surprise to people who are new to, or not a part of the crypto community, that there is an entire alternative world of blockchain media.

For a company trying to promote its token offering, the crypto media is in fact a far more important space to crack than the traditional media — or at least it was in the early life of the ICO industry. This may change.

Blockchain media is persuasive to token buyers as it purports to know what it’s talking about. To people inside the crypto tent, in the majority of cases the mainstream media has little understanding of the core concepts of the technology, and is not particularly trusted.

There’s a tension here though: as more and more new token buyers come into the blockchain space the power of the traditional media becomes ever more persuasive.

The Fake News Problem

2017 saw a huge realignment in the structure of media. This had been going on for years but 2017 finally saw the faultline tear in opposite directions. The seismic focal point of this was the President of the United States. The ground that shifted was a media landscape that had been fractured and hollowed out by the extraction of advertising revenue by Facebook and Google. Into the cavernous void poured “alt news” — smaller media organizations with niche agendas, opaque funding, and at times intriguing technical leverage.

In an unexpected twist the traditional media became the fake news media and to vast swathes of the public, at least in America, the alt media became the trusted media.

Defining “fake news media” is a daunting proposition, beyond the scope (or the patience) of this article. But if we take a much more old fashioned view of things, and define fake news as news that has been paid for and is thus advertorial rather than editorial, then much of the blockchain media is fake news media. Much of it isn’t. Discerning between the two is near impossible to the casual observer.

The majority of blockchain media is paid content. In the traditional PR game, good PR firms courted and knew journalists. Their success was generated by introducing interesting individuals to interesting media contacts (and often making each appear interesting to the other) and bridging the gap between the two. This sort of intermediary role becomes harder to play when the media that you’re courting unabashedly seeks payment for its service.

One would have to be incredibly naive to assume that such paid opportunities aren’t as old as time, but the scratch-my-back world where favours, gifts, and extra spend on advertisements were parlayed into “organic” coverage, has been replaced with a much more overtly fiscal ledger.

In this light the blockchain media is a pure product of the post-truth era. The old ideals of journalism — which were perhaps always ideals rather than reality — are washing upon the rocks of one of the most lucrative new industries to have broken upon the public imagination, cryptocurrency. Effective PR in the blockchain space needs to embrace paid media while actively pursuing opportunities with traditional media as well.

A popular tactic for ICOs to circumvent shortcomings in their budgets is via bounty campaigns, wherein the project leverages an early offering of tokens to reward community building exercises — essentially generating paid media engagement with future tokens rather than cash. But these sorts of tactics are heavily reliant on the quality of the project and the ease of telegraphing that message.

The Story Problem

Finding narratives that make for compelling stories can be challenging. In spite of the assurances of the people whose lives are buried in the project, translation into a truly interesting story for popular consumption is at times complex. Many blockchain projects that are fascinating are difficult to convey to a non-specialist audience with a short attention span. Narrative, story, message — this is the essential first step a project needs to review and understand. The second step is highly targeted projection of that message into the laps or inboxes of the sorts of publications that might be interested in it. Then in concert, to pay for or incentivise its widespread distribution across the blockchain space.

As 2018 evolves the rules that applied in 2017 will almost surely fall by the wayside, at least in part. Narrative imagination, nimbleness, and deep pockets will likely be the key to success in generating strong PR impact. While the blockchain media may be a new thing, the lessons to be applied are anachronistic. Money is great, story is greater, truth is some function of them both.