Tech-savvy but media obtuse

Published April 26, 2021
It’s not uncommon for nouveau riche founders with freshly scored money to inquire journalists if they are looking to cover them in return for sponsorship.
It’s not uncommon for nouveau riche founders with freshly scored money to inquire journalists if they are looking to cover them in return for sponsorship.

“The media only spreads lies,” says every other Bashir as he opens WhatsApp and forwards conspiracy theories or pictures of miracles with “Allah” written in the sky. While there is no shortage of media haters (who overwhelmingly rely on clickbait links on online platforms) in the country, the corporate sector is particularly apprehensive about how these publications spread propaganda and negativity. Because obviously with everything on fire, journalists should be talking about how beautiful mountains in the north are rather than informing people on the political and economic uncertainties.

The animosity between media organisations (at least those with some semblance of an editorial policy that is not decided on by the marketing department) and corporates is not exactly a new phenomenon. Wirecard’s aggressive campaign against the Financial Times before being found guilty of cooking up books is perhaps the most recent high-profile example. However, the two, in the end, operate as frenemies because money trumps all.

With startups, that dynamic is different as news platforms don’t really have much monetary (or any for that matter) benefit derived from these small companies. On the other hand, you hear startups crib about how the local media is not doing much to create awareness or must do more to promote the ecosystem. First of all, let me say in the most unambiguous terms: the media’s job is not to promote any industry. There are associations or lobby groups for that.

It’s not uncommon for nouveau riche founders with freshly scored money to inquire journalists if they are looking to cover them in return for sponsorship

But anyway, ask a founder, even seemingly the most well-read ones, about the last time they read any local/national news? Because if they are complaining about the media not doing much, they’d surely be familiar with what’s lacking? Surprise: a significant number would have absolutely no clue because the last time they picked a paper or read Pakistani news other than through Instagram/Facebook posts, the world hadn’t heard of this virus called Covid-19. In their defence, most would have memorised every single speech (more like Tweet) of their lord Elon Musk.

The phenomenon is more common among younger founders or those with technical backgrounds who, let’s be real, generally aren’t the most well-rounded of the people. But that’s okay. The problem (or at least the annoying bit) is how they tend to self victimise themselves. It’s like mediocre musicians whose only achievement in life was learning Aadat on guitar complaining about how the country doesn’t respect its artists. Sure that’s true too, but this is not why you only have 30 listens on Spotify. Maybe the publications would have featured more of your work if it had anywhere the kind of scale that makes it worthy of coverage. Expecting a national newspaper to write about a basic feature launch on your website that barely manages 500,000 visits a month when the country is in perpetual crisis mode is rather entitled, if not downright delusional.

Admittedly, this doesn’t take away the blame from many media men (surprise: this too is a boys club) who don’t even bother doing their research when speaking with startups. Their understanding of tech is often embarrassing but at least from personal experience, many from the industry seem to prefer that. After all, it’s easier to just feed anything and lure them with free lunch/dinner than answering questions about the sustainability of your business model or the hyperbolic claims.

Anyone who has covered startups is familiar with how secretive they are. Shying away from performance numbers, not disclosing the investment amount when the news is literally about the deal itself or generally being painfully cautious in the way they talk. A lot of it would have made some sense if these were established entities, but certainly doesn’t suit young companies based primarily on the promise of aggressive growth. Founder profiles where they talk about ‘disrupting’ a certain industry and how big the opportunity is — often citing success stories from the US — can only run for so long and does eventually go bust. If the past is prologue, everyone knows how overusing that through a certain publication turned out.

With Pakistani startups now raising more money than ever, and at a much faster pace, it’s about time they invest some effort and money into building professional communications departments. Most don’t even have media kits or a proper “about us” section and last I knew, journalists weren’t getting any revelations from the skies. Hiring search engine optimisation specialists or marketing generalists isn’t gonna cut it as dealing with media is more complicated than that. It requires the person to not only understand what are the right platforms for a given development but also who the focal persons should be. And how does that happen? Unfortunately, there is no shortcut: it needs following the news cycle on a daily basis, which seems too big a task for many. There also must be some familiarity with the operations of a desk as well as a recognition of the editorial policy.

Like every other organisation, media houses too have multiple departments of which the two most important are editorial and marketing, each fighting for its own dominance. Understanding the difference between various functions in the industry — reporters, editors and salespeople — will go a long way. Then obviously there is the distinction between web and print, which must be grasped as well.

It’s not uncommon for nouveau riche founders with freshly scored money to inquire journalists if they are looking to cover them in return for sponsorship. Or a salty investor circulating emails that coverage of a competitor was paid for, ironically on a page that doesn’t even run ads and at a price that’s embarrassingly lower than the publication’s tariff rates. They need to realise that some organisations actually have professional departments with clearly defined functions and autonomy. The fact that a two-day campaign in a major newspaper is generally well beyond the reach of an average well-funded startup’s monthly advertising budget should bring in some perspective.

At the same time, founders themselves must also learn how to navigate through media queries in a coherent manner rather than getting defensive or straight away ghosting. If you can convince hardened investors in their fancy offices then surely a few sceptical remarks from a journalist can be tackled in a way that doesn’t portray your company in a bad light. Any c-level executive who is incapable of maturely representing their organisation, no matter how big or small, in public should really do some introspection. You don’t get paid to be a dud so justify that salary slip.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, April 26th, 2021

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