After internet companies started to die off, the media crosshairs
focused in on the venture capitalists. Unfortunately, few VCs knew how
to handle the press. Julia Hood takes a look at one that did.
Barry Hutchison is Draper Fisher Jurvetson's (DFJ) first director of
media relations, and one of the first to ever go in-house for the
It's hard to believe a marketing-friendly outfit like DFJ would take so
long to hire an in-house PR chief, especially considering that this is
the firm that coined the revolutionary phrase "viral marketing" in 1997
as one of the founding investors in Hotmail.
But marketing savvy did not equate with media savvy, as founding partner
Timothy Draper admits. As the dot-com industry started to heat up, "we
were starting to get bombarded by press calls, and we were novices at
dealing with the press," Draper says. "It was clearly a good time for us
to figure out exactly what we should be doing."
But managing PR for a VC firm is not the easiest job in the Valley. As
one reporter who covers the tech industry (who declined to be named)
says, "Many of these VCs are just egotistical as hell." If that's true,
Hutchison's background in politics was perfect training.
He began his PR career while earning his MA in mass public
communications at American University in Washington, DC. While studying,
he worked for Ketchum's government affairs director.
He took up politics again after a Rotary fellowship to Australia in
1989, managing an unsuccessful - but close - congressional race in
He returned to DC to work for political consultant Joe Gaylord, who had
just been hired by House of Representatives minority whip Newt
Gingrich became Speaker of the House in 1994, with Hutchison there to
witness his ascent. "When Newt traveled around the country to help
candidates in campaigns, I served not only as a traveling aide, but also
as his media person on the road," Hutchison recalls. "My job would be to
put him to bed and go down to the bar to talk to reporters."
Hutchison was already gone by the time Gingrich's reputation plummeted,
and he was forced to resign. "I think any smart person realizes that in
DC you are presented with exit ramps from time to time," Hutchison
"You need to know when to take that exit ramp."
Hutchison heeds his own advice. Just as he left Gingrich before the
situation imploded, he found himself in the Bay Area when the dot-com
bubble was inflating. He first took a break from politics to work with
the US Golf Association, but eventually, a friend put him together with
Tim Draper, who was looking for an in-house media manager.
Hutchison's role is divided between helping the VC firm with its media
relations and promotions, and advising the firm's portfolio companies as
they start their own PR programs. He wrote a how-to guide called "PR for
Peanuts" as part of a training program for start-ups.
"The most exciting part of my job is the opportunity to work with
start-ups at a very early stage," Hutchison says. "In this environment,
we are back in a cycle where engineers are forming companies with
technology that is five or six years away from being mainstream."
The other side of Hutchison's job is managing DFJ's own profile, which
right now reflects a growing interest in nanotechnology. The six
managing partners of DFJ are basically six different clients, says
Hutchison. "They all have their own needs and skill sets. It's my
challenge to fit the right partner with the appropriate publication or
Draper says Hutchison's contribution has recognizable value. "It has
been really helpful to us, especially in a year when it was boom and
bust in our industry, and there was a lot of interesting press coverage,
and people were creating a lot of different stories and different
angles," he says.
Los Angeles Times reporter David Streitfeld says that more VC firms
should take DFJ's lead by having an in-house PR person: "One of the
reasons Barry is good at what he does is that he works directly for DFJ.
He's not some out-of-the-loop AE at a PR firm."
Streitfeld cites a recent meeting Hutchison set up with two VCs to
discuss nanotech. "This didn't produce a story for the next day, and
wasn't designed to," he says. "But it got me thinking about nanotech,
and will probably produce some stories eventually."
Valuable as that may be, some worry that people with new-frontier PR
jobs, like Hutchison's, will disappear as tech budgets shrink. "In
general, there is a trend of cutting away marketing and PR. I think this
is a breakaway time," says Jesse Odell, founder of Launch-Squad, and
someone who calls Hutchison a "chief mentor" for his company. "Firms
will need to be positioned as experts when the next crop comes out."
But Hutchison is busy enough, remembering that the best PR often means
staying out of the papers. As the market decline accelerated, he advised
the partners to avoid rehashing the tech slide with journalists. "We
have been in a cycle here lately, where VCs are or were big targets," he
says. "Part of my job is knowing when we should be out there, and when
not to be."
Another part of his role is educating the firm and portfolio companies
about the delicate PR balance. "Many VC firms have shut down entirely to
the media - it's a double-edged sword that you deal with. You will get
out of 10 stories eight that may get your point of view across," he
says. "This world of media relations is so new to many folks here in
1987-1988 - Assistant to the government relations director, Ketchum
Public Relations, Washington, DC
1991-1997 - Special assistant to Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the House of
1997 -1998 - Assistant manager, 1998 US Open Merchandise, United States
1999-present - Director, media relations, Draper Fisher Jurvetson