The decline of 'the launch' as a major PR event

The term "product launch" conjures up images of Steve Jobs in front of an auditorium filled with reporters hanging on to every word, tweeting the grandeur of the iPad to fans eagerly hitting reload to make sure they don't miss a word.

Overture, curtain, lights. This is it, the night of nights!
The term “product launch” conjures up images of Steve Jobs in front of an auditorium filled with reporters hanging on to every word, tweeting the grandeur of the iPad to fans eagerly hitting reload to make sure they don't miss a word.

In reality, this big event scenario is the exception that applied to Apple and its famous “reality distortion field.” But even for mortal tech companies, the launch of the company or a new product was viewed as an event. Taking place on a virtual podium, a launch requires pre-pitching the media with the news under embargo, scheduled to break at a specific time. The goal is coverage hitting across multiple publications simultaneously to give the effect of a breaking news event. PR firms were even built specifically to deliver successful launches.

The thrill is gone
However, we have noticed that the media's attitude toward launches has been changing. Apple and Samsung can still pack a crowd. But air has been leaking out of the embargoed launch. Instead, we are starting to see coverage spread out over the week following the launch.

The change has been fueled in part by editors' changing attitude toward embargoes. Although it helps provide a level playing ground for highly competitive news organizations, embargoes mean editors have less control of their editorial calendar. Editors have recognized that most product launches are orchestrated by PR pros rather than “stop the presses!” type news and are taking back control over their schedules.

In many cases, interested reporters are taking even more of a “wait and see” attitude and holding their coverage until they see progress following the launch. The rise of angel investing and crowd funding has created a golden age of new businesses and products with many innovations. But from a news perspective, they all are competing with each other for attention. As a result, yet another new company or product is less newsworthy than it once was.

For the media, it is hard to distinguish the winners from the losers based solely on the basis of a pitch and a press release. Covering multiple launches is the journalistic equivalent of an endless stream of hookups without developing a relationship. It seems great in the beginning, but eventually the editors, and their readers, want something more.

Money (that's what I want)
So how do journalists distinguish among the companies more likely to succeed and those that will slink off into the night? One method is to look to others that have already done significant due diligence – venture capitalists. Before a VC is willing to invest in a company, they do significant research on the product, executive team, and market. Rather than stating an opinion, the VC is backing it up with significant money. It is even better if the VC has a reputation for successful investment.

Recently, we watched this scenario play out for one of our clients. Its company launch only received a smattering of coverage despite a product that impacted numerous important trends. When we spoke to editors, they consistently gave positive feedback about the company, but the launch itself wasn't enough to get coverage. A few months later, they announced a $20 million funding round with a notable VC. The funding announcement was covered by the typical outlets that cover VC rounds. But the media also started writing detailed stories about the product, and pointing to the same trends that our team had been pitching for the company launch. Additionally, these outlets – Bloomberg TV and Fast Company – were media that typically don't cover funding. It became clear that the funding provided the proof point that the company launch lacked.

No money, no problems
The proper conclusion from the above is not that the press won't cover companies without significant funding rounds. Rather, the funding round is an express lane as it provides the proof points that lead to coverage. You also can get there by executing a strategic PR program for a great product leveraging reference-able customers, trends, and thought leadership. It may take longer, but if your client has a great story and you have a great PR strategy, then you will get covered.

It is important for PR pros to reset client expectations. We need to let them know that the launch is now more like a first date, with the goal of developing a long-term mutually beneficial relationship. These relationships are the basis for great results that will grow their business.

Rob Adler is SVP at Vantage Communications.

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