Ann Revell Communications Clients

CASE STUDY || New School Benefits from Old School

Startups often find themselves in need of exceptional talent.

For Practichem, a biotech tools company in Raleigh, growth was sitting in their laps, right next to a waiting list for their breakthrough, cloud-based research equipment. Yet their ability to reach ‘lift off’ was being impeded by their community’s explosive startup community and its endless thirst for employees. The competition for programmers and engineers was literally awesome.

How was the startup, obviously without a brand to lean on, to draw the attention of the most talented minds? They tried numerous awareness-generating tactics, backing the region’s leading developer training program, speaking at NCState engineering programs, hosting MeetUps and sponsoring tech events. Still, applications were not keeping pace with the need.

Time to get creative, Practichem looked for a unique solution that fit within the startup’s growth budget.

“We need some serious press coverage,” said Nick DeMarco, CEO. So he called on his communications consultant Ann Revell and did what always leads him to great ideas… taking a drive in his Tesla.

The Brainstorm
Start with a forward-thinking, risk-taking CEO, let your communications consultant sidle up to HR, and success may be closer than you think.

Having been in a Tesla only once, this communicator and erstwhile car nut relished the opportunity to drive (or, well, sit in) a Tesla.

“The sounds that it made over the peace of the ultra-quiet electric engine moved me – more than literally,” said Revell.

Lost in the emotional response prompted by brilliant engineering, she was 100 miles away when DeMarco had to repeat his question: “if you were an employee, what would you want as a benefit?”

With tongue firmly in cheek, Revell said “me? Well, all I want is a Tesla.” Kidding, of course. The two laughed and returned to their brainstorm session.

The next day DeMarco walked into the office and said, “I have an idea. What do you think could come out of a story about a company giving its employees a Tesla?”

What, indeed! Could he be serious?

The Fit
Remember, Practichem is a startup. Revell had worked with nearly 200 startups by this time and was well aware of the biggest problem most entrepreneurs have: cash flow. Still stymied by the seriousness of his idea, her first question was about affordability.

Over the past 24 hours, DeMarco had already checked in with the CPA and chatted with legal counsel. His answer was a clear yes – with a few caveats such as it being the new Model 3 and each FTE receive a leased car, etc. Apparently, it was less costly than paying a recruiter.

The next question was purely communications. What will such an offer say about the company? Does it fit your audience, mission, reputation? 

Audience – check. Its design, engineering and environmental responsibility appeals to millennials, the primary target group.

Mission – check. Practichem is essentially changing a 20th Century industry by applying new technologies that bring that industry into the demands of the 21st Century.
Reputation – check. Innovative. Reliable. Employee centric. Forward-thinking.

One final question: was this the best use of this budget? Could we be equally impactful creating a research contest with a $500,000 prize? Or – maybe just give everyone a Honda Fit?
We brainstormed a bit, but kept coming back to the goal: luring talented people to the company, and inspiring them to do amazing things every day.
Tesla, it was.

The Story
Let’s be honest: this is a PR pro’s dream. It’s big, it’s brassy, and it has many sub-stories. Tesla was a very exciting and compelling company making nothing but good news. Building a story for a tiny startup, basing it on a hot-hot company, and focusing on a dream perk for employees – one that inspires, has a positive impact on the environment, and makes them look oh-so-cool to their friends… wow.

On the negative side, it was a hard time for startups to get through to the press. It was an election year, and most of the traditional news outlets were focused on Trump and Hillary – who cares about the dream of a startup in Raleigh? It was tough to garner valuable and highly competitive air time, or get a commitment to space in print or even on the web. The number of publications with journalists available to write those stories was still in the decline.

Divining the angle and the finding the right words wasn’t going to be enough. Securing the right delivery mechanism… that would be equally important.

This is where you want someone on your team who has been around a while, someone who knows a lot of journalists, certainly, but also knows how decisions are made along the path to publishing.

Revell drew on her 25 years of experience. She had a hunch that this was the right time to re-think all the “new” approaches to media relations and put to test the tried and true. Thinking about the fastest and strongest way to get to a myriad of consumer-friendly but business-centric publications, she opted to go straight to the daily newspaper.

Yup. Old School strategy.
She offered an exclusive to the Raleigh News & Observer (N&O), to a journalist (David Ranii) who was highly respected and whose by-line adorned articles about tech startups for years. The N&O is beloved in the Triangle, and relied upon by a broad swath of people.

You’ll note she chose the tech writer – not the biotech writer. Why? Practichem’s biggest problem was with competing for coders.

Note also that the chosen publication is part of a syndicate – owned by the McClatchy Company. This organization includes publications across 30 markets. So if the article was good enough, we’d have instant entrée into those publications. They also have a very strong digital marketing team that knows what to do to promote their stories.
It took just 10 minutes for Ranii to call Revell. “OK, I’ll bite. Is this real?” he asked.

“Yes sir, this is real, and we’re going to tell the world about it tomorrow morning. Interested?”

After a call with DeMarco there were three or four more fact-checking chats, then it was a wrap. He had his story.

The print edition hit people’s front porches around 5am; the digital version would appear around the same time. He held the release distribution until 8am, to give the N&O time to take hold.

Revel in Success
The results astounded every one of us – including the journalist at the News & Observer.

Within 24 hours Practichem was the subject of more than 2000 stories. Not just reprints of the press release – or even of Ranii’s article. DeMarco had repeated TV interviews in studios and with his Tesla. Nationally respected magazines like Fortune ran stories; they were in dailies such as HuffPo and the Washington Post, international outlets, and more trade publications than you can shake a stick at.

Revell walked into the office Monday morning and, leaning against DeMarco’s desk, asked “was that good enough for you?”

“Pretty impressive,” he said with an enormous grin. “My son thinks I’m a star now. But there’s one thing I always wanted and neglected to tell you. I really had hoped to get on Marketplace on NPR.”

Excusing herself for a minute, Revell returned with her phone and played the sound of Kai Ryssdal’s voice saying: It’s called Practichem. It makes scientific instruments and the CEO said the Tesla thing is good, cost-effective recruiting. Sign me up.”

The Real Success
While the CEO of Practichem was fully aware that press coverage would help immensely, coverage in-and-of itself was not the primary objective. It was the means to an end. A means to enticing recruits, to making employees proud of the company for which they worked, and to begin positioning Practichem in the minds of its customer as the creative firm that thinks outside the proverbial box.

Practichem was indeed successful in compelling talent to their doors. For those who thought driving a Tesla more enticing than free beer or a slide between floors of the office building, applying to this Raleigh startup was their first move.

The Tesla offer brought hundreds of new, qualified applications to Practichem’s website in the first day. Throughout the week numbers continued to climb, and Practichem was on its way to developing a workforce that reflected its own vision: creating a world where biological research tools are friendly, accessible and affordable, and where open participation speeds cures for the world’s most horrific diseases.

Within months positions were filled with employees all anxiously awaiting their own ship date, for the Tesla Model 3.