Successful tech startups that become media darlings must be careful not to engage in bad behavior in the public domain, or the press that gave them celebrity status will surely turn on them with the ferociousness of a pack of beaten dogs set loose on their attacker.
Here is a cautionary tale about a media-hungry technology startup that ignored this rule and suffered the consequences.
The company’s identity won’t be disclosed because it wouldn’t serve any useful purpose to do so and also out of respect for those departed and a few remaining employees who had nothing to do with the firm’s untimely demise.
It was a typical rags-to-riches tech startup story that all-too frequently graces the pages of glossy business magazines and TV news shows: brash CEO proudly proclaims that his company’s product will “revolutionize” or “reimagine” or “disrupt” or “transform” and a few of the other of the latest hackneyed buzzwords depicting a major change in how we live in this digital age.
The CEO was a fast-talking former salesman who convinced smart investors that his company would make billions of dollars with its new and shiny technology. They bit and bit hard, quickly forking over hundreds of millions of dollars to launch his tiny startup into the big leagues.
News of the financing quickly spread, and it wasn’t long before major national media outlets got wind of it and sought interviews with the CEO. Most of the ensuing coverage was of the fawning variety, much to the CEO’s satisfaction. However, there were few journalists who weren’t buying what the executive was selling.
One writer who worked for a national publication poked fun at the CEO’s aspirations of fame and fortune in an article about the rising startup. The CEO threw a temper tantrum over the story and threatened to slap a lawsuit against the writer and the publication. Of course, no one was ever sued, but the CEO made it clear that no employees were allowed to speak to the writer and the publication or risk serious consequences.
During one industry trade show, the CEO told a reporter that hundreds of companies were anxiously waiting to buy his firm’s technology. In reality, there were maybe a half-dozen companies, but hundreds of customers looked better in print. This was only one instance where the CEO routinely stretched the truth to the point of being beyond recognition.
The death knell finally struck the company only a few weeks after the company received widespread favorable coverage of a major deal. Investors quickly pulled out of the company after they learned it had some accounting irregularities.
The same media outlets that put the CEO on a pedestal didn’t waste any time knocking him off of it. Reports of the company’s imminent collapse were fast and furious; a few news outlets’ coverage even mocked the CEO’s past comments envisioning a big and bright future for the failed startup.
It was those comments that continue to haunt the fallen tech chief, who once loved to see and hear his words in the press. Nowadays, the CEO has only two words for the media: a stiff “no comment”.
Hopefully, this sad tale of this CEO’s misfortunes will serve as a stark reminder to those wannabe tech titans who yearn to bask under the warm and welcoming glow of the media spotlight. They must also remember that they also risk getting severely burned in the press if they engage in bad or inappropriate behavior.
[The author is Marc Weinstein, CEO of Ascent Communications (www.ascentcomm.net), a marketing/public relations agency specializing in creating results-driven communications for technology companies.]