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Dear CEOs, media relations isn’t a DIY job…and you don’t want it to be
Recently, news broke that Blade, an aviation startup similar to a ride-sharing app offering helicopter rides, invented a person – their spokesperson. For three years, Blade maintained the existence of an invented staff member named Simon McLaren. He regularly spoke on behalf of the company in outlets including Vanity Fair, The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN, occasionally even speaking with reporters over the phone. In reality, on the other end of reporters’ questions was Blade’s CEO, Rob Wiesenthal. The company claims everything on record attributed to McLaren is factually accurate. Oddly enough, the company’s spokesperson McLaren soon took on a life outside of traditional media relations, even penning a blog that explored his experience throughout the pandemic and writing a regular newsletter. Blade also released a letter, supposedly written by McLaren, announcing his departure. After years of deceit, Wiesenthal came clean in an interview with Business Insider. As an explanation for this bizarre behavior, Wiesenthal told reporters that, “When it was appropriate for a spokesperson to respond to a press inquiry rather than the CEO, given that we did not have a spokesperson, we used the pseudonym . . .” There’s real value in having a firewall in the form of a spokesperson – sometimes CEOs don’t want to be in the line of fire and/or need to keep their distance from a crisis situation. They should have an actual spokesperson. In other words, Wiesenthal’s reasoning is valid, but the way he went about it was all wrong. Faking a PR person impacts brand integrity and image, creating mistrust and raising a lot of questions about a brand’s values and ethics. While it’s understandable that as a startup the company likely didn’t have the resources to maintain a full-time spokesperson, we have to wonder why, as the company grew, they didn’t look to experienced communications and media professionals to support their brand’s reputation. If they had, they could have saved themselves from becoming synonymous with this strange scandal. We know CEOs want to be in-the-know about all things related to their brand, and especially want to keep tabs on the perception of their company in the general public. Their primary interests are to protect their business, support its growth and build brand reputation. But media relations is not a part-time job, and it’s definitely not one that can be handled by an invented person or a busy CEO. While Blade clearly understood the value of a spokesperson and a communications team, they didn’t understand the value of having an experienced or even real one. Media relations is a craft mastered over years and requires extensive experience. Having a team specialized in media relations, either internally or as a third-party partner, allows a CEO to stay in the know while their team deftly builds media relationships, shares a company’s mission and values and insulates a brand from crises. Without a proper communications team in place, your company not only suffers from inattention, but it can also be at risk for a potential crisis and/or end up being misrepresented in the media. A communications team is also essential in growing a business from day one, as we’ve discussed in our blog about PR for startups. A developed communications operation enables a company to grow and reach new customers and investors. Experienced PR professionals understand what your stakeholders are interested in and the most valuable story your brand has to tell. Most importantly, they can tell you when your actions, as well-intentioned as they may be, could land you in hot water, rather than in the hearts of your audiences and potential investors. No matter the stage your company is in, invest in communications. It can only help, from growing your market share to giving you a better sense of what your brand really is. Blade has since hired a PR agency, something a seasoned professional would have told them to do long ago.