PR Parables : Don’t know the full story, don’t play matchmaker!

This story goes back to a time when venture capital funding was not as common as it is today and there were very few venture funds. One tech company decided to start such a fund: and it was clearly ahead of its time, with an exclusive venture capital fund to encourage technology companies to come forth with ideas, products and solutions that would or could enhance the internet business. The process of formalising this fund took months of discussions, reviews, meetings and a series of interviews between the local company and its global headquarters. 

Finally all checks and balances were in place, all was done. The venture capital arm was in place and a reputed VC expert who had very solid tech experience was appointed to head this VC arm of the company. Once this was done, it was time to share the news with select media.  

As part of the pre-work, it was the responsibility of the VC head to brief his PR team on the details of the fund and its purpose. He was quite keen to make big news out of this. However, in his briefings, he was very cagey about giving details about the fund to his PR team. He dodged most of their questions and was very guarded about details of the fund, size of the fund, what kinds of company (size wise) the fund would target. All such questions were met by one response: “I will disclose this when I have to”.  The team believed him. And they started their work on scouting for media opportunities.   

And soon we had our first confirmation from a leading mainline daily. They were keen to know more about the fund and of course wanted to be the first to break this news as well. They nominated their senior business journalist to speak to the VC head. This journalist was well known for her business news reports of course, as also for her no-nonsense and her slightly arrogant attitude. 

The VC head was all set to talk about his big news .The team briefed him about the need to give out all the relevant details during this conversation and reiterated the fact that as a senior business journalist, she had agreed to meet only because she expected to get a new business news story. 

The meeting moment arrived and after the initial handshakes and swapping of visiting cards, the two sat down to start their conversation. The journalist opened her diary, ready to jot down the details. 

She fired her first question and was all ears for the response. Her questions were kind of long, and in comparison his answers sounded abrupt and very sketchy. Things will improve and information will start to flow, is what the PR team thought as they watched the conversation take the very direction they were apprehensive about. The hard work put in by the journalist was quite evident in her line up of questions. She was incredibly patient and cool, and was giving the spokesperson enough time to prepare and give his inputs. She looked up from her bespectacled eyes and looked straight into his eyes and asked “Can you at least tell me how large this fund is?”. “Sorry, can’t disclose that…however I can tell you that it is one of the largest tech funds that have come to India,” was the short and terse reply from the VC. “And will this fund be used for existing technologies or will it also be used to incubate startups?” “Sorry, can’t disclose that at this point of time.” One more try from her end: she asked what was the target set by the company -- how many investments over the next two to three years. The VC head was cool: “Sorry, we cannot share that plan…suffice to say that this fund will be used for technologies which harness the internet business”. 

I guess by now the journalist had shown enough of patience and grace. She heard his last reply and before anyone sitting there could react, she rose from her chair, closed her diary, and in a firm and slightly indignant tone told the VC head: “Well, I have nothing to write, if you have nothing to tell me-this conversation is going nowhere.”. She gathered her things and left the room. 

Fire fighters in the PR team got into action, but it was too late. The journalist had left: she had come prepared to get a good story, and she left disappointed and miffed. The VC head didn’t realise, until the walkout happened, that when you are ready to meet and speak to the press it is not all about what you want to say and share, it is also about what they want to hear and know. 

He learnt his biggest lesson that day, he stayed on for many years in this role and went on to give many interviews and address several press conferences.  

The PR team members definitely learnt their lesson as well. One: unless one is fully convinced of the facts that make a corporate story, don’t rush into match-making with media. Two: be courageous and bold when you sense something is not going as per your plans. This team was not comfortable with the response from the VC head whenever it asked questions about the fund--and yet they didn’t push back and politely tell him “unless we get these answers, we will not reach out to brief any journalist.” If they had done this, the VC head would have to share his answers with them and collectively they could have prepared well in advance. The embarrassment of a walk-out could have been avoided.

Moushumi Dutt is a senior corporate communications professional . PR Parables is her monthly column for PRmoment India on learnings from her PR life.

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