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June 7, 2017, 10:30 a.m.
Reporting & Production

PR pitches are the worst. This agency is trying to make them better (and I…I like it)

“Our goal has been to just start from the ground up: If you were to design a PR agency today, from a software engineer’s perspective, how would you approach it?”

This spring, something unusual happened: I got a good pitch.

It was about a successful email newsletter, The Hustle, that I hadn’t heard of before. I like writing about email newsletters! I responded to the pitch and ended up writing a story about the company.

The original email pitch allowed me to respond to whether or not I was interested in the story directly from the email. When I hit “yes,” I was sent to a webpage that included the Hustle CEO’s email and phone number so that I could get in touch directly, as well as all of the other info (press releases, past coverage, images, etc.) that a PR company would normally ask me if I wanted to receive after I agreed to an embargo. A process that is normally annoying for journalists and requires a bunch of back-and-forth emails required no emails at all, in this case.

This PR company is called Upbeat PR, and it’s announcing Wednesday that it has raised $1.5 million from Silicon Valley (investors include Draper Associates, Maverick Capital, Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, and FirstRock Capital, among others) to build “the modern PR agency.” I learned about the funding when Upbeat sent me an email pitch similar to the one it had sent me before. It included a link back to the story I’d written about The Hustle. When I said I was interested, I clicked through to a page where I was able to select an interview time with Upbeat’s CEO, Ricky Yean. A few minutes later I got a calendar invite that confirmed the call and told me the number to call at. Again, no emailing required.

“Everybody knows what’s wrong with PR and pitches,” Yean (who, along with his cofounder and CTO David Tran, has written extensively about how growing up poor makes an entrance to Silicon Valley very difficult) told me. “People complain about agencies being unreliable and expensive. If you look at the problem from [the journalists’] side, it’s easier than ever to find journalists’ contact info, so really anyone can email, and the cost is so low for spamming that it’s led to a ton of poorly targeted emails. The best agencies really vet and keep a high-quality client roster, but the margins are low. Our goal has been to just start from the ground up: If you were to design a PR agency today, from a software engineer’s perspective, how would you approach it?”

It’s easy to be wary of companies that claim they’re going to disrupt an industry “from a software engineer’s perspective.” That tends to imply that they don’t know much about the industry they want to disrupt. Again, I’d be more skeptical if I weren’t regularly receiving appropriate and well targeted pitches from Upbeat.

“We try to get out of the way as fast as we can and connect you directly to the founders,” Yean said. Upbeat, which launched in early 2016 (under the name PRX.co, which still appears on many of its materials — it’s not the public radio distributor PRX), has a team of 9, based in San Francisco.

Upbeat has 300 clients. They pay an annual membership fee of $800, which includes one PR campaign, and $500 for each additional campaign. (By contrast, companies may pay large traditional PR agencies in the range of $25,000 a month.) Yean said Upbeat has built a database of several hundred thousand journalists (including freelancers and bloggers); its software tracks what they write and tweet to see how their interests are changing. “We can track every single article, Laura, that you’ve written, in the past for Gigaom, or for paidContent, or elsewhere,” he said. (It says…something that rather than reacting to this with alarm I simply thought, “Well, this is how things are now.”)

“We can see how your interest has evolved over time. We’re looking at your tweets. We’re looking at your interactions with our pitches, as well.” If I click that “no,” I’m not interested on an Upbeat PR pitch too many times, “we’ll stop pitching you until we can really figure out what you’re interested in.” (Upbeat is working on a number of “labs” aimed at journalists; sign up for access here.)

Upbeat’s unconventional approach means that it attracts unusual clients — something that Yean said he “loves.” A sampling of clients: Jason Shen, a blogger who made a survey about the state of Asian American men (coverage in The Atlantic); Spencer Yen, a teenager who built an app to help his memory (coverage in The Mercury News); a team of Dropbox engineers who built a Pokemon Go–playing bot (coverage in Business Insider); a developer who built an open-source word editor adopted by Gannett and Vox Media (coverage in Motherboard); Jennifer 8. Lee’s emoji conference (coverage in The Wall Street Journal).

I asked Ed Zitron, Twitter’s favorite PR person, what he thinks of Upbeat’s model. “How can you do ongoing media relationships at scale? With a comparatively low price point? I genuinely wonder,” he said. Yean said Upbeat hopes to do this by ultimately creating something like a PR marketplace, matching people with stories to tell to people who want to tell them. A journalist could go to Upbeat to find sources, too, he said, “and we can do the same matching in reverse. We’re extracting information out of the two sides as much as we can.”

Photo of the delete key by Kate Ter Haar used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     June 7, 2017, 10:30 a.m.
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