Why Twitter Needs Brand Tweehab and Lessons for Startups

[Ed. Note: This was submitted prior to yesterday’s DoS attacks…]

Tombed: @biz says ‘we don’t have a PR person at @Twitter. We don’t need to pitch stories to media’ (July 23rd, 4:57pm, #brainstormtech)

I love Twitter. Its transformation from a status-updating system to what might become the world’s communication platform has impacted millions of people. Yet ironically, as spelled out by recent TechCrunch and Wall Street Journal episodes, Twitter’s own communications strategy leaves much to be desired.

Twitter does not see how public relations could help build its business and convey key brand-building messaging. And while I certainly don’t believe short-term prospects are even moderately threatened, Twitter’s long-term success just might be.

Addressing Founder Biz Stone’s notion that Twitter does not need a PR person to pitch stories, let me offer a recalibrated definition of what public relations ideally can do. Strategic communications at the corporate level is about understanding a company’s business objectives and brand platform to create and execute programs that earn public acceptance and understanding. To create goodwill that yields deeper relationships between brands and its target audiences, including shoppers, users, press, investors, potential suppliers, etc. And ultimately, marketing absolutely should generate more money.

PR often is synonymous with situations where aggressive hype, buzz and viral sledge hammering overpromises what the product itself ultimately delivers. The XFL, Apple’s Newton, Crystal Pepsi and Paris Hilton are poster, er, children for this approach. And maybe this is what Biz Stone is referring to. But when a company has an authentic/strong story to tell, strategic marketing communications can amplify the message as iPod, Starbucks, Amazon.com and President Obama’s Campaign successes show.

So, from the cheap seats, I would offer Twitter a few recommendations, which also are broadly appropriate to early-stage companies as well:

-Being great isn’t good enough. Leadership brands have a great story, are built on a foundation of a uniquely differentiated product/service, have clear values and deliver against these values in every channel. Twitter’s ultimate success will be achieved by gaining acceptance amongst the mass consumer and business segments. (And of course making money or a sale.) Twitter needs to be able to keep those SXSW early adopters from migrating as growth will be derived from an increased, segmented user base. As such, the need for communications is greater in order to craft appropriate messaging for diverse audiences.

-Investing in PR is not a sign of failure. There seems to be an unwritten rule in the tech world that start-ups that lean on something other than product superiority are weak. Many tech start-ups believe they have a technological or functional advancement and therefore seek to win over core enthusiasts with that alone. Twitter is a unique advancement, but that may not be enough. As mentioned previously, if Twitter wants to bill itself as the world’s communication network, it needs to learn how to communicate better.

-Embracing a brand ambassador that shapes policy.  It is ideal — especially for startups — that every employee serves as a positive ambassador for the brand. A good product and motivated staff can build word of mouth. Word of mouth is incredibly powerful, but having a savvy communications person capitalize on this will accelerate brand trial. Given the power and a seat at the table, the right person can advise executives on the company or brand’s strategic direction beyond marketing; shaping future initiatives and brand developments. For example, with the right ambassador, Twitter can banish the view that many have of the service as merely a place to tell people where they ate lunch or refer to it as a Crocs-esque fad.

-Rallying your fans to build your business. Twitter has allowed its community to expand the brand with initiatives like the Shorty Awards. The fact that Twitter understands those who use it and allows openness is a huge strategic advantage. Companies who commit to thee customers it needs most have the best opportunity to win long-term.

-Leveraging the right awareness to drive message points (or avoid them). Twitter does not have an awareness problem, having received attention in big-time outlets ranging from USA Today, Forbes, Huffington Post, CNN and a zillion morning talk shows. However, I’d argue there is too much “empty” awareness where key media and blogging influencers are speaking about Twitter without any steering from the company itself.

Defensively, if reporters are going to write about you, let them write the story you want. The TechCrunch article mentioned that Twitter 1) approved TechCrunch to publish the documents (why?!), and 2) needed to kill the reality TV show story. Clearly, the former is at best questionable and the latter failed given the prominent Journal story. Offensively, if a redesigned homepage is meant to be a destination, determine the best channel(s) to convey that message. And in the spirit of maintaining Twitter’s power-to-the-community approach, if its suggested user list is constantly changing and they are thinking of overhauling it, say that.

Point being: Twitter’s momentum is not without numerous missed opportunities to help shape its currently inconsistent message and its image.   

And if all this fails to convince Twitter founders to embrace marketing communications and PR counsel, I offer one final pro-communications plea: Emulate Steve Jobs. Apple has built a legion of unwavering disciples and great products. Jobs regularly and actively engages PR counsel to help amplify the great things Apple is doing. Who knows? Maybe the exchange will lead him to join Twitter…or more.

@MikeDuda is an avid Twitterer and current Partner at Deutsch Inc. based in New York City.