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How To Deal With Criticism (and Build Relationships)
My newsletter yesterday really blew up, must be because I plugged in my Samsung Galaxy Note 7.
In all seriousness, it generally resonated with everyone because, well, I was dead-on about the current situation, and how some VCs have failed to adapt to a new paradigm of how the media works, which I know a lot of people don’t understand, so I wanted to clarify a few things.
It is still possible to get regular, positive press. The misunderstanding that the people in tech have about not wanting to deal with the “dishonest media” is that they cannot simply exist and be interesting now. They are not by default the most beautiful of all the ponies, nor are they the prettiest. We must see them canter and jump over fences.
With great power comes great responsibility. All of the big tech people wanted tech to be seen as this big deal, as this massive economic force. They got their wish. The problem with being perceived as big is that you are now important, and important means that the risk of taking you at your word is now significantly more dangerous, and important things require scrutiny.
This doesn’t mean that you should stop working with the media. These startup people who are dogpiling Taylor Lorenz are all people that talk about the rise and grind startup lifestyle, the “Hard Thing About Hard Things” mantra that requires you to gird your loins and prepare to work through these tough, tough times to get a great result seem to be absolutely disgusted at the prospect of having to do more work than “tell someone to write story.” Suck it up buttercup! Media isn’t dead, you’re just lazy! Packing up your things and storming out the door doesn’t win you any prizes, and being totally unable to control the message because you refuse to participate in the system is, ultimately, a defeatist strategy.
The anti-media bent mostly appears to be a childish response to any form of friction from a group that regularly prides itself on being tough hustlers that can survive anything. Where’s that startup grit that was used to market these companies for so long? Where’s that battle-hardened stance? Why is this considered to be a challenge not worth surmounting?
I think - and I’m just guessing here - that it might be that the facts don’t care about your feelings logic masters may just consider this unfair. This is simply not how they want things to go, and as a result they are mad.
So, I wanted to try and talk about how to actually deal with this kind of stuff.
What To Do Before Things Are Bad
It’s tempting when you reach a certain level of fame to believe that PR is simply automatic - a flume of positive stuff that will always come out, that will always say the things you want it to say because people love you. When they ask you questions, it’s always to get that cherry on top of a delicious story that you will love, and everything’s great.
You Don’t Need To Say Anything, But Understand The Consequences If You Do
One of the easiest things to do before things are bad is to not lie. For example, Hilaria Baldwin created a bizarre narrative where she put on a Spanish accent, and claimed she was Spanish, and spoke Spanish, when she was very likely not Spanish. Without digging into the whole thing as it was 200 years ago (IE: a few months ago), the easiest thing Hilaria could have done would be, well, not putting on a Spanish accent.
Don’t want to have people try and cancel you for saying slurs, or suggesting racist things? Don’t have those conversations publicly. A lot of people - especially people who have lots of money and a big platform who don’t enjoy anything - seem to think that they simply must be part of every conversation, and must have an opinion, because they are very important.
Here’s an example:
Paul’s argument is numerical, and I firmly disagree with it being a bad thing - taxation ideally exists so that we all pay our fair share, such is our ability to exist in society. Funnily enough, Paul’s argument is almost entirely percentage based and does not include actual dollar numbers, because I am guessing that the “93% of your stock” that a wealth tax is taking still leaves you with tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.
Either way, this is a buy the ticket take the ride situation - Paul is now mad that people are dunking on him for something, something he could have very easily not shared, but he wanted to because he wanted attention, but not the attention he got.
It’s so easy to say nothing! You don’t need to put this stuff out there, and if you do, don’t complain that people are upset when you’re whining about someone not having as many tens of millions of dollars but still retaining tens of millions of dollars when people are poor and starving and dying all over the country!
Read the room, dude! It’s not cancel culture if you are dunked on repeatedly for saying something, or given shit for saying something that is callous considering the world around you.
And more importantly - you don’t need to actually share these thoughts publicly with the world. There’s just no reason to. I understand you love to be Mind Master: Cortex Champion and publicly declare stuff and have people think you’re smart, but you can have them think that without sharing every stupid thought that rattles around your brain.
It’s so easy to just not post everything, and not posting is the easiest thing to do in the world. You don’t do anything. It’s that easy.
One of A16Z’s most intelligent uses of power and popularity was to continually host dinners with reporters at their PR host’s house that also included their VC partners and investments. These were basically off-the-clock schmooze fests where everyone got to know each other and sometimes did and sometimes didn’t ask about work. This meant that reporters had a face to put to a name, and could get to know them without the pressure of an official “interview” scenario.
I make relationships with reporters all the time, mostly by following them on Twitter and talking to them about stuff other than work. It’s pretty easy, you just be a regular human being and go about your life, and I mostly try and avoid making it transactional - sure I’ll pitch them sometimes, but I also am careful not to bug them every day unless I genuinely have stuff that matters to them. And I take “no” for an answer immediately. And I’ll get drinks with them (well, I did) and talk about whatever’s on our respective minds without bringing up work, unless I’m point black asked.
In A16Z’s case, their relationship dinners meant that they had relationships with tons of valley-based reporters to get stories out they liked. What’s confusing to me is that their reaction to the press has soured based on them being “ignorant and unfair,” which is…very weird, and seems like a great way to piss off a bunch of people that treated you very nicely for many years.
Making relationships also allows you to have significantly more control over the narrative than if you don’t speak to them at all. There are many scenarios where you can’t really add more, or not having a comment is the right call - legal cases, for example - but there are others, say, around your portfolio companies where you’re asked for quotes, where you can contribute something, and help steer the conversation even a millimeter in the right direction.
I think the truculence around coverage recently has been a complete inability to have a reasoned conversation around something negative. I can’t quite place where they got so mad, but the if it’s around returns dipping based on context-free internal data, frankly you want to get ahead of that story (or in this case, two stories in three years) - get on the phone, give them an idea of what’s going on in a way that is positive. Maybe there were X things that happened that year, or you invested in particular things that will really pop in a few years.
Jason Lemkin has several times brought up how you shouldn’t hide from your customers or investors when times are tough. Stopping sending investor updates is not a good way to deal with a bad quarter or year.
I really believe that this is a smart idea with the press, too. Unless it’s a flat-out negative, an unavoidable one - you’re being sued, you have a shitty employee who is a huge racist, you dumped toxic waste in the hudson river - having some contribution is better than none, and it can be carefully manicured if you’re super nervous.
Having good relationships with reporters means you’ll get a heads-up when you’re about to get whammied with a bad story. It also means they’re more likely to include what you think about the situation, and more open to understanding your position. Human beings like other human beings, and true trust is fostered in bad times rather than good - when shit is going sideways, you refusing to take the call is a bad idea.
And get media training. Or at least have your story straight. Don’t fill silence, keep it to one thought a sentence, and be aware that even in a good relationship you’ll still get asked dodgy questions. That’s their job. You’re doing yours.
Ultimately, realize that these people are not here to hurt you or malign you, but do their job by reporting on stuff. Maybe you consider it a non-story, but something that’ll hurt you - sadly, that’s how it goes sometimes. That’s the cost of fame and the cost of success - you may be reported on, and you may be reported on negatively.
On Staying Completely Quiet (Or Only Speaking To Yourself)
There is a school of thought where people believe that saying nothing to the press is a good idea, and only responding through your own blog or tweets. The logic is that the press simply chooses to write what they want and interpret things as they want, and thus putting more effort into the process is a net loss. You can simply not respond to the press ever, and put out statements, and that’ll probably be fine.
Having one centralized statement on a situation is inherently risky because it will invariably lack the ability to answer every question and, indeed, have the nuance to answer many questions. People will also read between the lines, and I will tell you from personal experience how difficult it is to write something that completely addresses everything in a satisfying manner. Prepared statements are also by definition robotic - it is so difficult to express emotion satisfyingly in the written word, especially considering that the more emotional you get, the more margin of error there is to whatever you’re saying.
The reality is that having actual relationships will mean giving interviews - or even just one interview - with the ability to communicate whatever it is you’re communicating. People appreciate the third party validation of you actually having the strength of character to go on the record with someone. Not doing so is seen as running and hiding - an act of cowardice - and being willing to actually answer questions shows you care about what people think.
Finally, deriding the press for being unfair and bad at their jobs is a one-way trip. The moment you actually need them - the moment you realize that maybe you were a little harsh, or maybe you just want them to write about something you’re doing, or you need them to pay attention to a startup you’ve invested in, or you leave whatever position you’re in that currently makes you notable and now you’re not - they will absolutely remember you being a shit about the media. Who wouldn’t?
You can still not like certain reporters. Within any industry there are annoying people who piss you off, and you can simply not engage with them, in the same way you don’t engage with other people who are annoying and piss you off. But there is an important dividing line between someone being annoying and pissing you off and someone asking very reasonable questions about bad things, especially if you’re brushing them off and not giving an answer.
Your fame may mean that they go behind your back and get private documents and, in some cases, publish them. It’s frustrating. It means that you won’t be nice to them. But not being nice doesn’t mean the same thing as being disrespectful, nor does it mean you should shut off the entirety of the press and use the language of dictatorships to brand them as an enemy.
It’s not always fun, but actual relationships are probably your best defense against negative press. And sometimes you don’t have an answer - sometimes you can’t add anything at this time - but having the good graces to treat them with respect - you’ve gotta give respect to get respect, after all - doesn’t simply pay off, it’s also being a good person.