Gregg Rosenzweig caught up with Elliot Tomaeno, founder/CEO of the New York PR firm Astrsk, at CES last month. Read what he has to say about storytelling, PR and success in the digital age.
I recently attended CES in Las Vegas, the world’s largest consumer electronics show, with a mission to tell some of the biggest stories at this year’s show. It was my first CES as a registered member of the media, so I didn’t know what to expect until the show began. When it did, I was blown away by the sheer magnitude of the event. Over 3,800 exhibitors, 165,000+ people in attendance, 6,800 accredited media members. Mile upon mile of elaborate booth displays on convention center floors and across cavernous hotel ballrooms. It was a torrential downpour of tech.
And all very Las Vegas.
But I wondered, in the presence of such grandiosity, how does a small business — namely, a tech startup — stand out? How do they tell their story successfully, when there are so many other stories being told?
Enter Elliot Tomaeno, PR whiz, spin master and founder/CEO of Astrsk, a New York PR firm that works with both established and emerging technology companies including Hover Camera, Squarespace and Moo. Since launching in 2012, Astrsk has helped more than 250 tech startups gain their footing while also handling PR campaigns for feature films such as “Steve Jobs” and “Ex Machina.”
I caught up with Tomaeno on the 51st floor of The Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas on the eve of CES, where his company reserved a suite for meetings, client demos, and drinks with journalists. So we did, as we talked and gazed down upon the luminescent hotbed of hopes and dreams known as the Las Vegas strip.
What are you doing at CES this year?
We’ve got 14 clients here at CES, everything from wearables to touch capacitive devices to a smart mattress, the first cooling mattress that also does heating. We’ve got drones, wearables for girls that teach them how to code… as well as a pet camera that actually shoots out treats and tells you when your dog is barking.
Is it a challenge to have this many “children” competing for attention at a show?
It definitely is, but I’m lucky to have my other children with me. I’m flanked by some incredible colleagues who have been doing this for years. We can divide and conquer.
I heard you believe in “storytelling, not story-yelling?” Tell me about that.
If you’re telling a story in a compelling way, you don’t need to yell it. That’s the difference between advertising and PR. PR is a conversation and advertising is a type of yelling at you. It’s a different model. When we tell stories, we want to tell them in a way that is contextual. What does this person or journalist care about? How can I tell them why this product matters in a way that matters to them and to their readers?
How exactly do you do that?
It really does come down to understanding what their audience wants to hear. Maybe I’ll have five different ways to tell a journalist about Hover Camera, for example. If I’m talking to a Bustle, a PureWow or Refinery 29, a more female-focused publication, I’m talking about the new best way to take a selfie. If I’m talking to Engadget, Gizmodo and TechCrunch… I’m talking 4K video, stabilized in 1080p, the fact that this is the first drone that has a chassis built around it, so that no child or adult can hurt their fingers. If I’m talking to a parenting publication, I’m talking about safety and security — how this is the one drone you can have in your house and use during family events, but you can also trust your kids to use as well. Just three of the ways I would tell that Hover Camera story.
Each one of my employees has to have an arsenal of those skeleton stories ready to go and then amend them based on how much time you have, the interest of the person you’re talking to, the way they like to be communicated to, and any other cultural or nonverbal nuances you can gather during these one-on-one interactions.
Do you choreograph with your clients what they should be doing on the floor of an event like CES?
Definitely. Everything from what clothes they should be wearing to what kind of demos they should be doing. The way they tell the story, the quick elevator pitch… all of that is choreographed. That starts before we get to the showroom floor. It starts with the first press release and pitches we send out. A communication strategy that we can agree on with the client that shapes everything.
What’s the biggest mistake publicists make today?
Trying to tell the same story to everyone. We call it ,“Spray and pray” — when they send the same email to 200 journalists. Sometimes it comes down to something as simple as [changing] the greeting. I’m not going to greet a 23-year-old BroBible journalist the same way I’m going to greet the 55-year-old Today Show executive producer… It’s about knowing how to communicate with someone so you can get your point across effectively.
What’s the biggest stunt you ever created and did it pay off?
I’d say stunts, more than not, are cheap, and they’re read as such. If it really does help tell the story of the brand, it could be really helpful. With a company like Moo, for example, a business card company that’s one of our clients — a business card isn’t as easy to get excited about, so creating new developments is more important. This year we created something called “Find Your 6 to 11.” Everyone knows what their 9 to 5 is, but how can you take your side hours and turn it into a side hustle?
So we helped them create this quiz that asked people about 20 questions and at the end of it, we told what we think their “6 to 11” might be. Fashion designer. Interior designer. Photographer. Accountant. Life coach. That got a lot of buzz.
How much of CES is planned for you and how much is chaos?
I’d say 90 percent of it is chaos. Ten percent is planned. I tell all our clients that you shouldn’t expect to have any planned meetings at CES, but you should be in specific places. Identifying which parties, which events the top journalists are going to be at… I’m always thinking about how I can help my clients create an authentic, real relationship with journalists. Not contrived, not forced.
What is something unorthodox that you’ll do at this year’s show?
For Hover Camera, we’ll be flying the drone around in places that are packed. My employees and I have one and we’re going to pop it out at different parties and events and just take selfies, sharing them on social media as #HoverSelfie.
(Author’s note: Here’s an example of Elliot demonstrating the Hover Camera during the show.)
— Tat Wza (@TatWza) January 15, 2017
As an owner of your own small business, how do you tell your own story?
It is a challenge to tell a story about a PR firm like ours. What’s the saying, “The cobbler’s son has no shoes?” Well, we don’t want that to be the case. So we do PR for ourselves as well. Telling stories about a company that tells stories — it is definitely difficult. Also, there is a limited audience that really cares about early stage DIY PR.
How important are freelance writers for what you do?
We are a pro-journalist agency. Clients come and go, but journalists are forever, that’s what I like to tell my employees. They’re going to move around to many different publications. At events like CES and South by Southwest, it’s great to spend a little face time with our clients, but our main priority is to meet with journalists, build deeper relationships, basically be a resource for them. Figure out what they’re writing about, what they’re interested in, what they don’t want to hear and share that information back with the whole team. They are crucial to what we do.
We’ve touched on a lot of things. Any final words of advice for our audience?
Yes. One thing I think a lot of PR people aren’t saying is that PR in a vacuum isn’t enough. You have to have great digital marketing. If you’re going to do stunts, you have to do them in the right way and bring on the right teams to do those stunts. Activation agencies, a really great website… All these things play into each other. I can’t do a great PR campaign for a product that is solely relying on PR. It’s the intersection of all these things. The magic point of when it all comes together.