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PR Lessons: The Power of a Good Story, and Professional Help

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Many startup companies struggle with PR—how much time to devote to it, how much money to spend on it and how to determine return on investment. One company that has seen success in PR is Champions Oncology, which uses advanced technology and big data to help personalize cancer treatment for patients. 

Champions has been covered recently in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, NBC News and, most recently, in Newsweek, where the company was the focus of a lengthy feature that was the magazine’s cover story outside the U.S. Powered by Battery caught up recently with Champions CEO and Co-Founder Ronnie Morris to discuss the backstory behind the Newsweek piece and extract from him some PR lessons for other entrepreneurs.

Powered by Battery: So congratulations on the Newsweek piece!

Ronnie Morris: Thank you. We’re certainly happy. It was an incredibly positive article for us.  (The reporter) said we’re the leaders in “precision medicine”, which is something I never could have said myself, or even asked for. We’re a little company.

PBB: Tell us a little bit about how the story came about.

RM: It was sourced by our PR firm. They pitched the story and then the reporter spoke to me. We talked for an hour and a half, or an hour. Then she got back to us and said she was really interested in doing a bigger story. At that point, for us broadly, usually a story takes one of two angles: Either the reporter is just interested in a quick story, and that’s fine. Or, they want to talk to patients, talk to doctors, follow the story, really get it from an inside view. This reporter wanted to do the latter. She actually then took it a little further and talked about the whole area of precision medicine and personalized care. We were certainly the centerpiece, but it wasn’t all about us.

PBB: The case of one of your patients, Evan Rose, was the lead anecdote in the story. How hard was it to find this patient, or others, for Newsweek?

RM: So that’s a challenge for us, no question. Every reporter wants to talk to the unique patient. Nobody wants to do that patient who was already in the New York Times, or the Bergen Record. They want to tell their own story about a new patient. The challenge with this patient, Evan Rose, was that he had an issue with his voice. He has a very raspy voice because he has cancer of the larynx. He had great results, he’s doing great—it’s really almost a miracle—but at first we didn’t think to offer him. The reporter took the time to go and meet with him, I believe, and she said it was fine. The interviews took a little longer—he speaks a little slowly—but it was fine.

The broader challenge is in convincing any patient to talk to the media. A lot of them don’t want to talk. There are some people who feel like it’s their obligation to do it, but others are more private. Recently Good Housekeeping wanted to do a big piece on us. They wanted a woman to profile. We had one for them—she was a lawyer, very well known, accomplished, the right age. But she said, listen guys, I love what you’re doing. I’m happy to use my initials in a story, happy to be anonymized. Even though my good friends know about my cancer, (broadcasting it more widely) is not what I want with my life. You can’t argue with that by the way.

For the most part I think the doctors involved in the process like to talk about this, so that part was easy. Then we just had to get the reporter all the relevant supporting information. It wasn’t a very cumbersome process on our side.

PBB: When did the process with Newsweek start? How long did it take? I find many companies are unfamiliar with the weeks or months some large publications can require to do a substantial feature.

RM: It was fairly quick. The story came out at the beginning of June. The reporter first contacted me in February and got back in touch in May. Most of the hardship was getting the patient and the doctor lined up.

PBB: How much time did it take for you and your team to give interviews and gather information for the story?

RM: I would say the issue is probably not the time for any individual story. It’s probably the cumulative time (spent on press work) that is more important. Because you don’t know at the end of the day which stories are going to take or not. We happen to have a high “hit rate” because we have an exciting story. The truth is, I don’t do that much. In the beginning (of the company’s PR push), I did a lot. One or two interviews a week. It’s not terrible. I think the PR firm we’re working with now is very good. They’re very professional about setting me up, setting up the reporters, so there’s not a lot of work on my part except for telling the story. It’s more of a commitment in terms of, OK, do you want to spend the money.

PBB: Can I ask what you are spending on PR, and how you determine ROI?

RM: We had a previous PR firm that was not getting it done. We paid them about $7,500 a month, and got almost nothing. Now we’ve had the new firm for six months, which Battery helped us find. I think we pay them an average of $12,000 to $15,000 a month. And we’ve had a lot of hits: We’ve been in print, in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, in Newsweek, we were on NBC’s website. We’ve literally been in like eight to 10 publications, and about half of them have had serious readership. That’s a good story.

It’s just an issue of, if we just look at the pure ROI of this stuff, it probably doesn’t pay for itself, in terms of how much business has come in (based on the press). It’s just a little hard to figure out the bang for the buck for all the amount of time and effort we spend for little articles that show up on a website somewhere.

Still, we’re starting to say, all the attention is not bad for a company our size. We’re competing in a very large space and we’re a small player. It’s not bad for people to think we’re bigger than we are. People are just constantly seeing our name. When we call to talk to people now, it’s a different conversation. It’s because of these intangibles. It’s not an ROI conversation. We’re starting to realize that these intangible benefits may have some intrinsic value that we may not have thought about before when we first said, let’s do more PR so people can hear about our technology. We wanted more people sitting at their kitchen table saying, hey, let’s tell Aunt Judy (who has cancer) about this. That was the original purpose. But it’s clear it’s more than that now.

PBB: Can you quantify any tangible business benefits that came out of the Newsweek story?

RM: We certainly saw hits to the website go up—it was about 30% in the days right after the article came out, with no direct link back to our website. We got a bunch of calls from all over the world, probably eight or 10 leads just that weekend after the story came out. I’m sure it will transmit into some business. It’s hard to know long term how it will play out. Again, it’s kind of a short term blip (after stories run). Then you just see this sort of slow, incremental increase in your traffic. It’s very hard to judge the importance of it.

PBB: Was there anything in the Newsweek story that you weren’t expecting that surprised you?

RM: I would say the one big surprise, the one thing that everyone always does when they do our story, is they always get the price (of our services) wrong. In this particular instance, they had asked the oncologist about price, and he said this can cost up to $100,000. But that includes all the drugs that were off-label and all the other stuff that they did. Not just the Champions Oncology part. Even though the Champions part may have only been $18,000 or $15,000. People always do that to us.

PBB: Are there any lessons you gleaned from the Newsweek process, or from your broader press work, that you want to share?

RM: In terms of PR firms, we’ve had a couple of different setups. We had a medium-sized firm, we had a mom-and-pop firm . . . there’s no question I’ve learned lessons in that area. Mostly, that it’s just too hard to do this on your own. We got a bunch of really good press without almost any help, but that was more opportunistic. You can’t rely on that. We happen to have an exciting story, but if you don’t have that, it’s just too hard. And even if you have that, the truth is, (a good PR firm) has the contacts and they know how to do this. We don’t have the time or bandwidth to do it.

Now, I look at the buzz around what we’re doing, and know that a lot of people know about us and hear about us. The ability for us to go out and show a magazine article to people—to say, you want the best description of what we do? You should read the Newsweek article from two weeks ago. That’s huge. It’s easier than saying, go read our brochure. It gives you legitimacy. It’s hard to put a price on that.

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