How Calm got “a ton of PR” that fueled its growth: 10 secrets of Calm’s PR success

… A case study of how one small app won a ton of buzz that helped it grow big – and 10 rules of PR and guerrilla marketing to help you do the same.

[24 minute-read] 

Baa Baa Land movie poster of sheep grazing in a field
Baa Baa Land, Calm’s eight-hour, slow-motion movie about sheep standing in a field, went viral and global, from Bulgaria to Kazakhstan and beyond. Poster design by Enes Alili. (We want to credit all creators for their work. If we’ve accidentally used copyrighted material and/or you’re the copyright owner and wish to be credited, or your material removed, please email .

 

When Calm, the sleep and meditation app, asked me to start working for them, in late 2016, their global empire comprised nine staff in a one-bedroom, San Francisco apartment. Their founders took phone-calls in the apartment stairwell and important meetings in the hotel lobby across the street.

Calm’s founders had approached me on the recommendation of a mutual friend and top San Francisco PR with whom I’d worked for a dozen years for Craigslist and Lulu.

Their problem, they told me, was that not enough people knew Calm existed. What they needed was to raise its profile. 

Twelve months later, in December 2017, Calm was named Apple’s App of the Year, out of some 2.2 million apps. A year later, it became the world’s first mental-health unicorn, with a billion-dollar valuation. Shortly after that, it became the world’s top-grossing health and fitness app. 

How did Calm achieve such transformative success in such short order? 

There are many answers, starting with the fact that Calm boasts, in the form of Alex Tew and Michael Acton Smith, two exceptionally smart and talented co-founders, whose talents include surrounding themselves with other exceptionally smart and talented people. 

For a more independent opinion, however, try the one given by Vinny Pujji, partner at the New York VC firm, Left Lane Capital, in his recent “Business Breakdown” podcast on “Calm: The Sleeping Giant”

Pujji asks: “What did [Calm] do that was really unique in the way they got this to become … a very well-known brand with hundreds of millions of downloads?” 

He offers two initial answers to his own question: 

The first was Calm’s brilliant name and branding. “[Calm] is a perfectly … and consistently branded experience. And as you scale further and further, brand really matters.” 

“The second thing they did was get a ton of PR”, says Pujji. They hired people whocould make sure they were getting in the news.” 

This ton of PR in turn delivered the profile and awareness that Calm had so wanted, along with growing trust, downloads and links. It also helped turn Calm into a buzzy and talked-about brand that others – including Apple – noticed.

Calm’s PR – And The 10 Golden Rules

Even when I started working with Calm in late 2016, when it was still a meditation app rather than the meditation and sleep app it has  become, it competed in a hugely crowded space. 

I recall reading at the time – though never fact-checked – that even then there were some 2,000 rival meditation apps (compared to over 5,000 now), including at least one, the market leader, with way more users, staff and funding than Calm.

Calm knew that it couldn’t outspend its biggest rivals, but that it could outthink them. And that is what it did, in multiple ways. 

People sometimes contact me because they’ve been Googling things like, “Who did PR for Calm?” or “Who does Calm’s PR?” or similar, and are wanting to learn more about it. 

This post therefore is about that PR.

It is, inevitably, a partial and subjective account of Calm’s PR. It’s based on my experience doing PR for Calm from 2016 to 2020 and intermittently thereafter but in particular until early 2019, when Calm announced the completion of a Series B fundraising round of $88M, at a valuation of $1BN and so became a unicorn.

It’s based mainly, in short, on how Calm won a ton of buzz before it had a ton of money.

It also draws on various things that I already knew before I started working for Calm – from a dozen plus years of work for other startups – and then applied to generating PR for Calm … plus one or two things that I learnt in the process. 

It describes a total of 10 “golden rules” – or, sort foundation principles – that I would advise following if you are wanting to generate a similar ton of coverage, profile and buzz for an app, startup or, indeed, other brand. 

These are as follows:

1. There are two kinds of PR. Most startups only do one, but you need to do both. 
 
2. “If there is no excitement ready-made, then some must be created.” 
 
3. Creativity gives you more buzz for your buck: You don’t need a zillion dollars to win attention; you need a good idea. 
 
4. Lighten up. Silly PR is better than serious PR. 
 
5. The never-ending launch: One lightning bolt is not enough; you need rolling thunder. 
 
6. Celebrities can help a lot (but they don’t need to be alive … or even real) 
… and, if they’re not A-Listers, it’s better if they’re doing something offbeat. 
 
7. Names matter. A snappy name for something can add huge value.
 
8. Think Anglo from day one. 
 
9. Join the cultural conversation – with reactive, opportunistic ideas that “newsjack” the current events and the Zeitgeist itself. 
 
10. The biggest limiting factor in PR is not the subject or the budget but the client, and what they’ll let you do.
 

So, let me expand on each of the above in turn:

1. There are two kinds of PR. Most startups only do one, but you need to do both.

The two different kinds of PR each have various different names but the names that I use for them are:

1. Traditional PR – the kind of serious, grown-up, “product-led” PR, that most startups do, if they do PR at all.

2. Non-traditional PR – AKA creative PR, guerrilla marketing and viral marketing, among other names – the sort of more indirect, under-the-radar, “consumer-led” PR, that few startups do, but which, done well, can be a secret weapon.

Among the things that Calm did better than its rivals was first to understand this distinction and then second, to do both kinds well, even though most startups only do the first.

Indeed, Calm wisely treated the two different kinds of PR as different things – and, from the start, hired two different specialists to do each of them.

My responsibility, in both the US and UK, was non-traditional PR, mainly based on creative, quirky, offbeat and sometimes silly ideas, while the more serious, grown-up PR was handled in the UK,by my colleagues at Think Inc. and in the US by Morgan Oliveira, a highly talented independent PR, who played a key role in Calm’s PR success.

Both kinds of PR were vital in raising Calm’s profile but the quirky, offbeat kind was the kind that Calm’s competitors were simply not doing, and where Calm, as a result, was way ahead of the game.

Table of text showing how traditional and non-traditional PR compare2. “If there is no excitement ready-made, then some must be created.”

So wrote Silas Bent (1882-1945), the American journalist and author, in Ballyhoo, his celebrated 1927 book about newspaper practises.

Bent did not intend his statement as a compliment to newspapers and how they operated but it is, nonetheless, good advice for startups wondering how to get attention when they have nothing new to announce and no hard news to share – in short, the natural condition of most startups, most of the time.

The need and challenge for most startups is to KEEP getting attention, even when the launch is over and the latest announcement made and – unless you come up with something new and interesting – the media circus has moved on to the next big thing.

So, the question is: “Yes, the launch went well, but what do we do for an encore?” Or, “Now that we’ve launched, how do we avoid becoming last week’s news?” Most startups struggle for an answer.

Answering this question was a skill that Calm mastered, while rivals didn’t.

 

3. Creativity gets you more buzz for your buck: You don’t need a zillion dollars to win attention; you need a good idea.

Or, to put this another way, the idea is the fuel in the car, the bullet in the gun, the jewel in the crown.

In our age of information overload and a constant tidal wave of marketing messages, it’s incredibly hard to get attention for your brand … except … when it’s easy.

And what makes it easy, when it does, is a good idea.

The idea is what counts – and, when it’s good enough, the idea is what turns base metal into gold and an ignored brand into one the focus of sudden and compelling interest.

The typical relationship between a PR person and a journalist involves the journalist either ignoring the PR or, if the latter’s lucky, telling them they’re not interested.

If you come up with a good idea, however, it turns the world upside down and seems like what physics calls a polarity reversal, where everything suddenly flips the other way around. Instead of you needing to chase the media, the media start to chase you, asking with sudden new courtesty whether you might possibly be willing to consider granting even the briefest interview.

It’s a kind of magic.

So, Calm wanted me to win coverage, profile and awareness for Sleep Stories, their new bedtime stories for grownups and an important new content strand.

One of the many ways we achieved this was by creating the world’s first bedtime story written by AI.

It was called “The Princess and the Fox”, also known as “The Lost Grimm Fairy Tale”.

Father and son looking at a computer screen listening to the Lost Grimm Fairy Tale
Creativity gets you more buzz for your buck. “The Lost Grimm Fairy Tale”, the first bedtime story generated by AI and first new Brothers Grimm tale in 200 years, won global buzz. Illustration: Kate Sutton. (Note: We want to credit all creators for their work. If we’ve accidentally used copyrighted material and/or you’re the copyright owner and wish to be credited, or your material removed, please email .)

 

We created it by asking Botnik, a community of developers and writers, to input the complete works of the Grimm brothers into their predictive text algorithm and program it to replicate their style.

And then, with a bit of human collaboration on the editing front, voilà! – the first new Brothers Grimm tale in two centuries.

The result was over 1,000 pieces of coverage in over 30 countries, along with global buzz and praise.

There are loads of different names for what I do – everything from non-traditional PR to creative PR; from guerrilla marketing to viral marketing and viral brand-building; from stunts to news generation to “media neutral” ideas; and from buzz marketing to gonzo marketing.

I even like two other names that aren’t widely used but that each have a certain something: “Silly PR”, which one long-term client coined, and “guerrilla content marketing”, which I did.

But at the heart of what I do is a simple idea: Creativity gives you more for your money and a good idea can win attention that money can’t buy. Or, as Ed McCabe, a veteran American ad man put it, “Creativity is one of the last remaining legal ways of gaining an unfair advantage over the competition.”

This article titled Getting Creative with PR: Calm.com shows the way is largely based on an interview with me.

Calm, it starts by noting, has managed to get ahead despite facing “cutthroat competition” from rival apps.

“Despite this intense competition … Calm has been absolutely crushing it, landing repeat coverage in major publications including The Telegraph, The New York Times, Adweek, The Weekly Standard, CNBC, NBC News, Fox News, Fast Company, and the LA Times.”

It explains that Calm does everything to “keep the ideas rolling”, before adding, “Calm have shown through their various successful campaigns that they yield better results by getting creative with their PR and not using generic techniques.”

It then quotes me summarizing Calm’s approach by saying, “It’s definitely helpful to have a decent budget and even more valuable to have know-how and contacts but often the most important element of all is having a good idea.”

 

4. Lighten up. “Silly PR is better than serious PR.”

Most startups take themselves and what they do seriously – sometimes too seriously, when they could get far more coverage and attention by lightening up a little.

I’ve worked with clients who responded to an idea that I’ve suggested by saying, “I LOVE that idea – hilarious”, but who then ruled it out because, “… well, it’s kind of silly, isn’t it?”

My advice is: Don’t knock “Silly”. Silly is good. Silly is your friend. Or, as one long-term client concluded, “Silly PR is better than serious PR.”

(My related advice, if you’re asking, is to spend less time worrying that potential users won’t take you seriously and think about you in precisely the way you want – and more time worrying that they aren’t thinking about you at all.)

The related insight that Calm grasped but rivals didn’t was that PR doesn’t all have to be straight and serious. It can also be playful and fun, if not downright silly – even if, like Calm, you’re ultimately tackling a serious subject, such as mental health.

Despite the seriousness of the subject, Calm was able, when it made sense, to have a twinkle in its eye and a smile on its smile. When rivals were all po-faced, Calm felt able sometimes to be impish and irreverent.

Meanwhile, the silliest ideas of all that I did for Calm also tended also to be the most successful.

One of the biggest home runs was Baa Baa Land, an eight-hour, slow-mo movie about sheep standing in a field, doing nothing. We marketed it as both “the dullest movie ever made” and “the ultimate insomnia cure – better than any sleeping pill”.

This was another early attempt to raise awareness of Calm’s growing focus on sleep rather than just meditation. We launched it with an 87-second trailer and a poster paying an affectionate nod to the poster of La La Land.

The story went global and viral – everywhere from Bulgaria and Vietnam to Kazakhstan and beyond, as well the countries we were actually targeting, like the US, UK and the English-speaking world.

It got so much coverage that a few months later we took the risk of coming back for second helpings and staged the world premiere of Baa Baa Land on the red carpet of a central London cinema, where the sheep stars of the movie, dressed in (comfortably loose-fitting) tuxedos and evening gowns walked the red carpet for the assembled media and placed their hoof prints in cement (or, in fact, a tray of mud).

Baa Baa Land Movie premiere featuring sheep on the red carpet dressed in tuxedos and a dress
Sheep in evening dress and filmgoers in pyjamas graced the red carpet for the world premiere of Baa Baa Land, the dullest movie ever made. (Note: We want to credit all creators for their work. If we’ve accidentally used copyrighted material and/or you’re the copyright owner and wish to be credited, or your material removed, please email .)

 

Reuters and Associated Press both sent TV crews to cover it, and the result, again, was global coverage – almost as much as when we first announced the movie, with just a trailer and poster.

Another silly idea that won loads of attention was Once Upon a GDPR – the world’s first and only bedtime story consisting of a long and snooze-worthy extract from GDPR, the EU’s new privacy law. It was first suggested by Dun Wang, a senior executive and all-round star at Calm, and launched as a Sleep Story on Calm the same week that the new GDPR law came into force.

We recruited Peter Jefferson, the esteemed former BBC announcer who read the Shipping Forecast on BBC radio for nearly four decades, to narrate it in his best bedtime tones.

The new story won not just lots of international attention but much acclaim, with Inc.com declaring, “Privacy Policies Are Boring. This Company’s Answer Is Brilliant.”

Screenshot of a tweet by Hannah Kuchler announcing Calm's GDPR sleep story
The revered former BBC announcer, Peter Jefferson, narrated “Once Upon GDPR”, Calm’s Sleep Story comprising a long extract from the EU’s new GDPR privacy law. (Note: We want to credit all creators for their work. If we’ve accidentally used copyrighted material and/or you’re the copyright owner and wish to be credited, or your material removed, please email .)

 

We then won good coverage in the UK specifically for a Sleep Story called A Cure For Insomnia? Cricket Explained, which involved Henry Blofeld, a veteran cricket commentator and UK celebrity, explaining the rules of cricket …

This was a fairly silly idea, inspired by the observation of Groucho Marx, the best-known of the Marx Brothers, who declared of his first experience of attending a cricket match (in London in the 1950s), “What a wonderful cure for insomnia.”

Calm’s Sleep Story with Henry Blofeld explaining the rules of cricket paved the way 10 months later for another, featuring John McEnroe, the former bad boy and superbrat of world tennis, reading the rules of tennis, in an even sillier Sleep Story called “But Seriously, the Rules of Tennis”.

Released to coincide with Wimbledon, the new McEnroe Sleep Story won terrific coverage, not just in the UK but also in North America – far more than would have been likely to result from having McEnroe narrate something more mundane and less silly.

 

5. The never-ending launch: One lightning bolt is not enough; you need rolling thunder.

… Or, once the launch is over, it’s only just begun.

Product people in tech sometimes understand this rule better than PR folks, since it’s at the heart of the “lean startup” methodology of endless testing, tweaking and new iterations, which means that their job is never finished.

Some or many PR folks, on the other hand, still sometimes think more in terms of doing a one-off launch for something and then ticking it off their list.

Brands today need to be constantly in front of people – but few are.

The half-life of an idea is ever shorter. One idea is not enough. You need a production line and conveyor belt of new ideas that KEEP winning fresh attention, coverage and buzz.

You don’t need one bolt of lightning but rolling thunder – marketing’s equivalent of Mao’s “perpetual revolution”, or what might be called a never-ending launch.

Some ideas might (to switch metaphors) deliver home runs and others merely singles but the key is to keep the ideas – large and small  – coming.

If there’s a secret, perhaps it’s one that both Picasso and Shakespeare knew, despite neither ever having worked for startups: productivity and volume of output, coupled with a respectable batting average, matter more than making every work a masterpiece, which you’re never going to manage.

And so we kept the production line for Calm’s PR rolling, generating one idea after another, including:

• A survey to rank the most bizarre insomnia cures ever. The winner was the medieval cure of smearing dog’s ear wax on your teeth. Everyone from Reader’s Digest to Parade and Shape magazine lined up to cover the story.

• Turning Britain’s “strange national lullaby”, the maritime “Shipping Forecast” broadcast daily since forever on BBC radio, into an eccentric Sleep Story for Calm. It got great coverage initially in the UK, where it was better known, but then gradually started to win coverage and interest in the US media too, as both a cultural curiosity and distinctive natural sleep aid.

A person asleep in a boat floating over a UK map with a radio beacon emitting the BBC Shipping Forecast
The maritime “Shipping Forecast”, Britain’s strange national lullaby, on BBC radio, became an eccentric new Sleep Story on Calm. Illustration: Emily Snape. (Note: We want to credit all creators for their work. If we’ve accidentally used copyrighted material and/or you’re the copyright owner and wish to be credited, or your material removed, please email .)

 

• Creating a purpose-designed meditation to help fans cope with the special stress of watching a penalty shoot-out in football’s/soccer’s World Cup. This won coverage from everyone from the Press Association in the UK to Cheddar News in the US and others from Ireland to Asia.

• Getting widely syndicated coverage from a silly poll that voted golf the dullest sport to watch and best to cure insomnia.

While most of the ideas that worked best were in some way quirky or offbeat, we also had success with a few that were hardly quirky at all but still hinged on coming up with a good idea to win media interest when none was ready-made.

We commissioned a survey, for example, asking respondents which night of the week they found it hardest to sleep. The landslide winner was Sunday.

The result and the reasons for it got more coverage than we had even hoped – everywhere from the Daily Mail/ MailOnline to USA Today to Inc.com, which  got so excited that it ran two separate articles on our study within a couple of weeks.

Almost equally straightforward was our survey on the most common sleep myths that are also most widely believed. This got excellent coverage in the four countries – the US, Canada, UK and France – where we pitched it and even some, like Australia, where we didn’t.

Such ideas may not have been conspicuously quirky or creative but they were solidly journalistic, with enough substance and interest to deliver excellent ROI, while sustaining the rolling thunder and never-ending launch that we needed.

6. Celebrities can help a lot (but they don’t need to be alive … or even real). And, if they’re not A-Listers, it’s better if they’re doing something offbeat

Enlisting celebrities as narrators, presenters and sometimes creators of its content has been a signature strength of Calm’s – particularly since it has become better known and funded and so better able to attract and afford star talent.

Hiring celebrities is expensive but can make a big difference, if not turbo-charge your PR. Even less stellar celebs can all add not just name recognition but kudos, credibility, lustre and pzazz, all helping to sprinkle Hollywood stardust on your brand.

When it comes to media value and interest, however, A-list celebrities are not just slightly more valuable than B- and C-listers but vastly, disproportionately so.

If, say, a less exalted celeb reads a Calm Sleep Story or other piece of content then that’s, well, nice – and users like it – but not generally the cause of great media excitement, especially if the celebrity concerned is unwilling to give media interviews.

When Matthew McConaughey, however, became the first A-list, U.S. celebrity to narrate a Sleep Story for Calm, that was big news, as it was when LeBron James partnered with Calm to produce a range of content promoting both sleep and mental fitness.

When Harry Styles then narrated a Sleep Story for Calm, that was so big that his fans crashed the app on launch day.

The media attention that you get from big celebrities, what’s more, does not end once you have first announced their contribution. There is also then an ongoing legacy – a sort of long tail – of intermittent but continued mentions for months or years afterwards.

Maximizing the coverage from big-name celebrities has been among the many important contributions to Calm’s PR made by Alexia Marchetti.

The celebrities concerned don’t even have to be alive. Calm has also won great coverage by enlisting dead celebrities, including the Brothers Grimm, as mentioned above, and Bob Ross, the late TV art instructor and now pop culture icon.

After Calm’s co-founder Michael Acton Smith spotted a book of Ross’s quotes in a second-hand bookshop, Calm repurposed the soundtrack of three episodes of Ross’s 1980s TV show, The Joy of Painting, into three new Calm Sleep Stories and won huge media coverage by doing so.

New York Times article about the Bob Ross Sleep Story showing Bob Ross at an easel
Calm won huge coverage by repurposing the soundtracks of three old episodes of the 1980s TV art show, presented by Bob Ross, the art instructor and pop culture icon. (Note: We want to credit all creators for their work. If we’ve accidentally used copyrighted material and/or you’re the copyright owner and wish to be credited, or your material removed, please email .)

The celebrities not only don’t need to be alive, they don’t even need to be real; enlisting fictional celebrities can also work.

Calm also got great coverage from an idea of Alex and Michael’s for producing a Sleep Story that involved the droning economics teacher from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off reading out the first chapter of The Wealth of Nations, the classic 1776 economics book by Adam Smith, the Father of Economics.

Along with the example above of having John McEnroe read out the rules of tennis, this also illustrated the added PR value of a quirky approach and the advantage of having celebrities doing something offbeat, amusing or weird rather than just turning up and showing their face.

Another of example of using fictional celebrities to good PR effect was Calm’s Sleep Story series of Fairy Tales De-Stressed, which harnessed fictional big names names including Rumpelstiltskin and The Big Bad Wolf in such reimagined fairy tales as Rumpelstiltskin Learns to Meditate and The Big Bad Wolf Learns Anger Management.

This was also an example of adding PR value by having celebrities do something offbeat, amusing or weird, since this project involved both fictional celebs (Rumpelstiltskin and The Big Bad Wolf) and real celebrity narrators (Nick Offerman and Game of Thrones star, Jerome Flynn), in both cases doing something fun, unusual and surprising.

The takeaway from this and the other examples above might be stated as follows:

Dog bites celebrity is not necessarily news – unless it’s a huge celebrity (or maybe a huge dog).

But celebrity bites dog IS far more likely to be news – even it’s not a huge celebrity.

Or, in other words: celebrity + weird/quirky/creative > just celebrity on its own.

Three little piggies sitting on a drawing of the big bad wolf anouncing that he learns anger management
Calm’s Sleep Story series of “Fairy Tales De-Stressed” reimagined classic tales for modern times – with the help of celebrity narrators. (Note: We want to credit all creators for their work. If we’ve accidentally used copyrighted material and/or you’re the copyright owner and wish to be credited, or your material removed, please email .)

7. Names matter. A snappy name for something can add huge value.

Naming is power. In PR and marketing, a snappy name for something can add huge value.

There is not just power but also magic in naming.

Naming something previously unnamed also gives birth to it. It becomes a thing. And a new thing, if it sounds interesting enough, in turn becomes news.

Phoebe Smith, for example, is a terrific travel writer, an intrepid adventurer and one of Calm’s most talented, valued and prolific writers of Sleep Stories, with millions of listeners and fans.

She only started to earn the wider – global – media acclaim that she deserved when she started calling herself a “sleep storyteller-in-residence” and we then made it official and announced her to the media as Calm’s and the world’s first official “Sleep Storyteller-in-residence”.

Phoebe Smith Calm Sleep Storyteller
Phoebe Smith, Calm’s “Sleep Storyteller-in-Residence”, won global attention and deserved acclaim as “the Queen of Slow Lit”. (Note: We want to credit all creators for their work. If we’ve accidentally used copyrighted material and/or you’re the copyright owner and wish to be credited, or your material removed, please email .)

We also coined the terms, “Slow Literature” (as in Slow Food or Slow Cinema) and “Slow Lit”, to describe the new literary genre created by Calm’s Sleep Stories. We then declared Phoebe both “the Queen of Slow Lit” and the “JK Rowling of Slow Lit”.

It also helped that Phoebe was/is a great interviewee, whom the media loved. But what was the biggest help in winning so much coverage and buzz for her Sleep Stories and role for Calm was pitching her unique and intriguing job title, plus the various other names and nicknames we invented around it.

We again used the same technique, of generating media interest largely on the basis of inventing an intriguing new name for something not itself perhaps entirely new, when we coined the word “sleep-storming” to label a list of simple tips for coming up with ideas in your sleep and then published a Calm blog post asking, “Is sleep-storming the new brainstorming”?

The first tip was as simple, if not banal, as “Keep a notebook handy – and write down your dreams” – but “sleep-storming” as a whole sounded like some cool and funky new thing, technique or life-hack and the media loved it.

 

8. Think Anglo from day one.

Whether this rule makes sense for your own brand obviously depends on what you are marketing and to whom.

If, however, you’re trying to win coverage and users for an English-language app with an international market, then why limit yourselves – as many do – just to the US? Why not try to generate ideas designed to appeal not just to the US market but also far beyond?

“Think global from day one” is the common advice for startup founders. But if you’re an English-language app, a better version of this advice might be, “Think Anglo from day one”, as in, think from day one of targeting at least the global Anglosphere.

Or, if you’re an app charging a subscription more likely to be affordable in more affluent countries, then target at least what might be called the “Western Anglosphere”, or perhaps the “WAnglo” for short.

So, the most practical advice when it comes to PR is to “Think WAnglo” – as in, “Think Western Anglosphere” – from day one.

The most practical way to do this is how Calm did it – by having PR folks on the ground and pitching your ideas in at least two key initial markets: both the US (but in fact pitching both US and Canada) and the UK.

What’s more and, indeed, crucial is that you can pitch the same – or essentially the same – idea in both North America and the UK. The ability to pitch the same idea in multiple markets in turn means that you spread the time and cost of executing the idea in question, which in turn lets you develop more ideas for the same money.

For most English-language apps/startups with potential international appeal, the UK is likely to become their second largest market after the US. So, if you’ve gone to the trouble and expense of developing a good idea, with potential international appeal, you might as well pitch it in not just the US but also the UK.

The UK may be what one US politician recently called a “Tier 2” country but when it comes to international media influence it remains very much a Tier 1 country, punching far above its weight.

Just as London is a global financial centre, it’s also a global media centre. A story that originates in the London or UK media will often get picked up not just by the North American media but also travel the world.

Many founders of US startups fail to realise this. Perhaps because Calm’s founders were themselves from the UK, though based in San Francisco, they not only realised but acted on it – and reaped the benefits.

 

9. Join the cultural conversation – with reactive, opportunistic ideas that “newsjack” current events and the Zeitgeist itself.

Calm has done this brilliantly on at least two recent occasions, for neither of which can I claim any credit.

The first was not strictly a PR idea but a marketing partnership that involved Calm sponsoring CNN’s coverage of the 2020 U.S. presidential election night coverage. Calm’s logo flashed onto America’s screens during CNN’s “Key Race Alert” coverage, simultaneously generating massive buzz for Calm, while ostensibly reminding viewers of the need to relax at a moment of peak stress.

Then in the summer of 2021, Calm harnessed both the news and Zeitgeist again, when tennis star Naomi Osaka announced on social media that she would be skipping all news conferences during the French Open to protect her mental health. When the tournament organisers fined her $15,000 and threatened further sanctions, Osaka asked for her fine be donated to charity.

Calm promptly stepped in to announce that it would do what the tournament officials wouldn’t and donate $15,000, equivalent to Osaka’s fine, to a French sports charity working to transform the lives and mental health of young people through sport.

It accompanied this donation with a social media campaign declaring that “Mental health is health” – and again won a heap of buzz and praise for putting its money where its mission was.

 

10. The biggest limiting factor in PR is not the subject or the budget but the client, and what they’ll let you do

The biggest obstacle to winning coverage for a brand, in my now long experience, is not the subject or even the budget but the client.

If the client will allow you, then it should be possible, without a huge budget, to win global coverage for a brand making anything from reinforced concrete to aluminium siding.

Calm, however, has been a wonderful client to work for, with an openness that many others lack to doing playful and sometimes silly things.

Michael Acton Smith, the co-founder to whom I reported, has great judgement and instinct for PR and is always fizzing with ideas himself. Both he and Alex Tew have a track record of repeatedly coming up with great ideas.

It doesn’t hurt that Michael is also generous with praise. Indeed, he said to me at one point, “Alex and I consider you Calm’s secret weapon”.

This may have been because, with my help, Calm was able to leverage a type of PR, guerrilla marketing and buzz generation that rivals could not.

Then again, it may just have been more flattery. But then, who was I to argue?

Summary/Recap: The 10 rules underlying Calm’s PR success

Let me end by recapping what I view as the main “rules” that helped Calm get a “ton of PR” – and which you might consider lessons or takeaways if you want to do the same.

1. There are two kinds of PR. Most startups only do one, but you need to do both. 
 
2. “If there is no excitement ready-made, then some must be created.” 
 
3. Creativity gives you more buzz for your buck: You don’t need a zillion dollars to win attention; you need a good idea. 
 
4. Lighten up. Silly PR is better than serious PR. 
 
5. The never-ending launch: One lightning bolt is not enough; you need rolling thunder. 
 
6. Celebrities can help a lot (but they don’t need to be alive … or even real) 
… and, if they’re not A-Listers, it’s better if they’re doing something offbeat. 
 
7. Names matter. A snappy name for something can add huge value.
 
8. Think Anglo from day one. 
 
9. Join the cultural conversation – with reactive, opportunistic ideas that “newsjack” the current events and the Zeitgeist itself. 
 
10. The biggest limiting factor in PR is not the subject or the budget but the client, and what they’ll let you do.