[Editor’s Note: We jumped at the chance to interview Rachael Horwitz, who’s led communication strategies at Silicon Valley giants, most recently Google. Before that, she was a communicator at Facebook and Twitter. She was the first VP of communication at crypto exchange firm Coinbase. In late June, venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz named her an operating partner. That same day, it unveiled a $2.2 billion fund to continue investing in crypto. This adds to investments it made in crypto since 2003.
In her new position, Horwitz is leading communication and marketing for a16z crypto, which oversees and counsels the crypto companies and entrepreneurs Andreessen Horowitz invests in. Along with Horwitz, the a16z crypto team also features executives in regulation, policy, recruiting and startup management.
In its late-June release, Andreessen Horowitz admitted, “crypto has endured a variety of challenges and misconceptions.” That’s why Horwitz’s remit includes “help[ing] translate crypto to the mainstream.”
In this interview, we asked Horwitz about ‘translating’ a new currency format and what communicators at small companies need to consider as crypto continues its increasingly larger role in the business zeitgeist.
We found Horwitz shares much with other PR pros. In addition to raising awareness, she must build public trust, bolster internal communication and differentiate products and services from others on the market. The thrust of her message is that crypto and blockchain are tech building blocks that could eventually be a large part of our business and personal lives, touching nearly everything we buy, sell or trade.
A few terms of art.
Crypto, or cryptocurrency, is a payment instrument used online to purchase goods and services. Bitcoin is the most well-known crypto currency brand. While many of the headlines about crypto involve price speculation, several companies let customers use cryptocurrencies in business transactions. For example, J.P. Morgan’s currency, or token, JPM Coin, allows customers “to solve common hurdles of traditional cross-border payments.” And the U.S. Federal Reserve apparently is considering issuing a digital currency. Also in DC, crypto's lobbyists are working to limit language in the proposed Senate infrastructure bill. IRS-related bill language will stifle parts of the crypto world, the lobbyists say.
Blockchain, or Blockchain technology, underlies crypto currency. Think of blockchain is a public ledger. Inside the online ledger are records of transactions. An advantage of blockchain technology is its security. Blockchain guards the ledger’s contents, making it difficult for hackers to access or alter transactions. Yet, critics contend there's a price for blockchain's security. One issue is that it records transactions slowly, about 7 transactions per second. Normal digital systems can handle 20,000 transactions in a second.
On the other hand, plenty of criminals use crypto. In addition, it's spawned scams, it's niche and, as we said above, its value can be volatile. There also are environmental issues in that creating crypto, or mining, involves a lot of electricity.
NFT (non-fungible token) A non-fungible item is a one-of-a-kind object, such as a piece of music paper that Mozart used when composing a concerto. Another example is Babe Ruth’s last baseball bat. A non-fungible token generally refers to a piece of digital art, such as a video. NFTs allow the video’s maker to reap financial rewards for her creation and protect it from being pirated online. While security was supposed to be a selling point for NFTs, questions have arisen about their safety.
Horwitz’s responses were lightly edited.]
PRNEWS: How do you explain crypto to someone at a cocktail party who has only a passing knowledge of it?
Rachael Horwitz: I explain it as a technology movement that is just as important now as the internet and personal computers were years ago. Too often people think of crypto in the context of finance, which makes sense, because that has been an early use-case.
However, if you're uninterested in finance, you tend to shut down and close your mind to the possibilities of blockchain technology.
Crypto is still in its early stages. In the same way you couldn't necessarily imagine companies like Airbnb or Uber in the early days of the web—the kinds of applications and experiences that will be built on top of these new protocols will probably touch all aspects of our lives.
PRNEWS: Trust is a major issue with any startup. Talk about how communication can play a role in building public trust for crypto.
Horwitz: You’re right, trust is going to be huge for the space, especially for the financial-use cases. But for crypto, our communication strategies need to first and foremost inspire.
We've seen so much backlash against technology over the past several years. The thing is that crypto really is an exciting development. And it’s really an interesting and fulfilling space for communication professionals because there is so much to do and so many opportunities.
PRNEWS: What are some of the inspiring points of crypto?
Horwitz: Think about extending economic opportunity to more people around the world or even how decentralized systems can play a role in strengthening democracies. And it can offer a check against our current tech paradigm, dominated by centralized internet companies.
There are so many stories to tell that will excite people. They’ll also help people feel optimistic about what technology can do for society.
So, we need to start from that proactive, optimistic place, rather than reacting too much.
PRNEWS: You’ve done internal communication in this space with Coinbase and others. Tell us about what internal communication means in the crypto industry.
Horwitz: Crypto is no different from the rest of the tech industry in that the importance of internal communication has only increased over the course of my career.
Employees at crypto companies are the most important messengers because they're the ones who are talking to their friends and family about these projects, what they're working on, why they have chosen a career in crypto, and why it's so fulfilling.
That word of mouth is how the space will continue to attract best-in-class technology workers. And it's also how adoption of these new products and applications in crypto will accelerate. That was the case when I was at Twitter in the early days and it's going to be the case for crypto.
So, you really need to have excellent internal communication folks onboard sooner than later. They can help you articulate what your company stands for, why it exists, and what problems you are solving in a way that employees get excited about and can go out into the world and talk about.
PRNEWS: What have you learned from your work in crypto that will inform how you communicate moving forward?
Horwitz: The most important lesson in crypto is that it is cyclical. There are moments when the whole world is quite fixated on price—either when prices are high or when they dip—and as a communication leader in crypto it's something you learn to navigate.
What we know is that the cycles that actually matter are the innovation cycles. Projects launching, talent flooding into the space, adoption accelerating, etc. Those are the stories to help audiences and media focus on. At Coinbase, we built a communication program that stayed the course in that sense. I think that really paid off in building trust and interest in crypto overall.
PRNEWS: Rachael, let’s dissect a recent statement from a16z. “We are radically optimistic about crypto’s potential to restore trust and enable new kinds of governance where communities collectively make important decisions about how networks evolve what behaviors are permitted, and how economic benefits are distributed.”
How will crypto do all that? What’s the role of communication in this?
Horwitz: This speaks to the core ethos of crypto: decentralization vs centralization. Open networks vs closed networks. We are committed to the idea that open, decentralized platforms and technology are better for the world and societies. We're already seeing this with the creator economy, for example.
NFTs (Non-fungible tokens) are completely upending the power dynamics between creators and internet platforms. NFTs grew dramatically this year, finishing the first half of 2021 with over $2.5 billion in sales.
NFT platforms generally have low take rates, ranging from 2.5 percent to 15 percent. Because blockchains shift power to users, this means most of the $2.5 billion went to creators and collectors.
Contrast that to the main internet platforms. They take anywhere from 30 percent (app stores) to 100 percent (social networks).
In terms of communication, it’s up to communicators to explain that's the kind of revolution crypto is driving. That's what we're talking about when we mention how economic benefits are distributed. And those are the stories we're going to tell through our communication program.
PRNEWS: How will you introduce crypto to the mainstream? What are two of the main hurdles?
Horwitz: Well, as a communication leader, the first place I go is to the messenger. Who can explain crypto to audiences beyond the crypto community in a way that helps more people understand how important this technology is? And how important this moment is in the history of crypto?
One way to go is to have someone on the team who does not come from a traditional tech background. Someone on our team, Katie Haun, has spent the majority of her career in policy and law enforcement circles. So, she has a lot of credibility as a thought leader in the space. She also has an innate ability to explain complex ideas, in this case crypto, in a way that is easy to understand for a general audience. So, [her work is] going to be an important part of our program.
Another hurdle is mainstream news outlets, like lifestyle magazines or broadcast media. They assume their audience isn't interested in crypto. I hope to convince more editors and producers that their audience is not only hungry for this information, but it's really in their interest to understand this technology for all kinds of reasons.
PRNEWS: How will you convince editors and producers?
Horwitz: Through education around the fact that crypto is so much more than financial products. And it's moving very quickly into many verticals that impact news media audiences.
Just as we did a lot of education around the search algorithm at Google in the early days and education about the different communities that exist on Twitter. We'll work closely with producers and editors to break down all the ways crypto may change art, entertainment, education, fashion, etc.
PRNEWS: I’m a one-person communication team at a company. Our CEO is interested in exploring crypto, though she is unsure exactly where it will fit into our business. As the company’s communicator, what should I be doing to prepare?
Horwitz: You should stay close to the technical team and help them understand that slapping ‘blockchain’ or ‘crypto’ on a press release will not make them seem innovative or be helpful.
The crypto community is incredibly discerning. You want to offer up a really credible, substantive solution to the market and good things in communication and brand will flow from that. So, the best thing to do is be that voice at the table.
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