Public Relations for Startups – Boring Startup Stuff

Public Relations for Startups

PR sounds a lot cooler on TV. Who doesn’t want to be as badass as Olivia Pope?

In reality, she’s more of a crisis manager than a PR agent, but she still orchestrates exactly how her clients should speak, who they should be speaking to, and how they should behave in order to convey a certain message to the world. Essentially, that’s what PR does (on a far less dramatic scale). PR, or public relations, is about finding ways to disseminate information about an organization to affect public perception.

With fewer resources and time on their hands, most startups put PR on the back burner. But there are scrappy ways to approach PR to get you the notoriety you are craving. Read on to understand the difference between traditional marketing and PR, why PR is important, and how to form and implement a short and long-term PR strategy.

What’s the difference between PR and marketing?

On the surface it can seem like marketing and PR are kind of the same thing. They both encourage people to buy products or services, right? While that’s true, and marketing and PR do have overlap, the main difference is that marketing can involve paying for exposure to an intended audience. This can be in the form of social ads, PPC activity, TV commercials, billboards, or even direct mail. PR, on the other hand, is generally thought of as “earned” media exposure. Essentially, you’re only featured in certain publications or outlets because your product, your people, or your customers are impressive to readers. Reporters need to feel like there’s enough to your story that everyone needs to hear about it. 

Why do you need PR?

The overall consensus is that earned media (PR) lends more credibility than paid media (marketing). If you think about it, who would you rather believe一a company telling you they’re a big deal or a publication you trust telling you a startup is a big deal? TechCrunch, Business Insider, or VentureBeat carry significant weight in the minds of consumers and investors. You can say your product is cool until you’re blue in the face and still not get very far.

With a pub’s seal of approval, people immediately take notice. This can have an enormous ROI—we’ve all heard stories of website traffic or free trial signups 10x-ing in one day. People put stock in certain media outlets and even in individual writers, particularly those that cover niche topics.

It’s important to note that the best kind of PR is real news. Publicizing something when it’s not up to snuff is a huge mistake. Not only will it tarnish your reputation among customers and prospects, it’ll put you straight onto journalists’ blacklists. Make certain you are comfortable with what’s being said and you have the receipts to back it up. 

Building a startup PR engine

The secret to realizing PR success is about establishing short- and long-term habits that help you nail down an enticing elevator pitch, get your name out there, build relationships with writers, and continue crafting interesting stories as your company scales. 

Before you start

It’s tempting to want to jump right in, but there are few things you need to nail down before you even start developing your PR strategy. This includes your:


  • Audience - Who do you want to speak to? It’s probably potential customers, but who else? VCs? Partners? Potential employees? Each of these audiences has different preferences and habits, which should influence the types of journalists or content creators you want to get to know.
    • Key message - There should be a driving force behind your PR. Think of the main message you’re trying to get across for each audience you’re targeting. Ensure that this key message is at the crux of each article when it gets published.
  • Founding story - Everyone likes a good backstory. Make sure you’re able to eloquently and succinctly describe the founding story in a way that props up your key messages and mission. 
  • Website and landing pages - When people hear about you, guess where they’re going first? Your website. It should be in tip-top shape before you reach out to journalists or PR sites. Be sure to have some fact sheets, customer testimonials, and case studies readily available as well.
  • Professional headshots - This one sounds silly, but every reporter wants images to break up their text. Make it easier on them by having these pictures on hand.
  • Google alerts - Google alerts are free and are a super useful way to keep track of your competition, find new media outlets, and connect your company to emerging issues or stories. Set up keywords related to your company and industry, as well as ones that your audience might be searching for.

Short-Term

Let’s say there’s a game-changing product launch or fundraise quickly approaching. You don’t have time to build rapport with writers and cold outreach is rarely fruitful. What do you do?

First, lean on your network. Do your investors or fellow founders have any writer contacts? What about your friends and family? Do any of them freelance for relevant publications? You never know, if you have a compelling enough story, there might be someone who is willing to give you and your company a shot.

Next, submit ideas to free sites. There are tons of PR sites out there these days. Here are some that are accustomed to more last-minute pitches:

  • HARO - Help A Reporter Out (HARO for short) is a platform that allows you to pitch your story to over 75,000 journalists and bloggers at once by submitting a short form. HARO also enables you to list yourself as an expert source, meaning your quote could end up in a really popular piece. HARO is free, but you can pay $19/month for a premium plan which gives you first access to journalists’ requests and premium support.
  • MuckRack - MuckRack is a Public Relations Management (PRM) platform that connects you with bloggers and journalists and measures the success of your PR efforts. For the full platform experience, it costs $200/month, but MuckRack has other options like submitting one-line, tweetable press releases for $1 per character. Pro-tip: use tinyurl to reduce characters.
  • Newswire - If you already have a press release typed up and ready to roll, consider using Newswire. It costs $199 for a one-time distribution to Google News, targeted trade publications, and a whole host of other news sites. After the release goes live, you’ll also get a detailed analytics report of the results.

Long-Term

The key to a sustainable PR engine is forming an outstanding journalist network. Whenever you need an extra PR boost, you simply dip into your Rolodex and pick the best person to tell your story. Of course, building up this pool of contacts isn’t an overnight thing. Dedicate time to:

  • Creating a Contact List - You don’t want to talk to just any journalist. You want a list of contacts who can cater to the audience you came up with in the “Before” section. Figure out where your audience hangs out online. What are they reading first thing in the morning? What types of articles do they forward to their colleagues? Once you determine what those publications are, you need to find the email addresses of journalists that cover your beat. Try using Hunter or LinkedIn Sales Navigator.
  • Making connections - After you have a healthy list, it’s time to make connections. Start small by retweeting their Tweets or leaving insightful comments on their articles. If you want to do a warm intro email, make it quick. Explain who you are, why your company is important, and how you can help them source intriguing story material. Whatever you do, don’t be obnoxious. As Neil Patel says, make friends, not contacts
  • Writing killer pitches - Journalists are seasoned veterans, especially in the tech industry, and nothing turns them off faster than a cookie-cutter email. Just imagine how many of those they get per day! Your pitches need to be concise, yet spark their curiosity. Go back to your key messages, value prop, and founding story. What is truly unique about what you’re doing, who you’re serving, or how your product was built? Is there some way to tie your company to a burgeoning trend that’s of particular interest to this specific journalist? Explain what’s in it for them, and tailor your story around that. Help them first so they can help you.
  • Putting it on the calendar - Again, sounds like a no-brainer, but schedule set times for following up. Reporters are busy, just like you. They may not see your initial emails or submissions, so feel free to follow up in a few weeks. At the same time, continue to take small actions to let them know you’re impressed by their work. Building trust takes time, so fit it into your routine.
  • Tracking your success - Not every pitch will work out, even with the reporters you know the best. Keep track of which pitches work and which don’t. Try to find patterns among the ones that didn’t work well, and improve upon those in your next batch of reach-outs. As an aside, if a writer declines, do not pressure them. Respect their time, requirements, and interests. Being deferential now can pay off in the future, since they may think of you the next time they hear about a similar topic. Plus, writers talk, so don’t be the annoying person they gossip about. 

The hardest part of PR for startups is figuring out how to express what your company does and what makes it unique in a way that grabs journalists’ attention. What makes this even more competitive is that many companies hire outside firms to do this work for them. But remember, you’re in it for the long haul. By getting the wheels turning on your PR strategy early, you can win over journalists, customers, and investors with little monetary investment.

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