Startup PR 101: 20 Tips

By November 20, 2015Startup PR

As we’ve seen time and time again, PR can be an incredibly powerful tool for your startup. From helping you shape your narrative and announcing yourself to the world, to driving leads and investor interest, PR has proven itself to be one of the most effective ways to get heard in this incredibly noisy startup word.

But it’s way more than that. Even leading VC’s agree that startup PR can help improve recruiting, potential partnerships on the business development front and even staff morale.

As Upfront Ventures Managing Partner Mark Suster has noted:

“Once your firm (startup) is ready for marketing I personally can’t think of any marketing budget that is more effective that PR.”

However, for many early stage entrepreneurs venturing through the startup jungle, engaging a firm or a consultant to expertly develop and guide their PR plans isn’t always an option. That’s why we created our DIY PR & Influencer Relations package.

It’s also why we’ve compiled this list, which we’ll update regularly to make sure that if you choose to go it alone or want some pointers before we help you scale, you have some basic guidelines and tips to light your path. It’s the gift that will keep on giving.

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1. Don’t do an automated email blast with the media; they never go well

Relationships are everything in PR. One of the fastest ways to kill a relationship is by sending out email blasts. They’re easy to sniff out and they show a blatant disregard for providing value to the journalists who receive them. Always strive to give your media contacts something specifically tailored to their beat and audience. Here are some good tips on how to craft a good pitch. Don’t just go and copy blanket pitches you can get on the Internet!

2. Remember the 3 S’s of media interviews: smile, simple & succinct

We were working with the CEO of a $200M business a few year’s back. He had been fully media trained and gave a pretty solid interview. However, no matter how good his delivery was, he looked miserable on camera. If there’s one way to lighten an interview right off the bat, it’s by smiling. If it’s being recorded, you’ll thank yourself later for not looking so mad at the world for being there. Perception is everything. The other two S’s?

Keep it simple. Stick to your three points (more on that in a bit) and don’t tongue-tie yourself by going into uncharted territory. The worst place you can be is in the middle of an interview venturing into a topic that you’ve never thought about before. Note Sean Rad’s recent missteps.

Lastly, being succinct is an important part of the equation. Try to speak in digestible soundbites. There’s nothing worse for a reporter than their interviewee turning into a filibuster. Try to avoid it, unless of course, you’re avoiding making a concrete answer.

Here are some other tips to help you navigate a media interview successfully.

3. Have your house in order before a negative announcement – loose lips sink ships

PR is both an art and a science, but in its simplest form, it’s really about getting information from point A to point B in a way that benefits your organization. To that end, it’s especially important that you control the release of information when it comes to something like a layoff. Establish a small group of trusted individuals who can help gather and communicating information in a way that lets you control it and not the other way around.

4. Make sure your product is in a good place before you launch

While PR can create an explosion of interest and new users for your startup, if you don’t have your product in order before you launch it can actually make you implode. A groundswell of interest in a half-baked product can result in bad reviews and cause people to abandon your service quicker than they adopted it. Even if it’s an MVP, make sure it’s one that people are going to love before you announce yourself to the world. If you blow your first impression you may not get a chance to make another.

5. Remember, the human mind thinks in 3’s

The human mind actually prefers thinking in patterns. In fact, we naturally look for and create patterns every day, in everything we do. We communicate in three’s so much that we don’t even know we are doing it:

  • Ready, aim, fire…
  • Ready, set, go…
  • Lights, camera, action…
  • The three little pigs
  • The three blind mice
  • Goldilocks and the three bears

Bucketing your points into three’s will make them more memorable and impactful. Do it as often as possible.

  6. PR is not scaleable without content marketing

As a startup, getting your first round of PR isn’t all that hard. But while an initial outburst of stories on your company can do great things for your startup, not being prepared with a strategy that continues the buzz can you leave in the same position you were before you got your first ink.

This is where content comes in. When the initial buzz dies down, and there aren’t significant features or newsworthy developments to announce, content can carry the PR torch. Use your access to user data to tell unique and compelling stories that are newsworthy in their own right. Keep the buzz buzzing.

7. Use anecdotes to bolster your story

Anecdotes are effective because they make the story real.  Anytime you can offer up an anecdote on how someone has used your product or service to solve a challenge they faced, do it! You can also use anecdotes when don’t have the numbers to substantiate how awesome you are.

When the reporter asks you how many users you have, instead of saying:  “It’s early, so we only have about 100 right now,” say something much more powerful like, “It’s still early, but we are pleased with the growth we are seeing. However, what we are really excited about is what we’re hearing from users that validate there is a real need for our service.” Then proceed to provide an anecdote from one of those users.

8. Never, ever, speak anything but the truth

The startup world is hard enough; don’t stifle your chances for success by lying. Hampton Creek CEO, Josh Tetrick, who captured a lot of interest and attention early on with his Just Mayo product, recently found himself in the news when he accused of lying about the ingredients in the mayonnaise replacement.

In his book, What Did Jesus Drive: Crisis PR in Cars, Computers and Christianity, Jason Vines, the PR guy behind some of the biggest automotive industry crises sums up perfectly: “Speculating is a hand grenade and, of course, lying is suicide.”

9. Your PR is only as strong as your media list

Years ago, when I was a fledgling account coordinator at my first agency I received this sage piece of advice from a colleague who would later turn out to be the founder of BMV — Kyle Austin. While I’ve picked up countless tidbits over the years from some of the best communicators out there, this piece of advice has come in handy more times than any other. Spend as much time as it takes researching to find out which reporters are the right targets for you. Know what they cover, what their interests are and get a sense for how you might get their attention.

10. Target publications with social influence

While a feature story in the New York Times is certain to get a lot of attention for your startup, there are plenty of digital publications out there who’s social influence can get you just as much buzz. Too often, startups and their founders overlook non-traditional publications that have enormous social followings like Buzzfeed and Elite Daily, thinking that the Old Grey Lady (NYT) or publications like the Wall Street Journal are more influential. While the publications you target should reflect the audience you wish to connect with, never overlook the residual effects that getting into socially shared publications can have.

11. Press releases distribution isn’t always worth it

Press release distribution can be costly: hundreds, even thousands of dollars depending on how far you wish to broaden your “reach”.  And while you may think the cost is worth getting your news posted across wire services all over the world, in all likelihood, a target outreach approach will be far more effective. Save the money and spend a little extra time building a solid media list to target with customized pitches that link back to a blog post on the news.

  1. A picture is worth a thousand words

With our collective attention spans dwindling below that of a goldfish these days —seriously–pictures do a wonderful job of helping us digest information. If done well, an infographic or another type of graphical representation can also help you get your news picked up. Whenever you can, use images instead of words. Here’s an example of a graphic one of our clients  did that got a lot of buzz.

Sites like Piktochart give you a lot of free tools to make really nice graphics without actually needing to be a graphic designer.

  1. Customers are great. Customers that will speak to the press about using your service are even greater

While anecdotes can be very effective in helping validate your startup, customer quotes are even more powerful. When planning a PR push on your business, i.e. a launch or new product announcement, lineup customers who are willing to share their positive experiences of interacting with your brand. Obviously, the higher profile the customer, the better.

14. Understand how PR plays into your SEO

PR can be a great tool for SEO with inbound links. You just need to know how to play the game. Overtly asking bloggers and media for link love before they even write a piece is a great way to piss them off and lose an opportunity. Instead, focus on producing content and leverage internal data for stories that more naturally inclines them to link back to your blog. Meanwhile, keep hyperlinking your company in correspondence with them, so when they go to put into their stories (with a mention) they’re more inclined to use the hyperlinked version alongside the link to the data. Visual content can be especially interesting to media and bloggers, and they’ll often ask for permission to run the content as is on their sites while citing the company. This is a great opportunity to say: For sure! If you just wouldn’t mind linking back to our Website?!

15. Maneuver different mediums

In our daily work we’re continually focused on digital public relations and driving inbound leads, users and startup valuations, but that doesn’t mean you should pass over broadcast and radio opportunities. These can be great platforms for thought leadership, building personal brands and general awareness of the C-suite with potential investors and other C-level movers and shakers. However, it’s also important to note that broadcast and radio opportunities can also be “one and done.” They have a limited shelf life after airing that is unlike digital or online pieces that can extend ‘shelf life’ long after a topic or news story has faded. That’s because readers keep discovering them through social media, links to the content, and inbound links to improve SEO and page ranks.

16. You May Not Need an Agency (at least a big one)

Yes, this is coming from an agency – a boutique one at least! As others have said, there are reasons an agency can not make sense. This is especially true if you view PR simply as getting stories. You can quickly find yourself as the small fish at the big agency — with little attention given your way.

I’ve come to believe that somewhere between a boutique firm and a freelancer is often a good place to start. Find a few senior-level, “hired guns” that can get up and running on your business and technology very quickly and cost-effectively. It seems to be ideal with for startups with marketing budgets that often fall below the minimum monthly retainers sought after by traditional agencies and short of bringing in someone internally full-time that has the experience.

In addition, over the years of running BMV, we’ve found that a combination of PR/media relations, content marketing/social and influencer marketing can work best for driving leads and awareness. Make sure you have someone or some folks that have experience across these areas.

17. Don’t Try to be Cute By Going ‘Off the Record’

A lot of startup founders understand the ‘relations’ part of PR pretty well, but they try to become good friends with journalist contacts. That’s not a great idea — especially when they are willing to go ‘off the record’ to discuss other companies or matters that they probably wouldn’t want their name attached to discussing publicly.

You should build rapport, but you can’t forget that anything you say could end up on the Web or in print. Yes, you can go off the record occasionally if you’re crystal clear, but that banter you’re having in every other part of the conversation can be taken, cut down and used in a story. Sometimes, it ends up being out of context. Look at what transpired with Paul Graham.

18. Give Reporters Enough Lead Time

There is nothing more frustrating for both startup founders and journalists than when the amount of lead time on a story gets in the way of them covering news or an announcement. Take it from Josh Constine, the Editor-at-large at TechCrunch, you can’t bring your story to a reporter at the 24th hour and expect coverage. However, you also don’t want to give so much time that the news isn’t close to being relevant yet. Around 3-4 days should do — or as he says 3.5 biz days (Thursday morning for a Tuesday launch).

19. Measure Story Impact and Adjust

Startups love metrics and finding the real business impact of PR is possible today by using free tools such as Google Analytics or paid tools like Hubspot and TrendKite. Not only can you gauge PR’s impact on SEO as we noted on above, but you can also pinpoint what potential new customers are coming through the sales funnel with an assist to PR work (driven to the Website via earned media). You can also easily measure share of voice against competitors in the press and the tonality of coverage. All of these real-time metrics can let you adjust on the fly and target the types of stories that really drive value for your growth stage business.

20. Hurry Up and HARO

Help a Reporter Out is a great free tool that you can leverage to find reporters looking for sources and information that may be relevant to your business in real-time. You can use to get some quick wins on the board to build thought leadership and potential inbound links. It’s good to have some canned messages for certain topics that you feel like you may be a good source to comment on ready so that you can quickly customize to respond personally with. A lot of the requests are answered within minutes not hours. Savvy startups who are building their own content marketing programs can also leverage HARO to find their own sources to interview for branded stories, conduct podcasts with, etc. By bringing another content creator into the mix you may be able to offset some of your own content creation, while also increasing the potential distribution of any content with their own network, which they will bring online for you.

This post was last updated on May 22, 2017

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