Even before Mark Cuban famously warned tech startups against bringing on a PR agency, there has been a debate about the role of public relations in early-stage businesses.
Does a startup business always need to hire a PR agency? No. Whether it is handled by an internal team or an external agency, PR is a useful brand-building tool for startups, especially for B2B companies. B2B PR campaigns often involve vertical or trade press, which is easier to penetrate than mass media. It’s less expensive to amplify earned coverage with paid media or marketing tactics like SEM, email marketing and paid social.
No matter how it’s done, though, public relations is enormously versatile, even if it’s sometimes misunderstood. In skilled hands and the right situation, it’s “insanely valuable,” says VC and entrepreneur Mark Suster. He gives PR even more credit than I would, outlining the ways in which it supports vital business functions for early-stage companies. The most significant benefits aren’t even about marketing; they include fundraising and recruiting as well as brand building and customer acquisition.
Whatever your point of view on outside agencies, handling PR and media relations for an early-stage business is a blend of art and science. Experience counts, as do many other variables like the economic climate, the competition (or lack of it) and—very importantly—the character and charisma of the founder(s).
Here’s what we’ve learned from working for 10 years in PR for startups:
1. Focus on relationships,
Yes, there’s a reason it’s called public relations. Sometimes you get lucky and you land a story with a reporter you haven’t worked with before because it’s timely, relevant or perfect for that particular media outlet. Sometimes you meet an influential person you can tap later to speak on behalf of your business model or brand. But much of the art of media relations and PR involves making real connections. Remember, your story is unlikely to be a journalist’s priority, so it helps to get to know them not only by reading their stuff and following their social feeds, but by reaching out with useful information even when it’s not your story. Think in terms of building a relationship, not making a sale.
2. Tell, don’t sell.
This is part of relationship-building, but it’s worth noting on its own. Even if your new SaaS platform is the coolest and most disruptive tech ever, it’s not wise to focus solely on its features and benefits, and it’s worse if the pitch is drowning in jargon or technical terms. Instead, tell a story that anyone could understand at a cocktail party. What persistent problem does it solve? How did the idea come about? What breakthrough or industry change made it possible? We work with many technology startups whose business seems dry and narrow on the outside, but when you scratch the surface and work to identify and shape the narrative, a truly compelling story emerges. The founder’s early zeal and sacrifices, the risks, the trial-and-error nature of startup business breakthroughs—these can often differentiate a business in a way that no sales deck really can.
3. Think outside your industry.
Tech startups can be insular; at times founders and others believe their mission is more important than others do. When hard news isn’t happening in a business, however, it helps to think outside your world. What’s happening around us will always be relevant to media. Work to develop a point of view about the workforce, relevant government policies, business culture, leadership and even pop culture or other broad topics, and weigh in with your own content or comments.
4. Embrace competition.
Startups often like to say they have no competition. They see their business as unlike any other. Maybe they want to minimize attention to competitors. Paradoxically, though, competition usually makes journalists far more interested in covering your product or service. One company is an isolated example; more than one means there’s a trend, and a potentially bigger story. Don’t be afraid of positioning a startup within a new and exciting category, or as disrupting an old one.
5. Be consistent.
Most startups are pressed for resources, so they should be certain of their top goals and priority messages at the outset. Above all, it pays to be consistent when it comes to building media and influencer relationships. Even if you can only spend two days per month on PR and media relations, it’s important to keep at it. If you’ve developed relationships or spent a few months of give and take with the key figures in a given sector, it will often pay off in greater news coverage. Most earned media stories (what we call the editorial features and interviews that result from our efforts) take time to germinate, and an off-and-on strategy is a sure momentum killer.
6. Consider the big picture.
It’s great to have news—a fat funding announcement, a sexy new product or a growth milestone. No one piece of news is as important as the larger story, however. It all should be part of the road map that leads to a compelling brand narrative. The art of PR involves helping media and analysts connect the dots and gain a fuller impression of the business and its importance in its category. Consider how these DTC (and traditional) companies use storytelling as a powerful PR and marketing weapon.
7. Create content, content and more content.
If you can only do one thing, consider a founder’s blog. Yes, it takes time and energy, but for many entrepreneurs, it gives voice to the very trends and observations they’re articulating to partners, investors and employees. If regular posting is too big a lift, consider a quarterly piece of longer-form content that can be broken up into individual thought pieces, or plan video updates that address hot-button issues. What’s important is getting your brand out there with searchable content and shaping a point of view on relevant topics.
If you’re not prepared to participate in your company’s PR program (or have a key executive dedicate time to it), you should probably rethink the PR investment. Even the most talented PR effort can’t operate autonomously. It takes time, input and active participation from the client to make the magic happen.