I’ve always been a firm believer in not using a PR agency as an early-stage company. Great agencies are expensive and when you’re at the beginning of your startup journey every penny should be used on your product and in attracting the best team possible.
Agencies want to be working with startups because they’re sexy. Working directly with a Founder is an exciting prospect and being able to play a part in their growth is hugely attractive to PRs.
However, it is rarely a healthy relationship. In my own experience, agencies will cut corners where possible to shrink a budget down to a size that a startup can afford, whilst still working the hours usually given to much larger, long-standing accounts. I’ve had my fair share of bending over backwards to line up great coverage, but in the end, it’s not up to the expectation of the startup and what counts as a small budget for an agency (often leaving them out of pocket) is a huge chunk of change for the Founder. The result is an agency that is exhausted and frustrated and a startup that has a negative experience of PR – not great for any potential partner in the future.
Agencies typically make sense when you’ve had a large seed round or your Series A. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, but generally speaking, my advice is to build out your own basic PR strategy in the beginning.
PR isn’t just about getting your company name in an exciting title. It’s anything public facing.
It connects with your social strategy, how you speak about yourself, how you communicate to your community, as well as your customer. It isn’t something fluffy that you think about last minute. Unfortunately, it also doesn’t come with a guarantee. With all the best strategic planning in the world, sometimes it just doesn’t work. But, like building your company, you can pivot. You can change your strategy and there are little ways of measuring its success. It must drive results, and as a startup, you can afford to experiment.
I’ve often spoken about why you don’t need an agency, and in doing so, provide a few hacks learnt from my own background that enable you to build and execute a basic PR plan.
Where do you want to be? Set your objective for PR. Do you want to attract 10,000 new customers? Do you want attention from prospective investors? Do you want to be the first to market? What you want to achieve determines where you need to be seen. If you start at the end, you can breakdown the research you need to do.
If you want 10,000 new customers, who are they? What do they read? Setting a goal will enable you to address these key questions before researching further. For instance, getting covered in The Telegraph might look good from the outset – great title, huge reach – but if your target customer is a millennial, it’s not really relevant! You want to ensure that the PR you do is likely to drive a return on the investment of your time.
Starting from the end helps determine how to measure the success of your PR campaign. If it’s customers, simple app downloads that peak when coverage is out are a strong indication. Awareness can be measured by keeping an eye on your Google analytics and mentions online, and for getting investment, a simple invitation to a meeting will do the trick.
Once you’ve determined who your audience is, you need to start reading what they read. Most publications will provide a breakdown of their audiences in an advertising section. Spend 15-20 minutes a day skimming through the publications you recognise as being connected with your audience. Any stories that relate to what you’re doing, should be collected in a spreadsheet. Note down which publication, who the journalist was, the date it was published, a quick summary of the article – 140-character Twitter style being ideal – and a link. If you’re not sure what your customer reads, ask them – a simple survey is all it takes.
Over time, you’ll know who your go-to journalists and publications are, what stories work, which profile opportunities fit you, and how often they write. Emails and Twitter handles are easily found online, and when you come to pitch them, you’ll be able to add context and open up a real conversation, rather than an email that blends in with the rest of their inbox.
Another great tool is to set up Google Alerts for all your key competitors. Have a look at where they are being covered and why. Pitch the journalists they talk to, and show them why you’re different. Or use Flipboard to stay in the know on the go, and use those minutes of downtime on your commute to scan the news.
Research will play a key part in learning what a story really is. You are rarely the story. You need a news hook and to remain factual at all times. Hooks could be fundraising, product launches (very tricky to announce unless you’re Apple), insightful data that you’ve gathered through your service, a campaign you’re starting or international expansion. Regardless of the hook, you need to be able to talk big picture. Why is it important? What does this tell us about the market in five year’s time? What are you “disrupting”? Think big, and think bold. As a startup you don’t have to watch every word you say like a huge public company – so have a bit of fun!
Mike Butcher, Editor-at-Large of Techcrunch Europe, wrote this article last year on how to pitch him. Mike believes the press release is dead – I disagree, (I’m a flack) but this article does provide a long list of questions that you should definitely be able to answer. It’s a great exercise to go through this list and fill out your responses. It will help you shape your story and pull out key angles to use for each publication you pitch.
A press release should give a journalist all the information they need to write your basic story. But you must be able to offer more. Provide them with interviews, customer case studies, images, off-record information etc. whatever it takes for them to get the one angle that works well for their audience.
If you can pitch to investors, you can pitch to journalists. Just change the way you do it. For tips on storytelling check out this article by Seedcamp’s Reshma.
It’s best to contact journalists over email, through Twitter, a direct introduction (talk to your fellow Founders) and, if you’re feeling brave, over the phone. A journalist is bombarded with information and pitches daily and only has the capacity to write a few stories. So make sure your subject line stands out, that you keep your email pitch brief and engaging, and provide the right context. If you do your research, you can reference previous articles they have written and how your company ties in. Once you’ve pitched once, give them some breathing space. It’s ok to follow up a few times, but not within five minutes, and after a few days of quiet, even with some nudging, move on. They’re just not that into you.
Once you know your story is going to land, and the coverage is expected, think seriously about how you can make the most of it. Shout about it on your social channels, email your network, pull out quotes to use on your website, even put a link to the articles in your email signature.
We are all constantly surrounded by information, and that one stand-out piece of news will have a short life span, so think about how you can pro-long its life and get more for your time investment. You may see a peak of interest over a 12-hour period, which then dies. You have to build out a sustainability plan to make sure you achieve that end goal.
Then think even longer-term. At this stage, you should know a few journalists and have a list of publications that still haven’t covered you. Keep them updated on what you’re up to. Take them for a beer. Build that relationship and help them in anyway possible, it will pay off for you in the future – think of this as press karma.
The last and most crucial piece of advice for hacking your PR strategy together is to be nice, be helpful and be authentic. It sounds so simple, but treat others how you’d like to be treated. The job of a journalist can be tough and demanding, so help them out by being that one contact that can bring a smile to their face and you’ll be remembered for all the right reasons.