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7 Common PR Mistakes Startups Make

Photo by Daniel Von Appen

In general, startups make great PR clients — especially those with a story to tell. A high-growth tech company with financing behind it is in a perfect position to make the most of a public relations agency partnership. For the PR team, it’s rewarding because PR is typically a top priority, and the work is exciting. As I’ve outlined, it differs significantly from other types of client work, but mostly in good ways.

A new company has very distinct needs and goals, however. The stakes feel higher than at a more established business. And not all startups understand how best to take advantage of an investment in public relations. Here are some of the most common mistakes made by new businesses.

Bad timing

Some startups make small timing miscalculations, like signing on an agency right after a major funding announcement. Worse, they may let the news trickle out without a proper media strategy. Or, they may bring on a PR team just weeks before a key conference or product launch and expect a full plan rollout. Still others start with a PR firm too soon. If the startup doesn’t yet have a clear selling proposition, solid financing, and a good story to tell, the investment in PR is likely premature.

Unrealistic expectations

Some startups think an agency can work miracles without help or input from them. That isn’t true; earned media is generated by hard work, research, and creativity. Most importantly, it’s a cooperative effort. It’s the job of the startup – and their PR team – to identify and shape its story and serve it up to the right people. It isn’t always easy or quick, which is why many PR agencies spend the first month or more hammering out strategy and messaging.  A more common form of unrealistic thinking is the startup who’s convinced it takes one big feature to magically transform the business. That’s unlikely, because PR is best at building brand visibility and credibility over time. Part of the art of public relations is leveraging the initial stories into a longer, more important narrative for top-tier media and influencers.

Inadequate resources

Another key ingredient to PR success is a real commitment backed by necessary resources, both financial and human. An on-and-off approach to media relations and executive visibility will fall short. To support the ongoing operation of a PR program, a company needs an internal manager, C-level insights and participation, and a roadmap for a 12-month period. Does every startup need an outside agency? No. Depending on its stage of life, a competent internal professional or team with relevant experience can work just fine. Even a skilled freelancer is a better solution than an agency who can’t properly staff the account because the fees don’t warrant it.

“Me, me, me”

A reporter wants a good story, not a sales pitch or a founder biography. Yet some companies fall into the trap of just talking about themselves. Now, it may be that a new business is so disruptive that it can stand alone as a story. But maximizing visibility through earned media usually takes context. Positioning a new business within its category, as part of an industry’s growth or change, is a far stronger pitch. And don’t pretend you don’t have competitors. From a journalist’s point of view, one company is just a company, but a cluster of new competitors is a trend.

No differentiation

Here’s an exercise for a startup: take the brand name and corporate information out of your press release or media pitch. Is it still recognizable as your own? If not, more differentiation is needed. In some tech sectors there’s a pack mentality, with companies promoting their offering with similar phrases, or empty jargon that might impress engineers but is unlikely to sway journalists. They don’t respond to me-too pitches.

Remember, differentiation doesn’t have to be a technology product or service, although superior tech is an asset. It can come from a unique point of view, contrarian opinions, or bold predictions. In fact, those qualities may be more important for a startup founder, because thought leadership can carry a more substantive narrative than a new product. A compelling set of opinions or observations can make a brand memorable and relevant for nearly any audience – employees, prospects, VCs, and press.

A client-agency mismatch

It happens. A scrappy startup is dazzled by a top ten PR agency that trots out its superstars (who are never seen again once the agreement is signed.) Or, a high-growth tech business brings on a generalist team that doesn’t really understand its category. Before signing on an outside agency, every company should consider size, industry experience, track record, location, and culture. Meetings are time-consuming, but there’s no better way to check for compatibility. Instead of casting a wide net and skimping on every conversation, consider looking at only a handful of agencies but spending real time with each team.

Mutual commitment

Many startups are impatient. Some even cut off the PR investment if it hasn’t generated business-changing results in three months. This is usually a mistake. There are reasons to fire an outside agency or switch gears on strategy, but a hasty exit can cost a startup time and money in the long run. Then there’s the commitment by the PR team. Whether that team is internal or external, it must assert its needs, course-correct quickly, and market the PR function across the entire company. Like a marriage, both parties must understand that they share the same goals, invest in the relationship and accept responsibility – and credit – for outcomes.

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