For a technology startup company, good public relations can go a long way. But when and how to execute a strategic PR program can vary with the individual business. Principals of early early-stage companies don’t always recognize how to deploy PR to maximum effect.
The most critical decision isn’t whether to hire a PR agency or an in-house director. It’s more about a sustained commitment to telling your story to the people who count. Here are rules for startups to know when it comes to deploying strategic public relations.
Don’t drink your own Kool-Aid. It’s tough to be objective as a founder, but unvarnished feedback is gold. As entrepreneur-turned-VC Mark Suster puts it, “Save Your Spin For Someone Who Cares.” A good PR agency should offer honest advice instead of telling you what you want to hear. But the source of unbiased advice can also be a Board member, investor, or qualified friend.
Begin with the end in mind. This is a Stephen Covey maxim that applies to almost any business practice, but it’s particularly relevant to PR. Start with very specific goals, including identification of critical audiences. If fundraising is a priority, stick to tactics and media outlets and events that reach VCs and analyst companies and forget about customer acquisition. The broader the target audience, the larger the budget (and the more experience required by the team executing the program.)
Hold your powder. Until the time is right. Some startups make the mistake of meeting with high-level tech publications or giving local media interviews before they’re ready. It’s never a good idea to let a good story leak out to small or local media. Even worse, a premature article can generate coverage that deters larger outlets, or that contains inaccurate details. An incorrect post lives forever. We often spend valuable time in a new engagement correcting facts based on careless or half-baked media interviews. It pays to wait until the strategy is in place and the product is perfect.
Build in lead time. Even after you’re ready. Top journalists rarely drop everything for a story unless the company is already a name brand. Allow 1-2 months for the PR team to finalize the messaging and shop the story before a website goes live or a product is launched. You only have one chance to launch the company (or announce funding), so the story must be bulletproof.
Lock down the message. That time should be spent crafting the elevator speech. Is it clear? Compelling? Instantly understandable? Ideally, it stands alone instead of depending on another brand (“a Tinder for pets” or a “Slack for creatives”). Think problem-solution and pare the message down to its core. Dig deep and be rigorous. Avoid buzzwords, empty adjectives, or long-winded word salads that obscure impact.
Commit real time to PR. It’s not a magic bullet, and it’s rarely quick. Give it six months to start, then assess outcomes versus goals. PR doesn’t work like direct-marketing or PPC advertising. It is about building relationships and careful positioning of a company story, which takes time, skill, and focus.
Make someone accountable. Like anything else, the public relations program should be the responsibility of someone within the organization―preferably not a founder―who manages the effort and any agencies or consultants involved. Startups sometimes fail to realize that there is a time commitment on their side, and the greater the commitment, the higher the odds of success.
Forget press releases. They’re boring and media know it. It’s more effective to place news tidbits or exclusive announcements with key reporters at tech or business publications than it is to create long-winded press releases or pay for newswire distribution at thousands of dollars a pop.
Offer substance. Don’t rely on “soft” news. Some startups think their culture is the story―or the colorful personality of the founder. But journalists who cover early-stage businesses have heard it all. They’re looking for substance―a new category, an upstart challenger to a larger competitor, or a technology innovation. The puff pieces about office mascots or Stanford dropouts are the exceptions.
But don’t oversell. Instead, tell. The best way to generate positive coverage for a startup is to tell a great story. That’s not always easy, but it’s where the magic comes in.