Dorothy Crenshaw October 21, 2013 | 10:32:29

10 Rookie PR Mistakes That Startups Make

“It’s not rocket surgery” is how Polish entrepreneur Michal Sadowski describes building a startup business in a self-produced video that’s currently making the rounds.

Mixed metaphors aside, Sadowski’s video has been called out for ignoring the tough side of entrepreneurship. And it’s true that if you’re a startup or a new company, your life is full of competition – for financing, for talent, and, for PR visibility — the exact thing that Sadowski was after when he made the video. Buzz, of course, is one of those intangibles that makes scoring financing and attracting the best and the brightest that much easier.

Yet, precisely because early-stage businesses are so focused on other growth strategies, many of them stumble when it comes to developing a strong PR or media relations program. Here are some of the most common reasons why startup PR fails to gain traction when it counts the most.

1.   Your messaging is unclear. Chances are, it’s too complicated or confusing. This is common to technology companies, although it’s by no means limited to the tech sector. Or, maybe it’s overly commercial. A simple, concise, and compelling message that accurately captures your product or service is more difficult than it seems, but it is critical to long-term PR success.

2.    You rely on press releases. “PR by press release” is typically a waste of time and money. Wire services can be costly, and even the pickup generated from enhanced news release distribution isn’t reliable or strong enough to justify it as a regular tool.

3.    You make hyperbolic claims. Having lofty goals is one thing; blatant exaggerations or outright fabrications are something else. We briefly worked with a startup client whose narrative included traffic goals and metrics that were so preposterous we knew they wouldn’t stand up to media scrutiny. Nearly a year later, he’s still out there, making very far-fetched growth predictions, and no one is listening.

4.     You’re selling instead of informing or telling a story. Many CEOs or Marketing executives fall into the trap of confusing a meeting with a journalist with a sales pitch. It’s not. As the adage goes, give me something I can use. That means a story. If you can’t envision your words in an actual news article, chances are you’re overly commercial.

5.     You’re aiming too high.  A top-tier outlet like The Wall Street Journal or Mashable is unlikely to drop everything to cover your launch, no matter how compelling it seems. It’s often useful to start with low-hanging fruit, road-test your message, then move on to larger media.

6.     Your story is boring or technical. What’s fascinating to a founder or manager may not be to a journalist or partner. The greatest crime in this game is being boring.

7.     You’re not committed. PR is also one of those marketing practices that simply needs a minimum of four to six months to start bearing fruit, and it requires daily care and feeding. A “fits-and-starts” approach to media relations rarely gains traction.

8.     You’re not open. Media need to vet and verify their stories. This means facts, numbers, and other specific forms of evidence that support your story. If you’re not prepared to share, you should rethink the approach.

9.     You’re not different.  If your product or service is a “me-too” entry in a shiny new category dominated by well-followed companies, you’re unlikely to win more than a press mention without changing your model or showing differentiation.

10   You paint by numbers. It’s critical to have a plan, but a formulaic approach that doesn’t allow for flexibility or spontaneity will leave opportunities on the table. That’s where Sadowski’s “MTV-esque homage” to the life of a startup entrepreneur scores. It’s fresh, fun, and different enough to have been noticed by TechCrunch,  even if it only tells one side of the story.


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