We love working with tech startups, especially those with a few years (and a round or two of financing) behind them, and who are prepared to make the most of a public relations agency partnership. It’s exciting to collaborate with an early-stage company because a good PR campaign can really make a difference. As I’ve outlined before, the work keeps you on your toes, and you’re typically working with the deciders.
But many startups are at a unique and tricky stage. The stakes feel higher than at a more established enterprise. And not all companies know how to work with a PR agency or invest in a media relations campaign to promote the brand or launch products. When they fail, it can be costly, both in dollars and momentum lost. Here are some of the most common startup PR mistakes.
There are two main ways to fall prey to blue-sky expectations. The first is thinking a PR agency can work miracles. It will instantly generate glowing stories about a company in influential press, even absent a good story. Of course it doesn’t usually work that way, because quality coverage takes a little time. More commonly, a startup founder may be counting on that one big story to propel the business forward, or even to save one that’s struggling. Rarely does a single positive story act as a magic bullet, however. PR works best in building brand visibility and credibility over time.
You’re not differentiated
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 many 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.
You’re not telling a compelling story
If press is what you’re after, put yourself in the reporter’s shoes. He wants one thing: a good story. He doesn’t want a sales pitch or a networking meeting. It’s the job of the startup – and their PR team – to identify and craft that 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 the messaging, story, and strategy.
You’re spamming media
Sending pitches or press releases to a huge list of media in hopes that something will stick is inexpensive, but it won’t work. The good news is that PR now has its own tech stack, and there are tools that will save time in targeting relevant press. But the work of media relations remains highly personalized and relatively inefficient in technology terms. Most good PR teams will develop a 6-month media relations strategy and plan, matching potential stories to relevant media in a precise and personalized way.
You’re not putting in the time
This one happens in two ways. The first overlaps with the expectations factor in that some startups are so impatient that they 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 agency or switch gears on strategy, but impatience can cost your startup time and money in the long run. Then there’s the investment of time on the company’s part. Occasionally clients think that once they hire an agency, they can sit back and watch the results roll in. That’s not how it works, either. At minimum, most teams will need input and participation from a PR-savvy officer as well as the startup founder, particularly if executive visibility is a strategy.
You don’t have a distinct POV
For me, this is particularly crucial for the founder of an early-stage business, and it’s not the same as the business story or messaging. Even if his/her product or service isn’t groundbreaking, a strong point of view on topics of interest to the category can make all the difference. This one goes back to differentiation. When it comes to generating media coverage and all-important speaking opportunities for a startup founder, a compelling set of opinions, forecasts, or observations are often what make a brand memorable and relevant for nearly any audience – employees, prospects, VCs, and press.