PR: Separating Fact from Fiction

The best public relations campaigns use a combination of strategies and tactics to help build brands and support business success. Campaigns also win when client-agency partnerships are strong and the players are fully engaged. However, in PR, there are also many myths (alternative facts?) which we like to explore from time to time to help companies better understand public relations and how to get the most out of it.

Myth #1: Anyone can do PR.  Google “DIY PR” and you will get tons of results. But that doesn’t mean you should. As we explored in a previous post, even the most astute online tutorial will not provide the average marketer or business owner with the tools or skills to succeed. Beyond goal-setting and drafting a plan, the work involved in writing materials suitable for media, researching and studying appropriate journalists, and shaping a pitch is specialized and demanding. A fraction of that time could be better spent retaining professionals to do the job. And did we mention dealing with the rejection inherent in media outreach? A PR firm is well-equipped to pivot when a journalist doesn’t bite the first time and will keep on developing new and interesting things to say until something clicks. This is easier said than done and best left to professionals with real experience.

Myth #2: PR is free advertising. Unfortunately, this is the lie that will not die. For years, this phrase became the default way to describe PR in a short sentence. But it’s inaccurate. First of all, PR, in the form of earned media, is never free. While a company is not buying space in a publication or on-air, said company is paying PR professionals to use their acumen to shape stories, and their network of contacts to successfully pitch and place. It’s also a mistake to equate the two when it comes to their purpose and ROI. PR does not directly generate sales. It does generate brand awareness and credibility in exchange for little or no editorial control over the coverage content. Advertising, on the other hand, can be completely controlled in terms of content and placement.

Whatever credibility may be sacrificed, advertising supplants with creativity, duration, repetition and precise targeting. As well, each product or service has different needs. For many in the B2B space, particularly start-ups with interesting new tech and other innovation, advertising makes little or no sense as customers get all they need to know from important verticals. Case in point: BrightFunnel, a pioneer in revenue attribution and forecasting for B2B marketers, has been the recipient of some positive press which has helped it grow business. Others, like big consumer brands with very little innovation or news, rely on advertising to keep their names before the public. The third category is the company that relies on a sound mix of PR and advertising. Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign continues to wow with meaningful editorial that co-opts cool stuff from the news and a healthy dose of thought-provoking (and beautiful) ads.

Myth #3: Journalists snub PR pros. On the contrary, legitimate press respect PR pros, emphasis on the “pros.” Media outlets are typically short-staffed and welcome help from professionals on the PR side, particularly if the story is a good fit and the pitch is thoughtful and smart. There is even a website journalists have for well-written pitches, BestPitchIEverGot, featuring the cream of the crop. It’s also often the case that a journalist will reach out to a PR team for help in obtaining quotes or research to complete a story. Media are appreciative of data, background information and sources. Figuring out their needs and providing materials promptly is often how great media relationships are forged. It’s then easy to reap the rewards of this partnership with a journalist who will read your emails and respond to your ideas. Much of what makes a great media relationship is understanding the way the contact works. Some journalists abhor the phone and calling them would land you on the naughty list, while others appreciate a real conversation now and then.  Then there are the rules for what never to do, like overpromising a media contact, missing a deadline or sending a poorly written pitch. Remember BestPitchIEverGot? On the flipside, there’s also TheBadPitchBlog.

Myth #4: A celebrity spokesperson will guarantee great press. There are lots of variables to consider when using a celebrity spokesperson. First of all, the definition of “celebrity” has changed drastically in the last decade. Traditional TV or movie stars may pale in Q scores next to the latest YouTube personality with millions of followers. But is the socially or traditionally famous celebrity actually worth the investment? Top-tier talent can run into six figures to promote a product or service. And even the those on the lowest social rungs can charge $15k for a tweet! Brands considering partnering with a celebrity have to ask themselves a series of questions before committing to such an expense. Does the personality align with your brand? Look at the current campaign for Gusto, a software startup with a suite of products for HR directors, and if you haven’t nodded off yet, the clever ads starring indie darling Kristen Schaal will guarantee you sit up and take notice. The brainy yet funny Schaal embodies a modern HR type and she gives a traditionally boring service credibility and appeal. It’s also important to determine how much time a celebrity can lend a campaign and what they’re willing to say and do. We once worked with a sleep doctor who agreed to be a spokesperson for a mattress company but refused to sit on a bed. That was awkward. And even the biggest stars are no guarantee people will care about your product, or, ahem, vote for your candidate. Evidence suggests that while super star power appealed to Hillary Clinton’s base, it was divisive among those outside of it.

Myth #5: You must have news to get PR. Very few companies have weekly news announcements. But the beauty of a well-crafted PR plan is that it allows for the quiet times. Successful PR teams have strategies to compensate. When a company announces a funding round, a new product or an acquisition, you’ve got news worthy of offering a media exclusive, meaning you negotiate a larger story first, then go to a wider media audience for greater coverage. But once those stories are out, it’s up to the experienced PR team to fashion other ways to bring attention to products and services. These include trend pieces like this one citing growth in robo-calls and featuring some top call-blocking apps, or personality profiles like this in-depth interview with the founder of food kit giant Hello Fresh.  We’re also big believers in the power of owned research, primarily consumer surveys that supply fresh data on a myriad of topics from how much holiday cheer Millennials experience to how much anxiety Baby Boomers feel about housing. No matter where a company is in its lifecycle, it’s important to remember that strategic, well-executed PR can provide so much – be it burnishing a reputation, mitigating a crisis, putting forth important opinions or launching a product or service.

The Top Threats To Your Company’s Reputation

In today’s volatile media and social environment, good PR comes at a premium and brand reputation is fragile. Look at Trump’s dressing down of Nordstrom, or the controversy Uber runs into just about every time Travis Kalanick does anything. (More on that later.)

Some argue that presidential tweets might actually be good for business, even when they’re negative, and recent evidence bears that out. But most types of reputation crises are decidedly unwelcome. For a startup or small business, a sudden wave of negative coverage can be fatal. According to the World Economic Forum, more than twenty-five percent of a company’s market value is directly attributable to its brand reputation.

So how should brands prepare for an unknown, uncontrollable event that could impugn its reputation? A sudden crisis can be an externally driven event that is entirely unpredictable, like the death of a chief executive or an accident by a business partner. Such was the case in 2010 when the Deepwater Horizon, under contract to BP, exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. Many crises strike closer to home; they can take the form of a rogue employee action, or a regional lapse that affects an entire brand, like the Chipotle E. coli contamination of 2015.

More often than not, a threat to a company’s reputation originates inside the organization. In some cases it’s a creeping cultural problem that turns malignant over time, like the pressure that drove Wells Fargo employees to open a few million fake accounts to earn commissions without the knowledge of their customers.

How To Spot The Worst Reputation Threats

Most crisis events are a long time in the making. Here are the most common reputation threats and how to anticipate them.

The Data Hack

A hack or security breach can have a huge PR ripple effect, undermining relations with customers and tarnishing a brand image for years. The notorious 2013 hack of Target cardholders ultimately cost the company $242 million.  Believe it nor not, that figure is relatively low as a percentage of total sales, but the loss of customer trust and public confidence is a great deal harder to measure. Even the hijacking of a brand’s social media account can be damaging. Following the Deepwater Horizon disaster, BP was impersonated on Twitter, adding to its image problems. And look no further than the hack of Sony Pictures emails in 2014 or the Democratic National Committee leaks of last summer to appreciate the consequences of private information becoming public.

Of course, there’s not much for marketing and communications teams to do to foil threats beyond insisting that their employers or clients harden their security infrastructure. But they can prepare for the risk, given that a data security breach is at the very top of common reputation threats. It’s not only possible, but likely to happen in today’s environment.

It’s the way a breach is handled that makes all the difference.  To minimize the reputation impact, every business should have a cross-functional plan for timely response in the event of a data hack or other breach. A typical task force should include the CTO, CMO, CCO, and involve a designated media spokesperson who is well qualified and prepared to update stakeholders, including press and social media.  Prompt notification and transparent communications to all affected audiences are critical elements here.

The Viral Customer Complaint

Remember when musician Dave Carroll made a music video complaining that United Airlines had broken his guitar? Or the FedEx worker caught on camera tossing a fragile package over a residential fence, ruining its contents? Those viral customer complaints are almost quaint in light of today’s environment. As public relations and customer relations increasingly overlap, the goals of each should be aligned, and employees empowered to take quick action in case of a problem. Customer service reps should be incentivized not by the volume of complaints they handle, getting customers off the phone quickly and efficiently, but by the number of complaints they actually resolve to the satisfaction of consumers. For truly sophisticated companies, customer relations managers are authorized to resolve ordinary complaints by waiving a minor charge, for example, and even equipped with talking points that help build a relationship and strengthen the brand reputation rather than letting a bad situation grow worse.

The good news is that “viral” customer service works both ways. Of course, millions of complaints are positively resolved every day, with no credit to the brand, but occasionally a smart move turns PR lemons into lemonade. The story about a young boy’s stuffed giraffe left behind at a Ritz-Carlton hotel still makes the rounds. Any parent can understand the trauma that results when a favorite toy is lost on a trip. In this case the Ritz-Carlton notified the family to say they’d found the giraffe. Not only did they send it back to the family, but they took photos of “Joshie” lounging by the pool to reassure his young owner that giraffe was safe and enjoying his break.

A Toxic Organizational Culture

It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up, as the saying goes.  A transparent culture can minimize almost any brand threat, and inevitably, a repressive culture will make it worse. Experts call it “risk connectivity,” which is a fancy way of saying one threat will expose and compound others.
A culture that rewarded “sandbagging” of customers to make profit numbers was at work in the Wells Fargo mess, and CEO John Stumpf’s perceived failure to take responsibility for it cost him his job. Stumpf claimed he set a tone that rewarded integrity at the top, but he either didn’t recognize or didn’t address the “tone from the middle” that truly shapes organizational behavior.

More recently, there’s the letter posted by former Uber engineer Susan Fowler about the unrelenting sexual harassment and apparent retaliation she experienced during a year at Uber. Now, Uber is no stranger to criticism, with its so-called “bro” culture and accusations of sexism. (What can you say about a CEO who told the L.A. Times he calls the company “boober” because of “the salutary effect his company’s success has had on his sex life.”) Ugh.

But while Uber has in the past treated criticism casually or with defensiveness, in this case Kalanick is taking Fowler’s letter very seriously. He called the treatment she endured “abhorrent” and launched an “urgent investigation” headed by former Attorney General Eric Holder. Kalanick’s tweets and his internal memo were followed by comments from Uber investor Chris Sacca and Board member Arianna Huffington, who promised to assist the investigation. No one has questioned Fowler’s integrity and all have expressed outrage on her behalf. Most importantly, Uber seems committed to transparency regarding its problem and the outcome of the investigation, and that’s why it will survive the scandal.

Many companies never learn the virtues of transparency in tackling a deeply rooted cultural problem, particularly one like sexual harassment that can hide in plain sight. Look at Fox News; it took a clever legal strategy by anchor Gretchen Carlson’s representatives to bring down Roger Ailes. (Carlson circumvented a binding arbitration agreement by bringing suit against Ailes personally rather than Fox itself.) But once the suit was filed, the dominoes began to fall. So many women came forward with claims similar to Carlson’s that Fox was forced to investigate and confront its systemic failures, and Roger Ailes was out.

In fact, how an organization treats an employee who reports malfeasance―or how it treats any complaint that can threaten corporate brand reputation―is at the heart of its culture and the best predictor of its PR survival.  A company that has institutionalized ethical behavior and openness will be better equipped than most to identify major reputation threats before they escalate.  A culture that rewards transparency and openness, on the other hand, enables resiliency for organizations when things do go wrong.

An earlier version of this post appeared February 9 on the AMA Executive Circle blog.

Don’t Ask Your PR Agency These Questions

Determining that a public relations firm has the right chops for the job is just the first step in a quest to find the right PR partner. It’s not enough for an agency to look good “on paper.” The two companies need to delve into each other’s assets and attitudes to see if the fit is right, and that often starts with a series of questions. In our experience some questions are more likely to elicit stock answers that don’t really reveal how an agency team would approach a client’s opportunity. Others are more worthwhile. No question is wrong, of course, but here are some examples of less useful questions and alternatives that work harder to get at meaningful responses.

How quickly will PR improve our sales?

We like to set the record straight with companies by discussing goals at the outset and being realistic about what well-executed PR can achieve. Needs differ, but strategic PR is typically better at building brand visibility and reputation over time than it is at generating quick sales. We also encourage company executives to incorporate PR into the marketing mix so our efforts can work in concert with direct-marketing, paid advertising, or promotion to help each meet its more sales-oriented objectives. Translation: if an agency promises a sales spike, be wary.

How much should we budget for PR?

This is always tricky territory. More experienced companies have an understanding of how agencies work and what they charge. Start-ups or less experienced firms may not fully realize the range of potential costs and can experience serious sticker shock on hearing fees of $10,000 per month or higher. We advise companies looking for PR partners to calculate a realistic and affordable budget and to ask the agencies what they can expect for that expenditure. This advance work weeds out agencies whose fee could be a barrier and allows those who do want to participate in a search to prepare a truly workable plan.

How will you get our CEO into the Wall Street Journal?

It’s important to help a potential company partner gain a thorough understanding of target media and how you define success when it comes to earned press opportunities. But here flexibility is key. It’s best to select a team you can collaborate with to develop a range of media targets that help reach the right audience instead of jumping to conclusions without research or pinning your hopes on a single outlet. And, if your CEO is WSJ material, tell your agency why. Make them understand why you have a great story to tell.

Can you guarantee press results?

Always be skeptical of an agency promising specific earned media results within a given time period. We guarantee our partners that we will work with them to ensure we capture the most compelling story, get it into the hands of the most receptive reporters and convey any hurdles we encounter. And we will keep working with them to hone that story and research reporters until we achieve success. This kind of commitment often requires work on both sides to ferret out the most interesting parts of a company story and package them for different media. For example, many companies can only envision stories in major publications in which they’re exclusively featured. The savvy PR team will point out that not every CEO or founder is ready for a profile yet. However, there is great opportunity to be part of a valuable round-up story, including them with other respected companies such as this one including online staffing software company,

Why is my competitor getting more coverage than my brand?

It’s normal to scrutinize competitors and to be curious about coverage that seems out of whack with reality, but you’re unlikely to get a satisfying answer. A more productive question might be one that asks the PR agency team to offer their point of view on your brand within your sector. Ask for unvarnished feedback on your company’s digital reputation, for better or worse, and the challenges and opportunities gleaned from their research and experience working in your space. Remember, their goal is shaping and conveying a story that differentiates your brand, not copying a competitor.

Why are you better than other agencies? 

The better question might be, how is your firm different from competitors. But even that question isn’t necessarily going to reveal much that is useful. The old adage “Show, don’t tell” is applicable here. The best PR firms have high-quality work to help show how they differ from others in their space.  However, it’s also good to remember what the late, great Muhammad Ali had to say on the subject, “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.”

Writing The Killer PR Plan

When a public relations firm signs a new account, or an internal PR team is granted budget approval, excitement is in the air. Take a little time to celebrate, then let the real work begin. And that work starts with a well-written plan. To craft a killer PR plan, here are some steps to consider before you begin.

Establish a baseline.
A good plan starts with a review of past history, including brand perception, activity over the previous year, and recent earned media successes or lack of the same. A thorough brand or organization audit will make setting milestones toward goals clearer and easier.

Build in and budget for metrics.
This is a given, but PR goals and the ways in which progress is measured will vary with the individual organization. Beware of sweeping objectives like “positive visibility” or “brand awareness” unless there are tools with which to measure that visibility with some precision. Another essential ingredient is a series of key performance indicators (KPIs) and deliverables that support those broader goals. These might include specific stories in top-tier publications; speaking opportunities earned at key conferences; social media shares, and other indicators of progress against goals.

Plan initiatives by quarter.
Take a step back and look at your plan by manageable chunks of time, typically quarters. While it’s unlikely that an organization’s strategy, positioning, target audiences, and key messages will change, most tactics benefit from quarterly review and refreshers. Unexpected developments, including internal changes, a wrinkle in the business climate, or a move by a competitor can demand a new tactic or two.

Build in checkpoints.
You can gain buy-in from decision-makers and ensure quick course corrections for any mistakes by building checkpoints and milestones into the plan. Those might be when a specific deliverable is achieved, or it can be tied to the impact of a campaign or tactic, like the midpoint for total number of shares for a social media promotion.

Make it flexible.
The beauty of public relations, in comparison to traditional advertising and even some forms of direct marketing, is that it is built for flexibility. As we’ve addressed in previous posts, we operate in a dynamic media environment where the news cycle seems to get faster all the time. Instant digital and social posts reflect warp speed changes in news, influencers and “what’s hot, what’s not.” PR teams and their clients need to be able to substitute one story idea for another within a media or content calendar. Changes might include “newsjacking” to take advantage of topical events relevant to your brand, or homing in on an emerging market segment or trend. Building in flexibility makes good PR and business sense.

Eliminate risk where you can.
The entrepreneurial culture of many technology-driven industries and the growth of “lean” startups has given rise to “discovery-driven planning” for  business situations that represent uncharted territory. This type of planning deals with uncertainty by building in key milestones or checkpoints before additional funds for a new venture are released, as outlined in the Harvard Business Review overview of five key disciplines and tools. Similarly, there are some safeguards for ambitious PR plans that strive to break out of the traditional mold. We believe strongly in low-cost piloting of certain ventures before committing large chunks of budget, for example.

Focus on simple ideas, packaged well.
One key tactic doesn’t a plan  make. But if a tactic can’t be explained and executed simply, then consider changing it. We had a strong program idea for a mattress company that wanted to be linked with healthy sleep. It was tied to to earn attention with a “protest” against the spring Daylight Saving Time change and the fatigue it often causes during the days that follow turning the clock ahead. The original concept was elaborate and involved an online petition, local-market events, Census data research, and street leafleting to create attention. In the end, we pared the tactics to a Facebook call-to-action and a strategically located photo opportunity outside a flagship store that featured – what else? – a stack of mattresses and a blissfully sleeping person. It was more streamlined and replicable across different cities, and it carried that quarter’s outreach very nicely.

Ensure message alignment. 
Ask yourself if your PR plan meshes with other marketing and communications plans including advertising and direct marketing. Although the disciplines are designed to accomplish distinct goals, they should not fight one another or be diffused during key periods like a new product launch or fresh thought leadership direction. If paid media messages are based on a breakthrough new product technology, for example, executive leadership and bylined content topics might reflect themes of fostering innovation through business culture.

PR Pros Take On A President


Has public relations finally won the respect of journalists? Sure, PRs and media work together, and we need each other. But the relationship between “flacks and hacks” is an odd and uneasy symbiosis. That’s why a recent piece in the Columbia Journalism Review about PR professionals and the war between our 45th president and the press was so interesting. David Uberti’s “PR Flacks May Be the Media’s Secret Weapon” outlines the recent confrontations between Trump and two of his favorite targets, alleged “fake news” purveyor CNN and the newspaper he calls the “failing” New York Times.

Trump’s efforts to discredit the press, both individually and as an institution, have a train-wreck type of fascination, and they’re often entertaining. But they’re also dangerous, both for the White House’s own credibility, and for the public who depend on media for news. Uberti makes a subtle but important point about the challenges facing major media companies.

How should the press fight back against a media-savvy president? The fourth estate has the obvious advantages of airtime and ink, yet it has been weakened by the fragmentation of its audience, the changing advertising environment, and a general cynicism among the public. Trust in media institutions has never been lower.

Tensions have escalated since Sean Spicer’s initial press briefing where he attacked the media, and working journalists have responded individually. CNN’s Jake Tapper, for one, hasn’t shrunk from calling out the administration for its own brand of “alternative facts.” When reports hit that he was a GOP target after a tough interview with Kellyanne Conway, Tapper fired back by taking over the #TapperDirtFile hashtag with silly mock-revelations, and it quickly devolved into a gag trending topic.
But it’s tricky for a working journalist to be returning incoming fire.  When you throw mud – even in self-defense, even with 140-character wit – you invariably get dirty.

That’s where the media organizations and their teams come in. We in PR like to talk about how every brand is now a media company, but every major media company is also a brand. Like any other consumer products, they stand for something. It falls to the communications team to protect the integrity of those brands, and to reinforce other attributes that help them stand apart from direct competitors as well as frenemies like Facebook and Snap.

When Trump criticizes Boeing or Nordstrom, their corporate communications teams spring into action; in fact, in boardrooms all over the country, PR people are running through crisis management exercises to prepare for a presidential tweet or an off-the-cuff comment that can cost days of executive time and a few million in stock market value.

There are teams of specialists behind the big media brands, too, and advantages to using PR experts if you’re under attack. It keeps their journalists at arm’s length, so they can focus on reporting and don’t get caught in the crossfire more than necessary. Even more importantly, skilled PR pros are strategic thinkers, and their focus is purely on internal and external communications. They’re trained to issue thoughtful public responses under time pressure and withering scrutiny, and to think ahead to the next move from an often-hostile White House. Like those raised in a campaign war room, they’re accustomed to today’s hyper-accelerated news cycle and bring to the task a deep understanding of how media work. It’s no small irony that the elite-media-as-enemy strategy deployed so well by Trump’s team was born with right-wing radio and honed by Breitbart News Network, whose former executive chair Steve Bannon is the president’s right-hand man and chief advisor.

There are no clear winners or losers in the battle between the press and the president, at least not yet. But the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been, and it’s good to see PRs earning credit for a job that’s nearly always invisible and where the work never really ends. Apparently appreciation for PRs among media rises when we’re working on their behalf. The next thing you know, they might even stop calling us “flacks.”

PR Tips For Crowdfunding Campaigns


Anyone in B2B or B2C tech public relations knows that crowdfunding is an exciting part of the startup community and a key source of grassroots support for many pre-revenue business ventures. Since the Pebble Watch was launched in 2012 and became Kickstarter’s breakout  success, the crowdfunding dream has captured the imagination of many cash-strapped entrepreneurs. It serves as proof of concept for exciting ideas, an outlet for fledgling companies to tell their story, and a way to build ties with future customers. And who wouldn’t want to be in the same shoes as the founders of Oculus Rift, a crowdfunded technology that was eventually acquired by Facebook for $2 billion?

But success for a crowdfunded campaign often hinges on the visibility earned through public relations outreach, and the field has become, well, crowded, which means generating great PR can be a challenge. And as crowdfunding has grown, it has earned mixed reviews.

Stories of mismanaged project funds and even outright embezzlement, startups that fail to deliver, and general operational missteps have all contributed to media mistrust.  Because third-party validation is key to generating visibility for any crowdfunded campaigns, this presents a challenge – and an opportunity – for PRs to find ways to help them succeed.

PR pros have a responsibility to inform and manage client expectations about the prospects for a given crowdfunding venture, as well as the earned media that results from their efforts. Teams need to work together on a real-world strategy to manage a company’s story should they decide to move forward with a Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaign. Here are some tips for doing just that:

Point out pitfalls. And do it before the campaign launches. Media can be cynical, and some feel they’ve been burned by projects that never came to fruition. It’s important to bulletproof the concept, anticipate problems and questions, and make a credible case for your offering before you launch the page. Make sure the company is legit, with a tax ID number, business bank account and employees whose bios and backgrounds are verifiable. Remember the key ingredient of many successful crowdfunded campaigns is a compelling story. Without it, the idea won’t capture attention in the crucial early stages. Make sure your story is simple, straightforward, and authentic. Don’t get lost in technical details or a meandering narrative that tells too much and confuses the listener. Keep it crisp and focused on the benefit.

Tee up media relationships. A friends and family network is important in order to help drive early momentum, but features in key media outlets is the best way to gain visibility. Prioritize your media launch targets. During embargo outreach planning, select the outlets that will drive the most traffic at publication. TechCrunch, Engadget, and BGR (among others) are key for maximizing traction and pledge conversions from the very beginning. Bonus tip: Crowdfunded projects work best when they land on the front page of the crowdfunding site. Platforms like Indiegogo choose front-page performers based on their ability to raise a certain percentage of funds within a given time period. Indiegogo suggests that a campaign should ideally raise 30% of its goal within the first 25% of the project’s lifetime to be singled out.

The goal is to show traction early on and tout your success to the community. Once you have some visibility, build social proof through interaction with advisors, customers, the media, or investors. Smart lighting app Plum has done this very successfully as the company has grown.

Make sure the page is as attractive as it can be. PR and design experts brought in early can help shape a client’s crowdfunding page. A concise background story, set of perks, and attractive presentation of the product’s value will resonate with target audiences. Consider front-loading the campaign with an offer of early-bird access – whether that’s internally funneling donations from employees, or having it come from one source before going live with the campaign. The former is usually preferable, as it projects campaign momentum straight out of the gate. Here is FidgetCube and some other pages that got it right.

Manage expectations throughout the process. If the crowdfunding route is appropriate, the PR team should make it clear that press coverage is not a guarantee of increased donations. Press will bring more exposure and brand awareness, but locking in donations requires a sustained effort on many fronts. Targeted social support across many platforms is important. It makes sense to identify and engage with communities that match up, demographically and in attitudes, values, and lifestyles, with the crowdfunded product. Beyond earned media, proven marketing tools like campaign videos will help drive potential donors to the campaign; pages with video are 85% more likely to achieve their funding goals, and the more engaging they are, the more shares they’ll receive.

Keep up the post-launch momentum. As soon as the agreed upon embargoed publications run their stories, conduct a much wider push of the launch announcement press release to capitalize on initial momentum and increase coverage in all relevant verticals. Then, publish milestones. If the crowdfunding page reaches a significant goal in a record amount of time (like 50% funded in 24 hours), it’s important to inform key contacts that the campaign is progressing and projected to complete its goal. This has a dual purpose. It’ll validate the journalists’ decisions to report on your project – knowing that they didn’t get burned on a campaign that won’t deliver. And it may result in additional exposure from contacts that didn’t cover the campaign from the beginning.

Stoke the social media fires. Once the campaign is up and running, PR teams need to push for more volume on the social media shareability and advertising front. While advertising isn’t required, considering ads on Facebook or sponsored posts on Twitter can help boost exposure for relevant audiences in certain industry verticals who’ve shown an affinity for products such as yours.

Crowdfunding campaigns have their pros and cons, but there’s plenty of evidence that the business model can be powerful if startups and their PR teams know how to navigate from start to finish.

9 Secrets Of Great PR For Startups

Does a startup business always need to hire a PR agency?

There’s no shortage of advice on the question, and much of it is contradictory. Mark Cuban famously advised young companies not to bring on an external PR firm, reasoning that an entrepreneur is the best person to handle media contact.

I’m a Cuban fan but disagree on this score. First, all startups aren’t alike, and individual needs and goals should dictate the decision. More importantly, his advice reduces everything a PR agency or inside team does to “wrangling the media,” as he puts it. But there’s a whole lot more that goes into the typical startup-agency relationship, like research, strategy, and message development. Then there’s the fact that most entrepreneurs aren’t Mark Cuban and the environment of 2017 is very different from the one where he came of age.

My opinion about startups and PR agencies is more along the lines of entrepreneur-turned-VC Mark Suster, who calls PR “insanely valuable” for startups and outlines the ways in which it supports vital business functions, from fundraising and recruiting to business development and customer acquisition.

But whatever your point of view on outside agencies, handling PR and media relations for an early-stage business is a blend of art and science. Experience counts, as do other variables like the economic environment, the competitive set (or lack of it) and the founder(s).

Here’s what we’ve learned about PR for startups.

Prepare before you pitch

I’ve seen many startups rush into a media announcement the moment they close a round of fundraising or participate in a major trade show or accelerator. Those things can be important news hooks, but it’s always best to lay the groundwork by introducing yourself and your company to relevant journalists. If you’ve developed relationships or even a few months of give-and-take with the key figures in your sector, it will often pay off in greater coverage for news. So instead of rushing the funding, consider spending an extra two or three months meeting journalists for background interviews. Or place a product roadmap story or new of a partnership update with a key blogger. Then come out with your fundraise, which will let media “connect the dots” and gain a fuller impression of the business.

Think like a journalist

Good reporters and bloggers work in a competitive landscape, ruled by time constraints and under pressure to deliver clicks. But they’re not stenographers and are trained to be skeptical. They want a story tailored for their needs or unique to their particular publication; in fact, they often want an exclusive. That takes planning, lead time, and negotiation on the part of an experienced PR or media relations expert. And it’s tired advice, but it requires the PR rep to study individual media outlets and their target reporters’ beats, stories, profiles, social media streams, and quirks. It’s like a presentation opportunity with a hot prospect; you never want to walk into it cold, and you usually only have one shot.

Build relationships

Yes, there’s a reason it’s called public relations. Sometimes you get lucky and you land a story with a reporter you haven’t worked with before because it’s timely, relevant, or perfect for that particular media outlet. But much of the art of media relations and PR involves taking the time necessary to build connections. Remember, your story is unlikely to be a journalist’s priority. So it helps to get to know them not only by reading their stuff and following their social feeds, but by reaching out with useful information even when it’s not your story. Think in terms of building a relationship, not making a sale.

Tell, don’t sell

This is part of the relationship point, but it’s worth noting on its own. Even if your disruptive new SaaS platform is the coolest technology to hit the industry, don’t just focus on features and benefits, and don’t get lost in jargon or technical terms. Focus instead on telling a story that anyone could understand at a cocktail party. What irksome problem does it solve? How did you hit upon the idea? What breakthrough or industry change made it possible? We work with a supply chain software client that services the heavy equipment aftermarket. At first blush that may seem dry or confusing, but if you calculate the business lost by a grounded airplane for lack of a part, or the customer frustration when a refrigerator can’t be repaired for weeks, it drives home the benefit in a way that no sales deck really can.

Go outside your industry

We don’t always have news, of course. And to make it more complicated, tech entrepreneurs can be insular; at times they think their own developments or mission are more relevant than the media do. When hard news isn’t happening in your own business, however, it helps to think outside your world. It’s no accident that we’re all reading about what “fake news” means in a given industry, or the business lessons of Tom Brady, or whether CEOs should weigh in on hot-button political issues. What’s happening in the world around us will always be relevant to media. Work to develop a point of view about the workforce, relevant government policies, business culture, leadership, or another broad topic and weigh in with your own content or comments.

Embrace competition

Some startups like to say they have no competition, reasoning that their offering is unique, or wanting to minimize attention for any competitors. But in fact, a few competitors usually means journalists will be far more interested in covering your product or service. One company is an isolated example; more than one means there’s a trend, and a potentially bigger story.


Most startups are pressed for resources, so it makes sense to prioritize by communicating your top goals and messages at the outset. Above all, be consistent. Even if you can only spend two days per month on PR and media relations, it’s important to keep at it. Most earned media stories (what we call the editorial features and interviews that result from our efforts) take time to germinate, and an off-and-on strategy is a sure momentum-killer.


If you can only do one thing, consider a founder’s blog. Yes, it takes time and energy, but for many entrepreneurs, it gives voice to the very trends and observations they’re articulating one-on-one to partners, investors and employees. In other words, a successful blog can grow out of a business owner’s natural thoughts and opinions. If regular entries on a company website is a heavy lift, consider a platform like LinkedIn or Medium, where there’s not as much pressure to post fresh content every week. What’s important is that it gets your brand out there with searchable content and helps you shape a point of view on relevant topics.


If you’re not prepared to participate in your company’s PR program (or have a key executive dedicate time to it), then you should probably rethink the whole investment. Even the most capable external PR team aren’t wizards who can operate independently. It takes time, input, and active participation from the client to make the magic happen.

Top Tips To Prioritize PR Spending

Recently, 500 public relations, social media, and marketing experts were asked by Meltwater, the media intelligence and monitoring company, to weigh in on how they prioritize their responsibilities, time, and budget as the industry shifts to digital and social content creation.

Some of the findings were expected; respondents mentioned the blending of marketing and PR responsibilities, as well as the pressure to measure outcomes. But our takeaway is that PR budgets have not kept up with the new demands created by the digital environment. This is particularly true when it comes to allocating budget for monitoring and measurement, for content creation and for the increasingly important role of influencer relations.

When I was asked to be part of a webinar on the same study, I jumped at the chance. The resulting discussion was informative, leading to some advice for PR agencies and their clients when it comes to priorities.

Use agency skills to identify important influencers. Not surprisingly, the survey showed that key influencers in both B2B and B2C marketing have shifted from celebrities to newsworthy individuals and bloggers. This means more confusion for clients for whom this is uncharted territory, but it’s an opportunity for agencies. It’s up to PR teams to have vast and current knowledge of this ever-changing landscape of personalities. This means that you can toss out top TV stars or other traditional boldface names in favor of individuals who may have less reach, but greater relevance to a given target audience. Often, the personalities are hardly household names.  So how to find the perfect match? It starts with hands-on research, simple google searches, consumption of pop culture sites and communities, and homing in on top influencer lists. You can pick your vertical – B2B tech? Wearables? IoT? There’s an influencer for just about everything. It also means a budget sufficient to achieve the best result. Our work for safety wearable Wearsafe bore this out when we were able to attract top tech personality Carley Knobloch to advocate for the product.

Take a long-term view on monitoring and analytics. The Meltwater study concluded that many PR and marketing pros aren’t tapping into such services to help them do their jobs better. A full 76% of respondents copped to not using any paid media monitoring or analytics tools, and 14% said they don’t track metrics at all. One reason may be that some tools are costly. This is understandable, but it doesn’t help PR teams over the long term, and over time, may limit their scope and budgets.
The key is to align with clients on achievable goals and specific KPIs prior to starting a campaign. Then, allocate a reasonable budget for measurement. It can be as low as three to five percent of the total program cost. We look to build monitoring, social listening and some analysis into the budget at the get-go and demonstrate the kinds of insights that can be gleaned from these tools. The goal is better internal merchandising of results – leading to increased prioritizing of PR efforts. We recently provided social media analytics to a client who had never before tracked the data. We were able to show an increase in output, followers and page views since signing on. This resulted in the organization increasing our social media responsibilities – and budget.

Leverage content creation across platforms. Content creation and social media planning are the top time and budget item for the survey sample, with good reason. Shrinking editorial staffs and an ongoing hunger for good content set up the perfect dynamic for agencies to create quality content that helps tell client stories. In our experience, client teams have little time to handle this function and look to their agencies to steer the ship. Agencies have gotten very savvy about building in time and resource budgets to manage this work and clients who see the advantages, usually sign on. It helps that many third parties who advise marketers sing the praises of outsourcing quality content and PR firms can use this kind of advocacy to their advantage.
As with all PR work, it’s up to agency teams to continue to sell the value of these services and to ask for appropriate compensation for the talent and time required. To do less is to shortchange the client, agency, and even future campaigns.

Why Your PR Firm Wants To Fire You

There’s nothing like the thrill of starting a public relations partnership with a new client. All parties are on best behavior, getting to know one another and establishing the rhythm of a working relationship. But, then like a sinking ship, signs start appearing that make you ask if the “marriage” is on the rocks. Many times the desire to dissolve comes from the client side. However, there are those occasions when an agency has to cut the client cord.  We’ve been lucky, and we choose our clients well. But we’ve gathered some “dysfunctional relationship” examples from colleagues and our own archives.

Client demands are untenable

Demanding clients are a challenge. But the right type of demanding client offers an opportunity to set a high bar and achieve greatness. The problem occurs when the original bar is moved from high to unrealistic or even outrageous. We encountered this once when a client visiting a major market for a media tour doubled the goal for high-level media interviews from an ambitious 18, to an unreasonable 40. The best way to deal with an unrealistic demand is to manage expectations from the start and to define expected outcomes clearly and in writing. But when even that constant communication fails, that may be a client fail that can’t be fixed.

Budgets are uncertain, or nonexistent

Nothing creates a fraught client relationship like budget uncertainty. An agency has put together a strategically sound plan backed by solid research, and the client has pulled the trigger. The team is invested and engaged and then the unthinkable happens. The company suffers a setback and the project is upended. The consequences are not only financially unsettling to the firm but demoralizing to the team. Unfortunately, there’s often no way of predicting a situation like this, and it can happen to virtually any client. But when it happens with multiple agencies, or repeatedly with the same external team, it’s time to cut the cord. The best safeguards are to build mutual accountability into business agreements, including a reasonable termination notice.

“Alternative facts” come to light

One of the worst client offenses is lying, which we define similarly to the New York Times, — telling untruths with the intent to deceive. Luckily, this is a rare occurrence. When it does happen, it’s pretty universally considered grounds for immediate dissolution of the relationship. The basis of any good partnership is honesty; PR agencies expect to be told a client’s full story, warts and all. It is then incumbent on the PR team to give counsel on the best way to shape and share that story with press. But the expectation is always that the client is providing facts. How can a communications team remain credible in the eyes of journalists if they’re found to be lying? We PR people want to deal in facts, and after all the noise about “fake news,” we want to do our part to combat it as an industry.

There’s no there, there

Some clients naturally have consistent news to share and plenty of POV to promote, and others less so. That’s okay; our job is to ferret out nuggets that can be shaped and communicated to tell a compelling story, so we don’t need it served up on a silver platter. But even the best PR counselors need some raw material, which is why we probe and question clients to determine news and story angles. We once worked with a law firm that did very interesting work, none of which they felt they could discuss. They were also reticent about making their top leadership available. As much as we pushed for more candor and probed for news, the more the firm clammed up. Which left us very little to work with. PR agencies create the most successful partnerships when clients are receptive to education at the beginning and really understand the “rules of the game.” This way clients know what is required of them to make the relationship work.

Failure to launch?

When a company brings on a PR team specifically to introduce a product or service a great deal of time is spent developing the right strategy. This includes crafting a story, scoping out competitive initiatives, researching the target audience, and preparing spokespeople. But none of that matters if the company encounters countless delays and can’t seem to pull the trigger. These are serious red flags. We once worked with an app developer who asked us to begin shopping an exclusive to a top tech publication, only to find flaws, get cold feet and leave the PR firm with some explaining to do. This is another rare situation that can sometimes be spotted with serious vetting of a company, its financial backing, and product roadmap.

Intolerable behavior

Every experienced PR person has had a relationship with a “difficult” client, usually an individual who simply doesn’t know how to work with other people. The hypercritical client, the client who ignores you, the client who tries to compete with you in the mistaken fear that the agency might show them up – those are key examples. Usually, these issues are resolved in a satisfactory way and the relationship strengthens and progresses. Sometimes, however, in PR or any other business relationships, there are incorrigibles. They’re the ones who just can’t act with civility or clarity, and with whom a breaking point is unavoidable. Although rare, if you find yourself in this kind of consistently abusive relationship, just fire that client and move on. When a window closes, a door will open.