6 Common PR Mistakes Made By Startups

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.

Unrealistic expectations

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.

Hidden PR Tips In 5 Top Movies

Almost Famous (2000) — Media Relations

It’s the 1970s, and the mid-level rock band Stillwater is poised to make its Rolling Stone magazine debut. The iconic publication sends a 15 year-old reporter to travel with the band to write an in-depth piece. Initially, the musicians consider the music critic “the enemy” and refer to him by exactly those words. Both the inexperienced reporter and the naïve band members make the media relations mistake of getting too close to be objective. Of course, the band wants the article to portray them as musical geniuses – great PR! Instead, the journalist writes a warts-and-all article about the band – which the lead singer promptly disputes, making the reporter look bad. Eventually, the lead singer redeems himself and confirms the story — and Stillwater ends up on the cover of Rolling Stone. It’s good to have connections to the press — just don’t go on tour with them.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) – PR-Driven Promotion

At the confluence of advertising, marketing, and public relations was the genius stunt by the fictional Wonka Corporation to release golden tickets hidden inside their popular candy bars throughout England. The winners were granted a tour of the highly secretive chocolate factory and a lifetime supply of chocolate bars. Of course, sales skyrocketed and kids jammed candy stores clamoring for Wonka bars. Brilliant! It became a much talked about event; it was fun; and fit right in with the ethos of the Wonka brand. Media coverage of the golden ticket winners’ arrival at the factory gate was stellar. It’s a classic “chained product” stunt like the famous P&G anniversary promotion that put 2 million cubic zirconias – and 500 real diamonds – in packages of Spic and Span detergent. When a product promotion leads with a great idea, it tends to generate enough news coverage to sell the campaign.

Jerry McGuire (1996) – Reputation Management

NFL player Rod Tidwell, played by Academy Award winner Cuba Gooding Jr., was known as an underachieving receiver with a big ego and mouth to match. His bad reputation prevented him from getting paid well and being able to support his family. Agent Jerry McGuire (Tom Cruise) accompanies Tidwell to the NFL draft despite the fact that Tidwell, as a league member, doesn’t need to be there. McGuire recognizes the draft as public event offering plenty of PR opportunity – including a chance for Tidwell to massage his poor image with a “walk-through” – an apology tour of light TV interviews. In the end, Tidwell’s best reputation move turns out to be on the playing field, where he works harder, plays better, and talks less –all with the cameras rolling. Sometimes a brand’s best PR move is to back up its claims with actions.

PR Crisis in movies
Buena Vista Pictures (1995)

Crimson Tide (1995) — Crisis Planning

How is a submarine thriller a study in PR? When it’s a crisis communications nightmare about the highest of high-stakes events: a nuclear attack. Plus, communications technology plays a crucial role in the plot.

A submarine captain played by Gene Hackman receives two messages – the first (EAM) “emergency action message” says to get ready to launch; the second says to launch missiles on Russia. However, the communications system is damaged, leaving the message fragmented: “subject: nuclear missile laun…” Regulations state that both the commander and the XO (Denzel Washington) must concur on the order to launch their nukes — a critical aspect of the plan. But Denzel’s XO refuses to launch until they see the full message. Hackman’s character, fearful of leaving the U.S. defenseless, orders the missiles launched. It turns out that the second message was a ceasefire order. What follows is a leadership struggle as Denzel’s character tries to have the order retracted.

The Crimson Tide takes us through all Norman R. Augustine’s six stages of crisis. The Navy had taken steps to foresee and manage a crisis event, starting with a full audit of the possibilities, and it has clear chain-of-command and concurrence policies, as seen in a crisis drill. Yet despite the procedures, preparation drills, and continual updates to internal stakeholders (the crew), the plan proves inadequate because it hinges on a compromise between two officers who cannot agree. In most time-urgent crisis situations, a clear chain of command works better than consensus.

The Godfather, Part II (1974) –  Government Relations

Michael Corleone moves his family to Nevada as part of a larger reputation management initiative to establish the enterprise as a legitimate business. In the sprawling opening scene, the Senator from Nevada accepts a large cash donation to a public university from Corleone at his son’s confirmation party. This solid public affairs maneuver would position the family as philanthropists and a socially responsible business. It would also curry favor with the government, easing approval of its gaming license. Of course, things don’t go as planned, since the Senator intends to “squeeze” the Corleones for more money. Soon afterward he is caught with a dead prostitute. It’s clear that public officials can be as corrupt as crime families, so one should be careful with whom you engage in government relations. Lesson learned!