7 Common PR Mistakes Startups Make

In general, startups make great PR clients — especially those with a story to tell. A high-growth tech company with financing behind it is in a perfect position to make the most of a public relations agency partnership. For the PR team, it’s rewarding because PR is typically a top priority, and the work is exciting. As I’ve outlined, it differs significantly from other types of client work, but mostly in good ways.
A new company has very distinct needs and goals, however. The stakes feel higher than at a more established business. And not all startups understand how best to take advantage of an investment in public relations. Here are some of the most common mistakes made by new businesses.

Bad timing

Some startups make small timing miscalculations, like signing on an agency right after a major funding announcement. (Pro tip: professional help will nearly always amplify your funding announcement.) Worse, they may let the news trickle out without a proper media strategy. Or, they bring on a PR team just weeks before a key conference or product launch and expect a full plan rollout. Still others start with a PR firm too soon. If the startup doesn’t yet have a clear selling proposition, solid financing, and a good story to tell, the investment in PR is likely premature.

Unrealistic expectations

Some startups think an agency can work miracles without help or input from them. That isn’t true; earned media is generated by hard work, research, and creativity. Most importantly, it’s a cooperative effort. It’s the job of the startup – and their PR team – to identify and shape its 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 strategy and messaging.  A more common form of unrealistic thinking is the startup who’s convinced it takes one big feature to magically transform the business. That’s unlikely, because PR is best at building brand visibility and credibility over time. Part of the art of public relations is leveraging the initial stories into a longer, more important narrative for top-tier media and influencers.

Inadequate resources

Another key ingredient to PR success is a real commitment backed by necessary resources, both financial and human. An on-and-off approach to media relations and executive visibility will fall short. To support the ongoing operation of a PR program, a company needs an internal manager, C-level insights and participation, and a roadmap for a 12-month period. Does every startup need an outside agency? No. Depending on its stage of life, a competent internal professional or team with relevant experience can work just fine. Even a skilled freelancer is a better solution than an agency who can’t properly staff the account because the fees don’t warrant it.

“Me, me, me”

A reporter wants a good story, not a sales pitch or a founder biography. Yet some companies fall into the trap of just talking about themselves. Now, it may be that a new business is so disruptive that it can stand alone as a story. But maximizing visibility through earned media usually takes context. Positioning a new business within its category, as part of an industry’s growth or change, is a far stronger pitch. And don’t pretend you don’t have competitors. From a journalist’s point of view, one company is just a company, but a cluster of new competitors is a trend.

No differentiation

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 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.
Remember, differentiation doesn’t have to be a technology product or service, although superior tech is an asset. It can come from a unique point of view, contrarian opinions, or bold predictions. In fact, those qualities may be more important for a startup founder, because thought leadership can carry a more substantive narrative than a new product. A compelling set of opinions or observations can make a brand memorable and relevant for nearly any audience – employees, prospects, VCs, and press.

A client-agency mismatch

It happens. A scrappy startup is dazzled by a top ten PR agency that trots out its superstars (who are never seen again once the agreement is signed.) Or, a high-growth tech business brings on a generalist team that doesn’t really understand its category. Before signing on an outside agency, every company should consider size, industry experience, track record, location, and culture. Meetings are time-consuming, but there’s no better way to check for compatibility. Instead of casting a wide net and skimping on every conversation, consider looking at only a handful of agencies but spending real time with each team.

Mutual commitment

Many startups are impatient. Some even 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 outside agency or switch gears on strategy, but a hasty exit can cost a startup time and money in the long run. Then there’s the commitment by the PR team. Whether that team is internal or external, it must assert its needs, course-correct quickly, and market the PR function across the entire company. Like a marriage, both parties must understand that they share the same goals, invest in the relationship and accept responsibility – and credit – for outcomes.

Eight Best PR Practices For Startups

Since before Mark Cuban famously warned tech startups against bringing on a PR agency, there’s been a debate about public relations for early-stage businesses. There’s plenty of free advice for how to build the kind of earned media visibility that well-known brands like Uber or Casper enjoy.

But does a startup business always need to hire a PR agency? The answer is no. PR is a useful brand-building tool for startups, but it can be done by an internal team or an external PR firm.

B2B PR campaigns in particular can benefit from a PR program. That’s because promoting B2B products and services often involves vertical or trade press, which is easier to penetrate than mass media. And it’s less expensive to amplify earned media coverage with paid media or marketing tactics like SEM, email marketing, and paid social.

But no matter how it’s done, public relations is very versatile, if sometimes misunderstood. In skilled hands and in the right situation, it’s “insanely valuable.” Those aren’t my words; they were written by VC and entrepreneur Mark Suster. In fact he gives PR more credit even than I would, outlining the ways in which it supports vital business functions for early-stage companies. The most significant benefits aren’t even about marketing; they include fundraising and recruiting as well as brand-building and customer acquisition.

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 many other variables like the economic climate, the competition (or lack of it) and – very importantly – the character and charisma of the founder(s).

Here’s what we’ve learned after working for ten years in PR for startups.

Focus on 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. Or you meet an influential person whom you can tap later to speak on behalf of your business model or brand. But much of the art of media relations and PR involves making real 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 relationship-building, but it’s worth noting on its own. Even if your new SaaS platform is the coolest and most disruptive tech ever, it’s not wise to focus solely on its features and benefits, and it’s worse if the pitch is drowning in jargon or technical terms. Instead, tell a story that anyone could understand at a cocktail party. What persistent problem does it solve? How did the idea come? What breakthrough or industry change made it possible? We work with many technology startups whose business seems dry and narrow on the outside, but when you scratch the surface to identify and shape the narrative, a compelling story emerges. The founder’s early zeal and sacrifices, the risks, the trial-and-error nature of startup business breakthroughs — they can differentiate a business in a way that no sales deck really can.

Think outside your industry

Tech startups can be insular; at times founders and others believe their mission is more important that others do. When hard news isn’t happening in a business, however, it helps to think outside your world. What’s happening around us will always be relevant to media. Work to develop a point of view about the workforce, relevant government policies, business culture, leadership, even pop culture or another broad topic and weigh in with your own content or comments.

Embrace competition

Often startups like to say they have no competition. They see their business as unlike any other. Or, maybe they want to minimize attention to competitors. In some cases they have truly created a category. But paradoxically, competition 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. So, don’t be afraid of positioning a startup within a new and exciting category, or as disrupting an old one.

Be consistent

Many startups are pressed for resources, so they should be certain of their top goals and priority messages at the outset. Above all, it pays to be consistent when it comes to building media and influencer relationships. Even if you can only spend two days per month on PR and media relations, it’s important to keep at it. If you’ve developed relationships or even a few months of give-and-take with the key figures in a given sector, it will often pay off in greater coverage for news. 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.

Consider the big picture

It’s great to have news — a fat funding announcement, a sexy new product, or a growth milestone. But no one piece of news is as important as the larger story. It all needs to be part of the road map that leads to a compelling brand narrative. The art of PR involves helping media and analysts “connect the dots” and gain a fuller impression of the business and its importance in its category. Consider how these DTC (and traditional) companies use storytelling as a powerful PR and marketing weapon.

Create content, content, and more content

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. If regular posting is too big a lift, consider a quarterly piece of longer-form content that can be broken up into individual thought pieces; or, plan video updates that address hot-button issues. 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. Here are some tips on developing sound content strategies as part of a PR program.

Participate

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 PR investment. Even the most talented PR need can’t operate autonomously. It takes time, input, and active participation from the client to make the magic happen.

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.

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.

Prioritize

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.

Blog

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.

Participate

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.

10 PR Commandments For Startups

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.

Ten PR Rules for Startups

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.

Why PR Agencies Should Work With Startups

Mark Suster’s “The Silent Benefits of PR” should be required reading for both tech PR firms and their clients. It got me thinking about the unique aspects of the client-agency dynamic when the client is a startup company. What’s most interesting about Suster’s post is that of seven benefits of a strategic PR program that he outlines, customer acquisition is dead last. That’s right, last. The ironic truth is that, while early-stage clients often bring on PR agencies to help promote a product or service, the “silent” benefits, from staff morale to visibility among VCs, may be even more powerful.

In a similar way, working with early-stage clients can be beneficial for a PR team, and not just for the obvious reasons that they can be young and cool. Here are the ways in which an agency team can find it rewarding.

You can make a real impact. I started my career working with packaged goods companies where the PR program was a subset of marketing or a stepchild to an ad campaign. Big-brand PR was exciting, but the glamor sometimes faded into frustration. In the world of technology startups, by contrast, PR often leads. The PR strategy drives how the company is positioned to employees, investors, and customers, and those who influence them. The upshot is you feel like a full partner in the growth and success of the company.

You deal with the CEO. It’s fascinating to work with entrepreneurs, because they’re often brilliant, restless, and driven individuals, and that can be inspiring (as well as exhausting.) But more importantly, things get done. There aren’t typically layers of management, a bureaucracy to work through, or endless meetings before a decision is taken. Green means go.

You’re accountable. The green light also means that you’re responsible, unlike at companies where decisions are made by committee, or the PR program is more directly tied to a marketing campaign or sponsorship. If the funding announcement falls short, the launch flops, or the speech fails, your reputation is on the line. This type of pressure isn’t always comfortable, but it keeps you on your toes.

The bias is toward action. It may sound crazy, but there are many companies that don’t reward initiative or risk-taking in their partners. In fact, they may tacitly discourage it. For the typical startup, by contrast, there is no greater sin than standing still. Particularly in fast-changing sectors like adtech, HR tech or location-based marketing, there’s a culture of trial, risk-taking, and continuous innovation. That’s an environment that can be very empowering for agency team members.

You’re constantly learning. In tech PR in particular, things are changing quickly, and there is absolutely no opportunity to be bored or complacent. For a career agency person, there’s nothing better.

Why Young, Innovative Companies Should Consider PR A Priority

For some companies, it can be challenging to think about PR, but if you’re an innovative startup with a great story, a solid communications plan is a smart idea. It can be tempting to focus solely on “keeping the lights on” in the early phases of life, but there are plenty of good reasons why so-called “disruptor” companies need to think about communications early on. Here are just a few.

Communication is everything. Even before you opened your doors (or app, or online community), you already made dozens of decisions about how to communicate with the world. Everything from how the company got its name to the way services and products are described are components of a compelling communications strategy. After all the initial hard work it took to get started, why would you not continue to invest in a strong communications plan? Positioning your brand for launch is only the beginning.

Great (innovative) stories want to be told. The very definition of disruptive innovation has to do with a concept that rises to the top of the pile because it’s so different and new, it relentlessly changes the marketplace. Companies like Spotify and Dropbox have changed the way we think and behave, and the public clamors to understand who they are and where they fit in to their lives. An effective PR strategy can help make sure the story of the company, its products and services, is told accurately and told well — and avoids potential confusion or even controversy as word spreads. Which leads to…

Prepare for the unexpected. The most successful innovators have faced bumps in the road, and a strong, proactive approach to communications can help get out in front of confusing or controversial issues that might arise. One of the most famous disruptive innovators around shows us how relentless, early dedication to presentation  builds wildly successful PR.

You’re in it for the long haul. The startup phase is exciting and full of activity, but as an optimistic entrepreneur, you see your company having a long life. Investing in your communications team from the start helps build the kind of institutional memory that becomes elusive over time. You want people around who have been with you from the early days. Taking the effort to choose the right team and secure those relationships early on is a simple step that goes far in the long run.