Startup PR Goals: What Every Young Company Should Know

The end of the year is a great time to think about public relations and marketing goals for the year ahead. This is particularly true for startups or hot young companies, where months, weeks, and even days can mark significant milestones in the life of a growing organization. The company will likely revise its business objectives and strategies multiple times as it figures out what works best.

If a public relations strategy is part of that process — and it should be — here are some important tips to keep in mind when setting PR goals for the coming year.

Focus PR efforts on both user acquisition and partnership development. It can be easy to get caught up in the excitement of a new launch, especially if your startup began with a big splash, but an investment in PR is best focused on getting results that will make a difference for the company, not just make headlines. Make sure you have business goals that PR can help achieve. Figure out where your target audiences hang out media-wise, and target those publications. Likewise for attracting partners to work with — an important aspect of building a new company.

Use PR to attract top talent. Young companies face some pretty tough competition when it comes to attracting top talent, and positive founder profile stories, or stories that highlight how the company is doing something different, can make the difference in winning over prime candidates. Don’t forget how valuable good PR can be for this important part of growing a company.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Life at a fast-growing tech startup can be a bit volatile in the beginning, when structure, discipline, and proven habits are still being worked out. Make sure you have the time and resources to devote to PR involvement. Ask lots of questions when bringing on a PR partner so you know exactly what will be expected of your key players to ensure success. Failure to think these things through from the outset could lead to frustration and wasted time — a most valuable resource young companies should treat wisely.

Brush up on SEO. Good public relations work is more and more about strong content, which is crucial for SEO. But the maturing SEO landscape is constantly changing. The adoption of machine learning systems for search is making optimization more technical. A content marketing or inbound marketing consultant is one option to keep on hand.

Think long term. Startups and early stage companies are used to things happening fast, but keep in mind, PR and earned media is more of a long game. Experience and relationships are hard earned and take time, but the payoff in brand recognition and enhanced reputation is well worth the wait.

What Startups Should Know About Public Relations

Many startups or emerging businesses can benefit from an investment in public relations. It’s a cutthroat world out there, with all manner of new and fast-growing companies competing fiercely for media and investor attention. Most entrepreneurs realize that a well-focused PR program can help drive visibility, highlight what makes the business or its products different, and even generate business. But not all entrepreneurial businesses have the right stuff – both monetary and human resources – to commit to a PR strategy or program.

An obvious answer is to hire a PR firm, but in some cases it’s premature, both for economic reasons and because the effort needs to scale gradually, as the business does. And there is a vocal minority of founders – most notably, Mark Cuban – who feel the task is better suited to the CEO. (Don’t get us started…)

No matter how you slice it, even a modest commitment to a long-term public relations strategy can elevate visibility and accelerate the achievement of business goals.  Here’s our list of what startups should know and consider about public relations.

Know what sets you apart. And learn how to articulate it well and cogently. Few companies are unique, but most have one or more differentiators. Ideally this is an attribute that translates into a user benefit, but it can also be a backstory. What problem do you solve? Why are you better? What do you have that others don’t? These are the questions that need to be answered in your story. 

Show, don’t tell.  For some founders, or their marketing staff, it’s instinctive to talk about why their business is innovative, different, newsworthy or important. But words only go so far; to generate real traction among traditional or digital media, descriptions need to be backed up with supporting facts, numbers, examples, and/or visuals. Key messages are only the first step.

Look beyond press releases.  Press announcements still have their place in the larger public relations picture, but the days of keyword-stuffed releases to hype non-news are long gone. Any PR program that is based on press releases is probably a waste of resources. Mass-distributed or posted announcements are typically only 10 or 15 percent of the overall communications picture.

Start with low-hanging fruit.  Businesses just starting to embrace public relations should be aware that there are free or low-cost services whereby journalists and bloggers promote their needs. It is sometimes a good idea to start with some basic tools like HARO or PR Newswire’s ProfNet, to determine if aspects of your business story can match up with journalist requests. It’s time and cost-efficient and at the beginning, it can be a good way to test your pitch.

Use data. Emerging businesses often have access to in-depth data that supports their overall business strategy and approach; it can be particularly interesting if it relates to a new category, an advancing technology, an underserved customer segment, or future trend. It pays to think about the data you have and its relevance to media who cover related business categories. Often it can be sliced and diced and served up to reinforce a company’s expertise or a founder’s insights.

Add value.  Occasionally, new businesses are overfocused on promoting their products or services or even simply telling their story. That’s a simplistic view of how public relations works. It’s usually far better to think in terms of adding value. What insights can your founder share? What expertise is the business based upon? What trends, behavior, or development can you explain or predict? The answers may have far more media potential than mere PR announcements.

Speak for your category.  Although product or service differentiation is important to a fully fleshed-out public relations strategy, an emerging business can often get more PR mileage by assuming industry expertise or leadership. If a new company is part of a growing category, it will nearly always be more interesting, and therefore more newsworthy, in the eyes of media and bloggers. We often say that one company is just a company, but two is a category.

Let others tell your story. The heart and soul of good public relations is implied third-party endorsement. A business promoting itself isn’t nearly as credible or newsworthy as the praise of a third party, usually a customer.  If there are customers or partners who can help tell your story or flesh out details or substance, they should be tapped to do so. In the case of corporate clients or partners, that cooperation should be spelled out from the start of the relationship.

The "Science" of Spotting A Winning Startup

My first PR agency was founded in 1996. If that year doesn’t mean anything to you, you’re either young, or you’re not very interested in technology startups. 1996 was a fantastic year to start up just about anything, including a New York PR agency. The “dot-com” boom was roaring, there was far too much VC cash chasing after the next big thing, and simply putting your brand online was considered startlingly innovative.

Of course, when the meltdown came, it was ugly. But even before the great collapse of 2000, and during better economies since that time, PR agencies have been challenged with an embarrassment of options – multiple prospective clients, sometimes within the same flavor-of-the-month category. Depending on where you are in the economic cycle, the most important – and the toughest – decision we make can be which horse to back in the great race to a successful outcome.  And creative services professionals don’t always have the keenest judgment when it comes to evaluating clients.

That’s why it was fun to read  Jenna Wortham’s piece on the “freshman class” of technology startup companies and, even more interesting to PRs, a sidebar about how the New York Times decides which startups are most worthy of their time. As the piece was furiously tweeted around this week, it seemed to promise the breathless type of “ten tips”-style insights for PRs and others on how to position our clients to best advantage. Here’s how they do it! Wortham shares NYT secrets!

But the real point of the sidebar was more prosaic. Wortham and her colleagues do their research, of course, They look at the VCs attached to a given company, study data, and talk to entrepreneurs. But the bottom line is that determining the most worthy startups is often “a feeling based on experience. The app, game, service or idea that you have had your eye on starts to pop up all over — in casual conversations at parties or in a conversation overheard on the subway.”

Buzz. “It” factor. The breakthrough, leap forward, or tipping point. Bottom line, even professional journalists at one of the world’s most prestigious news outlets use a blend of experience and gut feeling. Similar to the ways that PR agencies evaluate prospective clients during fat times (and what we should do more of during lean ones.)

So, there’s no magic formula for deciding which startups are most mediaworthy, and perhaps even less so for those trying to gauge which might make the most exciting, lucrative, and successful client case study. By the time a given company get the attention of the Times or other outlets, chances are good that it’s been researched and vetted by others more expert in a given technology or vertical market.

But having some kind of stake in the game makes it fun, interesting and important. On the agency side, we keep trying, and some of us get better at it over time.

Will The AirPR Model Fix The PR Business?

Muckrack CEO Greg Galant’s piece,”Why Public Relations Gets No Respect” hit a nerve in our industry.

Though the post drew some indignant responses from the PR community, it was a thoughtful and relatively optimistic assessment of PR’s value, thanks to digital measurement tools, the prevalence of social media, and PR’s increased scaleability due to more distributed levers of influence across the web.

But one aspect of the business that remains outdated, and that impacts everything else about the client-agency relationship, is the agency search process. It’s directly related to PR’s poor reputation in my view. Which is why, when I first read about AirPR, a new company that’s been described as a “” for startups needing PR, I was intrigued. Armed with $1 million in seed funding from big-name VCs and angel investors, AirPR aims to prevent new businesses from spending up to $40,000 with large PR firms who push the work down to juniors by pairing them with qualified consultants or boutique firms who charge much gentler fees.

Now I don’t know many startups who begin with a PR firm at $40,000 a month (and if you do, please have them call me), but AirPR is right about one thing. The client-agency matching methodology is pretty broken. The best thing you can say about the RFP process is that it’s a frustrating, archaic, time suck for both parties. Agencies complain bitterly about the creative commitment, staff expense, and hidden (and not-so-hidden) biases in the process, while clients often don’t get what they need. Expensive search consultants or intern-led Web searches aren’t much better.

AirPR proposes to make a better marriage through “proprietary vetting and matchmaking algorithms,” according to TechCrunch. That’s way too vague and gimmicky-sounding to be conclusive, but it stands to reason that technology can streamline the process. The other “matchmaking” aspect to our business that’s incredibly inefficient, of course, is media pitching and story placement. For that, services like HARO and ProfNet, who aim to hook up buyers and sellers, have become indispensable. No, they haven’t eliminated random, sloppy, and spammy pitches, but the system provides a mutually beneficial service, and it basically works.

So, will AirPR save PR’s reputation? Disrupt the business? Remake it? Probably not. It’s unlikely to affect the traditional client PR search model, simply because large PR firms, the most common recipients of RFPs and large shootout-style searches, aren’t the least bit interested in fees at $10,000 a month or lower. But for consultants and boutique firms, as well as their typical clients, it makes sense.

As has often been discussed and blogged in our industry, PR for startups is different. These businesses have unique needs and goals, and for most, PR is a critical tool. When it fails, it’s even more injurious for both client and agency.

The AirPR writeups also hint at something else. Its clients will evaluate service providers with the goal of creating a community committed to high quality standards, although we don’t know much about how that will happen. Presumably the criteria will go beyond deliverables like press releases and even publicity, to focus on more strategic offerings and business outcomes.

Count me in. Not because the AirPR model is a surefire disruptor, but because I’m tired of the agency-bashing that results from poorly articulated goals, unrealistic client expectations, and mismatched expertise. If the marketplace works, it will be because it makes both parties in the relationship more accountable. Clients must better define PR and business goals. Agencies need to delivering instead of spending time chasing new clients.

It’s time for a new search model. It will be interesting to see where this goes.

Do Startups Really Need A PR Firm?

Brant Cooper’s indictment of PR firms for start-up businesses (Hey, Startups: Don’t Hire A PR Agency) has triggered another flurry of discussion about what should be expected from a professional public relations firm. I don’t agree with Cooper’s conclusions, but he makes some valid points. His argument is more well-reasoned than journalists’ complaints, and more relevant than the 2008 Jason Calcanis post calling for startups to fire their PR reps.

Here’s why. Over the years, I’ve worked with many startups with a wide range of needs, from brand positioning and messaging to business-building publicity. Most have been successful relationships. Yet, more than other clients, startups are prone to unrealistic expectations.

Expectations management is more important than results. When I hear, “We’re really counting on PR to drive demand, so we’re putting everything into our PR budget,” it doesn’t make me happy. It’s a red flag. Even the most brilliant PR program isn’t a replacement for a salesforce, marketing plan, or ad budget.

Startups are supposed to have lofty goals. All the more reason why it’s essential to define – and manage – them at the outset. Of course, this is true of any client-agency engagement, but startups are more passionate because they have to be. It’s their job. Which means that it’s our job is to make them see that PR is a better tool for brand visibility and positioning than demand generation. Those who expect to launch a consumer business fueled purely by publicity are often disappointed.

The founder is not the brand. This is where I think Calcanis and others get it wrong. An evangelistic founder is a huge asset, and he or she is usually the most credible media and analyst spokesperson. But, the founder’s vision is only the beginning. And, not every entrepreneur is the best person to sell his story. I’ve worked with those who are either too close or too emotionally invested to connect with media and understand their point of view. A press tour is not a road show.

PR doesn’t stand for press release. A newsstream should flow from the overall business and communications strategy, but the document itself is a commodity. If they’re hiring a PR team for press releases, it’s a waste of money.

Some startups should handle PR internally. It’s not possible  to generalize, but there are many companies – particularly early-stage ones, for whom PR is basically networking and fundraising. For them, a DIY approach can work well.

Finally, PR can’t overcome a mediocre product or flawed business plan.  If it could,  Webvan,, and would be household brands today instead of symbols of vaporized cash – and dreams.