PR Strategy for Startups


Ryan Battles  •   Entrepreneurship

Strategic PR for Startups

You don’t have to hire an expensive firm to have a Public Relations (PR) strategy as a startup. The beauty of today’s internet is that anybody has the power to reach tens of thousands, even millions, with the properly timed tweet, hacker news mention, or mention on an influential blog. You don’t have to make it onto a cover story in Inc. or Entrepreneur in order to achieve your PR goals, in fact you can start with some basic steps and relationship building.

That’s what this article is all about, PR strategy for the rest of us.

What Does PR Cover?

Let’s just get this out of the way. PR isn’t just about getting your name in the press, or handling the dirty laundry news leaks. PR is all about managing the spread of information, any information, between an individual or organization and the public. This could involve posting information about the product on your company’s blog, or it could be researching and building relationships with key influencers in your area. These people may or may not be editors at large publications. They may just be an influential Twitter user.

Why worry about PR?

Perhaps you’re thinking, as a startup, nobody is talking about us, so there’s not much to manage. Ah, that my friend is why you need to build a PR strategy!

While PR is great for letting your friends and relatives know that your business is legit, getting some exposure in the media can provide other benefits:

  • It can lead to customer acquisition from those who hear about your product through that medium. Most of the traffic spikes that I ever notice in my sites have to do with a press mention somewhere. The fun part is logging into Google Analytics to find out where these people are coming from!
  • Your search engine rankings tend to go up with each press mention. How else is Google to determine what the domain authority of your startup if not for all of the press mentions that you could be gathering!
  • You can build credibility in your brand by displaying the logos of press organizations that have mentioned you. Ever seen one of these:

Featured In Fast Company, New York Times, The Economist, Harvard Business Review, BBC

  • You can attract the right talent to your company. Someone who did a great job of highlighting what it is like to work for them is Zendesk, who has so far reached about 100,000 views of an inside tour of their office, as reported by Business Insider .

Hire a Firm or Go it Alone?

According to Brooke Hammerling (consultant to companies such as Wordpress, About.me, and Oracle), startups should only consider retaining the services of a firm if:

  • It’s entering a crowded market. “They need to be able to show why they’re better, why they’re above the fray,”
  • It’s a very disruptive company. “If it’s really going to change huge things, like health care, then they need to get out there ahead fast.”
  • The CEO involved has a history with the press. “Even if the company isn’t ready for primetime, there will be a lot of attention.”

For the rest of us, we can do it ourselves. That’s not to say a PR consultant wouldn’t be beneficial, or that you shouldn’t perhaps hire a PR position when the time is right. I’ve had companies featured in Time, Wired, TechCrunch, and other sources without any PR firm assistance.

What follows is how to build a strategy to get those press mentions.

When to Start

So when do we get this party started? According to Alan Weinkrantz, a PR consultant to leading accelerators around the world, that answer is approximately six months before launch.

Approximately six months before you are ready to launch your startup’s first product, service or platform, Public Relations should be part of your strategic planning and branding.

Why not sooner? Well, if you are that well-prepared to be thinking of this over six months away from your launch, then you’re doing something right. The reason six months is a magic number is that it is just far out enough to allow you to build a relationship with some members of the press, but not too far out that they forget about your product by the time it rolls around to launching.

Now, before six months, you can certainly be doing your homework and brainstorming some strategies. It is also never too early to build up a list of influencers in your target audience, but more on that in a little bit.

What Should I Be Seeking Press About?

I used to ask myself this question. It’s not like I’m finding the cure for cancer with my web apps, so why would someone care to write about what I’m up to? It turns out that I was my own worst enemy with that one. One of the most memorable phrases for me when reading through Tim Ferris’s 4-Hour Workweek was “don’t say ‘no’ for them.” By never attempting to get press, we will have a lot harder time getting it.

Here are some ideas for pitching your product or service:

  • Product’s launch. This assumes that your product is interesting. Another to-do list isn’t interesting, but a to-do list that does the items for you is a game-changer! If your product isn’t that much of a game-changer, then you’re better off pitching one of the other items in this list than just the launch.
  • The launch of a new product, feature or offering. This is the same as the launch itself, as long as we’ve got something interesting here, or “newsworthy,” then this is a good item to pitch.
  • The release of a compelling study of interesting data. Now this is almost always newsworthy if you are uncovering the research yourself. News publications love to publish new information, so put in some long hours and dig into something worth reporting. If it is something that your product could benefit from knowing, then all the better. Improving your product and getting some key press mentions is well worth the time and energy that goes into researching and reporting. For example, a company that reaches out to freelancers (like Harpoon) can do some research and report findings on the state of freelancing.
  • The company’s response to a current event. You’ll have to be creative here, but an example might be giving everyone the day off to help out with a local need in your community. Other than helping out, you can celebrate a holiday in a unique way, or basically anything that seems a little out of the ordinary from what others are doing.
  • News of a high profile partnership. Any company that gets acquired by Google is going to make big headlines. On a smaller scale, even tying your software into another system might even be something that a niche outlet would be interested in covering.
  • Bringing in key investors. One of the companies that I used to work with was listed in just about every startup news outlet there was on the same day. That is, of course, after they announced that they secured several million in funding from prominent investors in Silicon Valley.

Besides these events, you can also just peruse some key websites for the types of news that they report on. If you glance at the headlines on a regular basis, you’ll certainly start to see more newsworthy activity that you could be a part of with your brand.

What Not to Pitch

Before you kick off that next PR campaign, I think it is also important to know what sorts of news not to pitch lest you lose some credibility or become on the dreaded “ignore” list from your press contacts.

Hubspot’s co-founder Dharmesh Shah also runs a startup news site: OnStartups. He admits to getting his fair share of PR pitches from startups around the world, and has put together a short list of what he discourages people from pitching:

  • Don’t tell me your story is unique. “No offense, but it really isn’t”.
  • Don’t tell me how much a little publicity will help you. “I know you want publicity.”
  • Know what I’ve done recently. “Feel free to pitch if you aren’t a member of the choir I just preached to. Different points of view catch my attention.”
  • Know my Interests. “Put your effort into finding an angle that may appeal to my interests.”
  • Forget a profile piece “Straight profile pieces that tell the story of a business are boring (at least I think so, which is why I don’t post those).”

After listing the above, Shah summarizes his recommendations by encouraging us to forget about what it is we want, and instead focus on what the journalist might want. Once you find the happy middle there you have the roots of a PR outreach.

Now that we’ve defined PR, what it can do for you, and some ideas for where to start, let’s look at the nuts and bolts of a PR strategy.

PR Strategy Step 1: Distill Your Message

If you’ve spent time building your product, the temptation here is to want to shout from the rooftops all that your baby can do! This is a no-no. It’s tempting, but not preferred. Instead, distill the message of what you are offering into a single benefit. This provides a short, quick foundation for your audience to grasp, and they can build the other details upon that once they’re sold on your initial hook.

For example, some great hooks are:

  • Uber: Tap a button, get picked up in minutes
  • Square: Accept credit cards from your phone or tablet
  • Dropbox: Your [digital] stuff, anywhere

Any one of those above companies could go into more about other features that they have, as they are all pretty complex at all that they do. Yet, they have found a way to distill their message around one core idea.

Once a core message is created, then it is important for everyone involved to be clear on the message, the angle, the hook that you are using with the public. This core message will become the basis for which you build the stories that you hope to get picked up by the media.

PR Strategy Step 2: Make a List

With a message in hand, it is time to build a list of perhaps 20 media outlets and blogs where you think your message belongs–where it can get in front of your target audience. For this list, think smaller niche publications over the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. It will be much easier to get into these smaller publications with your message than appeal to the big players with the broadest reach.

That’s not to say that you might not get picked up by the New York Times. If you are making headlines within a niche that NYT tends to cover, they’ll take notice. Also, when you do start to build a relationship with a bigger publication, it helps to have a handful of the smaller mentions under your belt.

PR Strategy Step 3: Gather Data

Armed with a list of resources, its time to do some recon. Read these publications looking for hooks and who is writing about what. Take down names and find the email addresses of the writers so you can reach out to them when the time is right. Find their Twitter handles. Make a private Twitter list with their accounts to review their tweets throughout the day.

Sound creepy? It’s not, it is how the game is played. Recall earlier when Dharmesh Shah actively encouraged us to know what his interests are and what he has covered recently. This is how you are going to be able to craft custom messages to each journalist or blogger.

PR Strategy Step 4: Engage

Don’t let your pitch be the first time a journalist has heard your name. In today’s digital age, we can build relationships off of a number of light touches such as twitter mentions, replies, comments, and other engagements.

A few months back I had a target group of influencers that I wanted to become acquainted with. I followed the above steps, and even had a private Twitter list called “Engage With” that I checked every day. I also read their blogs, and left thoughtful comments.

One day one of the people I was following posted a Tweet that he would be the guest on a particular podcast, that was being recorded live that afternoon. I marked my schedule and made sure to attend the live recording session, where they also happened to have a live chat window.

I listened to the podcast, left thoughtful messages, and even engaged a bit with the podcasters. I would have been happy just having that short engagement, but what came next I didn’t expect. They mentioned my name on the air, and even mentioned some familiarity with my writing, etc.

Now, my goal here was simply to make some influential contacts. It is important to clarify that I did this by being thoughtful in commenting, adding to the discussion, and helpful in attitude. I wasn’t spamming, or looking out for my immediate interests. The fact is, if you help others, they’ll help you back, and leaving thoughtful comments, sharing other’s content, and being a part of the conversation is a great way to engage with thought-leaders, journalists, and bloggers.

Now, I’ve mentioned this term “Thought Leader”. You want to engage these folks for your PR strategy. However, if you want to accelerate your strategy many times over, you’ll need to position yourself as a thought leader as well.

PR Strategy Step 5: Become a Thought Leader

There are so many venues to get your own voice out these days it blows my mind:

  • Write on your own site’s blog. Don’t have a blog on your website? Hire a local developer to install Wordpress on a subdomain: blog.yoursite.com.
  • Write on a community blogging platform like LinkedIn, Medium, or Svtle.
  • Tweet interesting thoughts and articles you come across
  • Leave engaging comments on other people’s blogs. End your comment with a question, dialogue with the writer.
  • Join forums where your audience hangs out. Don’t just advertise in these forums, be a part of the community. Have fun and hang out.
  • Engage in subreddits. There are a lot of people hanging out in various sections of reddit.com, find a relevant subreddit and engage the community there.
  • Answer questions on Quora.com. Put time and effort into your responses so they’ll be voted up.
  • Keep your eyes open. Talk with others who are also trying to market their startup and find out what they are discovering works. The real gems are the ones not everybody is writing about.

This part takes time, and that can mean months or even years before you start seeing real results. However, once you are seen as a thought leader and have built up that trust, everything is downhill from there, even with new products after this one.

How to Reach Out

Finally, sending out that actual email where you solicit some press. If you have been doing everything written so far, you are probably getting some mentions here and there despite reaching out yourself. However, to take things to the pro level, you do need to start specifically pitching your desired journalists.

Never fear though, they actually want…or even…need you to do this! Brooke Hammerling adds:

The reporters covering tech want to hear your story. They’re actively looking to build relationships with entrepreneurs. “

Of course, you have also build somewhat of a relationship with them at this point, or hopefully your name will sound familiar within their inbox.

So what format to use?

Have you ever written a standard press release? You know, the kind that corporations list on their sites? Don’t use those. Journalists are people too, and they actually prefer some human touch to the pitch.

Mark Ragan, CEO of Ragan Communications and publisher of PR Daily, suggests:

Don’t write the press release. Write the story. And write it as a journalist would, using not only the classic pyramid lead but feature leads as well. Write it clearly, avoiding cliches, corporate speak and jargon. Use quotes that add spice and a real human voice. And write only what your readers care about, not what YOU care about.

Then publish it on your own digital news site. Design that site so it is indistinguishable from a general circulation news site. Use big colorful graphics and images to draw the reader into the piece. Write a headline that delivers the benefits of the story and a one-sentence teaser that is so mouth-watering that your readers will be compelled to click through.

Then place social media icons where everyone can see them and use them.

Now take the link to your newly published piece and email it to select reporters — and when I write “select”, I mean only those journalists who cover your beat — with a two-line pitch.

A suggested pitch might sound like this:

“I’ve noticed that you cover topic {{W}} over at publication {{X}}, and I think you’d be interested in learning about how my {{Y}} is changing that space by {{Z}}.”

More Information

What I’ve covered so far should be enough of a foundation to start you well on your way to planning and executing a comprehensive PR strategy for your startup. I have a few more things to add, but since I’m already weighing in at over 3,000 words for this blog post, I’d better save a few more items for my chapter on PR within book I’m writing: Strategic SaaS Marketing.

In addition to the content here, the book will include:

  • What to include in a press kit
  • When to use a press embargo
  • More screenshots and examples
  • Suggested software and web resources to make things easier
  • Interviews with industry leaders
  • Downloadable worksheets & checklists

To find out when the book launches, as well as receiving a discount code and sample chapter, sign up via email at //ryanbattles.com/strategic-saas-marketing.

Thanks for reading! As always, feel free to reach out and let me know what you thought about this piece via social media, or by contacting me.