Startup PR for Dummies
Public Relations (PR) is not a high priority for most early-stage startups. If you keep in mind how many different hats founders have to wear in the early days to build a product, get customers, hire a team and raise money, you’ll understand why. However, I’ve seen plenty of founders miss out on PR opportunities like a funding announcement due to mistakes that would have been easy to avoid.
That’s sad because startups can benefit from media coverage in multiple ways. Coverage by the right publications can generate inbound leads from potential customers. Good PR can also make you look much bigger than you are, which can be useful when you’re talking to potential customers and partners. Finally, sometimes the biggest benefit of media coverage is that it can help with recruiting by spreading the word in the startup ecosystem and contributing to your employer brand.
Some founders intuitively master PR immediately, but others don’t. If you think you might be in the second category and you want to increase your knowledge from zero to 101, then this post is for you. The caveat is that I’m not a PR expert by any means, so if you’re reading this and you think I got something wrong or if you have any suggestions, please let me know!
As a clarification, when I talk about PR in this post, it’s about how to obtain favorable media coverage on company news. I’m not talking about crisis management, lobbying, or other types of PR that are usually less relevant for early-stage tech startups. If you want to learn more about these aspects of PR you should talk to someone who knows much more about the topic than I do. I’m just trying to teach you a few basics on how to pitch to journalists so they’ll finally write about the cool stuff you’ve spent so much time building. :-)
Remember that journalists are humans, too.
Try to put yourself into the shoes of the human on the other side. If you’re trying to pitch a writer of, say, TechCrunch, try to imagine what her job looks like, what her goals are, and how you can help her achieve those goals. I imagine that as a TechCrunch writer:
- You are inundated with 100s of emails and press releases every day.
- Your job is to quickly scan through haystacks of press releases, most of them sent to you by self-declared market leaders who all claim to revolutionize billion-dollar markets. Most of those press releases are filled with self-praise and unrealistic claims and are so full of buzzwords and jargon that (if you haven’t given up on taking a look at them yet) you cringe as you’re trying to go through them.
- Your job is to find a needle in these haystacks. You’re looking for a new company or new product that makes for an interesting story for your audience. It needs to be an announcement that can be fact-checked within the few days that you have for the story. And of course, you want to be the first publication to write about the news.
Just by keeping this in mind and by trying to help the journalist achieve her goals, I believe you’ll avoid most mistakes, but let me add a few more practical tips.
1. Target the right people
Maybe this is too obvious even for a “Startup PR 101” post, but just to be sure: Target the right publications and the right writers at those publications. Before you reach out to potential customers or VCs you probably (hopefully!) do research to qualify them and to target the right person with the right message. Targeting journalists is no different. By checking out news archives you’ll quickly find out which writer covers which topics, which will help you avoid sending a consumer internet story to the security technology writer. Also, consider the regional aspect. If a journalist has already covered several companies in your country or region, it’s more likely that he or she is receptive. The more you know about the publications and the writers you’re trying to pitch, the better your chances.
2. Don’t waste money on mass distribution services
Circulating a press release using a distribution service like Business Wire or PR Newswire is completely useless. Maybe these services help larger companies to be found by journalists who monitor them. But as a startup, no one is looking for news on you, so you can save those expenses.
3. Leverage your network
Ask your investors if they have connections to journalists and ask them for intros. The fact that you’ve raised money often gives you credibility. If some people thought you were interesting enough to give money to, then some people are likely to find you interesting enough to read about too.
4. Build relationships ahead of time
If you can’t get a warm intro, try to build a relationship with the writer way before you’ll pitch him. Read his articles and leave thoughtful comments in the comments area. Try to engage with him on Twitter. Try to meet him at a conference. Try to be genuinely useful to him e.g. by offering him an introduction to someone you think he might be interested in talking to. Everything is better and more likely to work than an out-of-the-blue cold email.
5. No BS
Because journalists are bombarded with news from companies that all claim to be the next big thing, they have highly sensitive bullshit antennas. Don’t make claims that you can’t back up with data and evidence. Don’t use superlatives unless you’re sure that they are warranted.
6. Keep it simple
Make sure that the background knowledge required to understand your press release is aligned with your audience (the journalist and the readers). Focus on one or two key messages, supported by some background information and few supporting messages. If you’re trying to convey too many things at the same time, there’s a high risk that you’ll lose your reader and will end up conveying nothing at all.
Neil Murray, the founder of The Nordic Web, was kind enough to review a draft of this post and commented:
“I’d suggest keeping the press release to a one-pager, with three bullet points at the top with the main points you want to get across and then 3–4 paragraphs elaborating on them, including a bit of background on you as a team and a quote or two from an investor and/or a customer.”
7. Make it easy for them
Make the job of the journalists as easy as possible. If you give them text snippets that are well-written and free of self-praise, they might be able to include some of them almost using copy & paste. A good test is: Try to imagine if your story could be published almost as-is in the publications you’re targeting. If you read your draft and get the feeling it could never be published by someone who is trying to cover your story in an objective way, there’s probably something wrong and you should redo it.
8. Consider giving someone an exclusive and try to create some urgency
Giving a journalist “an exclusive”, i.e. the opportunity to be the first one to “break the news”, makes it much more attractive for him or her to write about you. You can obviously give that exclusive to only one journalist, but especially in the early days, you might have to use this trick to gain any coverage at all. If you go for it you can still pitch other journalists beforehand, but you have to embargo the press release for them.
To this point, Neil Murray added:
“It’s also completely OK to be upfront about this, flatter them by saying you are taking this to them first but that you need a response within 48 hours whether they are interested otherwise you will have to take it elsewhere. I’d suggest creating some level of urgency. This will also lead to a definite answer and as we know in fundraising, a no is better than a maybe.”
9. Tell them how much you’ve raised
If you’re announcing a funding round, journalists will ask you how much capital you’ve raised. In most cases, my recommendation is to disclose the amount or at least give the journalists an approximate number. If an early-stage startup says “undisclosed”, journalists will typically hear “small amount” and become less interested in covering you. Also, if you don’t provide a number there’s a risk that someone will make one up, and once a rumored amount makes it into a news article somewhere, it will often get repeated by others.
If a journalist pushes you for details that you’re not comfortable disclosing, e.g. your revenue numbers, politely decline to answer. Consider giving him or her a range or try to shift his or her attention to another relevant number (“we’re not disclosing any revenue numbers at this point in time, but what I can say is that we have more than 10,000 signups from more than 50 countries”).
10. Write a founder blog post
Because press releases are so overused, my guess is that many journalists have become averse to the typical press release format and style. Therefore I think it’s worth considering writing a “founder blog post” instead of the classical press release, as a blog post by the founders comes across much more authentic and personal. I asked Mike Butcher, Editor At Large at TechCrunch, for feedback about this question, and his response was:
“I think ‘founder blog posts’ are generally useless UNLESS it comes AFTER you have had press coverage which you can then refer to.”
So press releases aren’t dead yet, after all.
11: Come up with a great story
Last but definitely not least, keep in mind that what the media wants is great stories. Given how many startups there are, it’s likely that there are several companies that are doing something similar or at least superficially similar to you, so you’ll have to find a way to stand out. The fact that you have a nice product and that you’ve raised a VC round doesn’t necessarily make your announcement newsworthy in the eyes of a journalist, so try to find a unique, exciting angle. If you can link your announcement to a big event, news story, or current discussion in the industry (AKA news hijacking), that’s even better!
PS: When I asked Mike Butcher if he could take a look at a draft of this post, he sent me a video of a presentation he gave at a startup conference a couple of years ago. Take a look: