I’ve found in the past 15 years or so that PR is often one of the most underappreciated, underrated and misunderstood functions in startups. Typically, founders and management think of PR in the context of spreading news about their company’s funding, launching a product or M&A activity. The challenge is that rather than thinking about PR as a continuous, ongoing cycle of activity, they usually think of PR as a one off exercise which only takes place when they have something to share and want to get coverage out of it.
What’s the result? Most founders think that they can simply “switch on PR” at any time and get coverage for their companies. Sadly, in the age of social media where everyone and their mother is reporter, most startups will struggle to cut through all the noise and never get the coverage they believe they deserve.
PR really does two things: 1. Promotes your organization to consumers and the media using traditional PR channels (TV, Print, Online, Mobile, Social etc.) and 2. Protects your organization from negative publicity that could damage your brand / reputation (read: crises). The big difference compared to advertising is that PR is what we call earned media. That means that it’s essentially free. You don’t really pay for it (though you may pay indirectly by paying your head of PR or your PR agency to secure media coverage).
Well thought out PR can impact your company in 5 different ways:
1. Sales / BD
PR can drive sales. In B2C, the right piece of press coverage on the right blog, radio station or TV Talk show can send hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of people to your website or to the app store to download your app. It’s rare but it does happen. Last year, when one of the companies I advise, Zently, was featured in Techcrunch, they saw their sign ups more than double in 2 weeks time. In B2B, the reality is most of your larger clients will want to do business with a company that has a strong brand or reputation. This is even more true if you’re a small company or new in your particular market. Getting your company featured in Forbes, Fortune or a trade publication (a blog specific to your industry) can get you the seal of approval that leads to a sale. I remember years ago when I ran marketing at GetJar, we closed a deal with Yahoo!. After the contract was signed we were having lunch with the Yahoo! Team. One of the things they mentioned was the prolific amount of press coverage we were able to get month after month. It made the internal sale for them much easier. There’s a saying: “Perception is everything.” If you can create the perception that you’re a leader, that your products are cutting edge and match that with a high frequency of PR, you can turn perception into reality. A reality of your own making. For more about the type of PR we did at GetJar, here’s a post on how we took on Apple and drove a significant amount of awareness for the company.
People want to work for winners. They want to work for companies that are pioneering the future of tomorrow. That are making a difference. PR is a great way to get that across and get people excited about your firm. What’s that great engineer going to do immediately after getting that cold call inmail from your recruiting team or from you? They’re going to run a search and guess what? You’re either in the search results and there are a bunch of flattering articles or…? Or you’re just another company trying to poach that talented engineer. Once you’ve got those 2–3 press mentions you should add them to a dedicated press page on your website. You should also add them to your page on Crunchbase, Linkedin, Glassdoor and Angelist and make sure your team blasts them out on social media. One thing I often do as well is to embed press articles in my email signature and also include them as part of my pitch to people I’m trying to recruit. Be aware though that the reverse is also true. If your company has had bad or negative PR that could make it harder for you to hire talented people as well. PR cuts both ways in this regard.
It sounds obvious but remember your most important hires are actually the people you already have. They are your biggest brand / company advocates and will be those, aside from your recruiting team, most active in promoting your company and most keen on getting more talented people to join your startup. You should be emailing, Slacking, Tweeting and sharing your positive press news internally as much as possible and encourage people to do the same. It’s always good to remind people how great your company is and, more importantly, to share with them the type of external validation you’re getting. They’ll feel good about the long hours they’re putting in and stay focused on your longer term Vision (new post coming on that soon). Apart from circulating your press hits, ensure you post great pieces in high traffic places inside your company (kitchen, water cooler anyone?). Your weekly or bi-monthly all hands meeting is also another great occasion to share the news (I always used to accompany this with the appropriate number of visitors that the site that covered us gets or link it to any traffic that was generated as a result of the article / mention). Again, negative press, especially if it is continuous and badly managed, can have the opposite effect. Just look at the warning from Uber’s new CEO following their ban in London. Over the past 6 months every single x Googler I knew that was working there has departed for greener pastures.
Ah yes. Those Sandhill Road folks all love PR. Great press coverage, especially if it’s happening frequently (not just a one off) is sure to generate awareness in some and fear-of-missing out (FOMO) in others. There’s never a better time to prime the PR guns than before you go waltzing down the Sandhill Brick Road. Be aware, however, that you should also have a very clear story and position on what your funding situation and goals are before you go on a PR offensive. There’s nothing worse than having great inbound interest from investors and having no idea how you want to handle it. PR that’s seen by investors is also a double-edged sword as well: If good press is validating your market / product / space but you’re not raising money, investors will look for other options where they can park their money which could fuel competition in your market. I’ve spoken with founders who on occasion actually do the reverse: They stay quiet on their success and don’t want to attract too much attention to their space until they are perfectly ready to defend it. In the above example I mentioned related to Zently, following the press release on Techcrunch the CEO saw a significant impact in inbound queries from VC’s who were all suddenly very interested in what the company was doing and wanted to know how they could get involved. Whether Zently is going to entertain their offers is another question at this point ;)
5. Thought Leadership
In today’s hyper competitive economy, it has never been more important to articulate your story, vision and leadership to cut through the noise your competitors are generating. Great PR helps cement your company’s image as a thought leader, expert, and product leader. Not only do people want to buy from companies that are well regarded; they want to buy from leaders and experts. PR, if done frequently enough, can help cement that image for your company. For example, let’s say you’re a mobile gaming company. You might go out and interview 5,000 consumers on how they play games, when they play, how often, on what devices etc and then create an ebook about it and syndicate it widely across the web. Not only will you learn about your market and users in the process (which helps your dev team and producers make even better games) but you can also start to shape the image of your company as a company that really “gets” the space you’re operating in and understands consumer habits and needs. Better yet, the media usually loves data stories. Data stories always generate eyeballs and are very easy to write and distribute which turns into eyeballs for those blogs that publish you. It’s a win-win for everyone involved. If you then start doing that survey yearly it could become even easier to build your reputation and credibility as someone who really understands the gaming industry. Next thing you’re being invited on Bloomberg West to given your thoughts on Zynga’s quarterly conference call and to comment on where you think the industry is heading. That’s how these things work. For example earlier this year App Annie, a mobile analytics company, published a report on the state of the mobile app economy and where it’s headed. They estimated that the app economy could be worth as much as $6 Trillion by 2021. Regardless of whether you believe the math or not, the report made waves and was covered in a number of high visibility websites including this coverage here on Business Insider as well as in Techcrunch, Forbes and The Washington Post.
PR is cost effective, efficient and can be a great way to build your company’s reputation and brand. However, there is one last caveat though before I sign off: PR only works if you do it religiously and consistently. I see far too many companies who put out a single piece of news and expect the heavens to open up and the press to shower them with adulation. That’s not the way it works. For PR to work you need to work it day in and day out. That means dedicated resources and that means setting yourself real, measurable goals every quarter and every month. At GetJar our goals was 3–4 press releases per month. That’s right: every single month. Now that may sound extreme but if you’re a company that’s sitting on lots of data you can pull it off but it does require focus, dedication and commitment. Why? Because it’s going to take a while for you to figure it out what works and to build the relationships with reporters and/or editors to the point where they will pick up the phone when you call or pay attention to your emails. PR, like everything else, can be tracked and measured. If you’re unsure how, be sure to check out my post on PR 101 for startups here or my presentation on Slideshare.