When it comes to public relations (PR) many startup founders struggle to understand what it is and if it is something they should be investing time and money in. As a former PR consultant who has worked for both global and boutique firms, I’ve seen this first hand when I joined Recomazing, working out of Fishburners - Australia’s largest tech startup space.
Some industry leaders such as American entrepreneur, Mark Cuban, believe startups shouldn’t focus on PR at all.
Having launched our startup with a comprehensive PR plan, executed in-house, I believe the effort spent significantly outweighed the return on investment. Even for the most experienced PR professional, it’s tough trying to create a story about an unknown brand in top tier media outlets. Knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t have invested so much energy in PR. Whilst it did help with profiling, driving credibility and raising our brand awareness, it did nothing for our north star metric: member sign-ups.
Don’t get me wrong, I do think PR is a valuable practise, however I believe it’s worth your while being clear on your objectives as a crucial first step. I believe PR gets a bad wrap because objectives aren't clear from the start, therefore PR can't deliver on the needs of the business owner. If our business objectives were around cred building, then it would have been a success. However given our objectives of user sign-ups, PR wasn't an effective channel for us.
The difficulty is many early-stage startups don’t know where to start. PR is often pushed to the bottom of the to do list as other competing priorities take place. So if you’re an early stage startup or a more established business, don’t stress we’ve got all areas covered. We’ve done the hard work and will explain the steps to do your own PR internally, as well as share how you go about engaging a PR resource to get the most out of your budget.
First up, let’s just make sure we’re on the same page and understand just exactly what PR is. If you’re like my mum you’re probably thinking about the episode in Absolutely Fabulous when Eddie so passionately explains to her daughter, Saffron, how she ‘PRs things darling!’.
While Eddie “PRs things! People. Places. Concepts”, the Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA) has a different view on what PR actually is. The industry body takes into consideration the current digital environment and defines PR as:
"The management function which evaluates public attitudes, identifies the policies and procedures of an individual or an organisation with the public interest, and plans and executes a programme of action to earn public understanding and acceptance."
PRIA points out that due to the information age PR has changed overtime covering a range of tasks on behalf of startups, government, individuals and enterprises.
But I only have a small budget! What next?
If you’re an early stage startup, it’s likely agencies won’t even take a second look at you because you don’t have the budget to engage them. However that’s ok! Below are 13 tips for pitching your story to media.
1. Define your objectives
I can't stress enough, how important it is to clear outline your business objectives. Some common objectives are
- Driving increased traffic to your website
- Raising brand awareness of your business
- Raising general awareness of your products and services
- Raising awareness of your Founder
2. Brainstorm your story internally
Develop your story and pinpoint the problem you’re addressing and where you’re headed. Get the whole team involved to generate some ideas and make sure this aligns with your business objectives.
3. Put it to the test
A simple way to see if your story is interesting is by testing it out on friends and even strangers. What do they find interesting and what do they find boring? This will help you craft your story and refine it.
4. Develop a list of 10 key targets you would like your story to appear in.
Think about the newspapers, blogs, online news sites, magazines your audience reads. From there, develop a list of your top ten targets across print, online, TV and radio - be sure to include local trade (startup) press in your top 10. I used Streak, a free CRM tool to manage my contact list. Streak plugs into your gmail account and is a very handy way to track your pitches.
5. Develop your own media materials
a. Key message development
Develop your own key message house to help clarify which messages are the most important to communicate in media outreach. Here is an example of our key message house:
For more information about how to structure your key message house press the button below to download your own template. Make sure you keep your messages concise and pointy.
b. Include NEW data/research
Journalists are hungry for new data that supports your story. Mine your own data so you can include new figures in your pitch, i.e new news. We use Typeform to carry out research, but you can click here to see a bunch of survey tools recommended on Recomazing,
It’s good practise to give as much as you can to the journalist when you first pitch your story. So remember to attach a good quality headshot and short spokesperson bio when you email them. This is usually requested at the start and is one activity you can take on internally.
6. You don’t have to write a press release to get exposure!
A succinct, pointed, newsworthy pitch is more than enough to secure a story in your target outlet. Ensure your subject is enticing as this is usually the first and only thing your contact will read. But if you’re lucky enough for your pitch to be read, ensure you include new data/research or timely news pegs. Use the research and data to help you prove your point. To ensure your have a knock-out subject headline and correct spelling and punctuation, make sure you use the Hemingway Editor and Grammarly.
7. Stick to the beat
I can’t stress enough the importance of approaching the right journalist. You can write a perfect pitch, but if it goes to the wrong journalist, chances are your story isn’t going to be published anywhere. Some journalists receive hundreds and sometime thousands of emails a day, so you want to ensure it’s going to the right person. To find the correct journalist, LinkedIn is a good starting point and also the website of the publication. And remember, mass email distributions are always a no no.
8. Follow up is essential
"I secured a story on the front page of our national paper off my first pitch," said no early stage startup founder ever….
Don’t be put off if no one gets back to you, because it’s 99.99% likely they won’t. Following up is a must when it comes to PR, it’s when you’ll get most cut through with media. Depending on how time sensitive your story is, it’s ok to follow up a few days later to give the journalist time to consider your story. I would recommend giving the journalist a call if you can and use your email as a script. If you can’t get them over the phone, send a follow up email replying to the initial email you sent, asking if the story was of interest.
9. Leverage the news cycle
Use the news cycle as a way to get the media’s attention. If you have a story that relates to an article or report your target outlet has run, use that piece as a way to talk to journalists in a relevant manner. A simple way of keeping track of the news cycle is setting up Google Alerts of key terms which relate to your industry and business. By reading the news everyday, you will get a good grasp of which media outlets and journalists are writing about topics similar to yours so you can begin to build relationships with them.
10. Be Social
A big part of PR is building relationships with journalists who write about beats (topics) that relate to your story. Most Australian journalists use Twitter to broadcast their stories and find leads for their stories. Follow them!
11. Be the expert
Offer yourself as an expert in your area. Let your target journalists know what you can comment on to help them with their stories. Get on their radar! Also, another easy way to find media opportunities is to sign up to SourceBottle. SourceBottle is a platform which connects journalists with sources. Make sure you select relevant topics and industry, and you can receive daily emails in your inbox calling for story sources.
12. Leverage your relationships
It’s not what you know but who you know. PR is all about relationships, so if you can get an introduction to a journalist or you know a relevant journalist yourself then that’s a great opportunity for you. If you don’t know any, keep an eye on their Twitter feed and see if they’re going to any events where you could meet them.
13. Crawl before you walk
There’s no shame in aiming to secure media in low tier outlets, before you see your name in lights in your national paper. In fact, it’s quite strategic to start out small and then use those stories to secure other stories in other outlets, using this as proof of groundswell. I would recommend using print and online stories to support you in securing stories in broadcast, and vice versa.
But what if I’m an established Startup?
World renowned entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist Richard Branson is a big advocate for PR and believes it’s more powerful than advertising.
There are many successful entrepreneurs, like Branson, who believe PR - when done right - is worth it's weight in gold. So to appease both sides of the coin I think it's worth a look into how you go about finding the right PR agency. So if you are an established startup with some budget to play with, keep reading. I’ve pulled together a checklist to help you brief your PR resource and some critical points to consider when you’re hiring.
As a former PR consultant, one of the best pieces of advice I can give you is not to leave PR to the last minute. In order to secure media coverage for your business you need to come up with a game plan and then have enough time to execute it. PR should be considered at the start of any marketing activity because it helps you to fill the top of the funnel.
Again, as a first step, have a think and write down what it is you want to get out of PR - what is your objective? Do you want to generate brand awareness for your startup? Or do you want to grow the profile of your founder? Write down a list of things you want to achieve from using PR as a vehicle to achieve your business objectives. Once the objective is clear the PR resource should focus on their expected result in their proposal and should ideally provide case studies of how they have driven this metric previously.
From there I would develop a brief of what you are after, as this will act as a starting point for when you meet with potential agencies. I’ve pulled together a FREE PR brief checklist for you to use to help guide your thinking, simply click the button below.
10 points to consider when selecting your PR agency
PR agencies come in all shapes and sizes, from a one-man band stand freelancer, to a global who can offer a 20 man squad to execute your communications plan. When looking for your PR suitor don’t be fooled, size doesn’t necessarily matter. The big guys tend to come with sizeable overheads which can chew up your budget, but the little guys may not have the man-power to execute the right plan.
So how do you know if they’re the one? Well, I’ve listed a few points below which should help your vetting process, but don’t underestimate the value you will get from a PR resource which aligns with your culture. As a first step make sure the resource you choose - no matter what their size - reflects the same ideals as your own business.
If you’re not too sure where to start when it comes to finding your PR resource match, we’ve outlined 10 things to consider as you commence your search:
1. Good Rep
Word of mouth and referrals from other startup founders are a good way to find a good PR agency. See who has recommended a PR resource on Recomazing. Read why they reco'd them and see if they provide any watch outs.
Compatibility is crucial when looking to work with a PR agency. Don’t disregard first impressions and always get a good understanding of who you will actually work with on the day to day. Usually the team who is pitching for your business isn’t necessarily the ones working on your account on the day to day. Before you sign the dotted line meet with the team you’ll be working with to ensure it’s the perfect fit.
3. The Right Pedigree
It’s not rocket science but you’ll be surprised how many startups get this wrong - make sure your resource specialises in the area your startup operates. If you’re a B2B startup, make sure your PR firm are experts in B2B communications. When you first meet with an resource find out the types of business the resource works with. Do they tick the right industry box? Also keep an eye out for any competing interests, do they represent your competitor?
4. Strategically competitive
There’s an old saying “two competing clients is a conflict, however three competing clients is an expertise". Whilst it can feel a bit strange having your PR agency work for competitors, you should at least feel confident that they have some in-house expertise to draw on and if they have made mistakes, at least they made them on your competitor.
5. Industry experts
Understanding your business and industry is a non negotiable when choosing a PR agency. I can’t stress how important it is that the resource you work with is not only an expert about your industry and the tech it uses, but also the services and types of organisations that are a focus for your startup.
6. Well connected
Top PR firms not only know journalists who cover relevant beats to your startup, but they work hard at building relationships with key bloggers, industry stakeholders and thought leaders. A good resource will be able to connect you to other stand-out suppliers like designers and photographers too. Make sure you ensure their contacts are available to you when you work with them or go back to the drawing board.
7. They walk the talk
Look out for an resource who walk the talk when it comes to PR. Are they on social media? Does their blog share free, insightful PR tips? Also first impressions count. You can tell a lot about an resource on your first meeting - good agencies are respectful, honest and open in the way they work with you, right from the word go.
8. Finger on the pulse
A good resource has their finger on the pulse when it comes to staying up to date on news and trends in your industry. A great resource will provide you with daily industry updates and consumer insights. They will also collaborate with you to identify trends to fit your specific industry or vertical.
9. Props for their Proposal
A good resource will step outside the square and offer you an extensive list of services they can offer. Their proposal should be well thought out, and they should host a meeting to take you through it, giving you a chance to ask questions. A good pitch deck should reveal a good understanding of your business goals and objectives and a strategy which outlines a list of tactics on how to ladder up to those goals. It should also include a clear list of deliverables and KPIs that will help you measure success. An exceptional resource will be able to provide you with measurable plan from the get-go to set expectations and ensure that appropriate metrics are achieved as the campaign moves forward.
10. The Price is Always Right
While price shouldn’t be everything, you want to make sure you’re getting as much bang for your buck as possible. If the firm can’t do everything you want you can take some items back internally (see the first section above), or you can consider another option. Make sure you take a good look at what you’re going to be billed for and be sure to ask for an explanation if you don’t understand any fees. Above all else, how is the resource going to achieve measurable business outcomes and still come within budget?
So there you have it, as the old saying goes there’s more than one way to skin a cat. When it comes to PR, there are many ways to secure media exposure and many types of budgets that can afford it. So just remember when you’re looking into hiring an resource make sure they know your business and industry well, they offer you the right price and they specialise in your business type.
Now that we've pivoted, we will be having another go at PR, but this time ensuring our objectives are right. I'll be writing a follow up blog post on how we go, so be sure to keep an eye out!
Have you had a good experience with a PR agency?