Ask an entrepreneur what keeps them up at night and you’ll get a wide variety of answers. One thing not likely on the list, however, is public relations.
It’s an oversight that can plague a fledgling startup, as many entrepreneurs fail to see that generating positive news stories actually legitimizes their business. According to research published in Organization Science in 2013, there is a direct correlation between the level of media coverage and the amount of venture capital funding a company receives. And that is certainly a topic that keeps entrepreneurs up at night. And positive coverage can also drive word-of-mouth interest, leading to better business partnerships and helping to recruit top talent.
The quandary is that media relations is far more challenging for startups vs. established corporations. Companies like Apple, for example, have their own beat reporters at major publications and bloggers who bend over backwards just to get some inside insights. Rest assured, if Tim Cook sneezes, it becomes a story. And that’s partially why many on the corporate communications side have become centurions rather than hunters as they don’t have to spend the time building brand reputation and instead spend more time feeling they have to defend or shape message.
It’s a luxury that simply doesn’t exist for startups, especially early-stage ones with no name recognition and no reputation to speak of. Yes, journalists are still looking for great startups to cover, as these days being a startup is the “new black.” But the responsibility falls on you – the entrepreneur – to sell your product in a way that piques the media’s interest and ties into a larger trend that’s relevant to many.
Let’s start with the basics and move forward from there, as through our work with startups and elements of startup ecosystems in St. Louis, Louisville, Silicon Valley and Champaign-Urbana (Illinois) – we’ve worked with a broad range of entrepreneurs, accelerators, incubators, innovation parks, VCs and others.
We often hear the question, “Is PR important?” In a word, yes. Of course it’s important to tell people you exist. More important, it’s vital to have seemingly unbiased third parties (media) telling your story for you. But there’s a caveat. And that is that unless you want everyone in the universe to know about the product or organization in its current, incomplete form, focus first on first building a great product, which can be especially true for software-based startups.
Embarking on a public relations campaign because “it will allow our business to take off” is not an ideal jumping off point. Instead, you need to determine exactly what you want to accomplish with your public relations efforts, because this will determine who you spend your time courting and the specific information that you provide them.
Are you trying to position your company for a raise? Maybe it’s time for that Series B. Or are you looking to drive product sales? Perhaps you simply are looking to engage with enterprise-level corporations who could use or purchase your product. In short, why do you want media coverage?
Before you do anything marketing related, begin with messaging that speaks to your brand. Outline your story, your value proposition, the unique selling proposition.
Just look at Airbnb, which positions itself as “a trusted community marketplace for people to list, discover and book unique accommodations around the world – online or from a mobile phone.” Or LinkedIn, which “connects the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful.” Even Pinterest, which bills itself as “a place to discover ideas for all your projects and interests, hand-picked by people like you.”
Craft your message and then use it over and over and over again across all of your marketing materials and platforms you use.
“A good way to think about it would be, how would you describe what you’re doing to your neighbor or your mother?” says Michael Calhoun, a radio reporter for KMOX in St. Louis. “It’s easy, when you’re surrounded by people in the same community doing the same things, to be overly specific in your description or take for granted that the audience already has a base of knowledge about startups technology.”
Building out strong messaging isn’t easy but it’s the foundation of every touch point for your organization or brand.
If you sold pharmaceuticals like Viagra, would you target pediatricians? No. The same concept can be applied to reporters – make sure you’re targeting the right reporters with the right story.
“I know there are all these lists and tools now that help people find which reporter to pitch, but sometimes those are inaccurate,” says Eleazar Melendez, a former Newsweek and Huffington Post reporter who now works for the Daily Business Review in Miami. “So if you pitch a reporter, make sure you Google them first to make sure you’re reaching out to the right people. Otherwise you’re wasting a lot of people’s time.”
Following specific reporters on social media doesn’t hurt either, and neither does following up with them on stories they write.
“I like it when people reference articles I’ve written in the past,” Melendez added. “Because it shows that people have actually taken just a little bit of time to research me and what I do.”
Of course, you’re going to want to reach out to a wide range of journalists, and you may copy and paste a lot of your messages from one email to the next. That’s fine, as long as you tailor your message for each target. But for the love of god, if you’re going the copy and paste route, make sure the right name and publication is on the email. If not, you might want to lower your expectations for a response.
There are a lot of startups out there. Every entrepreneur thinks their company is a special snowflake. And sure, maybe your startup is the coolest thing to hit the planet since sliced bread. But just telling reporters that doesn’t mean they’re going to buy it. You need to differentiate yourself from the noise, make your case for how relevant your business is to a trend that’s meaningful to more than just you.
“Reporters like superlatives, like most or first,” says Chris Nicholson, head of communications at FutureAdvisor and a former reporter with both Bloomberg and the New York Times. “And they like proprietary data that helps them understand a field they care about, which startups can supply sometimes.”
Features are rare unless you’re an Apple or Amazon or Chevy and making major changes. So don’t fret if you find yourself fitting into the context of a larger story. That’s a homerun.
“Keep up with what’s in the news,” Calhoun added. “For instance, if you’re working on a sensor that helps identify potential concussions in children, then use a current event or conversation as the hook.”
Blindly pitching whoever you think would be interested in your company is a complete crapshoot. Maybe they’ll be interested, but more than likely, your pitch will end up in a dark hole of 300-400 emails that reporter got during one workday. Therefore, it’s important to cultivate actual relationships with journalists.
“A lot of (people) aren’t spending the time to build relationships with reporters,” said Nicholson. “As much as possible, they should be trying to be giving something in the relationship even when they don’t need something in return. They should be an intelligent part of the conversation.”
How can you accomplish this? Building relationships with reporters may be very difficult to do from the confines of the office, so find unique ways to connect.
“It always helps to have met someone first,” noted Calhoun. “So try to say hi to a reporter if you’re at an event. Or invite the reporter over to see a demonstration of what you’re doing.”
Also think about following specific journalists pertaining to your company on Twitter and engage with their content; or perhaps simply maintain a professional relationship with the journalists that end up covering your company. After all, and this may surprise you, but journalists are human – they’re less likely to think about you and your product if you reach out to them once in a while.
Press releases are a necessary evil but should not be overly relied upon. They do provide some value in that influencers tend to pay attention if there is some sort of material information (like if Andreessen Horowitz dumps mind-boggling sums of cash into your startup). Moreover, uploaded press releases can offer some value in terms of search engine optimization, as they should contain inbound link to your web properties.
But in the vast majority of cases, if you think your press release will get you into the big-time publications, expect disappointment.
“It’s not that they don’t work – I’ll pay attention if it’s from a local group or government,” KMOX’s Calhoun said. “But when it’s from someone unfamiliar, it can get lumped in with the automated pitches for crap that isn’t relevant to a local audience and doesn’t even apply to what I do.”
Instead, look at blog posts, social media posts and good old-fashioned relationship building in order to get your message across.
We get it — public relations can be a frustrating endeavor. You can’t control who covers your company and who ignores you. But with a sound messaging strategy, strong relationships, determination and some luck, you can help propel your company farther than you ever could on your own.
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