Over the past decade I’ve worked with dozens of startups from seed/stealth, growth-stage (Series A/B), and all the way through acquisition by some of the biggest tech companies, including Facebook, Oracle, Citrix, and more. One thing is true: no two startups are the same — and their needs will always be unique. PR strategies must be tailored to the specific goals of each startup.
What you should consider before embarking on a PR campaign
- Set realistic PR goals that align with business strategy. I cannot stress enough how important it is for founders and PR pros to be on the same page from the jump. But importantly, PR should not be viewed as a silo: PR and marketing activities should tie directly to business strategy. If the biggest business goal is to raise money from investors, the PR strategy may well be very different than if the goal is to drive top of funnel lead generation, or shorten the sales cycle, or attract new employees. Website visits or signups will be much easier to attribute and measure than, say, “share of voice” in the marketplace (which is measured in a variety of ways). That said, everything is measurable to some degree — if you have to have processes in place. I recommend that startups establish a baseline for their desired metric (e.g. website visits, signups, app downloads, etc.) before doing any PR. Then, as PR activities commence, you can measure the change from that baseline. Attribution in digital marketing has made this easier. However, some amount of PR will always be “air cover”. After all, someone may read about your startup and not engage right away — sometimes waiting days or weeks before visiting or signing up — making it impossible to draw a clear line from PR activity to a sale. On the flip side, some publications will link to you, allowing you to view the referrals on HubSpot, for example.
- Timing may not be as soon as you’d think. Too often I speak with founders who are under pressure: to get their name “out there” as they seek funding; to establish credibility with partners or customers; to grow sales; etc. PR can help with all of these, but the timing has to be right: too soon and you’ll spend a lot of time trying to convince the media that you’re “real” — and you could tip off larger competitors with more resources who can build faster. Too late and you may find other entrants in the marketplace stealing your thunder. Too often founders want press before they even have a publicly-available product or service. Generally, the sweet spot to begin PR is a couple of months ahead of fundraising and/or a company/product launch. Those big “tentpole” announcements give journalists a reason to write about the company and, by that time, you’ll be able to prove your meddle with enthusiastic early customers and investors. And you’ll need those couple of months to really assemble your arsenal of assets: customers, partners, investors, industry analysts, product documents, talking points, press releases, etc. Don’t find yourself with no runway by seeking out PR services the week before you want to announce something.
- Work backwards. I like to ask founders what success looks like and what their “dream headline” would be and in which publication. From there, we can work backwards to get a handle on what we’d need to achieve those goals. Each startup has different ideas of success, which results in different strategies for each.
- Know your assets. Founders are often too bandwidth-strapped to fully evaluate all of their “PR-able” assets — or organize them in such a way that they can be effectively leveraged. For early stage startups, enthusiastic customers and investors will be among your biggest assets, for they have actually put money into your vision. But lots of things can be useful assets: a particularly intriguing founder narrative; a use case that is remarkably novel; a patent; a notable investor; etc.
- Evaluate and adjust. As the world moves to be more data-driven, PR success means taking a critical look at every activity on an ongoing basis and ensuring that it’s worthwhile to continue — or to make a strategic shift to something else. Over time it will be clear that some publications are more effective than others in driving new leads, so if that is a top goal, it’s worthwhile to focus on ensuring a strong relationship with that publication than others.
…and here’s what can you do to ensure working with a PR rep goes smoothly:
- Be realistic. While every founder believes their idea or startup is the best, media will take convincing, especially early on. Recognize that getting the front of the New York Times is probably not realistic right away — and, actually, may not be all that strategic. You may be better off targeting smaller, niche publications that directly reach your target audience. Keep your sights set on what is possible right now and what is aspirational for down the road and work towards accomplishing those.
- Be honest. Spin — or worse, outright lying — does not help you. You need to be able to acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses. Do not put PR pros in the unenviable position of being dishonest with media: it hurts the founders, it damages the reputation of the company, and it can destroy the relationship between the media and the PR professional.
- Over-communicate. Startups move quickly, which is partly why I personally love them. But agencies and consultants are outside the castle walls and we don’t always know what’s going on inside. When there are strategic changes or developments, no matter how small, it can be helpful to loop PR pros in. We rely on having a holistic view of the company, as much as possible, to be able to identify the most advantageous opportunities — and avoid the possible pitfalls.
- Understand that PR can be unpredictable. Even the best PR pros can not make guarantees — and making promises of coverage is unwise. Once, a journalist from a leading publication promised to write a great feature story about a client but experienced a personal emergency and couldn’t get to it; another time, Facebook made major news and our announcement fell off the radar. Several startups have pivoted over the course of our engagement, which meant a total restructuring of our PR goals and activities. I structure my engagements around deliverables and foreseeable campaign activities — aligned with top-level business goals — which makes my engagements just as fluid as the startup itself.