By Chris Lucas, Vice President of BLASTmedia and Rachael Feuerborn, Program Manager Techstars Chicago
I see my fair share of brilliant founders. Many of whom have well-thought-out business models, growth strategies, product roadmaps, etc. However, most neglect PR… because honestly who gives a hoot when you are spending your last $276.78 trying to get your big vision off the ground while investors (and your parents) keep telling you to quit? I get it. That’s why I wrote this.
What is PR?
Public Relations: if you break the words down it’s quite broad.
“Public” means just that: people. Not just your customers or the media. Think of Tesla. I certainly don’t have a Tesla. But their PR strategy doesn’t ignore me all together. Tesla’s brand permeates all of society purposefully.
“Relations” is the way in which two or more people or organizations regard and behave toward one another. Thanks dictionary.com! If your startup were a person, who would she be? What characteristics and personality quirks does she have? How would she communicate with her friends? Think of a blogger. Bloggers get it. They are people creating and publishing content to essentially make more friends.
Therefore, public relations is the way in which your brand creates and maintains relationships with a variety of stakeholders.
Public Relations is not…
- Shoving your personal founding story down the throat of anyone that will read it;
- Trying to get as many media outlets as possible to publish details on your beta launch;
- A way to test product market fit;
- Even close to the same process for every startup;
- Dependent on press releases.
How to do it
- Personify the brand
If you don’t know who you are, you can’t relate to anyone. Have a point of view. If you haven’t done this your brand won’t matter. (Shoutout to mentor, Suzanne Muchin)
- Have a specific goal in mind
Anyone who has worked with me knows the first thing I ask in any meeting or brainstorming session is: What is the GOAL? I often see startups think they must do some sort of PR and to do so, they must follow generic steps 1, 2, 3. Wrong. What is your goal? Always know the “WHY?”
So you just closed a round…
Don’t: Publicizing closing your seed round because you think it’s a thing to do. Yay!
Do: Publicizing your seed round to show what an attractive investment you are for your Series A in t-minus 12 months. Promote the traction of your overall industry with investors as a segment to take notice. Make it an announcement to your future investors.
So you just launched a new feature or product…
Don’t: Read out to journalists just because you are excited about it.
Do: I hope you developed that feature in response to direct, credible customer feedback. If so…
Trala did a great job with this: How to Learn Violin 3x faster with an Audio Practice Diary. This self-published blog post provides valuable feature descriptions. Trala provided valuable content to their target market showing how the product solves the problem they knew the user had.
So you want to get your brand out there…
Don’t: Introducing Company A. Hi, we are Company A and we do X.
Do: Be creative! Here are two great examples:
Vacation Fund: 3 Canadian Startups Setting Up Shop in Chicago. Why? To show potential Chicago clients she is investing in the local community and is setting up secondary roots close by.
Rheaply: Rheaply Circular Discovery Scholarship. Why? Rheaply uses this scholarship to show its support for education, invest in the next generation of sustainability advocates, and connect with universities (one of Rheaply’s target markets).
- Decide where
Techcrunch is not the only option. It’s not even the best option 99% of the time. There are multiple options:
- Local tech outlets
- Tech blogs
- Blogs/trade media in your industry
- Blogs/media your prospects read
Example: Neopenda: Invest in Neopenda. They launched a crowdfunding campaign. For the cash? Sure… but also for the publicity. They were rewarded for their creativity and storytelling. Check it out.
Example: Speeko: Chicago Sales Professionals Meetup. Speeko created a sales professionals meetup and features speakers who offer value to their target customers. For example, at their last meetup they featured an amazing leader from Google who is transforming how the company uses data to tell stories.
- Decide when
Timing is important with PR. Launching a ton of investor related PR campaigns when you aren’t raising is wasted momentum. Don’t only think about the circumstances you can control, but also external factors giving you momentum.
This startup streamlines the pro bono work of lawyers, including those fighting for immigrants at the border. Here, Paladin is aligning their brand with a cause. Not just any cause, but a very relevant cause that some will find compelling and some will not. Paladin has a personality and (s)he supports immigrants.
- Tell a story
Make it newsworthy. Otherwise, it’s useless. By now, you (hopefully) realize how much your PR strategy can overlap with your other marketing strategies (like social, content, etc). Your company’s personality, as we established early, has a voice. What does she say? She needs to be more than a bump on a log (yes, I’m from the country… y’all). See, my voice has a little twang and sass to it. What’s yours?
One great example is the introductory sentence to this post: “Jiobit CEO John Renaldi once lost his young son in a public park in Chicago for a nerve-wracking 30 minutes.” See? There’s a story in one sentence.
- Actually do it
You can’t just write a story and slide into a reporter’s DMs. Before you even wrote the story, you had a goal in mind… you also had a target in mind for publication. Right? So write the story with the publisher in mind. If it’s for your personal blog, it should be sharable and written for your followers. If it’s for a local media outlet, make it newsworthy and show the local impact. What does the reporter want to publish? Ask him!
Admittedly, that last little tidbit is hard. So when your PR strategy is a smidge more legit than your own social media page, bring in the big guns. This year, I brought in PR experts BLASTmedia to work with the founders from the Techstars Chicago Class of 2018. I’m not a big outsourcing fan, but outsourcing PR is smart.
Benefits of outsourcing
- The firm’s sole job is to source the optimal media opportunities for you;
- They have the relationships you just don’t have time for;
- They are not only PR subject-matter experts, but also experts in your space (if you have hired a firm with industry experience);
- You have a team of people to provide outside perspective, helping to hone your message and provide reality checks when needed.
Outsourcing NO NOs
- The PR firm will NOT define your brand’s personality, target customer, or go-to-market strategy. To set yourself up for success, know who you are, what you are selling and to whom before bringing on an outside PR partner.
- Outsourcing doesn’t allow you to wash your hands of it. Sure, it’ll ease up your workload but you are now in a partnership that requires your attention. Treat the firm like an extension of your team, not a standalone vendor, and the results will show it.
I chose BLASTmedia for multiple reasons. First, they are specialized in B2B tech and SaaS, working with start-up, scale-up, to publicly-traded tech companies for 13 years. They understand how to take a company and make them a thought leader in their industry, not blindly sending out press releases hoping it will get pick up. Second, they work with clients long-term to really understand the brand personality and story, allowing them to more effectively source opportunities and help create content… which about 4% of founders actually enjoy doing. Lastly, I spent hours on their blog learning about PR strategies and tips. After about 30 minutes of reading their plethora of media mentions, I realized I was in a PR trance and said, “dang, they are good.” If you’re a B2B SAAS company, check them out.
In 2018, Techstars Chicago scoured a list of thousands of mostly midwest startups to select ten. Techstars does indeed thrust a young company into the PR limelight quickly; however, every startup can follow a few tried and true principles to quickly put a PR plan in place. Good luck!
Some companies coming out of a startup accelerator program might have a few million in revenue, established brand recognition, and solid brand loyalty from customers. But when it comes to building their brand and customer base, many are just getting started.
These companies are often faced with one of three PR challenges:
- Nobody knows about the company — you’re starting from scratch.
- You’ve given PR a shot but were never able to build a drumbeat that truly raises awareness. (Perhaps you hired an agency and set $20k on fire before realizing it wasn’t going to be the right solution.)
- You know you need PR because something big is coming up and you want to make a splash (funding, company launch, big partnership announcement, new product release, etc.).
No matter which of these buckets you fall into, there are a few different approaches you can take as you think through how to grow your brand – a critical component to customer acquisition, gaining investor attention, and growing market share.
PR is about third party validation. You can spend all the money in the world on advertising but — you’re selling yourself. It’s when you have someone else selling for you that people start to listen.
If you fall into one of these three buckets and you know that PR is something you need to “do,” there are four main options available to you, each with their own benefits and drawbacks.
1. Hire an agency.
Benefits are that you get a whole team working on our account, ranging from entry level “pitch pushers” to senior-level strategic counsel. PR agencies work with multiple clients at once so they are generally more aware of industry events and trends that they can help you to piggyback on. They have media databases for press research/targeting and established press contacts to tap into. On the downside, they’re expensive. And unless you work with a boutique firm that can get up and running on your business and technology quickly, you’re going to be paying a lot of money for results that may not meet your expectations. Startups fall victim to the lure of a big name agency time and again and are rarely ever satisfied.
2. Hire a freelancer.
Freelancers are typically less expensive than an agency (~$2k–$5k). If they’re local they can come into the office, join company meetings, and are generally accessible. Instead of a whole team you get one individual working on your account, but freelancers typically have multiple clients so you may find yourself fighting for attention. It’s one person, and they have to manage their time accordingly.
3. Hire in-house PR.
With in-house PR you have one person that is fully immersed in your brand. Going this route is generally less expensive than an agency, but more expensive than hiring a freelancer because you have the added cost of bringing on a FTE. With In-house PR, you typically have one person running your whole PR initiative, so they usually wear multiple hats. They can do your PR, run your social media efforts, develop internal comms, customer comms, etc. They can support the organization more widely and can play a key role as you scale your business.
4. Go it alone.
Early stage companies may not have budget to go with options #1-3. Founders are entrepreneurs. They know PR is something they “need” and they’re willing to put some skin in the game to see if they can make some progress on their own. It’s affordable. But PR is extremely time-consuming to do well, and most founders want and need to focus on building their business. They probably don’t have pre-established relationships with the press and it takes a lot of time and effort to build them.
No matter which route you choose, PR is an important initiative to help grow your business. Finding the right solution will depend on your stage of growth, budget, and how much time/effort you’re willing to invest.
See Sonya speak tonight at Changemaker Chats in Boulder!
I’m Managing Editor of the UP Global blog. I receive countless emails from eager entrepreneurs wanting to get their story in front of our global audience. I wish I could help every startup craft their unique and subtly-branded pitch but the work-load (as for most editors) is just too high.
Unless you’re being interviewed and covered by the BBC – editors don’t have time to develop a story for you. That’s your job.
I don’t ever want to see a press release! Seriously, NO.
1) The key to getting your startup in the press is by telling an original story. That’s it. You don’t need a fictitious plot or made-up characters – just a little creativity and some writing chops. If you don’t have writing chops, find someone who does.
HOT TIP: Hit up your friends who majored in English, Marketing, or Journalism. Ask them to help brainstorm, write, or edit.
2) Once you’ve identified a person who can write effectively – research the blog, magazine or publication you’d like to place your story in. Take note of the articles they publish. Are they running advertorials written for and by companies? Of course not – because as Tech Crunch puts so eloquently – it’s gross and come on, you know it’s gross.
It’s up to you to find the balance between your business interests and a reasonable discussion of topics that are also relevant to everybody else.
HOT TIP: Tie your product update, thought-leadership, or announcement to something happening NOW in the news. This tie-in will give your story an urgency that editors can’t ignore.
If you can answer YES to one of the following questions – you are in business.
- Does this story complement a trend being covered by current media outlets? Why a war and shrinking economy cant stop Syrian innovation.
- Does this story affect people? Women Entrepreneurs: Making the world a better place one startup at a time.
- Is this story a first? Is this story about something new? Oakland’s First Black Male Achievement Event A Success.
- Is this something that hasn’t been written about by up Global before? From Active Duty to Civilian Life: Entrepreneurship is the Path, Startup Weekend is the Vehicle.
- Is the location of the story controversial or newsworthy in any way? An Update From Our Friends In Kiev, Ukranie.
- Does this story involve someone of local prominence? Startup Weekend Announces Board of Directors and Launches Startup Foundation.
- Does this story have a hero? Lessons from Ugly Outfitters: Making Ugly and Everyday Brand.
- Can this story be written in list format and provided as a resource? 10 Tips from Female Founders.
- Does this story include digital media? (Video, Podcast, Audio, Infographic) From Hobby to a Business: The Reality (comic)
3) Now, you’ve found an ‘angle’ that presents something new, relevant and interesting. You don’t have to write the entire story… yet! Create a pitch – a short ‘intro’ to what the story will be about. Don’t bring your personal motivations (i.e. your trendy startup) into it. Email the editor with all the information presented concisely. Seriously, keep it short! No one has time to read a 5-paragraph history on you and your company.
HOT TIP: Don’t write the entire article just yet. The editor might have another angle that would work better for the publication. Be open to changes and feedback.
4) Along with your pitch, include 4-5 headlines the editor can salivate over. According to “The Father of Advertising”, David Ogilvy – on the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. You should begin and end every article with the question: “Would this make me want to read on?”
HOT TIP: Write down 10 headlines. Present the best 4.
Here’s a simple headline-writing formula: Number or Trigger word + Adjective + Keyword + Promise (SEE EXAMPLE HERE)
5) Make sure you have available media – videos, images, podcasts, playlists, whatever – ready to go. Interesting, large photos can enhance your story dramatically! Include them in your pitch email.
HOT TIP: Any thought, example, or person in your story you can enhance via images – do it.
If you don’t hear back – follow up 3 days later. After that, take a hint and pitch something different.