A Guide to PR for Startups

You’ve built your product and you’re now ready for your first major launch. Or you’ve been through a launch or two, but are looking to scale the process as you’re doing more launches and announcements. You really have two options: do it all on your own, or work with a PR agency. One frequent crossroad is that you’re not at the point of a full time PR person, but unsure what a PR agency can offer you; and, further what’s the best way to work with them so you’re getting the maximum value.

As I’ve talked to more startups lately, it’s become clear that effectively working with PR teams and the media is mostly learned by doing. Because there’s not much guidance out there, here’s an attempt at some basic guidelines.

On PR

First there’s two types here and they’re not mutually exclusive. In-house PR is a full time person or team that works within your company, here you’ll often have a pretty different experience. From my experience, in-house PR people tend to understand a company message and vision because they are living and breathing your company values every day.

The other alternative is hiring a PR agency. An agency will have several (sometimes hundreds!) of clients. The relationship that you’ll have with an agency is much different than in-house. You’ll use them just like you would a consultant or contractor. Most startups end up with the agency approach first, because of the perception of “more people working for a cheaper cost than hiring in-house.” However, it’s of note an agency doesn’t alleviate you of doing work, nor should you want them to handle all parts of it.

Messaging

An agency may offer to help with messaging, but take this somewhat lightly. I don’t doubt that some are very good at it, but in most cases I’ve found they don’t have the same amount of customer interaction as you as a founder or early employee would. Further, your vision of impact to the market and direction may be more distant than theirs. You should expect to own your messaging, just like you own your product.

Where they can heavily help is providing a lot of structured frameworks for helping you get to your messaging. Some pretty basic templates of standard questions for customers and partners can go along way in helping you actually uncover what they feel your value is.

On your key messaging/value prop, there’s two pieces I’ll drop in here. While I’d love to write another long post on it, I wonder when I’ll actually get it out. So the first is pitch the problem you’re trying to solve–Dave McClure talks about this as well as anyone. The second is don’t pitch features, pitch the use cases and solutions. Pitch what’s possible

Pitching

This is the number one area I’ve found that having PR makes a huge difference. In the world of reporting, different reporters have different beats (areas of coverage), styles, outreach preferences, and most importantly, different relationships with companies and people. Knowing all of this and how to pitch a story to them is key. Yes you can spend hours researching and creating a perfect story just for them, and do that again, and again and hopefully land some coverage. But I’d argue a bit: that’s not the best use of your time.

With a good PR person or agency you’ll be able to strike a mix of:

  • Here’s the outlets I want to be in and why (have a good reason for why).
  • Understanding the audience and readership.
  • What outlets you feel like your key customers are reading, and validate this with the agency.

From there, if you’ve found a good agency they already have relationships with your key journalists / publications. So if you have a compelling product, you just need to give them the right messaging of the particular launch or news.

What else to expect from your agency

A surprise for some is how the whole process works. The agency is going to be there on the phone with you. You’re not going to hang out over beers while pitching being chummy. The reporter is listening to multiple other pitches, it’s likely they had one right before you and right after. The agency is there listening, helping keep time and track of conversation for reporter fact-checking after the interview.

Hopefully they’re also keeping notes. They should be able to provide you with some high level notes of what message resonated with each reporter and what didn’t, what you covered, and what they asked. This is especially useful for future interactions.

Similarly you should get a briefing 1 pager ahead of time. You should be able to skim this, you don’t have to memorize. But it’ll include key things about recent articles written by the reporter, their beat, topics to dive into and ones to stay away from. If you can connect the dots, those notes from an initial call start to feed into the 1 pagers for future calls.

Onto the briefing

Of course it’s important to land the briefing in the first place, but just as important is getting it right. Coming into it, the reporter will have already gotten the high level pitch… It’s why they took the call. You’ll get a mixed bag of those that are open to teeing up the opportunity to those that want to get right to the news. Roll with what they prefer, but also don’t be afraid of trying to hit some of your key points.

Have your key messages ready

Sound bites help hugely here. Analogies, customer references, whatever you want to hit. Have it ready. Also if you’ve got a great sound bite that helps tell the story, it can make the reporter’s job easier. Just don’t swing too far into happy go lucky marketing land. It’s important to remember that you’re talking to a person. Have a conversation – don’t talk at them.

Go slow

It may seem obvious when you think about it, but as you’re talking the reporter is writing. Or at least you hope they are. Some do it by hand and type up notes late, some type right then and there. When you hear a pause it doesn’t always mean to keep going and it seldom means hurry up. Become extra comfortable with pauses. Check in if you’re going to fast, if they’re following, if they have any questions. I’ve had people bring me in a beer before because I’d had multiple cups of coffee through a few pitches, and they were trying to slow me down a bit. Know your pace, and then slow it down.

Questions

It’s okay if they don’t have a lot of questions, they may not. They may have none at all. Yes, pause, and give them a chance, or even ask if they have any. But don’t stress too much if they have no questions.

On the flip side of that – you’re PR person should have prepared a list of questions for you beforehand that the reporter could possibly throw your way. Be sure you’ve thought through and practiced all the Q&A scenarios before the interview so you aren’t caught off-guard when you’re in front of the reporter.

In conclusion

If it’s your first go around, don’t stress too much. Have the headlines you want in your mind and key messages, or better yet write them out. Personally I write key things on a whiteboard nice and large before I’m on the call. Finally once you’re all done, enjoy reading the coverage. But you’re not all done after you get some coverage look back, run a retrospective just like you would for a software project. What worked well, why did or didn’t something work. What can you improve next time.

*Full disclosure, this is based across interactions with a small sample size of different PR agencies and individuals. Mileage may differ heavily from PR firm to PR firm, but hopefully the above provides at least some roadmap for more clarity vs. flying blind. As always if you’ve got feedback/questions, feel free to let me know @craigkerstiens

Finally a special thanks to Paul Katsen for much of the inspiration on creating this post and to he and Katie Boysen for review