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11 PR Tips for Startups

on November 17, 2011

What’s involved in doing PR for startups?

That was the very topic du jour at the panel discussion “PR for Startups and Small Business” produced by PR Summit Chat, held just last night in San Francisco. I was the moderator, and on the panel were:

Here are 11 tips that came out of the discussion:

PR Tip #1: Are you ready?

There are so many questions you have to ask yourself before you talk to a PR professional. Make sure you can answer the questions, “Are you original and unique” and “Are you ready to actually work with a PR professional?” A good PR professional won’t just take you on just for the money. They want to take on a client they can succeed with. They don’t want to fail either.

You have to be mature enough as a business to handle public scrutiny. So don’t choose PR until you’re ready. Don’t overreach. Be realistic.

PR Tip #2: Find PR pros through your peers, competitors, and journalists

I’m constantly asked for recommendations of PR professionals. The way most of us discover great trusted talent is to talk to our peers. That’s the obvious first step, but if you’re impressed with how the press is handling one of your competitors, call them up directly and ask who their PR firm is, or you can find that at the bottom of any of their press releases on their website. Call the PR firm directly and explain who you are and don’t pitch yourself to them (that would be a conflict of interest), but ask for a referral of another PR firm. Even better, talk to a journalist you respect, and ask them for a referral. They’ll tell you the people they actually listen to, which is a great barometer of the type of PR professional you’ll want.

PR Tip #3: What press do you want to reach and when?

A strategy of “We want to be in Mashable and Techcrunch” is not a strategy. There are times in the cycle of your business that you’ll want to talk to the press and the press will want to hear from you. For example, when you’ve got a funding round, sites such as VentureBeat and GigaOM will want to hear from you.

PR Tip #4: What audiences do you want to reach?

PR agencies have specialties in certain areas. You’ll want to choose an agency or individual that has experience in that area, and most importantly can prove it to you.

PR Tip #5: Test your idea out

Before you formally interview with a PR firm, tell your story to journalists and other PR reps who have a lot of experience in your industry. Couch it with a “I’m not pitching you, I’m just telling you to get your feedback.” Listen and refine your story. This will get you better prepared to work with a PR agency.

PR Tip #6: Showcase the people in your company

Everyone on the panel talked about the importance of the people within your company. Tell the stories of their background and what got them to the point of creating this startup. If the founder isn’t dynamic, find the members who do have great stories to tell. These are the kinds of tales journalists love to hear.

PR Tip #7: Ambush a trend

If you see something happening in the news or a big movement happening, and you can be at the forefront of it, then jump on the opportunity. You can ride that wave of public interest. I wrote about this at great length on Mashable in the article, “Trending Topics: 5 Ways Companies Used News Trends for Business Success.”

It doesn’t always have to be part of a larger corporate strategy. You could just have a great point to make on a story that happens to be in the news. If your company’s CEO can speak on that topic, then you need to pitch him immediately. Don’t wait. If the story is breaking at 8am then you need to pitch that your CEO is available for an interview on the topic right away.

PR Tip #8: Customer stories only go so far

I pushed the panel to answer the question, “Don’t you want to pitch a story of a customer using the product?” I was surprised to discover that’s not that big a deal. While it’s nice to have a customer case study, that can’t be the entire story. It’s not enough. There needs to be something more.

PR Tip #9: Collaborate with another (bigger) company

A bigger company that’s been in the game longer than you, and they’re bigger than you, can give you an exponential effect on your PR efforts. Look for partnership opportunities with different aspects of your product.

PR Tip #10: Publish yourself

I wrote an article entitled, “Why Corporate Blogging is Like Selling Uncut Cocaine” where I argued given the ease of self-publishing and distribution, the PR process can be damaging. The process of PR is flawed in that every point of communications your story is “cut” thereby diminishing its purity. A company tells its story to a PR rep (-CUT-). The PR rep then tells that story to a journalist (-CUT-). The journalist then writes the story (-CUT-). Conversely, the company could create its own blog, publish its own stories, and often the journalist will see the story exactly the way you want it represented. And if they want to refer to it they don’t need to go to their memory, they can pull specific quotes.

Another tactic is to guest blog on another more popular site. While this will get you phenomenal recognition, you can’t actually sell your company in a guest/contributed post. You have to talk about an industry issue that doesn’t come off as you pitching the company.

PR Tip #11: Don’t do it alone

Messaging and positioning is an art. Unless your previous work was working in a communications firm, you simply haven’t done it enough, and you need a communications firm to walk you through the process of communicating with an audience and the press.

Your advice?

What’s your advice for startup PR? If you’re in a startup, or done PR for startups, I’m sure you’ve got plenty of experiential tales. Please share them here in the comments.

Stock photos courtesy of Shutterstock.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Rachel Lee November 17, 2011 at 8:07 pm

Thanks for guiding the discussion yesterday, and for following up with this thorough summary of the best points. Looking forward to more posts, David!

David Spark November 17, 2011 at 9:43 pm

Thank you Rachel! Make sure you sign up for the newsletter (upper right), that has all the good stuff.

San Francisco happy hours November 19, 2011 at 9:17 pm


I was saying, there is a little something for everyone in the great city of San

Francisco and just because something appeals to a much younger crowd, in no way

indicates that it can't appeal just as well to an older or young again crowd.

Shelly November 22, 2011 at 8:47 pm

Tip #2… call one PR firm and ask them to refer you to another PR firm… as a small PR shop, that's not a call I would be open to receiving.

David Spark November 22, 2011 at 8:57 pm

I was a little shocked by that one too, but I must say that you wouldn't be taking on a competitor, now would you. So you should be OK with that kind of call.

Shelly November 22, 2011 at 9:24 pm

If you play out that scenario it might go something like this… an agency gets a call from a start up that could be viewed as a competitive threat to said client.  The agency, just be virtue of the call, has the opportunity to do some intelligence gathering, albeit adroitly, that they then might use to their advantage.  To head off being eclipsed by an outfit that is claiming newer/better technology this would prompt a proactive offense strategy to squash the upstart.

Luke Filose November 23, 2011 at 12:11 pm

This may be controversial, but I suggest a start-up go for an experienced sole proprietor over a PR firm. Firms, even  smaller ones, are very costly and have a hard time devoting a lot of attention to a small client. And I'm not convinced that the value proposition they offer is worth the premium. Someone who cut their teeth at a firm, or in-house at a company in your industry (or perhaps both) will often have exactly the experience you need, the relationships with key journalists, and they won't let you fall through the cracks. I don't mean to offend anyone at a firm, I just think it's a better option once your start-up is more established.

David Spark November 23, 2011 at 5:02 pm

I don't think that's controversial at all, and I'll say that most start ups that I talk to don't want a big firm and aware that it's more expensive. Also, they don't need all the services of a big firm, or they'll get a junior person handling their business. And many firms begin the discussion about the minimum assignment they'll take, which can understandably turn off a start up.

Micheal December 22, 2011 at 10:07 am

The following tips would be better for the firm but same side the smaller firm would be not getting ti to paid for thsi much expensive list methods.The Better  prospects at end comes with the result guaranteed talks.

Brice hook January 23, 2012 at 10:00 pm

The Start up could always been the tough case as we have start and enter the new market where their are the tons of the competition and we have the question on own. The above discuss point seems to be the best to start with, as we should have the confidence and trust on our own self.

Iphone app development

Adedamola Jayeola October 24, 2012 at 3:20 pm

I really agree with what Luke said. A lot of big PR firms are also seeking expansion themselves, with advertising and marketing affiliations. This leaves lesser patronage options for small start-ups and SMEs who might not be able to afford even consultancy, not to mention retainership fees.

I once offered pro-bono services for a young lady at the initial stages of her breakfast business and right know she’s really expanded quite well. Nowadays,the sense of fulfillment I feel whenever we sit to talk, I must be frank with you, is priceless. The interesting thing is when we started, she wasn’t quite sure what I was doing, but right now, she has a clear idea of what she wants as regards positioning and handling her clientele.

I also learnt from this write-up as well. Thanks for sharing David.

David Spark October 24, 2012 at 7:16 pm

 Thanks for your thoughts Adedamola. :)

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