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The Ultimate Guide to Public Relations for Startups

This practical guide to PR for startups includes advanced techniques & insights from industry experts that will help you to grow your business with PR.

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What is public relations?

Public relations, or PR in short, is informing stakeholders about an organisation, while at the same time forming positive opinions about the brand by performing strategic communications. Essentially, public relations for startups is about using different media channels to form a positive image for your brand. Perhaps it is easier to think of it like this: advertising is you saying that your product is great, PR is getting someone else to say it for you. Here is the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) definition of PR.

Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organisations and their publics.”

PR is in the storytelling business. PR professionals create narratives to form PR strategies which advance the agenda of their clients. This can range from protecting, enhancing, or building reputations through the media, social media, or other communications mediums. A good PR practitioner will analyse the organisation, find positive messages and translate those messages into positive stories. When the news is bad, they can formulate the best response and mitigate the damage, also known as crisis communication.

What is PR for startups?

Now, we also need to specify, what is PR for startups? It essentially is getting yourself on the media landscape to create a positive image for your brand and make you a thought leader in your industry. Thought leadership as the act of promoting a novel, or unique viewpoint that changes the public's perception. It can be seen as an equivalent to branding because it increases the visibility, legitimacy, and authenticity of a brand. In doing so, giving it a unique placement in the market, fulfilling one of the primary end goals of PR.

Thought Leadership

While often overlooked, thought leadership is considered a core component in marketing. When building on your reputation as an expert in your field, leveraging your opinion as an individual or representative of a company carries a greater weight and boosts your influence across the industry. 

By becoming an opinion leader, you position yourself as someone who profoundly understands the industry, business, the needs of its audience and the broader marketplace. With more than 83% of actual buyers believing thought leadership builds trust in the organisation, using this strategy can prove very valuable for your startup or scaleup. 

Consider how many people would search your product before buying it, simply saying that your product is great on your website just won’t do the trick. Consumers need and want to see you involved in the bigger discussion with referral links to your site to build that credibility that is so much needed to make a lasting positive impression and that last push to influence a purchase decision.

How can PR help startups?

Public relations for startups can immensely accelerate your growth, and therefore should be a focus of your startup, in any stage of development. When people don’t understand the importance of PR, they won’t invest their money in partnering with PR firms. However, PR for startups is vital to contribute to overall growth and future development. 

Good PR for tech startups can help shape positive public images and establish social media and traditional media networks. This helps the startup increase a company’s reputation, and will eventually lead to monetary growth and increased sales. In fact, AirPR discovered that PR generates conversion rates of 10 to 50 times that of advertising. The likely explanation being that the majority of consumers trust earned media over traditional ads as the latter are made by the organization itself so it’s commonly seen as “self-promotional”. 

Public relations for startups is a critical component to your demand marketing mix- It’s not uncommon for startups to place their emphasis on product development rather than on customer development. However, as Steve Blank argues, this is totally misguided:

“… the product development diagram completely ignores the fundamental truth about startups and all new products. The greatest risk —and hence the greatest cause of failure — in startups is not in the development of the new product but in the development of customers and markets.”

Here is a list of startup challenges that PR can provide a solution to.

  • Securing funding or investment
  • Attracting the best talent
  • Growing a user or customer base
  • Scaling the business across borders and reaching new target audiences
  • Generating trials of its products or services
  • Educating the public about a new product, service or idea
  • Staking out its place amongst the competition
  • Becoming a thought leader and sticking out from your competition

What is unique about PR for startups?

Oftentimes startup tech PR initiatives are similar to those of established companies, not taking into consideration the fundamental differences between a startup and an established company. The same results cannot be expected from a startup in comparison to companies who have been on the market for years, such as Apple, Amazon or Facebook. Therefore they require variations in strategies and execution - a PR strategy for startups should have startup-specific objectives.

For instance, it must address the needs and challenges of being a new company, starting with a short-term and long-term focus on generating brand awareness as well as becoming thought leaders. When an organisation has no history, getting initial media placements is challenging. 

However, starting with a blank slate can provide a unique opportunity to build a brand’s reputation from the ground up. Startups can do this by being clear about what they want their audience to know about them, how it will differentiate itself from existing companies and how they will add more value than its competitors. In this sense, a startup company has an advantage to navigate their PR strategy according to how they wish to be heard, in other words you have full control of the narrative.

What is the role of a PR specialist?

A public relations specialist with the relevant media training can help startups find relevant media outlets to pitch their vision and business goals to, and find the most appropriate audience. The world of PR for tech startups has a trial and error learning curve, therefore it is important your startups should focus on finding what works for you, and this should happen sooner rather than later in the development of the startup. 

It is also advisable that the startup nor its founders take the PR road alone. PR has its own cadence, so this can be a risk. The worst thing a startup can do is to go out prematurely and receive negative press. It’s like getting gum on your shoes, it only has to stick once, and the crisis communication will accrue costs that could have been avoided.

To summarise, here are the benefits of being a startup when it comes to developing a PR strategy for startups:

  1. Smaller teams that can react quickly to the news cycle.
  2. Less red tape. You don’t have to wait for approval through corporate hierarchies.
  3. More creativity. Work is often varied and shared and a smaller budget encourages innovation and original ideas to circumvent your limitations.
  4. Tight regulations can often tunnel out brilliant ideas.
  5. Trial and error for startups is forgiving as a small reputation allows for larger margin of error.

The process of PR

With an understanding of what PR for startups is, let us go over the process of doing PR successfully. The process of PR is as follows:

  1. Identify your core values and goals
  2. Create engaging content
  3. Write a press release and create ever-green and seasonal content
  4. Pitch it to journalists and iterate

Identifying Your goals and values

If you’re learning how to build a PR strategy for startups, you first need to reflect on the foundation elements of your brand. Firstly you should figure out your value proposition which is the core of your brand. This is your unique selling point that will set you apart from your competitors. The value proposition should be easily understandable so aim to explain it with one sentence. The template below, pioneered by Adeo Rossi of Founder Institute is a great starting point if you are struggling!

My Company <name> is developing <offering> to help <target audience> <solve a problem> with <a secret sauce>.

A simple proposition will help keep you focused in developing consistent content. It will also make  it easier to explain the value of your company to consumers and investors alike.

Identifying the goals of public relations for startups and defining your key messages is important to set you on the right track. Startup goals can include: increasing qualified website visitors, attracting new customers, or building brand awareness. Once there are clear goals, it makes it so much easier to build a coherent and accessible message which is designed to achieve your goals.

Before you go any further with your business you also need to develop the core values and mission statement of your brand. Consumers have an abundance of choice when it comes to selecting products and services, and they want to align their purchases with their own values. As such, it is essential that you understand the purpose of your brand. What change are you trying to be about? What is your mission? What principles are you guided by? These will inform your brand personality and how you present yourself when you communicate with your audience. At PRLab we call the sum of those elements the “brand bible” which is the most important asset your brand  can have as it dictates how all the brand assets will consist of. 

Here are some examples of core values that you could implement into your brand's communications.

  • Integrity
  • Honesty
  • Trust
  • Passion
  • Fun
  • Innovation
  • Diversity
  • Quality

As well as communicating these values to your audience they can also be integrated into your internal communications. Core values are also critical in creating a motivated and thriving company, with studies of linkedin users showing that 73% of purpose-oriented employees are satisfied with their job compared to 64% who are not purpose-oriented.

Create engaging content

Your brand story is part of, and can be enhanced through, every piece of content you create. It provides a unified, consistent voice across multiple digital platforms and improves your credibility. When creating content, you need to make sure that whatever you create is aligned with your brand bible and that it serves a bigger purpose than just creating content for the sake of it. 

A successful content strategy should contemplate seasonal as well as ever-green opportunities for content creation. Let’s say you run a chocolate brand, valentine’s day could be one of the most important days of the year for your brand and you should be prepared for it. At the same time, chocolate is consumed all over the year so ever-green content that helps to achieve SEO goals is always relevant.  

Here are some ways you can create content as part of your startup PR strategy:

  • Create an integrated calendar that includes ever-green and seasonal content
  • Make sure your content is optimized for SEO.
  • Analyze how your target audience interacts and consumes your content through digital marketing tools such as Hotjar, that will give you an indication of what people like the most about your content
  • Leverage your network to reach lookalike audiences. Feature important personalities in your content to reach their followers and build a bigger audience together.

Leverage Your Social Outlets

Social media provides huge opportunities to attract and engage with niche communities in ways that were unheard of just 10 years ago. These social outlets should be used as a reinforcing tool for your PR efforts as they have the power to maximize the impact of the media placements by making them reach directly your target audience. In addition to joining discussions on traditional social media outlets (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc.), consider capitalizing on social bookmarking sites like Growth Hackers, Inbound.org, Reddit, StumbleUpon, and Quibb. These platforms offer amazing ways for startups to stay plugged in, create discussions, and amplify the reach of your PR placements.

Produce Research in Industry​

One of the most successful and effective ways that we have garnered coverage from the press is through the sharing of fresh data by conducting research. Journalists are looking for angles, but they are also looking for data and fresh insights. When you are a startup you are always going to be striving to push and advertise the products and services of your company but, sometimes you can’t simply advertise what you do and who you are, you need a novel way to express your value. 

This is where industry research comes in. Rather than sharing the value of your actual service, your intent is instead to share interesting and relevant information about the industry you are in. Your research can be quite broad within your company’s niche. Often, a good starting point is to find data on trends, pain points, or any other news affecting your industry. This research can then be turned into a press pitch, or even an industry report. As long as it remains unbiased, serious research, it will come across as authentic and authoritative.

When you deliver research, you establish credibility and build a reputation as a thought leader, which is only going to get you more coverage within your industry. The neutral messaging of research also allows you to share it with many outlets in your industry, as well as across several other markets that the research might concern.

Produce Research in Users

The research ‘in users’ is very similar to that of ‘in the industry’ as it also allows you to share it with a broad audience, and it will establish you as a thought leader of a certain topic in your niche. You can analyze the data of users in your own company, or from customers using your product and find patterns in behavior over time. This research can be turned into new and insightful data for your industry and you can pitch it to the press.

Create Guest Blogs

Often you can use the research done in industry or with users, but instead of just delivering the data to the press, you create the story itself and see if publications are happy for the piece to be used as a guest blog. What is paramount to remember with this tactic is to not self-promote. You will be able to do this in the story with your byline, where you can put a link to your company. By staying neutral with your guest blog you can start to build relationships with editors. 

In PR this is critical because you are adding value to topics in your industry by sharing these newsworthy articles with publications. Editors will eventually consider you a fountain of information worth listening to; you are building a reputation and brand as a thought leader. However, this approach requires patience and takes time. Editors are very picky in the beginning. So remaining neutral, relevant, and informative is crucial.

Establish Opinion Pieces and Newsjacking

Opinion pieces are sent to opinion editors. They are short, 300-600 words, and are meant to convey your opinions on topical issues affecting your industry. This is a smaller market for your business to gain coverage. However, if it is shared with the opinion editorial media, it can give you a platform to preach from, so to speak. In this way, you can influence your industry and make a name for your company. 

Newsjacking is the process of adding your opinions or thoughts to a breaking news story. You are essentially piggybacking news that is trending to get yourself noticed. In order to make it work you have to understand how and when information and topics are going to break, or start trending. To newsjack at the right moment means you have to get your opinion or thoughts out there at the right time, which is before the news has peaked. This is a nice technique to acquire coverage and it will help your brand recognition because you are involving yourself in larger social conversations.

Writing a press release

There are no shortcuts and no concrete answer when it comes to PR for tech startups. You are a new company with a relatively unknown team, so it is time to get creative and really put yourself and your budding company out there. You have a story to tell that will communicate your values, but now it is time to get it into the media. This is done by writing a press release. It’s important to emphasize that press releases are only useful when you have news-worthy news happening internally that are worth sharing with journalists.  You might be wondering if your news and worthwhile sharing with journalists? No worries we’ve got you covered, use the breakdown below to identify whether your news are worth sharing or not:

  • Funding Announcement
  • Expanding into a new country/region
  • Announcement of a new important figure joining your organization 
  • Launching a new product or line or service (not a feature)
  • Mergers and Acquisitions
  • Winning an award/endorsed by an important figure
  • Fatalities/ crises

Your press release will be shared with journalists and news publications, and as such needs to be written in a journalistic style. The best way to think about this is using the Inverted Pyramid, a metaphor used by journalists to structure and prioritise information. This means your pitch with the most newsworthy information before moving into other important details and then general info.

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Elements of the Press Release

You should write your press release in the third person, and edge along the fine line between self-promotion and plain facts. It has to be concise, around 400 words or one A4 page, and the language has to be targeted in order to catch and keep the media’s attention. Always share it in the body of your email and never as a PDF attached as the latter doesn’t allow for copy-pasting. 

You always start your press release with the headline. This is what the journalist is going to read first. It is the most integral part of the entire document. In only a few words you have to summarise your main points and you have to captivate the reader enough to continue reading. Remember, these words will determine whether a journalist is going to open your email or not, it has to be newsworthy. Luckily, there are ways to maximise the effectiveness of your headline. A tip is to focus on the data.

Use Data to Generate Interest

By using data you can be strategic with your content. Some data points to look out for are: what are people looking up when they check out related content? How many people are doing so? Where are they coming from? This type of keyword search is going to help you sift through the fluff and find the most persuasive and compelling words to use in your headline.

After the headline, you have the first paragraph of your press release, which is called the lead. It is extremely important as well. This is where you should apply your story angle, or ‘hook’, giving the reader something to care about. Once again, this addresses the newsworthy aspect of your announcement.

It should start with the time and place in which the event or story will occur. In this short paragraph, all of the 5 W’s from the pyramid should be answered. This way you are also giving the journalist or reader the vital information they will need to take an interest, but also so they can pick it up for themselves.

What to Write in the Body of a Press Release

Next, you have to write the body paragraphs. In this section, you should aim to anticipate and answer the questions a journalist might have about the announcement you are making for your company’s products, services or events. The key here is to make sure you are not making a sales pitch to the journalist, and it should not sound too promotional.

You are trying to explain that what you are talking about is relevant and important enough to be shared. Again, you have to remember the newsworthy elements. For this section, it is salient to use quotes. It humanizes the story and reiterates the newsworthy feature of your story. When you use quotations make sure that the quote aids the story, and it sounds like the person who spoke it.

Then, you should send your press release with a brief description of the company and the issue and reasons for the press release. It is sometimes referred to as a “call to action” (CTA). Putting the incentive on the journalist to find out more, or take a more active role. In this section, you should add all of the contact information, of yourself, and others whom the journalist might need to communicate with to develop the story into their publication.

Now, at the end of your press release, you should add a boilerplate. A boilerplate will briefly detail the company or organization related to the press release. It will be succinct and list the name of the company, its mission statement, when it was founded, and a small summary of what the company is doing today to satisfy its mission statement.

How to Pitch to Journalists

Now that you’ve written your press release it is time to start pitching it to journalists. It is crucial to remember that a reporter or journalist receives multiple pitches every day. Therefore, it is imperative that your press release stands out to them and that you explain why they would find it of interest. To do this your pitch needs to have the following qualities.

Focus on the bigger picture

Journalists love connection. In order to be successful with your pitch, your audience must feel connected to what you’re offering. Okay, so you’re super excited about your company’s new GPS software, but what makes you think others will be just as interested? No matter what your business is doing or creating, the story you are pitching must have meaning for your audiences. Focus on the narrative you’ve constructed rather than your company and its reputation as the main source of attention (even though that is the objective).

Give your pitch context

Providing context is an important step in public relations for startups. Think back to the elements of storytelling: who is your brand’s superhero? What conflict are you resolving? These questions provide interesting contexts that demonstrate your brands value while being interesting to write about.

This context is important because journalists are not necessarily interested in your company, but rather the story you are sharing. To make sure your pitch inspires curiosity, you must incorporate an element of the investigation. Your pitch should include a question that is examined, a clear subject, and something that occurs in your story that builds interest in discovering more about your offering.

Make your pitch as original as you can

Chances are what you’re pitching has been pitched before. Your storytelling voice must inspire that this innovative thinking is truly unique. Highlighting distinctive characteristics that sets your story apart from others is important. What is the new angle you are providing on the topic? Learning something new is a captivating tactic in making sure your audience gains something from the story. 

Make sure your pitch has an original take on whatever the subject means is. Let’s take a ride-sharing platform. They have existed for a while now, with the purpose of getting into a cheap ride whenever and wherever. However, from your past experience as a woman, you have found yourself in unsafe situations using the existing apps. To combat this, you just launched a new rideshare platform with improved safety features. When pitching the story of your launch you must ask yourself: Where is the narrative? How does this differentiate from the competition? If you can answer these questions, originally in your pitch will be derived.

Understand your audience

There are two main audiences that you must keep in mind when writing your PR pitch. If you can consider both of these groups of readers in mind, your pitch will have a higher chance of being picked for publication. 

The first audience is the journalist — this might seem like an obvious answer but can often be overlooked. A journalist is more likely to choose your article if it is tailored to them, specifically. A pitch that you sent to 5 other press outlets that lack personalization will be easily identified as copy and pasted and generic. Your pitch must fit into how the style and purpose of what the journalist writes on. 

The second audience is those who will be reading the article when it’s written and published. It is crucial to do tons of research on the publication you are pitching to and understand the type of readers that it attracts. The press outlet is looking for content that aligns with the message they want to send, whether that be a trend or a genre. Pitch a story that you imagine is relevant to readers of this outlet. In a time when attention spans are shorter than ever before, 68% of consumers are more inclined to invest time into reading content by a company they care about, further proving how important to cater to your communications to the audiences and platforms you are pitching.

Read the room

Place your pitch in a relevant and global context, with the awareness of the factors that could positively or negatively affect your offering. This will not only make your story pertinent to the current times, and show that your company’s thinking is reflexive. Lauren Reed, the founder of Reed Public Relations, spoke on the importance of giving your brand's presence awareness and context “How brands appear to the world during this pandemic could impact how people see them for years to come, good and bad”. 

People want companies to be aligned with their moral compass, so if your story is talking about “why people should be signing up for your gardening services” during a national drought, you might want to reevaluate the angle you are taking. At the end of the day, writing a pitch is explaining why your story should be shared. The more purposeful and targeted you make your pitch, the stronger your argument will be and increase the likelihood of publication. As long as you create a pitch that is compelling and tailored to the person and news outlet you’re inquiring about, there is no doubt you will find the right publishing fit.

Structure and Example of a Pitch

You can follow this structure when creating a pitch:

Scenario <>Problem <>Solution <> Resources

Scenario:

Put some context into your story and get the journalist on the same page. Why are you writing the pitch? This could look like: 

In the past few years, companies have been looking for alternatives to the dreadful annual performance reviews. 

Problem:

Here you should point out what’s wrong with the scenario that was mentioned above. 

People hate annual performance reviews, in fact, according to research they are the reason why most employees feel disengaged in the workplace. 

Solution:

Here is where you can talk about what you or your brand are doing to tackle the problem mentioned above. 

Hence we’ve created Impraise, a real-time feedback solution that replaces the annual performance review with a platform that allows employees to give real-time feedback to each other.

Resources

This part gets ignored often by PR professionals, but in order to increase the chances of getting your story picked by a journalist you should seriously consider offering resources that could participate in the story, such as the CEO of the solution you’re pitching or a researcher in the field of the story.

Styling

No more than 3 paragraphs in the body of the email with your sources quoted. Don’t forget about adding a catchy headline to your pitch that will increase the chances of it getting picked up by a journalist.

Working with a PR agency

Although this guide is intended to help you develop your own PR strategy, there are benefits to working with a tech PR agency for startups. PR can be a time consuming process, and outsourcing it to an external firm can save you time and allow you to focus on developing your business in other aspects. 

Choosing the right PR agency for your startup or scale-up can be a difficult task to navigate. It’s crucial to be patient and selective before getting to work with a new PR team. Here are some tips to choosing a PR agency should you wish to go down that route.

Identify your organization’s goals

Reflect on what you want to get out of a PR strategy. A PR agency can offer the following services: crisis management, media relations, social media, speech writing, press releases, event planning, outreach, market research, media training, content creation or internal copywriting. Knowing what you want to achieve will help you select a PR agency and brief them. 

Knowing these goals will also influence what budget you will allocate to a PR agency, and the size of the agency you will work with.

Conduct market research

Once you and your team have decided on a budget, start asking colleagues that have worked with PR agencies before for recommendations. Sometimes their trial-and-errors with different agencies will speed up your own process. Also, ask for experiences; maybe a PR agency that wasn’t the right fit for them could be the right fit for you.

Additionally, research PR agencies that have experience in your sector, familiarity with your organization’s industry is already a step in the right direction. Having them understand who they are marketing to will save you time when it comes to briefing them on expectation. It also gives them an upper hand when it comes to understanding your target audience. This isn’t necessary but it is definitely beneficial.

Look up their previous achievements

The best kind of indicator is a PR agency’s success stories. If not already easily accessible, ask the agency for their case studies. A case study is a good way for PR agencies to demonstrate the tangible results that they can offer. An agency with successful case studies deserves your attention; if you admire their work, you’ll most likely want to be working with them. Look out for case studies that demonstrate several deliverables, for example, a lot of media and press coverage.

Ask Questions

Great PR agencies want to be an asset to your organization and will appreciate your questions and concerns. Questions will facilitate the process in which both you and the agency decide if you are a good fit for each other. Consider these following questions to help you select a PR agency.

  • How do you measure the results?
  • How do you stay current with trends and/or topics?
  • What will you need from my team?
  • How often should I expect to see media coverage?
  • How do you integrate media relations?
  • What is unique about your services?
  • Are there any possible additional fees?
  • What contacts do you have within our industry?
  • Do you have client experience within our industry?
  • Why should we choose you?

Test their service

Once you’ve narrowed down your selection, it is always a good idea to ask if you can hire them for a one-off basis for a fee. Ask them for rates. This is extremely beneficial to do in the final stages of your selection process as it gives you a real taste of what kind of work they would deliver. Important to consider is how much you are willing to spend on these one-off basis trials, it circles back to budgeting. An example of a task could be asking them to provide a pitch and a media list for a specific event. This task, of course, depends on what you would like to test them on.

Get to know those directly handling your account

The PR agency people attending the first meeting are probably senior executives that won’t necessarily be handling your account. These high-level executives will do an amazing job of selling their agency and services— they act as brand ambassadors. However, it’s important that you ask to meet with those who will actually be working first-hand with you on day-to-day tasks. For this reason, it’s more important to be impressed with the junior executives because it’s them who will be doing the bulk of work for your organization. A good way to gauge this would be to ask them out for a coffee, this kind casual setting will help you get a more genuine feel.

Conclusion

Public relations for startups is a crucial aspect of marketing to invest in, either yourself or with the help of a PR agency. As a tech startup PR is invaluable in growing your brand awareness and establishing yourself within your industry. This guide has explained the unique advantages of startup PR strategy, and the process you can follow to get your brand mentioned in the media and influence yourself into a position of thought leader.

You should also have an idea of how to approach a PR agency and the advantages of working with one. Should you do so, PRLab can offer a wide range of PR services, so don’t hesitate to get in touch should you want to start growing your business today.

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