My friends and I have heard the same set of PR questions from startup founders across all industries. With this post, I hope to answer some of those questions.
Tl;dr — You can jump to the numbers that interest you most.
Great PR is a balance between art and data. Art created through building relationships and telling the best story possible. Data used to guide your team and give input on building your brand strategy. Below are some basic guidelines that help to build a strong foundation for internal and external communications.
- Timing launch based on sales cycle: If you have a long-lead sales cycle, you should start PR early to drum up awareness for your sales team and to make sure your product is accurately described. If you don’t have a long sales cycle, then you have freedom to start PR when your product is ready to launch — keep the news of the product you’re building under wraps until that time. For an unknown company, it is good to bring in a strong reporter who knows your space under embargo to meet with your stakeholders and tell a deeper story. That does not mean you have to give them an exclusive, it simply means they get more access to resources than other reporters. Note for this scenario, you should not launch unless your product is fully finished and ready to be used by consumers and media. It used to be that startups tied their launches to events to include a speaking gig. That can sometimes weaken your coverage as other companies will be making announcements then as well. Have the discussion with your team around what makes the most sense based on your goals, audience and news cycle.
- The differences between in-house PR and agency: The best advice overall is to talk with your VC firm’s comms team and meet with PR experts to determine what is best for you and your company. But there are a few details you should know around structure which I will try to keep short. As a startup, I would recommend an in-house communications expert who can run content and marketing. If you just need someone for your launch, I would recommend a small agency or freelancers that are well connected to press but lower cost than a large agency. John O’Brien and Dave Donahue just started Strange Brew. Sean Garret and team run Pramana. Medium-sized firms like Method, Cutline Communications, the Hatch Agency, etc. are great to meet with and get an idea of their scope of work.
In House: Hiring a communications expert can do a lot for your brand — build communities, write content, establish strong press relationships, lead internal communications, draft messaging, manage crisis comms, etc. They can also manage freelancers or external agencies if you need additional support. If your product is something that is hard to describe or you have a competitor ahead of the game, then consider an in house PR pro to help you tell your story. They are closer to your product than an agency ever will be and will align with product teams, recruiting, executives and brand to build a multi-faceted comms strategy that will help your company scale.
Agency: Agencies charge based on the amount of time each team member spends on your account. If you want messaging, measurement, reporting, detailed plans, strategy, etc. then you need to pay for those services. A team with a $10K monthly retainer will be focused on media relations with light-weight admin — coverage reports, planning, etc. That does not mean the smaller agency is not as good as the larger one. Not at all. It is simply a difference in how you spend your money. As a startup, you want to spend on results not on overworked plans and detailed reports. You can still get coverage reports and plans but you should ask for them to be light weight so you can move fast and not be billed for crazy amounts of hours on time spent planning versus execution. You can measure them based on number of interviews, quality of briefings, level of preparation and quality of pitch ideas.
To justify a larger firm and team, your company should have multiple news announcements, spokespeople, speaking goals and content. When you hire a larger firm you are getting access to more experts on your account (even from those who are not on your team but are at the firm) and the additional strategy they provide. If your company’s communications activities warrant a large team with strategic counsel and detailed reports, you should expect to pay $25K or more a month. These teams will book interviews, build plans, draft messaging, secure speaking opportunities while also helping you build your strategy, press relationships and content. Messaging and media training usually are additional costs.
3. Measurement is possible: Measure coverage by quality, not quantity. It is not about number of impressions. It is about the accurate story in an outlet that reaches your audience. Based on your budget, here are a couple of ways you can measure results:
Messaging: Track your key messages in quotes. Is your message resonating with press? Are these messages making it into the articles? Is your content from blog posts and podcasts being shared by others?
Competition: Are you being mentioned in your competitors articles? Are reporters understanding how you play within the marketplace and holding you up to competitors?
Quality: Create a list of the publications that matter to your audience (this does not always include top tier). Keep track of the quality of meetings with key reporters at those publications — you could measure number of meetings but amount will not matter if your messaging is not high quality. One briefing on message with a strong story will do more than multiple meetings off message or with a spokesperson who leans toward rambling.
Relationships: Create a list of media you need to know and have your agency make those introductions for you. Take that further and build an “on boarding” scheme where each reporter gets a series of access points (intro meeting, tour of your lab/office, exclusive customer access per reporter, investor access, etc.) and measure progress along those tracks.
4. Good PR means more of your time: PR is not a function that will succeed if you hand over to a team and disengage. As CEO or spokesperson, you should be involved in comms. Involvement can include messaging and story creation, setting your team up with key influencers like customers and investors, and of course meeting with press.
You can structure this involvement so that it works for you. If you can only dedicate a certain amount of hours to communications, then work with your team to pick 5 reporters you should know and have your PR team focus your time on those targets. Dedicate a few hours each week to sharing messaging ideas and insights based on your conversations with customers, partners and investors (especially share insight from people your PR team cannot access). Sharing does not have to be in person all the time. You can do this by writing, in the morning or late at night, and sending drafts to your PR team to help them develop new stories, create op-eds and keep messaging fresh. As CEO or leader in the company, you have access to incredible information and insights that you should be sharing.
5. Press relationships are two sided: Reporters are not here to tell your company story. Their goal is to serve their readers with truth and uncover new angles that impact people’s lives. Online sites have to think about clicks and ads that will impact the headlines and angles of your stories. Think about the stories you read on the business section of the New York Times or on your favorite site. You should work with your PR team to come up with quality stories that tell readers about your brand but are also interesting to read so that you do not become victim to the editing floor. Your team needs to work on the narrative and button up the messaging by thinking through all the possible scenarios for the reporter to take the story in and combat those up front order to avoid sensational headlines. One simple way to do this is to bring other voices into the story — customers, partners, researchers, etc. Your PR team should have two roles, to build and protect your brand and control what story is written by helping craft solid stories and sharing strong sources.
6. Press Releases are dead…for press: 🙂 But releases are helpful to sales to close a contract and show success. If and when you go public they are necessary so having a history of launches, partnerships and new customers is good for investor relations. The majority of news today comes from your blog. The blog allows you to have a branded voice and be a bit more fun than a release as well. Press releases are structured to be news driven only and should not read like a blog but can still be fun. Insert real quotes. Ones that read like a human being and not an industry jargon robot. Make a release worth reading and avoid over hype. Best advice is to keep it real.
7. Newsworthy means NEW: Launch, launch, launch. Startups have to work harder than before to get press attention. You should try to make as many news cycles as possible. Create news announcements by holding information for key moments in time. Spread your strong announcements out to give you more time with press. Bundle your news when you have 2–3 things that won’t stand on their own. All of your announcements can be stronger. When you have a launch, think about ways to boost it through a partnership, analyst quote, new customer. As the founder or CEO, you can drive your business teams to work toward a common deadline/goal to make a larger moment in time for your brand. Do not assume that just because you are doing something interesting, you will get covered. You must make your announcements news, that means it is something you have NEVER discussed publicly. Publications have less staff and more stories to cover than ever before, especially with today’s political landscape, so it is on your team to build stories around information that you have not shared already to keep your stories from getting cut.
8. Crisis comms matters no matter your stage: Once you launch, you should have a plan for what to do when things go wrong. It does not have to be a large plan, but should include a phone tree of who to alert immediately and pre-approved messaging for each audience around the issues you can predict might happen. Your audiences are your customers, partners investors, employees and then press. Think through what you would say to each group for each crisis, in some cases the plan will be to not reach ot at all. Even “no action” needs to be discussed and agreed upon ahead of time. Here’s why. When things go wrong emotions and tensions run high. It is also a race against time. The more people you need to review messaging or weigh in on the your public statement, the slower you move. The slower you move, the more time press, customers, employees have to make up what they think might have happened. The less you are trusted. The more people think something is being covered up. The more guilty you look. The harder it is to rebound. It’s wise to discuss these options ahead of time so that if it ever comes to pass your time is spent on fixing the issue and communicating to your audiences vs debating in a room (or over the phone) and starting from zero.
9. Never stop writing: Company leaders should consistently share drafts of op-eds and bylines with their PR team. Your messaging will never be as strong as it can without your voice. Tech sites have guidelines on how to submit guest posts and what they look for in order to be successful. A byline and op-ed are great ways to build credibility for your executive team, bring up a topic that might not be getting the coverage time it deserves and highlight an important issue that your customers (or audience) are facing. There are agencies focused just on content now like Michael Copeland and Jeff Davis at Story Made Good. More companies are focusing on building their own content through blogs, podcasts and videos since media is not as reliable for deep dives into tough subjects.
10. PR needs access to the CEO: PR works best if the CEO is invested in communications. Most successful teams report to the CEO or have a direct line. I have been on teams that reported into marketing, but met with and saw the CEO far more than the CMO. No matter the reporting structure, your PR team needs your time around brainstorming, messaging, press discussions, and input on strategy. If you bury your PR team under levels in your organization, you will not see the results you hope to get for your company. Give your time.