Public relations can mean the difference between success and failure for start-ups. About a third of new businesses don’t survive past their first two years, and half don’t survive past five years. Inadequate public relations and marketing is often cited as a factor. Many well-known new ventures, including Airbnb and Tesla Motors, owe much of their success to effective PR.
With outstanding PR, even a seemingly boring start-up can win attention in a crowded market. Conversely, businesses with worthwhile concepts may go unnoticed due to lack of good PR. Entrepreneurs handle their own PR at times but typically turn to experienced PR consultants so that the principals can focus on core product development.
Start-up PR specialists offer these tips to win all-important media attention.
Start early. The first requisite for successful start-up PR: Start long before product launch. Start-ups often delay PR until their product is ready for launch or at least out of beta testing. But PR does more than support product launches. It’s a valuable tool for gaining investor attention and support, a critical resource for start-ups, and for preparing the marketplace. Public relations activities require three to six months of planning. Developing relationships with media contacts and analysts before product launches can win more favorable attention than first contacting them when the product actually launches.
Create a concise summary. Like the infamous “elevator pitch,” the media relations summary is a one or two-sentence explanation of what the company does and what makes it distinctive, without industry jargon, to help journalists understand and remember the company. That’s challenging yet extremely important for hard-to-understand technology companies. Beware of analogies. Describing a company as “like United Rentals, but for your own possessions” can help people understand the company but may diminish the brand. In addition, some people may not understand the analogy.
Ascertain what’s newsworthy. Find what’s different or important about the start-up. Sadly, many start-ups simply aren’t newsworthy, because they aren’t unique or don’t offer any added value beyond their existing competitors, says start-up tech journalist and PR expert Erica Swallow. If that’s the case, consider revamping the product. Amazon uses a future press release to describe its products under development.
Document the start-up’s story. Relating the start-up’s trials and tribulations can gain support and publicity. Reality music shows like X Factor and America’s Got Talent follow this approach. Interview key team members, including investors, separately. Then combine their answers to summarize the company history and explain its products.
“But remember — your story isn’t just a chronology of events that led you to where you are today or a list of specs that make your product better than any other product on the market. Your story is the “WHY?” asserts Brad Williamson, a senior account manager at Pinkston Group. “Why did you start the company? Why is there a need for your product? How has your product helped early adopters?”
Focus on owned media first. Before pitching media outlets, develop the company’s website, blog, social media accounts, and content for secondary content channels like Medium and LinkedIn, advises Craig Corbett, principal at media incubator ESPACIO and PR startup Publicize. By focusing on owned channels first, start-ups can learn what kind of content clicks with their audiences. “Creating this narrative at an early stage will help them further down the line when they begin targeting external media,” Corbett says.
Educate the customer base. Well before product launch, develop PR materials that inform the customer base about the problem that the forthcoming product solves – without ever mentioning the product. Focusing on the customer’s problem helps create a new product need.
Look beyond the product. Besides creating content about the company’s product, PR can consider new research, the company’s response to a current event, beta-testing results, regulatory reviews, and news of a high-profile partnership. “The story must be new, unexpected, and/or resonate with the journalist’s readership. Jumping straight into product features and benefits all but guarantees failure,” says Max Marine, director of business development at Venture1st.
Give thought to press releases. PR pros hold varying opinions of press releases: Some say they’re outdated. Although press releases have evolved, they remain a vital PR tool in certain situations. Well-crafted news releases can be especially effective for smaller businesses and local outfits that lack outsized marketing budgets. However, be sure to tackle the key questions when planning a press release.
Reach out to influencers. Press releases may seem impersonal compared to the more interesting communications methods now available. Instead, some start-ups work with bloggers and social media influences to promote their product. PR pros distribute free samples, offer a “behind the scenes look” at product development, allow influencers to beta-test the product or try other influencer marketing strategies. For some startups, seeking micro-influencers can be effective. A media monitoring and measurement service can identify appropriate influencers in the start-up’s niche.
Feature the founder. A charismatic founder attracts media attention. Realizing that, many PR pros now favor releasing news announcements through the founder’s blog post rather than a traditional press release. “For many startups, the founder is the most effective PR person on board. Due to a deep knowledge of, and keen enthusiasm for, the business, this is the person best situated to share the company’s story,” writes serial entrepreneur Jennifer Spencer for Entrepreneur.
Send video pitches. Video pitches are more likely to gain the attention of busy journalists. Pitches are often impersonal and generic, but video pitches put a face to the pitch and insert personality, Spencer says.
Jump on current news and trends. Newsjacking, the technique of injecting a brand into a breaking news stories, can win publicity. When well-done, newsjacking gains the PR momentum from another news story to boost the brand’s visibility. Likewise, showing how the start-up’s products relates to an emerging trend or an increasingly common problem can help gain publicity.
Avoid common PR mistakes, such as automated pitches, extravagant launch parties, too many follow-ups, ignoring publications’ deadlines and lead times, and poorly timed launch dates. Providing advance scoops to writers with long lead times, even under an embargo, can greatly improve chances for coverage. PR pros warn against issuing news releases on certain days, such as dates that coincide with important other events.
Apply PR measurement. PR measurement can link the PR investment to measurable business objectives. Number-orientated technology experts at start-ups appreciate standardization and predictability. For that reason, they may be uncomfortable with PR, which can be challenging to standardize and quantify. “Start-ups should approach marketing and PR with a focus on quantifiable analytics, and they should look for those PR agencies and in-house hires who think likewise,” Joanna Jana Laznicka, publisher of VC-List.com, told Entrepreneur.
Keep at it. Focus on gaining more publicity instead of remaining content with publicity already gained. Apple founder Steve Jobs always urged entrepreneurs and businesses never to be rest on past accomplishments, according to Pressfarm. He felt that too many businesses made the mistake of relying on previous success instead of pursuing even greater heights.
Bottom Line: Creating a groundbreaking product is not enough. A comprehensive public relations campaign that starts well before the product’s launch is essential for a start-up’s survival. A company must create a product need and publicize the product to attract customers and achieve quick success that is sustainable.
This article was first published on May 23, 2018, and updated on June 13, 2019.
William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, media measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.