Are you doing startup PR right, or is it ending up as #PRFail on Twitter?
The #PRFail hashtag on Twitter is perhaps one of the most entertaining ones if a tad petty sometimes. The good thing is that journalists and analysts have moved beyond ranting about terrible pitches and half-hearted story ideas from junior PR professionals. A founder pitching directly to journalists is all the rage now! And because they don’t always know “how to PR”, the outcome is often disastrous. Even as a communication consultant with little interest left in traditional media relations, I have received briefs from startup founders who say they want to “appear in this laundry list of publications”. The names naturally include global top tier startup publications. The story that needs to be pitched leaves much to be desired, however.
On my bad days, I judge of course. But I have better days when I fear that the industry will die if things stay the way they are - a thoughtless, half-baked mess of missed opportunities. These are opportunities that could have not only created awareness but also added to the long and arduous journey of building reputation, equity and in the process, a wholesome business.
I will tell you this – astute startup founders and leaders have so much more working for them when it comes to PR and media relations, which the agencies they hire don’t. They have the authority; they are a first-person voice. Most senior journalists and analysts would like to hear from them without the often-unnecessary constraints and filters of mediators. But the stakes are also higher. While you can use social media to get in touch with relevant writers, editors and analysts, your conversation can also end up in social media as a #PRFail. Nobody wins if that happens.
From badly written pitch notes from junior PR professionals and founders to hours wasted on conversations that will never lead to strong, impactful stories, the biggest issue with public relations in India is the lack of training at all levels. Since I have been in the industry for a fair bit, maybe I will be of better use trying to explain how to do it right instead of ranting about how everyone is wrong.
Get your story right, please
Messaging is the most crucial element of your startup strategy. The time that startups have between finalising the idea and the product going live is extremely crucial to build their positioning and messaging. It is their first opportunity to brainstorm over the best ways to explain their work to their key stakeholders.
The story itself is important too. Your PR audience doesn’t care so much about who founded the company as they do about what it does and why. Even in its most basic form, the story of your startup needs to have four distinct elements – the 4Ps of PR storytelling, in the exact order.
- Product (or service): Your story needs to explain exactly what your product or service does. That is the very basic of communication. Till you don’t have a definitive explanation for this first P as well as a working product, hold off the PR bandwagon.
- Purpose: You might have a great product but it needs to solve a real problem. In other words, the story of your startup needs to include your “reason to be”.
- Personality: When I say personality, I mean having a unique voice, one that resonates with your audience, your product, and your industry. It needs to be authentic and honest. Over-familiarity or forced coolness are put offs. And considering every other startup is exactly that these days, it is no longer even a differentiator. Some vulnerability is great too – it connects and humanizes you instantly.
- People: There is a reason this is the fourth and final P. For one, I notice that most startups put an inordinate amount of importance on “people” in their stories. Labels like “serial entrepreneur”, “customer-obsessed founder”, and “tech nerd” abound in startup circles. The only role the people component of your story needs to do is to build trust. Your founders’ and leaders’ life and work experiences matter, their successes do too. But they need to be backed with credible proof points, not cool, pointless labels.
Media coverage is not the only end game of PR efforts
Most people see PR as a tool for quick and easy press coverage. It is a myth because for one, there is no such thing as quick and easy press coverage. All PR does is put you face to face with people who matter. But to achieve greater outcomes like stellar reputation and being perceived as a source of thought leading opinions, your aspirations need to be in the right place for the right reasons. Sometimes, building a relationship with influencers, journalists and analysts who cover your industry in the nascent stages of your startup is enough. It doesn’t have to end in a story if you don’t have one yet that is worth writing about. Engaging the right audience through the entire process of building your story can be extremely useful. Not only do you stay top of mind, you also have the opportunity to include diverse perspectives in building the story of your startup, product, or service.
Even if you need visibility in the form of media coverage, the questions you must ask yourself is why you feel the need to do it. Who needs to notice you? What do they read? How do they consume news? As a startup looking for investors, a Tech Crunch or a YourStory are great bets. But if you are looking to acquire new customers hyper-locally, startup publications will do you no good.
Beyond earned media, owned platforms play a crucial role now too. The best conversations and relationships now unfold on social media platforms. They get strengthened within circles of influence – decision-makers, analysts, commentators. Your choice of content and platforms can make or break your reputation much faster than the newspaper editorial you aspire to be part of. Good content that results in conversation can increase trust and opinion about a brand even before purchase experience. This increases incidents of proactive discovery and ultimately, conversion. Think engaging videos and digital creative, e-books and podcasts, blog posts and whitepapers, case studies and live demos to tell your story to the right people at the right time.
When you do need media coverage, get it the right way!
Sometimes, pure vanilla media relations resulting in a story is important and the antidotes don’t work. Business needs like awareness in hyperlocal towns without access to large advertising budgets or cracking investor visibility are some examples where media relations might be the only option.
Relevance is essential in this context. When I say relevant, I don’t just mean product relevance. I mean the ability to contribute to important conversations in your industry at the right time and angles that will make for readable, amazing stories. And remember, news inherently means novelty. If you are yet to find the reasons why you are different and hence newsworthy, it is probably not time yet to send out that pitch note.
As for the pitch note, think of your pitch note as the start of a meaningful conversation. Give the editor, writer, or analyst a reason to be interested in what you have to say. The relevance of your startup needs to come through in your first contact. If you can just remember that journalists are usually as busy as you, you will know how to respect their time as much as you respect your own. Spend some time researching the topics your target journalist covers and tailor your pitch notes. In media, as in most other aspects of life and work, one size does not fit all.
Finally, consistency is key
Your message needs to be consistent across platforms is old news. You need consistency in managing your relationships with external stakeholders like journalists, analysts, and influencers. The flash in the pan “send press release and refresh tabs to see coverage” is old-school PR, and unless you have a story that really stands out, nobody will care. PR and reputation building is a time-intensive exercise. Don’t miss out on opportunities simply because you didn’t keep up with the changing nature of news media. Building relationships is far more important now than it has ever been before. The good news is that it is also easier. You can often do away with the proverbial wine and cheese and instead, focus on quality conversations on Twitter and LinkedIn, forums and newsletters.
For startups, PR is perhaps one of the most crucial elements of the marketing mix. It brings much-needed exposure, makes you relevant, and is known to bring in funding and customers. But PR is also one area where your lack of comprehensive strategy and thinking will show up far too easily. The stakes are much higher when you attempt to engage credible experts like industry analysts and senior editors. Be proactive, sure. But start the process only after you have thought through the what, why, who, and how of your approach to PR.