PR is one of the most underappreciated aspects of early stage startups. It’s common for even the highest calibre founders to have only a passing idea of how to work with the press.
It’s sometimes unfairly maligned as ‘old school’, and while it is more difficult to plug PR into a conventional growth engine (especialy compared with paid search or social ads), it can still be hugely valuable.
What sets it apart is its accessibility. You need £1m in ad spend to buy £1m worth of advertising, but with creativity and luck, a minimal investment in PR can lead to millions of pounds worth of coverage.
So what should you be doing? I looked at the best practices we’ve seen from companies we’ve invested in, combined it with my experiences as a journalist, and spoke to PR experts on both sides of the Atlantic to create this guide aimed at early stage startups.
What is PR?
At its most basic, PR is trying to get people to talk about your startup (without paying them).
It can be a great way to find customers, attract potential hires, or raise awareness among investors.
In the internet era, the number of platforms available is enormous. The traditional channels of print and online news, TV and radio are great, but you can also find your audience by targeting podcasts, influencers or even by partnering with other companies in your space.
The line between PR and content can be blurry, so we define it as follows: PR involves collaboration with other parties such as journalists, influencers or other companies, and may require giving up some control over the finished piece. Content is what you create yourself and publish on channels you own.
When to start using PR
Startups sometimes rush to get coverage early on. This can be a good way to reach early customers or investors, but often founders seem more motivated by getting coverage because it feels like validation. It isn’t. It’s a way to reach people.
We recommend only using PR with a clear goal to attract customers, investors or employees.
To start, you need two ingredients:
- An objective
- a relevant story.
These two need to match. If your objective is customers, the best story might be a case study of a customer that used your product to drive incredible results, or a partnership announcement. If you’re targeting investors, it could be about a significant milestone you’ve hit or the prestigious backers who joined your latest round.
The story needs wider relevance. It should tell people something about the kind of deals that investors are backing, how your customers are adapting to a specific type of problem, how a new technology is entering the market or something similar.
Don’t push too hard
Journalists don’t want to write about the same company every day, so unless you’re Apple or Amazon, be pragmatic about what milestones to publicise.
Luckily, small companies don’t need as much coverage as big ones. While major companies might target a constant stream of news and features, your startup could benefit from a few articles and podcast appearances every quarter, perhaps less.
When you start telling your story, make the most of your own media channels – people who read about you should be able to go to your company’s blog or social media to learn more.
Bring something of value
Take a quick look at the major news outlets in your space and to see the type of stories they cover: maybe it’s big fundraising rounds, high-profile people moves, or high-profile partnerships. Look at what you can offer that fits with the stories they report already.
But what if you don’t have any of those yet? There are three common approaches:
- Offer your expertise
- Partner with other companies in your space
- Commission research
Offering your expertise
Every startup solves a problem. Perhaps you help people with the rising cost of living, or financial inclusion, or improve the payments technology stack. Whatever it is, you have expertise in that. This is useful to journalists writing about those areas, as you can offer quotes for their stories.
Take the cost of living, for example. If your startup is working in this space, you could send journalists reaction quotes when new inflation data is released, or interest rates rise. The problem you are solving impacts the wider world in a variety of ways, and wherever these impacts occur, you can offer your expertise.
Partnering with other companies in your space
This approach is useful if you’re just getting started. Every company has its own blogs, social media, sometimes podcasts and more.
A simple way to build presence is to collaborate with non-competitive companies in your space (those who serve the same customers, but solve a different problem) to create and distribute content that informs your audience about something important to them.
By collaborating with these players, you can stitch together a sizable audience in your industry. The key is to focus on producing useful content and collaborating openly.
If you are willing to spend some money (or have a large enough pool of customers that are happy to respond to surveys), commissioning research can be extremely effective for winning coverage and boosting profile.
Choose topics that directly affect your target audience and are interesting to industry. Say your startup provides open banking payments, you could commission research into consumer adoption of alternative forms of payment, or how much merchants spend on payment fees every year. This gives you something original to share with journalists and the wider world.
One caveat: Survey charges are often calculated based on a combination of how many questions you ask, how niche the respondents are and how many overall responses you need.
Ask yourself how many questions you’ll need to ask to truly understand people’s feelings, how hard those people will be to reach, and how many you’ll need to hear from to make your findings statistically significant.
All three of these approaches have a common underlying theme: even if a story isn’t about you, you can benefit by adding something helpful.
Who to pitch…
Who to pitch is as important as what to pitch. It’s a truism that every journalist gets spammed with dozens or hundreds of press releases every day, and many of them are completely irrelevant to the area they cover. Look for stories similar to the one you’re pitching, then look at who wrote them.
For many startups, getting a story in one of the big outlets like Techcrunch or Sifted is seen as the holy grail (for good reason), but don’t forget to look at the B2B publications your customers are likely to read as well.
If you’re in insurtech startup, for example, getting coverage in one of these big publications will help you to reach investors, but your customers are more likely to read insurance-focused publications like Insurance Insider or Insurance Times, which may well be easier to get coverage in.
…And how to pitch them
There are never guarantees over what story will be published on a given day. The last piece I ever wrote was on the UK government’s regional levelling up strategy, it was a good piece, but this was in late February 2020 and I lost my slot to an emerging story about something people were calling ‘Covid 19’…
When pitching, do as much of the legwork yourself as possible. This means writing a release that closely mimics what a finished article would look like (reverse engineer published pieces to get the structure right), providing photos and including quotes from different sources (perhaps yourself, an investor and one of your customers). Always include the contact details for someone the journalist can reach out to if they have further questions.
When writing a release, focus on the problem, its impact and your solution. A bad release focuses on adjectives over verbs – don’t say you’re ‘disruptive’ or ‘innovative’, show how you are disrupting or innovating.
Sometimes it makes sense to offer someone an exclusive, which means giving a specific journalist the information ahead of time, giving them time to write a piece, and not distributing your release until they have published their piece.
The advantage of this is that it improves your chance of getting coverage in your top priority outlet, the disadvantage is there’s still no guarantee, and once the news has appeared it is less valuable to other outlets.
The alternative is a blanket approach – offer the news on a non-exclusive basis to all publications that fit your audience. Offer it ‘under embargo’, meaning everyone agrees not to publish until a preset date. Our preferred tactics for this approach are as follows:
- Make a list of your top 10-15 priority publications, then write a tailored pitch to each offering the news under embargo.
- Follow up closely with each, and once the embargo has passed and stories start to appear, share the release with your non-priority outlets
- Arrange for investors and other stakeholders to share the news on their social media channels when the news goes live. Where relevant, investors may even want to write their own releases to pitch to their own media contacts
- Once live, publish the release on your own media channels and ask your team to share
How to handle incoming inquiries
Once you start to build a profile, you may see incoming press interest. Often this is requests for comment on stories relevant to your expertise.
Responsiveness is key, so pay attention to deadlines. If you regularly make time to write a short comment same day or the following morning, you can quickly become a go-to source.
When dealing with questions, it’s important to clarify how your comments will be used:
- On the record: this is the default. If someone identifies themselves as a journalist and asks you a question, the assumption is they can quote you.
- Off the record: if you state something is off record, the assumption is it cannot be used in a story. This is useful for explaining a situation you can’t talk about. It requires trust, but the vast majority of journalists view off-the-record as sacrosanct. You must clarify something is off record before saying it. There’s no use trying to recant it later.
- On background: definitions vary, but generally on background means a journalist can use the information, but can’t attribute it to you. You might use this to steer them when you can’t discuss something openly. Often they will want to discuss the terms under which they can use the information, for example by attributing it to “sources close to X”.
Where you are speaking to someone (rather than providing written comment), it can be worthwhile to ask for quote approval or copy approval. Often it won’t be given (some publications have internal rules forbidding it), but where granted it means the journalist will provide the quote or passage they plan to use in the story.
When you are given approval, respond quickly. Delays can make a journalist’s life very difficult!
The world of PR and media can be daunting, but offers huge benefits to startups that are willing to engage. We’ve tried to cover all the main issues we see startups struggle with, but if you have any questions or want to talk about ideas, I provide free PR and content office hours to startups. Just drop me a line here and we can arrange a time.
Startup PR office hours
This guide should have given you an understanding of the main elements of PR for startups, but if you still have questions, I’m here to help. I’m offering PR office hours for startups every Tuesday afternoon. If you’d like me to help you with your press release, refer you to one of the excellent PR firms we know, or simply to bounce around ideas about strategy, simply sign up using my calendly link here and I’ll help in any way I can!
Who we spoke to for this piece
Holly Hunter is a Partner at Clarity, a global marketing and communications agency that has worked with major tech companies such as Hubspot, Oracle and Red Hat.
Kirsty Jarvis is CEO at Luminous PR, a specialist B2B and tech PR agency based in London. Luminous has landed its clients coverage in Techcrunch, Wired, Bloomberg and the Financial Times, among others. We spoke to Kirsty and her colleague Amanda Bunn, Head of Brand and Partnerships.
Lauren Sanderson is a co-founder at Toggle, an integrated communications firm based in New York.
We’re creating resources to help Seed and Series A founders thrive. If you’re thinking of hiring a product manager, read this, or if you’re building a sales team, read here. If there’s something you’d like us to write about, get in contact with Tom here.
If you have a startup that you think we might be interested in, you can send your details to the team here.