I recently taught my best tips & tricks on PR to an impressive cohort of German startups in the German Accelerator program here in New York City. After the workshop, I took questions from the audience and a recurring theme kept coming up: “We are so stretched for resources and time, we don’t even know where to start when it comes to PR.” As European startups entering into a new market, these companies often face an added layer of challenges. In addition to being a newcomer trying to disrupt huge industries, they worried that they lacked the network, U.S.-market knowledge, and media contacts to make their voices heard when it comes to recognition and credibility. Although PR may seem like a challenge in the early stages, I have found that there are 5 key strategies startups should incorporate ASAP to get ahead.
1. Perfection is the enemy of momentum
The most common response I get from the most promising startups when I ask why they are hesitant to get themselves out there is that they aren’t “ready yet”. This kind of thinking might be especially limiting at a time when the barrier to entry into tech is at an all-time low, combined with an existing marketplace full of competitors with fancy VC money. As a startup, the ability to be heard first might be your lifeline when it comes to beating out the competition.
Since so many products have intersecting value propositions and are trying to appeal to similar audiences, getting in on the conversation early and building a relationship with the press (and thereby audiences) are key to making sure that when you finally feel “ready”, you’ll have audiences and journalists who have already heard about you. This level of trust takes time and effort to cultivate, just like any relationship in life. It’s always easier to get noticed when you are already in the arena – so get in, and don’t be afraid to share interesting data points and findings, regardless of sample size. Journalists and writers want to cover what’s already being covered, so establishing some level of visibility in media before a huge announcement will give you a powerful boost when you need it the most. To ease your fears, think of it as a conversation, and less like an interrogation. Journalists are more interested in macro trends and where the industry is headed, as opposed to fact-checking every single statement you make. As long as you are being truthful and well-intentioned, don’t let the fact that you are early-stage or have an unfinished product deter you from giving insights that might help others.
2. Think creatively when it comes to announcements
“Should I write a press release every time I acquire a new customer?” “Should we wait until we’ve fully launched (and out of Beta) to release a press release?” I often get asked questions about what constitutes an announcement in PR terms. Of course, context matters, and each company has different reasons (such as SEO) that influence the timing and frequency of issuing press releases. However, my general guideline is this: always make a punchy funding announcement (and try to secure an exclusive from a journalist), and afterward, think creatively when it comes to releasing a press release again. No one likes the annoying kid in the corner raising his or her hand to answer every question the teacher asks. The same goes for releasing press releases. Don’t feel the need to release every time you have a client (unless the news involves an industry giant) as it might sound like a cry for attention, but do think outside the box. This is where the art of PR comes in. Other “announcements” that could warrant a press release or pitching effort include: partnerships with a Fortune 500 company or unicorn, anything involving a charitable cause/organization, a new board member with serious credentials, and new breakthrough platform features, just to name a few. Since your product has many elements and modules, why shouldn’t your company’s story?
3. Use “face time” to get “air time”
Here’s a secret no one will tell you: the easiest way to meet journalists and cultivate trust with them when no one knows who you are, is AT CONFERENCES! By attending a conference, journalists are already showing interest in covering topics related to your industry, and the fight for their attention will never be more in your favor. If you are planning on attending any trade shows or conferences, I recommend immediately researching which media outlets and journalists will be present. (a PR professional can help you find out the press attendees and establish connections). The sooner you outreach, the higher the chances of getting on their calendar for a meeting. Studies have shown that a face-to-face meeting is 34 times more effective than email, so the sooner you can meet in person, the sooner you can start to develop key relationships essential to your PR efforts.
I’ve learned this from having tremendous success helping startup clients (even at the pre-seed and beta stages) cultivate meaningful relationships with top journalists in their field by strategically planning around key conferences, and it’s always paid dividends. Remember, establishing credibility is a journey, and success is most often awarded to those who plan ahead. To make sure you don’t miss out on these key PR opportunities, I would recommend incorporating this approach in your next planning meeting right away.
4. Don’t be afraid to hang on a bigger company’s coattails
If you don’t have anything newsworthy to announce, you might have a product partnership in the works with a larger company. This is a huge PR opportunity as it allows you, the smaller startup, to elevate your presence by being associated with a bigger industry player. Since your company has already been vetted by the other company (otherwise the partnership wouldn’t happen in the first place), play up this association in every pitch you send. This will help to take you from being unknown to being a credible industry voice alongside already established companies.
For example, I worked with a series A startup that was partnering with a fintech unicorn that is constantly in the news. Even though the partnership wasn’t officially announced in the form of a public press release and they were only one of many partners this unicorn had in the pipeline, I knew that this was the best chance I had to get my client interviews and conversations with journalists. By using the upcoming partnership as a starting point of conversations, I built new relationships with top-tier and industry outlets for my clients, who were still largely unknown at that stage.
The biggest mistake an early-stage startup company can make is to sit back and let the larger company take the lead on everything. Remember, the larger the company, the more robust their PR resources working on their behalf (and only on their behalf), leaving the smaller player little to zero opportunity to get noticed for their own value proposition and unique perspective. Don’t be a small quote in someone else’s story: establish your own narrative. The best part is that these press mentions, interviews, and contacts will be yours to keep and cultivate for any future announcements!
5. Always be in the conversation
A startup’s time and resources are stretched paper-thin, so it’s understandably easy to forget about other industry verticals you may have relevance to when it comes to pitching story angles. However, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of keeping an eye on the broader conversations that are being had around your industry. Nothing is worse than seeing a competitor with a lesser product get more attention and influence via the press.
In developing your narrative to pitch to the press, I recommend zooming out and finding the bigger threads that connect your products to the larger conversation. An example would be a real estate technology company relating their insights to the wider discussion around sustainability and consumer behavior. The more macro and topical the angle is, the higher the chances of it being a successful pitch a journalist may resonate with. (In a future post, I will share winning pitching strategies that incorporate this method.)
Unlike marketing, PR is a longer-term process centered around the cultivation of relationships and expanding networks of influence. Companies that understand this and take action sooner always come out on top. Although the PR game seems to be more difficult to win compared to marketing, few can argue about its tremendous pay-offs. I’ve found that startups are in a great position to implement a winning PR strategy compared to older legacy players because they are more agile, innovative, and have greater control of their story. These are amazing advantages working in a startup’s favor, so follow these golden rules and don’t be discouraged!
About Gloria Chou:
Gloria Chou is a startup PR strategist and founder of Gloria Chou PR LLC, an NYC-based communications firm helping companies strengthen its voice and elevate its platform. As a former U.S. Diplomat and TV producer, she has spent her entire career using various media to tell compelling stories across a diverse set of audiences. More information about her work can be found on www.gloriachoupr.com, and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.