According to Y Combinator cofounder Paul Graham, running a startup is counterintuitive. Graham compares startups to learning to ski, where your every instinct, like leaning forward to stop, is the wrong one. His point is that it takes conscious effort to adopt new habits.
For an early-stage business, those new habits extend to strategic public relations. A good PR plan can make a huge difference to a startup, whether it hires a PR firm, a consultant, or an in-house team. What matters most is a long-term commitment to telling your story to the people who matter. Here are eight PR rules for startups that an early-stage business should be aware of as it plans a PR program.
The PR Rules for Startups
Begin with the end in mind. That’s how Facebook Communications Director Caryn Marooney puts it. But no matter how you say it, the rules for startups begin with business goals. It’s best to make those goals as specific as possible. If the most urgent one is fundraising, stick to that for six months. Or, the objective may be to drive distribution for a new product. PR works best as a strategic business practice, particularly if the budget is lean. More ambitious goals will require greater budget and broader experience on the part of the PR team.
Seek objective advice. It’s hard for a founder to take an unvarnished look at the business they’re building through creativity and sheer grit, but it’s necessary. The source of advice doesn’t need to be a PR agency, who may be reluctant to point out shortcomings or holes in the brand narrative (and if they are, it should be a red flag). The most objective advisors may be qualified board members, angel investors, or even friends with relevant backgrounds. It’s vital for the decision maker to buy into the strategy and to participate in telling the organization’s story, and that requires honesty.
Remember that timing is everything. Some startups make the mistake of meeting with TechCrunch or granting local media interviews before a product is fully ready or the strategy is set. But it’s a bad idea to let the story dribble out to smaller, local outlets if there’s real news value there. Worse, a premature effort can generate highly searchable stories that contain negative or inaccurate information. Those stories can live forever, so they may do more harm than good. We often spend the first few months of a new relationship trying to correct misperceptions about clients based on careless or unplanned early interviews. In nearly every case, it pays to wait until the service or product offering is fully baked, and to allow two months’ lead time before any major news is announced. Following these rules for startups, you get one chance to launch the company (or announce funding), so it needs to be bulletproof.
Lock down the message. Similarly, any flaw in messaging can cost a business media opportunities. Start with the elevator speech. Is it clear? Compelling? Instantly relatable? Ideally, it stands alone instead of depending on another brand (“an Uber for housekeeping” or a “Dropbox for music”). Think problem-solution and pare the message down to its most compelling core. You want to avoid buzzwords, undue comparisons, obfuscation, or long-winded word salads that raise more questions than they answer. Otherwise, you may be faced with blank stares from media or even this type of snark.
Commit real time to PR. Give it six months to start, then evaluate outcomes. This is not a discipline that works in waves, like direct-marketing, or a financial model that relies on clicks like paid SEM. It is about building relationships and careful positioning of a company story, which takes time and sustained focus. To follow these rules for startups, public relations should be the responsibility of someone within the organization―preferably not a founder―who manages the effort and any agencies or consultants involved.
Forget press releases. There’s no need to stress over sending press releases. It’s far more effective to place news tidbits or exclusive announcements with key reporters at trade or business publications than it is to flood the market with press releases. A release sent over the newswire may provide an SEO bump for a day or two, but this form of distribution tends to be expensive and it’s usually unnecessary.
Look beyond your business culture. Some startups think their culture is part of their story―or even a focus in itself. Take my word for it that journalists who cover early-stage businesses have heard it all. They’re looking for real substance―a new category, an upstart competitor, or a technology innovation―not stories about dog-friendly workplaces or cool offices. A startup’s staff, however, can and should be brand advocates. That doesn’t mean they should talk to the press without planning, but some of our clients’ best stories bubble up from employees.
Don’t sell. Tell. This last of the rules for startups speaks to the most productive approach to generating earned media coverage for a business, which is a differentiated story about its reason for being. Here, it’s also important to avoid overselling what a product or service can do. The disappointment will come back to haunt the business, and, again, negative reviews can live forever. External communications materials should be accurate and reasonably realistic. Most importantly, the brand story should be honed until it is as concise, clear, and compelling as it can possibly be.