Building Buzz: The Power of Public Relations for Early-Stage Startups
Public Relations (PR) is a game-changer for early-stage startups, providing a way for companies to grow by raising awareness and interest in their product or service. It allows startups to enhance their reputation and generate visibility by managing the lines of communication between themselves and the public.
In this article, we dive into the ins and outs of PR and how to unleash its potential for your startup. We'll explore how PR strategies can help companies establish a foothold in consumers' minds, gain credibility, and amplify their message. From how to leverage the power of media coverage or craft compelling narratives, this post provides actionable insights to help your startup harness the power of public relations.
So What is Public Relations?
- Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and the public. It’s something you've probably heard of but might not fully understand. It's often portrayed in TV shows like Sex and the City or Schitt's Creek, making it seem distant from everyday life. But PR is all about managing how people see and think about you or your business. It's about shaping the way others perceive you and your reputation.
- When a company or celebrity gets media attention through news or social networks, it's often due to the power of PR. These influential figures employ a team of skilled PR professionals who manage their media portrayal, crafting a positive image for public consumption.
- PR professionals have many tools at their disposal, like press releases, media interviews, and orchestrated events — all for garnering the desired coverage and shaping public perception. For example, if a company releases a new product, they’d likely leverage PR tactics to generate buzz and get people excited about it. Their PR professionals might send out press releases to major publications, arrange interviews with networks, and host launch events to get the word out. (See Elements of a PR program below for more specific tactics).
- Keep in mind, PR goes beyond just creating a positive image and building trust with your audience. It's not only about making things look good on the surface. PR also plays a crucial role in managing any negative situations that may arise, such as personal scandals or company-wide crises.
Why is PR important for Startups?
Early-stage startups should understand and invest in PR to build relationships with media outlets, influencers, and other stakeholders. While PR alone won't guarantee your company makes it, it can play a crucial role in fostering growth, enhancing reputation, and paving the way for long-term success. When you break it down, these are the main objectives that a PR strategy seeks to achieve:
- Build Awareness: The challenge of being relatively unknown in the market is a reality for many startups. That's where PR comes in — generating awareness by securing media coverage and putting the startup's name, products, or services in front of a larger audience. This increased visibility opens doors to more customers, partnerships, and investor interest.
- Establish credibility: Positive media coverage, interviews, and expert opinions can help position your startup as a reputable and trustworthy entity with potential customers, investors, and stakeholders, especially when endorsed by respected media outlets or industry influencers.
- Attract investors: It's well-known that startups typically need funding to grow. PR efforts like securing positive media coverage can help attract investors by showcasing your startup's unique value proposition, growth potential, and market traction.
- Differentiate from the competition: Startups often operate in crowded markets with many competitors, necessitating a way to set themselves apart from the pack. PR allows startups to differentiate themselves and gain a competitive edge by highlighting unique aspects of the company, like innovative products, disruptive technologies, or a compelling story.
- Engage with your target audience: PR enables startups to engage with their target audience through press releases, media interviews, thought leadership articles, or social media content. Through these channels, they can communicate their brand story, mission, and value proposition directly to their desired customers. This engagement helps build brand loyalty, generate leads, and foster a community around the business.
- Crisis management: You want to have a PR strategy in place to address crises before they happen. It may seem obvious, but startups manage those situations more effectively, take control of the narrative, and minimize potential damage when there's a crisis communication to follow. PR professionals play a critical role during these challenging situations by showing company stakeholders how to respond, communicate honestly, and rebuild trust. They're like expert navigators, helping your business weather the storm.
Elements of a PR Program
Tech giants like Apple, Meta, and Alphabet had to start somewhere and work up to gain media attention. They were once small start-ups competing for their share of the media spotlight. They cleverly adapted standard PR tactics to capture the media's interest and got them to write about their ventures. Let's explore some key components of a successful PR program:
- Company or Product Launch/ News Announcement: When PR professionals have an announcement, they have various methods to secure media coverage. For instance, they might choose to "go wide" by briefing multiple reporters under embargo, which means they agree not to write about it until a specific date and time. Alternatively, they may offer an exclusive to one publication, allowing them to write about it before anyone else. The benefit of exclusives is that they allow for a more in-depth and detailed story. Another approach is to invite all media to an event and unveil the news there, just like Apple did with Steve Jobs. The way you choose depends on the type of news you're announcing and how established your company is.
“Over the years, Steve Jobs would become the grand master of product launches. Jobs found ways to ignite blasts of (press) publicity that were so powerful the frenzy would feed on itself, like a chain reaction. (...) It was a phenomenon that he would be able to replicate whenever there was a big product launch, from the Macintosh in 1984 to the iPad in 2010. Like a conjurer, he could pull the trick off over and over again, even after journalists had seen it happen.” -Walter Isaacson
- Proactive Outreach: There will be times when you don't have any news to announce, but that doesn't mean your PR program should stop. It's still valuable to proactively reach out to reporters with relevant and timely story ideas. This tactic helps establish relationships with reporters, which can be beneficial when you do have news to share in the future.
- Making the Most of Inbound Requests: An inbound inquiry is an opportunity to educate a new reporter on your company or product. Make sure to provide information and images.
- Thought Leadership: Building a brand for your executives is another way to help establish your startup’s presence and drum up awareness. Look for opportunities for your executives to speak at conferences or write contributed pieces.
- Analyst Outreach: Your SaaS startup’s PR program should involve briefing analysts at firms like Gartner and Forrester about the benefits of your technology. Customers often consult these analysts' reports when deciding which provider to choose.
- Early Adopter/Influencer Outreach: Early-stage SaaS startups can gain significant advantages from endorsements by influential early adopters. Take Twitter, for example. Nowadays, it's a platform used widely by media, celebrities, and politicians. However, when the company started, a crucial part of its strategy involved getting influencers on board. This helped attract more users and created a ripple effect that encouraged others to join the platform.
- Original Content: Creating a company blog or newsletter is a great way to tell your story and is a useful reference for media members and analysts.
PR Pitfalls for Early-Stage Companies
Don’t say more than necessary: As a privately held company, you don’t need to share your startup’s revenue figures. Most of the time, it’s better not to. But if that ever comes up as a requirement to secure coverage, you may want to reevaluate the situation and weigh the pros and cons.
Don’t put the horse before the cart: Great press will only last so long if there are problems with your product or service. Don’t secure media coverage before you know what your startup offers is in a place to withstand scrutiny.
Never invite a house guest in when your house is a mess: There is such a thing as being too transparent. Most people don’t want to know how the sausage gets made for a reason. So, don’t talk to the press without a plan of what you intend to share, and then stick to it.
The Basics: Press Release
The press release is crucial to any PR strategy. It serves as a concise and captivating news story crafted by your PR or marketing team, designed to capture the interest of targeted journalists and publications. Any press release must include essential details (who? what? where? when? how? and, most importantly, why?) that enable journalists to develop their own stories about your startup and its offerings. You also have multiple options for sharing your press release: Send it directly to reporters via email, distribute it through a wire service, or make it available on your company's website.
Elements of a Press Release
It may sound rudimentary, but there are some standard pieces of information you want to confirm that get included in your press release so the media takes you seriously.
- Contact information: Name, phone number, and e-mail address of the company contact working with media.
- Headline and sub-headline: This is a catchy sentence about the news you’re sharing and a one-line summary of what’s in the press release.
- Location and date stamp: e.g., "Palo Alto, CA - February 5, 2023."
- Lead: The first full sentence of your press release is the lead and should work as a tagline (e.g., the leading provider of HR tech solutions). From there, summarize the main news of the press release in 25 words or less.
- Body: The remaining bulk of the press release is called the body and should answer all the questions a journalist might have about the product, service, or event you're announcing.
- Call to Action: The call to action is where you inform media members what you want them to do after reading the press release. This could include requesting their attendance at the event you’re promoting, encouraging them to test your product or service, or simply asking them to contact the author of the press release.
- Boilerplate: This is a short description of the company or organization issuing the release.
What is Pitching?
PR pitches are short, personalized messages that highlight the value of a story about your startup, persuading journalists why it deserves to be published. These messages are usually around 150 words, though they can extend up to 400. The key is to keep them brief, captivating, and timely. In other words, avoid pitching reporters about something your company achieved a year ago. Instead, focus on current and relevant developments. And be sure to pitch relevant reporters who cover your industry (beat reporters) and possess an understanding of your field. Sending pitches to reporters unfamiliar with your industry may yield limited results.
What You Need to Get Started
- Press/Media Kit:A press or media kit is a dedicated resource that offers valuable information about your brand, products, and company. Reporters often request it because it acts like a highlight reel, bundled neatly into an easily accessible package. To make it easy to access yours, consider having a dedicated "Press Kit" page on your website. Alternatively, you can make a Dropbox folder that houses all your press kit assets. Just remember to check your settings, allowing reporters to download the assets while preventing unauthorized changes.
- Company Background: A slightly longer version of the boilerplate description in your press release.
- Product or service collateral: A one-pager for each of your products or services that clearly describes what they do, how they work, what they cost, and their unique value proposition.
- FAQ document: This is where you provide information that doesn’t easily fit into the other sections.
- Bios and Headshots: Include full name, title, description of their role in the business, degrees or certifications relevant to their role, career background, and any impressive achievements or awards. Bios should be less than a page and written in the third person.
- Visuals: Only provide high-resolution imagery and graphics. Don’t upload grainy pictures taken on your iPhone.
- Contact Information: Include the same information you would in a press release.
The Basics: When to Contact a Professional (and What Will It Cost)?
If you have a new product or service that stands out from the competition, you should consider engaging a PR team. PR firms typically charge between $10,000 and $30,000 per month. But you can find PR consultants that charge closer to $5,000 per month, which — for early-stage companies — is probably the more advisable option. And keep in mind that PR encompasses more than just pitching and press releases; it also involves creating a compelling brand story.
Questions to ask Prospective PR firms and Consultants
- What method do you use for billing?
- Who will work on the account?
- Sometimes the team you meet that wins you over doesn’t end up servicing your account.
- Do you have references and case studies?
- What will the first 90 days of an engagement look like?
- How do you communicate?
- Slack? Weekly meetings?
- How do you measure success?
- How long until we see results?
- Is there are 30/60/90 days out?
Incorporate Public Relations into Your Startup’s Marketing Strategy
There’s no overstating the value of a well-developed PR strategy for an early-stage startup. From building brand awareness and credibility to staying ahead of product emergencies, your startup will be better positioned to succeed long-term if you invest in public relations. And it is an investment. So don’t try to take this work on yourself. Stay focused on launching your product or service, and let the professionals who do this every day help you.
Tap into your professional network to see if you already have connections with PR professionals. And no worries if you don’t. Finding PR professionals — from agencies to individual consultants — who have experience with SaaS firms is just an internet search away.