Panel Recap: Early PR For Your Startup

“Close your eyes, jump in the deep end — you have to do PR.”
— Laura Lisowski Cox

Tackling PR can be intimidating. You have scant confidence that any PR efforts you make will have yield. If you’re like most entrepreneurs, you probably don’t have media contacts, a ton of funding or PR experience.

But Wednesday’s panelists unanimously agreed that PR is something that entrepreneurs can do themselves. Below is a recap of our panelists’ insights, ideas and advice on how early stage founders can get PR.

As with most things, the PR ‘luck’ accrues to those who work hard. So do the hard work. Get yourself on the leading edge of new information as it relates to your industry. Pay attention to the editors, journalists and media outlets who are writing on topics relevant to your company. Know exactly why your product is relevant now. Ask yourself "why should people care?” And get specific about the story you’re telling. Generate buzz. Form relationships. Get organized and get moving.

Many many thanks to our sage panelists: Laura Lisowski Cox, the Co-Founder and CMO of Oars + Alps, LT Taylor, Director of Communications at Burrow, J.J. Colao, Founder & President of Haymaker Group and former Forbes reporter and Michael Alexis, the Chief Marketing Officer of Museum Hack.

When is the right time to prioritize press?

Early stage founders are developing a product, hiring, fundraising, launching a marketing strategy, among many other things. JJ reminded the audience that PR is one among many important priorities and certain not a silver bullet. He advised being realistic about what PR can do for your business in the early days and to “accomplish what you need to accomplish without the press first. Then once you have your foundation or story, go tackle it.”

Early PR

When is it a good idea to go for PR early? JJ says if you’re a direct to consumer, product-based company, having PR from the getgo is going to be more important. However “if you don’t have a solid product yet that you know people are buying, it might not be worth the time figuring it (PR) out,” adds Michael.
According to JJ, as an enterprise company, PR in the early stages is less critical.
PR once you’ve built demand. Especially for early-stage founders who don’t already have a track record (i.e. as a serial entrepreneur), it’s smart to purposely “generate buzz first,” says Laura. Then reach out to PR. Build up a massive waiting list via an email campaign. This showcases the demand for your product or service. “Any stats your share around this demand can become PR for editors” Laura adds. 

Outsourcing PR

Yes, you can hire an excellent PR person or agency. To a person, the panel advised only taking this route if you can swing >$10,000 / month. That’s a lot. But it’s what great PR representation costs. If you find someone who charges less, sure, you are paying less, but you are taking an enormous risk that nothing will come of your investment.

PR Goals

In the entrepreneurial vein of moving fast and trying things, Michael advised “It’s totally ok to pursue PR without concrete goals… even if you don’t have a goal, dip your foot in and try to get some press.” This is consistent with the advice of many of our panelists. If you know something is generally a good idea for business growth, avoid getting caught in the weeds and overthinking it. Just move!

The caveat there is that there is always opportunity cost. Getting PR can become a distraction from other important work, and goals can help founders determine how important certain PR pursuits really are.

JJ says all worthwhile PR pursuits  “come down to the business goals you want to accomplish. You reverse engineer from there.” Here are a few types of goals …   . 

  • Marketing. You want to drive site visits, new customers or a bigger email list

  • Fundraising. You want to get the attention of VCs and angels and show gravitas in a space

  • Recruiting. You want to be lauded as a great place to work and/or appear in publications read by target recruits, like engineers, designers, etc.

  • Other goals. Perhaps you have an exit in your sites. You might want to appear in media read by target acquirers and feature company leaders as thought leaders.

Journalists & Relationships

“Editors are regular people. They’re also receiving massive amounts of pitch presses at all hours of the day.” JJ added that suggests forming relationships with editors is critical and the best way to do this is to become a valuable source.

Meeting journalists. Start meeting editors offline at events as well as online. “Find magazines and specific editors who are writing about your category or competitors and figure out out how reach that person,” says Laura. 

It’s remarkably easy to reach journalists (or, let’s be honest, anyone) these days. Reporters tend to be active on Twitter - so try a DM. LinkedIn is also a good channel. And, if you’re game for a cold email, you can guess (typically, [email protected])

Information is currency. “Editors need info about your industry, and if you’re good at what you do, you have much better information than your targeted reporter,” says JJ. “Present them with info on your industry that may not be readily available to them.” 

Establishing a relationship where you are feeding them consistent “open secrets” as JJ puts it, will help you steadily establish yourself as someone who knows what you’re talking about. “Then, once you have news to share, they are much more prone to listen.”

The Good Story

When it is time to pitch, do the work for the editor. Do your best to make your story the solution to an editor’s problem - their next article. As Laura said, “journalists are looking for the information they don’t have — they WANT you to be the source of their next story.”

Some basics

  • Make the editor’s life easy! A tip from Laura: whatever you’re sharing with them, include directly into the email (an industry stat, images, information, a quote from the founder). 
  • JJ stressed the importance of cutting through the noise and being crisp about “why your product or service is salient, how it is different and why it is relevant now.”
  • Remember that editors need to be writing from a non-biased position, adds Laura, so “include an industry stat at the top of the email” to show them your content is relevant to their needs.

What types of stories might be interesting? 

Here are a few ideas - but they only scratch the surface of what is possible when you’re an expert on an industry and your own company.

  • New product launches

  • A new company hire

  • An industry growth statistic

  • A new round of funding 

  • User trends 

  • Creative business practices like a unique way your company does customer service or tests products

Build Story Generation into Routine Ops

… There might be some natural overlap.

Michael, CMO of Museum Hack, shared that Museum Hack, considers each new themed museum tour an opportunity to pitch not only to press but also communities interested that might be connected to the theme. 

For example, “Badass Bitches of the Met” gave them an “in” to reach out specifically to feminist groups. Whereas other themes like “The Completely Unofficial & Definitely Unlicensed Boy Wizard Tour of the Met” might have some natural overlap with Hogwarts alumni community.

Think about ways in which your routine business operations might already be conducive to generating stories. And, even if nothing is inherently newsworthy, might your product or service be relevant to certain cultural, social or political groups. How might your business fit into that conversation? Leverage that.

Get creative. 

Consider starting an affiliate program to offer media outlets. 

Providing affiliate links in your press pitch could incentivize some media outlets to run your story. 

Many publications these days are using affiliate links to generate new revenue streams. The panelists advised, with the ecommerce incentive, your stories could more desirable to editors. 

Need help getting an affiliate program underway? Checkout some of the tools below.

Upgrade from the press release

Think outside the box. Send selfie-styled videos to editors! Directly address the reporter in the video and share the story. When Michael used this for Museum Hack, his response rate skyrocketed. BombBomb will let you embed your video directly into your email. “A YouTube linkout is also ok,” he says.

Give penguin socks. 

Stalk (er, research) your target journalists and editors online and learn about their personal interests. Whether this is a love for penguins or the Chicago Cubs, surprise them with a gift that’s related to their interest. This shows them you’ve done your research, you’re paying attention, and you care.

Learn the “Share The Love” technique. 

Per Michael’s suggestion, think about all the service providers you use within your company (CRM, scheduling tools, productivity tools). All of these companies have 2 things in common: they have blogs and they’re looking for success stories. As your company grows, you’ll hit milestones that you can credit to certain tools and service providers. Offer them a testimonial for their site or a larger case study. Now you live on their site which means you’re in front of their audience and site visitors. 

Get Influencers to Vouch For Your Product. 

Send them a $1,500 couch.

Just kidding.

Sort of.

Influencers can be a great way to drive sales, build a following, increase traffic to your site or boost search credibility via links. 

Yes, you can pay for influencers to post. And, if you do, it’s smart to track your ROI as Laura did to see if it’s worth the investment. 

Be Selective, Engaged & Generous

But there are other ways to navigate the world of influencers. Find people talking about the space that’s relevant to your brand. Offer them free product with no pressure to post.

This proved to be the most effective method for Laura’s company. They got the best comments and an uptick in traffic — all due to the organic excitement of the influencer who received their product. Now Oars+Alps incorporates the influencer marketing strategy into their customer service ops - where team members research and converse with the right influencers. They’re shipping 20 boxes of product out per week as gifts.

Go Micro

You can also focus on the micro-influencer. This is someone with a 6-10k following and a highly engaged audience. Here’s a calculation to determine if an influencer’s audience is engaged.

 <<<< Add # of likes + # of comments, then divide by # of followers >>>>>

“Anything above 4% is considered good engagement,” she says. LT leverages this strategy with her company, Burrow. An additional qualitative question her teams asked when considering a micro-influencer was “do we want their followers to care about Burrow?”

Prep smart

If the answer was yes, then her social media team would manually connect with the individual, provide them with a free couch, and agree to sensible terms like posting 2-3 times in feed + insta stories. Then they empowered the micro-influencer to make good content on their behalf.

This means they set the post up for success by providing them with the following:

  • Hashtags + tags

  • Brand guideline doc

  • Info on the product’s key features

  • The angles that best showcase their product in photos

  • Example posts they loved from the past

PR Tools

Based on Wednesday’s panel, here is a short list of software out there.

  • Muck Rack: part of Sawhorse Media, this is a news management software platform which allows you to see what reporters are tweeting about etc. based on keywords

  • Cision: the tool of choice among PR firms, a database where you can easily search out reporters, journalists and media outlet contacts

  • HARO: “help a reporter out,” where reporters post their story needs

Email Tools

  • Yesware: shows you when someone opens an email

  • MixMax: 

  • BombBomb: allows you to embed video directly into your pitch email

Finding email addresses and other contact info:

If you build an affiliate program, here are some resources:

Lastly, if you are ready to hire good help, here are the 2 PR firms we mentioned: