Notes & Takeaways: Getting PR for Your Startup
Many thanks to Rachel Carr // Executive Director at DKC, Molly Graizzaro // Director of Brand & Communications at Truehold and Taryn Langer // Founder of Moxie Communications Group.
PR is a a tool to power not just marketing but all of your business goals like recruiting, employee engagement, brand partners and investors relations. All early-stage founders should be thinking about PR and be thoughtful about the right time to invest time and/or money in generating PR.
Before we dive into the notes, I want to share what Molly said is the biggest problem she sees founders fall victim to: FEAR of getting out there in the press. "Founders should be excited to share their story. But many founders are scared of PR." They’re scared they’ll get a negative story, that some secret sauce will be revealed. They’re scared they won’t answer questions well. They’re scared their product isn’t ready.
I hope the insights below will help the hesitant among you move past any fear you have. Running a thoughtful PR process, working on storytelling, cultivating authentic relationships with journalists and working with PR pros you trust are all ways to mitigate risk and help you feel more confident.
Quick tip --> Sign up for Help A Reporter if you haven't already
Finding the right reporters for your story
Make a List. Spend time researching the people who are writing about topics relevant to your brand and story. Here are a few ideas: Look up who is writing about your competitors. Note who is writing articles about topics relevant to your story, space and audience. Ask for an intro from a mutual connection.Hire a freelancer or agency if you’re having trouble identifying journalists who might be interested. It could be that you need assistance crafting your story.
Due diligence journalists who seem like a fit. Read what they're writing! Taryn added “You can predict some of their narratives and what conversations they’re having just based on what they’re tweeting. Same with Linkedin. They’re sharing their work and their colleagues’ work. And it helps that LI is a smaller universe."
Introduce yourself: Before you reach out by email, engage with them on twitter. When you do email them, extra points if you don’t have anything to pitch but can just make a genuine statement about why you’d love to stay connected. “I see you’re covering the space, I wanted to introduce myself.”
Form a relationship. Be consistent in your outreach; be persistent but also honest and genuine. Go see them on a panel - and ping them in advance letting them know you’ll be there and would love to say hi. Connections with journalists should be about the relationship - not getting an article written.
Pitch. You have to pitch an idea that that writer is writing about - and make it clear how your story fits into their story. If you're reaching out cold, you have to make sure your subject line is pithy and direct and will get their eye. And that your pitch is short and to the point.
Be a resource. As Taryn said “It’s a relationship so it can’t be one way.” If they cover your industry, show them that you can be of value to them. Do you have a diff perspective on something they’re covering? Are there data they’re not seeing that you know? Not every reporter is a domain expert - they often switch beats.
Note their career moves. The best time to get to know them is when they start at a new outlet - when they’re most eager to get the lay of the land. Think about how you can deliver insights to them without just giving a monologue.
Should You Write a Press Release?
Rachel feels a press release is usually good to have out there because it’s good for SEO - but that that's the extent of the value. It’s better to invest in paid content - so you can actually a) write a story (vs. just a templatized announcement), have it run on a website that’s aligned with your brand and message and then amplify that story on all your social channels.
Thought leadership is a fabulous way to generate PR. Many founders want to be a thought leader in their space. This is a great way to become a go-to source on a subject - you’re providing knowledge and interesting new angles to a reporter.
But … per Molly “I don’t think every founder has to be a thought leader or have a blog. If there’s no desire to talk about it - and they’re just a good leader and a good CEO - that’s ok. I do think it's important to find the spokesperson or find the thought leader.”
Structuring a campaign
The campaign framework is at the center of most PR strategy. It’s a way of distilling something massive (company brand, comms, strategy and goals) into actionable portions to achieve maximal outcomes. Still, it’s a very common term - so we dove into the details so that you can use the campaign structure at your startup.
Audience. In any PR, marketing or comms, always be able to articulate exactly who your target audience is and why you’re addressing them.. Gender, age, geography, sector, interests, etc
Timeline. Specifying a timeline for a campaign is critical. You want to be able to state what you are trying to do as a business between now and X time from now. Rachel recommends a quarter (3 months)
Defining the Campaign. Rachel works with clients to “answer what are we trying to do as a business during this timeline? From there you, can probably identify 3-4 campaign tentpoles that support the message and story of the campaign. Here are some possible tentpoles.
Product innovation & roadmap: what are we doing to be launching that will support that story
Data Milestones: what measurable milestones will we hit, like X number of sales, Y amount of traffic or some quantifiable customer engagement.
Investments in R&D or other new initiatives.
Hiring and company growth.
Goals & Measurement. Molly sets 3 goals for every campaign and documents them in a file she shares with the entire company. These goals aren’t the only things that matter - but the process of writing them is a discipline that helps her ensure the team is focused on the right things, evaluate how things went post-campaign and learn lessons for the future.
tone of the awareness - we want positive awareness about what specifically
amount of coverage - 5 articles about this specific campaign
organic traffic - measure to the best of her ability
Storytelling. When you’ve picked your tentpoles, storytelling takes over. Molly says storytelling is about attaching your company to a larger trend that’s happening in the world. “You want to be part of the larger story. So you have to be consistent and frequent about plugging into that story - like a partnership or a data milestone or thought leadership. You don’t have to have news to be a thought leader. Come up with reasons that you as a founder are relevant and can contribute to what’s going on in the world.”
Run a brainstorm about how your story relates to what’s culturally salient. One easy exercise is crossing the story with PR moments like holidays or other cultural moments like a marathon or a solstice Taryn likes to go section by section and think about what story would be relevant for every single section of the paper or site..What’s the travel story? The economy, health story …
Amplification is about integration. PR is not just about talking to journalists or traditional media. All campaigns require an integrated approach. That means telling the story across publications, social, podcasts, influencers, paid advertising, experiential channels - and even internally.
When to Announce a Launch
For a product or startup launch, go for press as soon as you can. Your product needs to be ready - but not perfect.
Don’t launch it if you’re getting negative feedback or you feel it isn’t marketing ready. But err on the side of risk :)
It might make sense to go to press with an MVP or even an idea. But you need to be able to show the media that you’re thinking through all the right pieces - like data protection or content moderation or monetization.
Little Stories Matter
PR is not just about launches. Rachel put it well “A lot of companies don’t understand all the morsels they have in their business. A webinar might seem small, for example, but there are all sorts of little ways it could be an asset for PR.”
Be proactive about finding these stories! One way to do this is to run a brainstorm. Taryn said that the Moxie team runs this kind of brainstorm process with all of its clients. They use leading questions to get the conversation going - like …
What did you see this week that pissed you off?
What got you excited?
Think about your market ecosystem - are any of the other players doing something that bothers you or gets you excited?
What’s keeping you up at night?
Do you have any hires on the horizon?
Are you attending or hosting any upcoming events?
Have customers said anything interesting this week about your product?
Have you launched any new tools internally - any interesting new findings?
What’s important on your priority list for the week?
You’re trying to surface the new angles, hot takes and little stories that might seem meaningless to you but would be invaluable to reporters.
Experiential PR (AKA stunts)
Stunts (or gorilla marketing) have been dormant for several years due to the pandemic, which is one of many reasons it could be a hugely effective investment in the near term. But experiential pr can be a flop, too - and a waste of resrouces. You need to keep the following in mind as you consider pulling the trigger:
Hire a professional for this - either a freelancer or agency.
Budget liberally. It can be expensive. Both the expense of hiring someone and the cost of the resources they’ll need to execute the stunt.
Be smart. Make sure the stunt is aligned with your story and the goals of the business.
Plan ahead. You want to be confident that you’ll get a media bounce from it. (Another reason it’s smart to bring on a pro)
Working with PR professionals
DIY PR can totally work. Per Molly: “you can do it! You need to lean into being your own story engine. When you simply can’t anymore, it’s time to bring on someone.”
When should you invest in working with PR pros?
... When it makes sense to invest the time. It’s a full-time job being the person the agency works with at the company. If you or your team don’t have the bandwidth to be that kind of resource to the PR pro, it’s probably not worth it yet.
... When you have stories to tell. Rachel said, for early stages, it’s best to have either a freelancer or a person who can wear multiple hats internally. When the business starts moving, then you’ll have stories to tell because you’ll have customers, data and moments and expertise to build on.
... When you’re just a bad storyteller. Taryn said it’s worth it to bring on professional help with you know you’re not a great storyteller, which, as a reminder, is not the same as being a great salesperson. You want an always-on storyteller with access to you, your company, your stories and your data.
Budget. Very hard to be specific here - but here are the numbers that came out. Molly said, starting out, you should budget about $300/hour and that usually nets out to at least $2500/mo. That’s the low end. Monthly agency rates can easily go to and well about $15,000/mo. Given the nature of the work and relationships required to do PR, all of the panelists advised it takes 2-3 months for PR professionals to ramp up with your business and overall at least 6 months to do meaningful work together.
Timing. If you’re looking for project-based PR help, Taryn recommends engaging with a professional PR team about 3 months ahead of the big moment you’re working towards - such as a business launch, product launch or retail expansion. If you’re trying to establish a longterm relationship with an agency or freelancer, do keep in mind that it will take them about 2 months to get up to speed on your business.
Where to Look. Facebook and linkedin groups for freelancers. Search “PR consultant” on LI. The Mixing Board. The PublicRelations Society of America - their events are a great place to meet consultants and you don’t have to be a member to go. Rachel added that people coming out college can be great for freelancers or internal hires - she said college PR programs are excellent.
Measurement (How do I know it’s working?!?)
This is a question that plagues the relationship between founders and PR professionals at some point.
A healthy way to begin this conversation with a freelancer or agency is to come to an agreement about a period of time. Taryn said “6 months is a good stretch for that. You’re generating coverage, you have a close feedback loop. You can evaluate if the tactics you’re using will work to get the bigger coverage.” It often takes months to see the impact of your work. 6 months is enough time to do a mutual assessment of how well it worked, how effectively the message got across, how much traffic it drove and what the sales outcomes were.
One of the biggest mistakes founders make is reducing the impact of PR work to the a single stat - like a conversion rate. Molly emphasized that smart founders understand that PR is about many things - the sum of which is rarely a punchy number. PR is about sales and … perception, market differentiation, brand-building, cultural narrative, internal communications, relationships with partners and investors, SEO. For example, the initial piece of press for a small stage company is what most people see when they google you for a long time. Those things are just as important as the conversion rate.
That's a wrap!