startup PR

[Note: This post was sparked by a lively conversation on StartupNorth’s Facebook page]

Startup entrepreneurs have a strange fascination with PR. It’s seen as a magical tool that will drive brand awareness, attract oodles of customers and position the startup as a market leader.

Unfortunately, they’re living in a fantasy world.

The harsh truth is startup PR is challenging. Attracting media coverage is increasingly difficult. There is too much competition for the spotlight and the media has zero interest in your startup unless there is a compelling story – something that most startups don’t possess.

Given this reality, most startups should avoid spending money on PR. Hiring a PR agency to do media outreach is a waste of money and time. It’s like throwing money down the drain because the ROI will be zero.

If not PR, then what?

Rather than let a third-party tell their story, startups should focus on doing their own storytelling to key stakeholders. And I’m not talking about PR or media outreach.

Instead, startups should create story-powered sales and marketing collateral that resonates with target audiences. It could be Websites, blog posts, videos, sales sheets, white papers, social media, case studies or infographics. These are “stories” designed to attract attention because they reflect a customer’s needs, problems, fears, aspirations, and motivations.

As important, they are stories a startup can create, distribute and share as an integral part of day-to-day operations. In other words, startups should invest their time, money and energy in themselves, rather than hiring a PR agency.

Many entrepreneurs struggle and stumble with PR because, frankly, they don’t understand it. For one, their expectations about PR are unrealistic. PR isn’t magical. There’s no secret formula for success. It can often be a crapshoot because even the best pitches can fall flat.

Another reality is many entrepreneurs say they want to do PR but mistakenly think it needs to be media outreach. What they’re really seeking is brand awareness for a variety of reasons. Their startup could have a low or non-existent profile. It could be struggling to attract customers, or it may want to raise capital. While PR may address these needs, there are other ways to do it. (see above).

For startups interested in PR, here’s some food for thought:

  • PR starts long before a PR agency is hired. It begins by building a list of people (reporters, bloggers, analysts) who matter and, as important, establishing relationships. While good stories are important, relationships make a huge difference. If you know someone, they will give you the time of day. If you’re pitching cold, it’s probably dead on arrival.
  • Start by doing your own PR. When an entrepreneur pitches a story, they are armed with three attractive attributes: authenticity, passion, and excitement. Even when a startup hires an agency, I often recommend a startup entrepreneur personally pitch important targets.
  • Good stories matter. The world is teeming with startup stories, but most of them are boring, dull and uninspiring. There is nothing about them that sparks interest, curiosity or intrigue, which is they are ignored. Entrepreneurs need to think about what makes their startup different or unique. They need to be creative in exploring different angles. It could be how their business started, how customers are using the product, or how they fit into a bigger trend.

At some point, there are good reasons for a startup to hire an agency. The business may be big enough, it may have started to attract media attention, or it has enough money to experiment with PR. Here’s how to approach PR agencies:

  • Spend the time and energy to find the right partner. You want a PR agency that has strong relationships with the people who matter to you. An agency could be red-hot but they may not have much value if they don’t specialize in your startup’s vertical.
  • Dig into their relationships. Who do they know within the media? How much coverage have they attracted for clients? What do an agency’s clients say about them?
  • Be diligent about who’s going to service your business. At a large agency, a senior person may win the business but your account could be handled by someone with less experience. At smaller agencies, they may be victims of their own success: too much business but not enough resources.
  • Date before getting married: Many agencies want to a long-term retainer relationship. They claim it gives them time to build campaigns and relationships. This makes sense for the agency but not for a startup because it forces them into a commitment. A better approach is kicking things off with a two or three-month campaign. If things go well, it’s time to discuss a deeper relationship. If a campaign is unsuccessful, you can easily part ways.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting startups avoid agencies. At the right time and place, there are major benefits in using a PR agency to drive awareness, brand reputation, leads, and sales. But for most startups, particularly early-stage startups, PR is a high-risk, low-return proposition. It is enticing but not the best use of a startup’s time or money.

Disclosure: From spending 15 years as a newspaper reporter, I have seen PR from the other side of the fence. Most PR pitches failed to get my attention because there was no hook. After starting my  consulting business, I thought I could do PR because I knew how to craft good stories. I was wrong. My PR efforts were remarkably unsuccessful. One of the biggest problems I didn’t have the relationships or network – something that good PR agencies establish over time.

If you’re looking to jump-start your startup marketing, I can help you make it happen – everything from messaging and brand positioning to strategic planning and content development. I published a book, Storytelling for Startups, that provides strategic and tactical guidance to entrepreneurs looking to embrace the power of story-driven marketing.