No, PR does not sound for Puerto Rico! It stands for public relations – an obsolete term in these days of social media and 24X7 cable TV news. A better term would be media relations. Other call it free media, or earned media, in contrast to paid advertising, such as buying ads on Facebook or Google.
It doesn’t surprise me that very few if any of the founders I mentor lack a deep understanding of the sales process. Why should students who major in engineering or science know anything about sales and marketing? But it is a mild surprise that founders leave media relations out of their business decks. Their idea of marketing is social media – either posting or buying ads on Facebook or both. This is necessary but far from sufficient.
But media relations is still a powerful marketing tool for startups. Yes readership of newspapers and magazines is dwindling but apps like Flipboard quote from them constantly. Keep in mind that the media machine focuses on news. Meaning what’s new? Journalists, bloggers, Twitter hounds, podcasters all the others in the mediasphere are on a constant hunt for what’s new. So make sure all your efforts fit. If it ain’t new, it ain’t news.
So here is a very basic PR primer:
Hire an agency. This is a $5k+/month option – one to think about if you have pulled in a massive Series A where this will be a rounding error in your income statement. Basically what you are paying for is access. I hired one firm at Software Arts only to have them stolen away by Mitch Kapor at Lotus. They were on a first name basis with the editors of all the major newspapers and magazines. As a result I ended up in a couple of articles in The Wall Street Journal. On the other hand, at SmartWorlds where we had less financing than any startup you will find – roughly $00.00 – we managed to not only get an article in WJS, but a hand drawn illustration to go with it! My only regret was not buying the original from the artist. So the rest of this primer is strictly DIY. Your major costs will be your time and effort.
Know your audience and better yet, know the media they consume and where they hang out. There are three types of media: business media, technology media, and general news media. As a raw startup your best bet is technology media, as writers there are constantly looking for what’s new so they have something intriguing to write about. Take advantage of this fact.
Build your media list. Think of your media list as like your CRM system. Use whatever database you normally use – even Excel will work as a flat file db. Best case is when you are your customer, so you know what tech sites and blogs your customers frequent. If not use all your connections to start building a list of contacts in the media. You need to know the title, in my case Mentorphile; the writers associated with the publication, including freelancers who play an increasing role as print publications lay off workers but still have work to be done. Frequency of publication, for Mentorphile it varies, but for newspapers it’s usually daily, magazines are usually monthly. All contacts: web site, Twitter handle(s), Facebook, and LinkedIn contacts. And increasingly Instagram is becoming more important. Media lists are organic creatures, they should always be growing. Building your list is not a one and done effort. When conducting customer interviews be sure to ask them how they get their news. Don’t neglect your university’s alumni directory. Several of my MIT founders have made very good use of this source.
Create your presskit. In the old days when I started doing PR for the public library that employed me and when I moved into the startup world you need three items: a company backgrounder, a fact sheet (now an FAQ on your web site) and a bio list for all the company principles (now the About us page on your web site). So you get the idea: your web site is your presskit and a lot more. While we are on the subject your first order of business in your media or PR effort is your web site. The contents and layout are so well known I won’t bother to repeat them here.
Industry analysts. Every investment bank has a team of analysts following the tech markets. While their focus has to be on public companies they are always writing about technology and where the trends are. I don’t know of a directory of industry analysts, but Google is your friend here. Some digging should yield contacts worth pursing. There are also tech analyst firms, Forrester Research probably being the largest and most important, but there are many more, some specific to your slice of the market, be it bioengineering or medical devices.
Customer testimonials. Whatever you do please don’t get those testimonials from John B. in Peoria or Joan K. in New Jersey. These look cheesy, like late night ads on the cable channels. If you can’t attach a full name, role and company forget about. But if you can make sure you have their permission in writing and don’t over do it.
Don’t forget podcasts. If you are a DIY media relation person you can easily get bogged down in just keeping up with Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn et al. Not to speak of your company’s web site and blog. But podcasts are hot right now and podcasters are always on the look out for new people to interview. Start following the ones that focus on startups like How I built this by Guy Raz, one of my favorites, as well as others that focus on more general business and technology topics. NPR, Apple and many others have hundred of podcasts indexed for the search function.
Monthly newsletter. Exhausted yet? One way to keep in touch with your customers as well as attract new ones is to publish a monthly newsletter. It doesn’t need to only have news about your company; interesting observations about the state of your market are also good fodder.
It’s a very visual world. Like it or not but the world news is dominated by photos and videos. Visual communications can be very engaging, but also expensive – it will chew up your most valuable resource: time. So don’t be afraid to link to other’s work. Just give them credit and don’t do wholesale copying. All creators welcome inbound links so long as copyright is protected. For those with a visual bent Instagram and Yahoo are the best channels. In fact if you are prolific enough you can have your own channel on Yahoo. Too bad these channels weren’t around in the days of Software Arts. Dan Bricklin was a talented an prolific photographer and videographer. He still is I’m sure. But in the last century there weren’t any channels for visual communications – today we are overrun with them.
Webinars Webinars have become effective sales and marketing tools. I’d suggest you sign up for webinars both from your competitors and also from companies totally outside your field. Both activities will give you a good sense of what customers expect and what you will do to meet or exceed their expectations. Like virtually every other item in this blog post there are books that could be, and are, written. Remember, this is primer. You can’t do all these things are a DIYer, pick the the activities that yield the most engagement.
White papers. I don’t know how white papers got their name, after all most paper is white. Be that as it may in B2B markets white papers can help educate your market of line managers and their CIOs. White papers must be very well written and carefully tread the line between public information and your trade secrets. Regurgitating news of the day will turn people off, but your lawyers may squark if you start giving away your trade secrets. As recommended elsewhere, read some white papers in your market and others to get a feel for how much detail to include. Keep in mind these are aimed at your customers, not for the general public, so emphasizing your technology is fine, in fact it’s a must to attract readers.
A blog. Blogs take up a lot of effort. If you aren’t publishing regularly, aren’t presenting new and engaging content, don’t include interesting photos and video forget about it. But don’t forget about blogs. Sign up for blogs in your market and comment intelligently if not provocatively on those blogs. One trick I use is to set up Google Alerts for the topics I write about. That way I’m fed a daily stream of news I can comment upon. The biggest problem is if your search terms aren’t tightly defined you’ll be inundated with useless links.
Events. Speaking of presenting high absolute costs events also present high opportunity costs. Beyond local events there will be costs in time and money in attending events. There are conferences in your targeted market! You need to find them and add them to your media list. You will have to determine the ROTI of any event (Return on Time Invested). It’s best to start off with local events. Whether it’s events or sales I always advise my founders to try their pitch off-Broadway. They’ll learn a lot and failure won’t cost much. Once you have your pitch honed you can approach the big events. But start off trying to get on a panel on a local event, move up to a speaking slot, then score a keynote. Then it’s time to head for Broadway where you again start at the bottom and work you way up. However, there is one very effective trip I learned from my days in business development. If you are working with a name company they will often give you a little bit of space in their booth to show off your product that works on their platform. That way you’ll only have to cover travel costs. Actually exhibiting should be left to when you land a significant Series A round. One rule of thumb I used: would I be conspicuous by my absence at trade show X or conference Y. If not exhibiting here probably isn’t worth it. But events can be a great sales channel – one place where you can talk with a lot of potential customers and channel partners.
Become a thought leader. I’ve never managed this myself, but as an avid consumer of print and online media I see the same names come up again and again for interviews and quotes. If you are working in AI, big data, robotics, crytocurrencies or any other major trend it may be difficult to compete with entrenched thought leaders from consulting firms, the press, hot shot companies, academic stars and analysts from investment banks. So I hope you aren’t in the latest hot market – that will give you the opportunity to emerge as a thought leader before it does get hot.
I’m sure I’ve left out something important. In fact I know I’ve left out TV and radio. You are going to have to be a grand slam hitter to make even cable TV. Local radio is doable, but it doesn’t have much reach and it’s unlikely you will draw much of an audience. I will update this post if there is something PR DIYers need to know that I’ve left out. And keep in mind, there’s lot of important writing being done on virtually all of these media relations topics.
Finally I will strongly recommend Inbound Marketing: Attract, Engage, and Delight Customers Online by the founders of HubSpot, Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah. After reading their book and talking with your peers you may want to become a customer of their’s.