PR Advice for Startups

In celebration of Alex Iskold’s brilliant toolbox for startups on Read/Write Web today, I’ve decided to join the conversation to help startups make PR work for them now and in the long term.

PR is one of the most misunderstood disciplines in the marketing department and many startup entrepreneurs and even veteran executives are quick to under estimate and under value it, or on the contrary, expect PR to solve all of their marketing needs all with just one email or press release.

In order to be successful in Public Relations, you need to grasp what it is, what it isn’t, and how it works and why. Otherwise, you’ll never be able to build the right team, determine the best strategies to amplify visibility and gain traction, or have the ability to effectively measure it.

And, for disclosure purposes, the following points are based on good PR and are highly summarized and simplified to get you thinking. As in anything, there’s more to the story. And, there are always those that do not represent PR in the best possible light. Keep in mind that those who do not practice PR effective are obvious when you know what to look for, and thankfully, they do not represent the entire industry.

While much of this seems like common sense, please remember how uncommon common sense really is.

1. Understand what PR is and isn’t.

All too often, businesses expect PR to perform miracles simply because they confuse it with advertising, online marketing, media buying, search marketing, etc. PR can’t guarantee legitimate coverage in industry publications – no matter how tight the relationship. If PR promises it, then they’re lying. I leverage relationships daily to consider stories that I package in a way that’s most relevant to them. Most of the time it works because I take the time to make it valuable to respective markets. If I took advantage of my contacts to force coverage whenever I needed to deliver on a promise, then it would mark the beginning of the end of my relationships.

While I won’t compare PR to each branch of marketing, I will say that PR IS NOT ADVERTISING. Reporters and bloggers don’t stop what they’re doing to write about your company, just because we send them a press release. They’re bombarded by PR people all over the world. Stories are cultivated. If we respect them, do our homework, and help highlight the value of a story, coverage is imminent.

If you want guaranteed exposure, buy an ad.

2. Don’t under value PR.

PR, when done right, is extremely valuable to company branding, which has immeasurable benefits in the long haul. Customers have choices and if you’re not consistently vying for their attention, it’s pretty easy to fall off their radar screen when they evaluate options. Too many companies nickle and dime PR to the point of absurdity. Don’t get me wrong. Expensive PR doesn’t equal success. But short changing PR is usually a first step in the wrong direction.

3. PR is not a switch.

It doesn’t go off and on whenever you have the time or budget to throw at it. The market moves too quickly, and if you’re not actively participating in it, you’ll quickly find that company sales and site traffic will begin a downward spiral that may or may not recover. Embrace it. Nurture it. Stick with it. PR is an inexpensive solution for gaining visibility within the market segments that matter to your business.

Don’t fool yourself. As a company executive, you can not and should not run PR yourself. You have more important things to do, like say, run a company.

If you turn off the PR switch, your competitors will steal your thunder, and, your customers.

4. Initial and consistent coverage takes time.

In most cases, coverage doesn’t just happen. PR is like farming. The more seeds you plant, along with the time you spend watering, caring for, and feeding them, your crops will grow in the form of coverage over time. While some things such as news, etc., force information out quickly, other stories take time. And when they appear, they help raise brand visibility, drive some people to buy, and they also spark others to consider writing about it – which in turn also influences the cycle to replicate. Don’t assume all of this coverage happens simply because you are a popular company.

Also, realize that there are different forms of media and they each react to different stories in their own way. Trades (whether traditional media or blogs) will cover certain things that relate to your industry whereas mainstream media will need the story presented in a way that has broader appeal.

5. Get a spokesperson.

Just because you created the product doesn’t mean you’re the best person to sell it. I’ve worked with some of the most passionate executives that just don’t click with the people they’re trying to engage – no matter how hard they try. This has negative impact that lasts and is tough to overcome.

Suck it up and get a spokesperson who can help tell the story to the people that will help grow your business.

6. PR is not the only tool in the shed.

Understand that PR is only an umbrella for the specific communications initiatives that will help you achieve complementary, simultaneous goals. For example, corporate branding and product marketing require different campaigns. Don’t put all of your eggs in the PR basket. Run SEO campaigns. Look at online ads and promotions. Run contests. Attend events.

PR can not be the only thing you rely on in order to build and sustain a successful business.

7. PR at the Head, Across Chasms, and in the Long Tail

No matter what industry you’re in, realize that the most popular blogs, newspapers, or magazines are only one part of the process.

Your market is divided by adoption and buying behavior and documented through a bell curve rich with chasms, pyramids that further divide and classify them, quadrants that demonstrate competitive advantages, ladders that represent the technology that people can use to reach customers in different ways, a cluetrain that shows how people carry it through the long tail, and hopefully reflected by a hockey stick that forces you to evaluate what to do from Inside the Tornado.

Yes, of course this was meant to be funny…but it does show that one program no longer serves the masses when you deconstruct it by the markets and the people that comprise it.This means that you have to embrace both new media and traditional media in PR.

For example, in the tech space, TechCrunch, Mashable, VentureBeat, Read/Write Web, et al, will yield measurable traffic so great that most of the time it will knock out Web servers.

Every executive wants them. CEOs cry if they can’t get coverage on them. But, by no means, do they carry your value proposition to the entire collective of people that will embrace your product and help sustain your business for the whole game.

They represent the early adopters and pragmatists. However, there are other worlds of global microcommunities rich with horizontal and vertical publications and blogs that will carry your story to the more conservative groups of people that collectively converge as the primary base of recurring revenue.In this case, it’s less about traffic and hits as metrics for success and more about quality, registrations, purchases, referrals, etc. that define business growth and sustenance.

8. Engage in social media.

We live in a “social” economy and the only way to succeed in it, is to participate. Participation is marketing. Community relations is marketing. Engagement builds trust, relationships and loyalty, but it requires a genuine, dedicated, proactive, and value-driven effort.

Blog about industry-relevant topics, not just company accomplishments. Provide tips and hints to help your customers make more informed decisions. It’s not a new tool in the marketing belt. It is a new opportunity to engage customers and cultivate relationships. Simply put, be a resource for your community.

Embrace online video and watch how creative, genuine, and cool content becomes incredibly viral. Words can carry the message so far, but video is also an opportunity to showcase the product while entertaining viewers.

Podcast new updates, customer successes, ideas for new product uses, etc.
Bookmark and share relevant links using the popular social tools available.

Cultivate user generated content.

The press release IS NOT DEAD. Write them. Write social media releases. Write SEO press releases. However, write them well and strip out all of the bull shit, hyperbole, and marketing speak. Make them meaningful.

If relevant, build transparent profiles in the social networks where you can find and support customers.

Share images and behind the scenes footage using services such as flickr and YouTube.

Listen and engage in MicroMedia.

Hire a community manager. In the new world of social media, new PR can be complemented through the efforts of someone who can actively represent the company in all things social so that they can provide proactive information and support to people looking for guidance in the communities they frequent. Don’t market to them, have conversations.

Note, this is an ultra-simplified list of how to jump into the world of social media. Read the Social Media Manifesto and The Art and Science of Community Relations for additional suggestions and guidance.

9. Support and reward your PR program.

Feed it as you do any other branch of the company. Respect it when it works and let your team share in the success. Don’t focus on the shortcomings. Don’t take credit for coverage if you randomly sent someone an email a long time ago. Don’t tell your PR team that the coverage that’s happening is solely driven by the viral activities of users and other existing coverage. PR is designed to spark Word of Mouth and every time a new article appears, it’s because of something that PR did either recently or awhile ago. That’s the value of PR. It’s the program that keeps on giving!

Bottom line, extend congratulations as goals are achieved and support PR in a way that keeps your team motivated to kick ass.

10. Keep good people.

If you find a PR person or team that truly lives and breathes the company and the product, never let them go. They are a rare breed and deserve support and promotion.

11. Keep an open line of communication.

Meet with your PR team regularly to communicate realistic goals and measure progress. Paint a real world picture of what success looks like each month and listen to the reports to see if they are indeed attainable. You get out of PR what you put into it.

12. Establish realistic metrics.

PR isn’t a miracle solution to help you attain all business objectives.

Agree upon realistic metrics in advance.

All too often executives lose sight of what PR is designed to do. The right coverage is invaluable, even when it doesn’t translate into visible hits, traffic spikes, or sales. Super Bowl ads, for example, rarely pay for themselves in the short run.Realize that a proactive, intelligent and consistent PR program will contribute to the bottom line. It shouldn’t be solely responsible for company success or failure.

Metrics can be in the form of specific targets every month, traffic, registrations, lead generation, links, and now, conversations.

13. Do not launch your company or product at a conference.

Contrary to popular belief, do not attempt to launch your company at a tradeshow unless it is a venue specifically designed to make your launch successful. For example, in Tech, we have DEMO and TechC

Crunch40, and each draw worldwide attention. But, the best PR is always done before the event.

At conferences, companies kick and scream for attention and usually drown each other out. Tell your story before you have to compete to do so. However, go to conferences and events for lead generation and networking.

14. Do not start contacting people on your own.

This is one of my personal favorites. Many executives believe that in order to get something done right, they have to do it on their own. So, they start emailing reporters and bloggers on a whim without regard for relationship, existing conversations, or their best interests. I have seen some pretty interesting ramifications for doing so.

All I can say is this. Consult with PR before doing so. In fact, sometimes contact is best coming directly from an executive. It just needs to be planned and orchestrated in a way that is beneficial to reporter/blogger, the company, and the overall PR initiative.

15. Breaking News

The blogosphere and social media in general has created the need for new rules when breaking news.

Determine who your news benefits, where they go for information, and what they’re looking for. Then reverse engineer the process and design everything around what you learned, from writing the release, what you say and how you say it, to whom and when.

Do not rely on a wire service to get your news out. PR is best served by specifically working with the new and traditional influencers who can help get your story told, in advance, and usually under embargo. (Note: Most of the time, less is more. Do not try to take your news to anybody and everybody under embargo. Be smart about it. A few key places can carry your story farther, and, without ruining relationships with influencers along the way.)

Exclusives are a rare practice these days and usually reserved for some pretty incredible and industry moving news.

16. Customer service

Customer service is no longer an inbound activity or viewed as a cost center. Social Media changed everything and it isn’t a spectator sport.

Marketing-savvy corporate executives are working with PR, Advertising, and Marcom teams to explore options and strategies on how to participate in relevant online conversations. This represents a shift in outbound marketing as it creates a direct channel between companies and customers, and ultimately people.

Social Media is rooted in conversations between people and peers, regardless of the technology that facilitates them, and every day they take place across blogs, networks, forums, micromedia, and online groups. And, each day, with every new community and social tool that is introduced, brands, products and services are actively discussed, supported, and disassembled.

Social Media represents an entirely new way to reach customers and connect with them directly. It adds an outbound channel that complements inbound customer service and traditional PR, direct marketing and advertising, placing companies and their customers on a level playing field to discuss things as peers. Most importantly, it transcends the process of simply answering inbound questions to creating a community of enthusiasts and evangelists.

17. PR isn’t charity.

While many PR people and agencies demand unreasonable fortunes, remember that you’re a startup and solutions are abundant when you know what you’re looking for and value the engagement.

In PR, you get what you pay for – well most of the time anyway. Don’t expect brilliant PR for pennies. Nor should you expect results by over paying for services. There are consultants, individuals, and agencies willing to work for reasonable cash and stock incentives. But, I can’t think of anyone, who’s good at what they do, that will work on a performance-based payment program.

PR just doesn’t work that way. Think of it this way. Good sales people don’t work solely on commission. Most earn a salary on top of their commission to keep them active and successful. If PR people wanted to earn their income on a commission basis, they would get into sales where they can usually make a lot more money. They’re in PR because they prefer to “tell” a story instead of “selling” it.

18. You’re not the only company with a great story

Remember this. At any given moment, reporters and bloggers are getting bombarded with pitches, both good and bad, by companies that take the time to learn what they want in addition to those who simply spam them and hope for the best. It’s overwhelming to say the least.

They have better things to do than stop everything that they’re working on just to read your press release. This is one of the reasons why you need PR. Well that, and the fact that you need someone who’s not drinking the bath water to tell you that your story needs help in how it’s told to the specific groups of people to whom it matters.

Just because it’s new doesn’t make it newsworthy.

You have to compete for attention and in order to do so effectively and genuinely, you need someone who can help tell your story, the right way, through the people who reach the customers that will impact your bottom line. It’s not an overnight process. It’s not a game. It’s a process of investing in building and leveraging relationships now and in the long term.

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  • Dennis Howlett

    To me I’m reading what I seem to have heard for nigh on 20 years but with a ‘social’ gloss.

    The central message to me is: “We don’t perform miracles aka expect nothing and by the way we’re not going to be measured or rewarded on performance.”

    Sorry Brian – but not in any company I run.

  • Brian Solis

    Dennis, you know I respect much of what you have to say. Did you read the full article? If not, that’s fine. It’s long…but if you do, I don’t think you’ll come up with the same reaction.

    Remember, common sense, isn’t terribly common regardless of whether or not you’ve heard it for 20 years or if it has a new “social” gloss.

    PR has changed a lot, especially over the last 10, and continues to do so.

    Today’s startups are a little bit more sophisticated than their predecessors and therefore will read this article differently.

    The central message is best summized this way:

    - Drop the bull shit

    - Know who you’re talking to and why your story matters to them

    - Figure out where they go for information and engage them directly and indirectly

    - PR is no longer a blast mechanism, it’s about people

    - Customer service is no longer an inbound cost center, communities require participation

    - Understand the process of creating and telling stories

    - Measure PR in a way that is realistic, but make sure, you measure it

    - Don’t undercut your PR efforts

    - Remember that bloggers and reporters are busier than you

    But at the end of the day, you get out of PR what you put into it.

  • Jeff Davis

    In a former life, I ran a boutique firm in SF that did nothing but launch Internet startups, which are indeed a different breed.

    And while it has been a long time since then (and there are many new tools available today) I fundamentally agree with your assessment.

    My Job 1 with clients was managing expectations. Dot-com entrepreneurs often had larger-than-life ideas of how the world will respond to their widget, so we often found ourselves needing to reign things in a bit with our CEOs. While we certainly had our share of media surges at launch, patience and consistency proved more effective.

    I shifted focus a few years ago to the events side of things for consumer products, but still encounter small companies. The difference today is that I’m hearing more about their struggles to navigate the Google machine than getting media exposure — which now go hand-in-hand.

  • James Bruni

    Great post Brian. This should be on O”Dwyer’s as a “Commentary”. Your comments about “on/off PR programs” and “pay for performance” are right on target. I’m sending this to a number of my Net startup clients who need education on PR. Best wishes for a Happy New Year.

  • Andrew Kippen

    Bryan,

    As usual, a well thought out post that serves to educate people on how PR is changing and what they should expect from it. Every startup that hasn’t hired you (or us : ) to represent them should be following PR 2.0.

    @jeff davis – managing expectations is a key component with clients, peers, and journalists. It’s something we stress over and over again internally as we grow our business.

  • Dennis Howlett

    @Brian: I did read the entire article which is why I responded as I did.

    My response is based on experience right up to the present day including some of the best known names in the game. I can give you a (long) list if you want.

    The best and most recent was from a person who sent me a ‘social media’ release that was 95% content free. The company is a genuine world leader. I was told the initiative is one of their most important yet there was no story because what they were showing me was content free.

    The last 3 approaches I’ve had from a firm you will know by name and which spouts social media a,b,c…x,y,z have been utterly clueless. I know the AD very well and have said: “Who’s going to take them outside and give them a slap – you or me?”

    Yesterday I was asked to write up a book review based on other people’s quotes on a book I’ve never seen.

    This kind of thing happens all the time.

    I’m sure you saw what Chris Anderson had to say a while back. He absolutely nails it. It’s not as though this is something new. A colleague wrote about this in 1996 and drew an indignant response from PR.

    While in Paris I met with a bunch of startups who could not find decent PR, ie people prepared to understand what they’re about and pitch accordingly. Instead it’s the same name dropping crap that you and I know is utter BS.

    Sorry Brian but it’s same old, same old from this hack’s desk.

    You may be different but I can tell you that 95%+ of your profession is nigh on useless and unaccountable.

  • Daniel

    That’s a fairly exhaustive list, and I love the summary. From a reporter’s perspective, I can summarize my advice into the following:

    1. Cut the B.S.
    2. Be professional. (Part of #1)
    3. Be transparent. (Also part of #1)

  • au1153

    Brian,

    Great post. I’m definitely going to be recommending this post to a number of people.

    PR is an evolving industry and there are more tools than ever to utilize.

    You’re right in your responses that common sense is not all that common. While some of the themes you hit upon are really just updated for the Social Media / 2.0/ etc….era, they are things that still ring very true.

    - Michael Pranikoff
    Director, Emerging Media
    PR Newswire

  • Fernanda

    Great post. I´ll mention it among my students.

    Fernanda Grimaldi

  • photrade

    Brian

    Great post! As a Marketing VP for a start-up my experience to date has been 1) Building relationships is extremely important and 2) The lack of quantification of PR results can be frustrating/difficult, especially for considering the cost of most good PR firms. Here is a question for you – How would you recommend assessing the cost of a PR firm when they typically can’t commit to any specific results?

    Thanks again for the post. Like many of your other articles – thought provoking with helpful tips.

  • Brian Solis

    Jeff, you’re right on. It’s a bit of both. I’m asked every day to help, in addition to press and blogger coverage, increase SEO and social media optimization. Very interesting times.

    Hi James, Thank you. O’Dwyer could run it if they like…if you know someone, let me know.

    @Andrew, much appreciated. Managing expectations is different today as the game has expanded, and with it, expectations.

    @Daniel, well said…

    @Michael. Good to hear from you! Thanks for sharing it. They do ring true still…in fact…maybe louder than ever before.

    @Fernanda, Thank you!

    @photrade, I’m seeing a change now where agencies and consultants, good ones anyway, are willing to be held to metrics. X amount of contacts, x conversions, x visits per month to a specific URL, etc.
    Many of the companies I work with aren’t afraid to ask and based on experience, we can set their expectations and align it with what we know we can deliver – that way it keeps us on our toes and also keeps them happy!

  • Arne

    This post was really worthwhile reading! I learned a lot. Thanks

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ABOUT ME

Brian Solis is a digital analyst, anthropologist, and also a futurist. In his work at Altimeter Group, Solis studies the effects of disruptive technology on business and society. He is an avid keynote speaker and award-winning author who is globally recognized as one of the most prominent thought leaders in digital transformation.

His most recent book, What's the Future of Business: Changing the Way Businesses Create Experiences (WTF), explores the landscape of connected consumerism and how business and customer relationships unfold in four distinct moments of truth. His previous book, The End of Business as Usual, explores the emergence of Generation-C, a new generation of customers and employees and how businesses must adapt to reach them. In 2009, Solis released Engage, which is regarded as the industry reference guide for businesses to market, sell and service in the social web.

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