Press Release Tips for Startups
For many tech startups, a PR strategy (including press mentions and TV appearances) can deliver good outcomes at relatively low cost. It’s the sort of thing that cofounders can learn to do well, without necessarily needing to engage PR firms or advisors. Having built a media profile can benefit startup founders whether their current venture succeeds or fails; the relationships, notoriety and credibility are mostly transferable. They will come in handy at the next venture or role.
As a result, it’s something many startup founders look at – sometimes prematurely. Achieving media coverage has become a generic startup ambition like raising capital. Startups regularly pitch for both whether they really need to or not. It’s important to remember that having these conversations prematurely can damage relationships and hurt your credibility. If you continuously bombard journalists with sub-par stories, they’re less likely to run a real one later.
The consequences of getting PR wrong can be serious. In January 2016, Brandon Reynolds (founder of Sociabl, an app offering video calls with celebrities) was interviewed by TODAY’s David Campbell. David had been advertised on the app as one of the celebrities associated with the product (along with his father, Jimmy Barnes). Claiming they knew nothing about it, he took Brandon to task in an interview that aired on Channel 9’s TODAY. Sociabl quickly disappeared, at least for the time being; it was acquired with plans for a relaunch.
Startups may have certain disadvantages when it comes to achieving media coverage, for example:
Lack of time and money; competing priorities (e.g. funding, hiring, building)
Relatively unknown brand; questionable trustworthiness/credibility
Complex products that are hard to explain (at first)
But PR is worth exploring for most startups because, for example:
Being published doesn’t need to cost much
Building a personal brand and profile is beneficial across ventures/jobs if done well
Journalists like bringing innovative new brands and products to the market (especially if they seem like relatively “safe bets”)
Knowing when you are ready
The following three tips are about getting the fundamentals right before going to the media.
Sociabl received such negative publicity because of questionable marketing/advertising practices already present in the company. So it’s important to have a company and product(s) that can withstand scrutiny before you “go public” with them. This is where common startup precepts like “ask for forgiveness, not permission” or “fake it ’til you make it” can land you in trouble on national TV.
If you’re announcing a product launch, make sure it has launched or will launch as promised in the announcement – but, more importantly, make sure the product does or will work! There’s no point driving huge traffic to your product if some UX flaw or bug will leave those users unimpressed with your product and brand.
If you’re announcing a new venture, or anything else, expect that the company and its team (especially members mentioned in the story) will be Googled – after all, this is what you want! Make sure those people have complete, consistent and updated social media profiles. This will help them secure further opportunities from the exposure. The website itself should be updated for consistent messaging (to support the announcement), with any errors/bugs ironed out beforehand.
Having a story
Of course, before approaching the media, you have to have a newsworthy story. Especially when you’re going at it alone (i.e. without the help of a PR firm that can leverage their relationships), the story will need to be worthwhile to garner interest. If you’re struggling to write a media release or email about your story, you may not have one yet!
When you do, things flow easily: e.g. the number of users you have acquired, the amount of capital you just raised and what it will be used on, the name of your new JV partner and what you’re aiming to achieve together, where you are launching next and why there, etc. Numbers, names, places, dates… These are the things that make a story. When you have these things (i.e. firm examples of traction), your story is more likely to get picked up.
One of the key benefits of hiring a PR firm would be access to their relationships with journalists, editors, producers, influencers/bloggers, etc. But these relationships aren’t exclusive to PR professionals. One key benefit of operating in a “community” environment (i.e. the startup ecosystem) is that people of all kinds are drawn to it and they’re usually willing to offer their advice.
When starting out
Even if you don’t have a story, you can approach these people at events and strike up a friendship. It’s better than pitching them a sub-par story. It’s better than Bcc-emailing a generic email to multiple journalists simultaneously. Tell them your story and ask for theirs. See what they say. If you are newsworthy, they will naturally suggest a course of action for you. If you’re not (yet), they will offer tips on what to aim for. They will be more likely to help you when you need them, especially if you help them as well.
Here’s a great resource on the importance of creating relationships for PR: https://blog.kissmetrics.com/guide-to-public-relations/
When establishing credibility/authority
One of the best reasons to get to know your contacts in the media world is that they come to view you as a source of quality information and insight. Even as they move jobs around the media landscape, as long as they are covering similar subject matter, they can return to you for your commentary when something happens with implications for your company or industry (e.g. new legislation, new market entrants, technological advancements, etc.). Being seen as an authority on your subject matter should be the goal of all C-level execs and cofounders.
Pitching to journalists and editors
Let’s start by understanding the mind of a journalist or editor. They are pitched potential stories for a living; as a result, they probably have a much higher benchmark of newsworthiness than the average startup founder. The following post is from the personal blog of Mike Butcher, Editor-at-large at TechCrunch, who makes his feelings pretty clear: http://mbites.com/2015/07/01/the-press-release-is-dead/
Each time you are sitting down to email a journalist or write a press release, pretend you are writing to Mike. Read the first paragraph of his post again. Look at his use of capitals, imagine his daily frustration… now, try to make him like you!
Here is another practical guide from another TechCrunch Journalist, Haje Jan Kamps: https://medium.com/@Haje/how-to-get-your-startup-covered-in-the-news-7c7e89c63abf#.n31wsxqtq
Lately I’ve received a few emails from friends and mentees on writing media releases, which is one of the reasons I wrote this post in the first place. In doing my research for this post, I found many editors and journalists claiming that they’re “dead” for various reasons. I got the impression that they’re not inherently bad – just too often done badly. So, if you want to do them, here are some tips:
The keys with press releases are to keep them factual and packed full of details (e.g. numbers, names, etc.). Too much fluff (long paragraphs just explaining things) and too many adjectives (e.g. “awesome”, “cool”, “game-changing”, etc.) will not impress the reader. It’s for them to decide how the details should be framed and described. They should generally be around 500-700 words; long enough to provide sufficient detail, not so long that they aren’t read in full. Send them as Word documents to make the reader’s life easy if/when they are used to write a story.
Embargoes and exclusives:
An embargo is a date before which the story should not be published (since you may circulate press releases a week before a product launches, for example). You would place this date on the press release itself. If you have a time-sensitive story, it’s important to trust the people you’re sending it to. It would be useful to seek advice from media and PR professionals here; you wouldn’t want a premature leak hurting your launch.
If your strategy centres around one key publication/outlet, you could consider offering your story as an exclusive. This is a negotiating chip you can use to hopefully increase the coverage you receive from that outlet in terms of quality and quantity. Just make sure you honour the agreement by not circulating the story further. This would be another area to seek professional advice on.
It’s important to have high quality images (e.g. of the key personalities quoted in the story) supplied along with your media release. You can keep these in a Dropbox folder for writers to access directly. This will make the story much more appealing to the writer and outlet. You can sometimes have graphics (e.g. graphs, charts or infographics) to further illustrate parts of your story. Whether they are used or not will ultimately be decided by the publisher but you can help by making them as clear, simple and professional-looking as possible.
I mentioned that numbers, names, places and dates are the sorts of details that make a story interesting. They also help make it concise and memorable. Your story needs to be compelling to separate you from your competitors (which, in this context, can include every other “startup” that is more interesting at the time regardless of industry).
In addition to details, you can employ aspects of the narrative structure (broadly: setup, problem, resolution) to help enrich your story. Startups are often cast as the “good guys” (nimble challengers/disrupters) taking on the “bad guys” (slow/archaic incumbents) who refuse to change. What problems are you facing (e.g. legislative constraints)? What are you hoping the outcome will be (e.g. legislative change)?
Learning to tell your story effectively is another key benefit of developing a solid PR strategy. Having a team that understands your company narrative (and recounts it consistently) at any given time is a great by-product, for example:
Who you are and where you are headed
Why you needed to exist initially
Why and how you are succeeding
Who your competitors are and what differentiates you
Journalists, editors and producers are people and people like stories. The more different, compelling and memorable yours is the better. If you adopt the strategy of building meaningful relationships in the media landscape, you will need a story that can be told quickly and be genuinely interesting.
Tailoring your approach
It was mentioned above not to send out email blasts with multiple journalists Bcc’d on the email. This is just lazy and disrespectful. Especially if you do subscribe to the “media releases are dead” point of view, you will need an excellent email. It will have to be tailored to each recipient carefully, with their own interests and track record in mind. Fortunately, these aren’t too hard to find.
For example, when approaching journalists, you can look up what they tend to write about and read their bios where available:
These journalists have all featured stories on VentureCrowd in the past. You can see, from their bios and track records, that they each have slightly different focus areas. If approaching a journalist with a story, check these things beforehand to see if it is likely to be of interest to them. If it is, you are more likely to get your story run. If it’s not, you are more likely to cause annoyance (which can hurt your chances next time).
Timing your approach
With press releases, timing is really important. Providing an authoritative commentary on something that is also interesting and newsworthy is a great move. Chris Brycki (founder of Stockspot, an automated investment platform) used this to great effect recently upon the announcement of Spaceship (an upcoming super fund that will invest in technology-driven startups and companies, backed by Atlassian cofounder Mike Cannon-Brookes). Here is his commentary: http://www.smh.com.au/money/investing/why-big-tech-is-the-worst-place-for-young-australians-to-invest-right-now-20160914-grgdsi.html
Here was the original article (just 1 day earlier): http://www.smh.com.au/money/investing/techfocused-super-fund-called-spaceship-to-target-millennials-20160913-grfay9.html
This becomes easier as you develop your own media profile, establish credibility among publishers and have your own track record to show them.
PR can bring so many benefits to startups and their founders when done well. But it’s so important to be ready. You must have a worthwhile strategy, story and all the fundamentals in place. This helps minimise the risk and maximise the resulting opportunities. Remember to ask for advice, talk to people and start building media relationships – the ultimate goal there is to be seen as both a friend and go-to resource for subject-matter expertise. Hope this guide has been useful for you!
Hat-Tip to Young Wisdom for helping with the press release structure!