Startups have nothing but an uphill battle when it comes to raising awareness in the market. A smart public relations campaign can go a long way, but many new companies have a poor grasp of the PR basics.

PR done well (and cleanly) helps organizations raise their profile and awareness, and promote new products, services, visions and ideas -- ultimately providing a direct impact on sales.

And while this sounds perfectly feasible for any company, the truth is, companies are not treated equally by the media. This is all the more true when the company at hand is a startup -- how can you be heard, listened to and understood by over-solicited journalists, when you're so damn disruptive that you're doing nothing less than providing the world with its new Alpha and Omega?

Here are some hints and a tentative guide to "PR for Startups", based on my 20+ years of experience in setting up public relations and communication strategies for innovative companies. The guide is unfurled in three major steps:

  1. Smart strategy -- aka SmarTegy
  2. A survival kit of basics rules to create your announcements and engage with editors
  3. How to leverage external PR professionals.

As with any other project a company starts, PR needs a strategy. This is not Strategy with a big “S” and big $$. It's strategy, as in smart -- observing existing market tenants, and as in clearly defined goals.

Observation of Existing Tenants 

This will bring you the scope of what is being said in your market and, more importantly, how it is said, who says it and how often it's said.

This intelligence work will unveil:

  • The name of your competitors: Keep in mind that they may not be those you would expect.
  • The name of the journalists and bloggers writing about them: Probably good people for you to talk to.
  • The frequency at which a company is mentioned / covered by the media: In order to get a precise idea of how often journalists may write about one of your topics. Be careful -- if your company is in a market in which MS or HP have offerings, make sure you carefully identify only those of their clippings related to your market.
  • The key words used in your market: You probably would like to use a couple of them to be legitimated as part of the market.

Define Your Objectives and Set Timelines

Your company's PR success might be defined by having the founder(s) plastered across the front page of Wired or Entertainment. Or perhaps your success is measured strictly on the number of visits to your website. Whatever the objective, define it precisely and give yourself a feasible time to reach it.

Defining your objective will help you:

  1. Focus on the right media and journalists
  2. Save both your energy and your resources

Once this bit of SmartTegy is done, you'll need some basic rules to stick to, in order to leverage your PR efforts.

Rule 1: Position your Company

It will help you refine your media list and will help the journalist understand your offering.

  • Define your activity: software vendor, integrator, web service provider
  • Define your market: senior care, ethnic fast food, mobile apps, etc. 
  • Define your target: B2B, B2C, international, local, etc.

Rule 2: Use Buzz Words with Caution

Press releases are, by and large, too full of buzz words. These often mean little to the public at large and tend to annoy journalists who must work through them to get to the facts of the matter. Keep your vocabular practical and useful.

  • Leader or Pioneer: Give figures and dates, show patents, scientific publications
  • Revolutionary product or service: Indicate who it's for, why, where is the disruption

Rule 3: Leverage

You are more than likely to send out an announcement with a partner, a customer or because there is this major industry show coming up the road.

  • Leverage better known names than yours: When doing an announcement with a major customer or partner, rely on their name recognition to shed some of its light on you.
  • Keep an eye on major industry events and distribute your related announcement accordingly to their dates: Even if -- and especially if -- you are not attending these events. They draw the attention of journalists, analysts and other influencers. They will therefore be more inclined to spot your announcement in such a time-frame.
  • Don't forget to leverage your competition: In some cases, it is easier to explain what one's company does by comparing it (e.g., Our product does the same as MS Office -- for free).

Rule 4: Schedule your Announcements

Brand awareness needs requires time and repetition. You need to plan your announcements ahead of time, execute them well and build a mechanism for smoothly repeating the process on a regular basis.

  • A good rhythm would be one announcement every 6 weeks.
  • All announcements don't have to be major breakthroughs. Topics worth communication include product, corporate, raising funds, new hires, events, case studies, partners, new customers, self-created polls, etc.
  • When more than one company is involved in an announcement, there are always unexpected delays. Schedule for the unexpected.

Rule 5: Optimize Your Press Releases

Press releases are meant to be easy to read and understand.

  • Limit Ideas: Only 1 idea per press release.
  • Organize it: Title, subtitle, quotes etc.
  • Rich media: Add them via URLs to keep you email “light”.
  • Don't forget the boilerplate: 1 paragraph describing your company in 50 to 130 words and add your contact details.

Related reading: 5 Tips for a Great Press Release

Rule 6: Smart Distribution

Don't spoil the last step of your announcement with lousy logistics.

  • Send Early to Journalists: Build relationships with journalists by giving them early access to your announcement. Support them with additional information (e.g., video, screenshots, data sheets, etc.). In short, enable the journalists you want to work with and let them ask questions before your announcement is on the wire. You both stand to benefit. You can ask embargoes to be respected, but beware, not all media outfits honor embargoes. 
  • Don't attach: More and more press releases are sent out by emails because it's easier and faster. If you send your announcement by email as an attachment, chances are very high that no journalists will take time to open it. I don't even mention the growing number of journalists reading their emails on smartphones: they definitely wouldn't open the attachments.
  • Publish your announcement online: Either on your website or your blog, to enable the linking and sharing we all love.
  • Leverage social networks to spread the word: Because you'd have published your announcement online, you'd be able to re-post it on Twitter, LinkedIn groups, forums, Facebook, etc.

Now Let's Talk to an Editor/Journalist!

Three rules will apply here: preparation, empathy and nurture.

Rule 1: Prepare Each and Every Discussion You Will Have with an Editor

It's all the more essential when you are about to meet for an interview. Basics are: it must be very clear for you what the ideal article would be titled. If it's not, chances are that the person you are about to meet won't find it alone. Along with your "ideal title", define 3 key points (sentences, keywords, figures, etc.) that you will explain and illustrate several times during the conversation.

Rule 2: Empathize with the Interviewer

I often hear extremely brilliant entrepreneurs whining about the 3 media plagues -- "They think they are divas! They're always trying to trap you! They're pretty dumb!"

Well -- a) they have a boss whom they must convince that interviewing you is a good idea; b) they keep on asking questions because they need to write an article -- not to trap you,  but to get enough of a "story" to write it; c) you are the expert -- if they don't understand, please consider the possibility that you didn't make yourself clear enough.

Rule 3: Keep in Mind that Talking to a Journalist is About Building a Relationship

A major recommendation that journalists actually give is to leverage the “off the record” Don't hesitate to give editors some unofficial information using the sacred “this is off the record, but...” The “off” brings both parties many advantages, the main one being it gives perspective to the editor writing on you. Even if some of the information cannot be used in his/her first article, it will enable him/her to get back to you on other articles and it will enable you to get back to him/her later when this information becomes official.

I often give presentations and training sessions about PR and invariably the last question that pops up somehow mockingly refers to the PR agencies. Yes, my company provides PR services to innovative companies, but my opinion on whether or not a PR agency is mandatory often surprises my audience. Let's make it clear: No, I don't believe a PR Agency is mandatory. 

PR people and agencies are basically one of the external resources that you dedicate to a given project. They provide time and skills to existing relationships -- and, of course, consulting. In my opinion, that is the area that most startups are deprived of.

You'll always be able to contact editors, to tell them your story and eventually get a bunch of nice clippings, but the most valuable service PR professionals can bring you is on the project management side of your PR -- assisting you with a SmartTegy and helping you define your objectives and then aligning the announcement topics accordingly, plan and schedule distribution and make sure the information keeps on flowing to your target.

What experience do you have with PR? I'd love to hear from the angles you've worked on and the outputs you got from it. Please share them and don't hesitate to contact me if you want my opinion on your SmartTegy!

Note: This article is based on a presentation I gave in Paris. You can access my original slides here