Effective Uses of Public Relations for Startups

Periodically, I hear a presentation or read a blog post on the topic of public relations for startups. I often feel the advice given is incomplete, or misguided, or one-size-fits-all, or simply wrong. So here is my take on how startups should approach PR.

I am not a PR practitioner, but as a marketer I have served as spokesperson for several well-known financial services firms, and as a FinTech entrepreneur I have used public relations successfully to drive sales. PR can be an important and cost-effective part of the marketing mix, and it can lift the efficiency of everything else you do.

By PR, I mean engaging with the media (broadly defined) to create positive coverage for your company and its products. Public relations can do a few valuable things for you:

  • Increase awareness of your firm and its capabilities among your target audiences,
  • Drive inquiries,
  • Shorten sales cycles, and
  • Improve conversions.

At CircleLending, a pioneer in P2P lending, I was able to use public relations to drive sales. The approach was complex; it involved identifying customers who were willing to talk about their finances, and then pitching the story of an intra-family mortgage to the appropriate local reporters. Each story took weeks of coordination (arranging interviews and setting up photo shoots, for starters). Our PR firm was vital to the success of this program. Every time an article appeared, we could count on a flood of new, highly-qualified leads and then sales. PR was our most cost-effective source of new business.

For FinTech startups, trust and credibility are critically important. A positive article, post, or podcast about your startup by an independent third party goes a long way toward assuaging consumer concerns. Plus, there’s nothing like walking into a fundraising pitch and having a VC tell you that he read about your startup in (insert name of credible publication here). Positive press will also boost your SEO performance.

Does your startup need a PR firm? It depends. If you are B2C, I think the answer is generally yes. Do you personally know each of the journalists and bloggers who cover your space? Are you willing to call or email them? Is that the best use of your time? If not, then consider hiring a PR firm. If you are B2B, you may not need a PR firm. It may be possible to cultivate the most important media covering your space yourself.

How do you choose a PR firm? The most important things a PR pro will bring to your account are his or her media relationships. Does this person know the key analysts, bloggers, and reporters you need to reach? Does this person know their preferences and the types of stories they like to write? If yes, keep talking. If no, move on.

Good PR takes time. It doesn’t consist of issuing press releases. In fact, you can run a world-class public relations effort without sending a single release.

I recommend startups seek out smaller firms where the principals are deeply involved with clients, or an experienced freelancer. You’ll be ill-served by a giant firm for three reasons:

  • Your account isn’t important to them. If HSBC and your firm both need something right away, whose call do you think they’ll return first?
  • You won’t work with their top people. You’ll be assigned their least experienced folks. They have to learn the craft somewhere, and it’s not going be on high-profile accounts. Don’t let it be on your dime.
  • Their fees are too high. They have a lot of infrastructure you don’t need, and they have people who play golf with clients. As a startup founder, you don’t have time for golf.

So choose a person or firm who will consider your account important and the fees you pay attractive.

Other than opening doors, what will a good PR practitioner do for you? He or she will help you craft your story and refine your messaging. I’m sure your new widget is fascinating to you, but a reporter wants to know why it’s news.

Do you need media training? Some people do. Some are naturally reticent and averse to self promotion. Others turn toward a camera the way sunflowers turn toward then sun.

Should you hire an in-house PR person, instead? Probably not. As a startup, you are unlikely to be able to hire someone as experienced, connected, and savvy as you’ll be able to get by putting a small PR firm on retainer.

What can you do to maximize the impact of your investment in PR? First, call people back within a reasonable period of time. If you’ll wait two days before returning a call – or won’t return the call at all – you’re not ready for PR. Second, be smart, open, and honest. Say something interesting and say it in an interesting way. Tell the reporter or blogger something he or she doesn’t already know. You have data that no one else has. Share some of it. Third, track each media contact and start building your own database. Fourth, attribute sales to your PR efforts as accurately as possible.

Most marketing attribution approaches understate the effectiveness of PR. Your marketing reports may give SEM credit for that sales bump, but they may not capture the reality that people were searching for your product because of a report they saw on TV.