PR experts with backgrounds in media, agencies, startups, and content strategy participated in a PR for Startups Workshop session for Sierra Ventures Portfolio Companies. They shared insights on:
- How to communicate with reporters and what they look for when startups/founders reach out directly
- Funding announcements, the current media landscape, and best practices for successful short-term engagements with PR firms
- When to hire a PR firm on retainer, what to look for in an agency, and what to expect when working with a PR firm long-term
- When to hire PR/Comms in-house at a startup and what to look for when interviewing talent
- How startups can create better content on their own
Here is a recap of their advice and best practices for startup PR.
How to communicate with reporters
Reporters are busy and their inboxes are always full! It’s ok to cold email them, but remember that their benchmark is always the same – they are looking for a good story. When you are reaching out to reporters directly, make sure that your pitch is clear and concise and that your story is compelling. Tips for reaching out to reporters directly:
- Make sure they cover your sector. Do your research in advance to know which reporters and publications cover your business sector. If your story is not relevant to their beat, you likely will not get a response.
- Have a news hook. Interesting origin story/business model, new funding round, new CEO, exciting new board member, and company milestones are all good examples of news hooks.
- Know how to explain what your company does without the tech jargon. Oftentimes a company’s real story or message gets lost in the jumble of acronyms and business-speak. Be clear and ditch the jargon.
- Be willing to disclose and discuss growth metrics. Reporters want to tell the full story and be able to back it up with proof. Be ready to share access to metrics and data.
- Target one media person at a time. Don’t reach out to multiple reporters about the same story. Research your dream publication, find out who covers your industry’s beat, pitch them the story, and wait for a response. Reporters who are interested will get in touch, probably in 24 hours. If you don’t hear back in 2 days, feel free to follow up once or move to the next reporter.
- Be consistent. Either be specific or flexible with your coverage date (often when an embargoed press release is involved) and follow through with that choice!
If all else fails, remember that it’s not personal if a reporter does not respond. Don’t give up!
Current media landscape and best practices for funding announcements
The current landscape for funding news is unlike anything we’ve seen in over two decades. More than 1,700 companies were funded in Q1 2021, according to PwC CBI MoneyTree. Four of the top five were billion-dollar-plus unicorns. And 64% of all companies funded secured over $100 million. Takeaway: there are just too many companies getting funding to generate stories for every company funding round to get coverage in the premium tier outlets where most want to be seen.
When considering issuing a funding announcement, you need to have a strategy. Think about the following:
- Your audience. More than what outlet you want to target, know what audience you want to reach. Investors? Customers? Employees? Detail out who you want to reach and who your company sells to and let this guide the outlets you pitch.
- The purpose of your announcement. This funding announcement is likely among your first (if not your very first) corporate news events. Really think about the overall purpose of issuing the announcement and how it fits into the bigger picture of your communications strategy and company goals.
- The long-term. Approach a funding announcement as a launching point – it’s not the end of a race, but rather the beginning of a marathon. Listen to what people say at your launch, and learn from the experience. This is an evolutionary process you should take with each announcement: Launch, Listen, Learn; Repeat.
- Bringing in a skilled partner. When you decide to announce your funding, if you do not have an agency or in-house PR manager, you should consider hiring a partner who understands how to work with journalists on news around private, growth-stage companies – especially during the competitive news cycle we’re currently experiencing. Hire someone you can trust and who will tell you the truth, not just what you want to hear. Set realistic goals and align on the scope from the start, but be prepared to shift gears quickly if necessary. Placing a story today is a dance, and you want someone who knows the moves.
For the actual content of the announcement, be sure to consider the following:
- Have a unique point of view (POV). Ask yourself, “Why does my POV matter?” Think about it, does it REALLY matter?
- Understand your assets. What numbers can you share? What interesting data points do you own, and what expertise and experience can your executives/advisors share?
- Follow the stories journalists are covering. What media trends can you tie into? How can you be relevant? And how can you help a journalist do their job better?
- Own your content. Have you considered a byline or post from your VC? Your CEO? This is a great way to get the exact story out that you’re looking to tell.
- Behave like a leader. Do people know who you are and what you think? Are you acting like a thought leader? Or do you need to get your voice out there for the first time? Either way, make sure the content you are putting out positions you as a leader in the space.
- Share your news once it’s made. Think about how will you amplify your story with a blog post, creative pitch, or social media so you are ready to promote your news once it’s live.
- Know what to do if your top target is not interested. Who else will you target if Outlet A isn’t interested in your news? Have a secondary personalized pitch ready to go.
When it comes to wanting coverage in specific outlets, get brutally honest about your expectations and what’s possible. Some things to note:
- TechCrunch can’t cover every story they are pitched. If they aren’t interested, move on.
- The Wall Street Journal does not cover funding. That’s what WSJ PRO is for. Don’t get caught up on a feature story that nobody will write.
- Business outlets like Bloomberg and Wired do not cover funding. They want enterprise customers with business stories (aka big names, stated ROI) that appeal to readers and innovative stories nobody has told. Both of which are longer lead efforts. Don’t ignore them, but don’t expect them to cover your funding.
- Almost everyone is from MIT, Stanford, and Google. You may have great founders, but that doesn’t mean you will get a founder feature story. It’s factual, not personal.
When to hire a PR Agency and what to look for
When you’re ready to make PR a more formalized part of your overall communications strategy, but you’re not ready to hire in-house, you will likely want to consider working with an agency. It’s important to make sure that you find and choose the right partner as they will be the ones helping you craft and tell your story and you’ll be working with them on a weekly, if not daily basis.
When choosing a PR Agency to work with, consider the following:
- Get crystal clear on your PR goals. Write them out and get full alignment and buy-in from your team before shopping around for agencies. When you are clear on your goals, it helps set both your team and your PR Agency partner up for success.
- Get proof. PR people are great salespeople. If they promise you that they have 20 relationships with top-tier tech outlets, ask them to send you dozens of their clips to prove it. Also ask for case studies of their clients that are similar to your company’s funding stage, sector, and PR needs to ensure they have relevant expertise in your space.
- Meet with the real team. Meeting the VP or a handful of SVPs at the PR Agency doesn’t count. Insist on meeting the team you’ll be working with day in and day out. You want to ensure that you will be working with people that you feel comfortable with and can easily communicate with.
- Ask the tough questions. Tough situations are inevitable in a long relationship so it’s important to ask for examples of how the agency and team members you’ll be working with approach challenges. For example, how does this agency handle things when goals aren’t met?
Check out this article Beck published in AdAge for specific questions to ask and more tips on how to pick a PR firm for your startup.
When to hire PR/Comms in-house and what to look for in talent
Hiring for PR/Comms internally is an important decision and timing is often very specific to the company. At the early stage, many people may be taking on the task of “handling” the PR/Comms function and that can work, up to a point. Bringing in someone to focus on the function full-time is an important step for growing and protecting your brand and a good hire can help with connecting and building confidence, relationships, and trust with key stakeholders.
The 5 W’s of Hiring In-House PR/Comms for Startups:
- Who? The ideal internal PR/Comms candidate brings a mix of hard and soft skills to the table. A good benchmark is 10+ years of experience in-house and/or at an agency and someone who is unafraid to roll up their sleeves and do work. They need to be a confident leader with the ability to get buy-in across the organization. A high emotional quotient (EQ) is also recommended as they will need to understand the perspectives of different players within your startup’s ecosystem and maintain productive working relationships.
- What? A seasoned PR/Comms person should come to the table with ideas for what needs to be done but it’s also important to outline any expectations you have specifically for the role. Your first PR/Comms hire will likely be tasked with establishing, building, and managing four key pillars of a communications strategy:
- Storytelling & Brand Positioning
- Proactive PR
- Thought Leadership
- Brand Management & Protection
- When? PR/Comms professionals offer a unique skill set that can bring value to a business, even at its earliest stages. When to hire is somewhat dependent on your business strategy and priorities. If the product isn’t ready or the company is still in “stealth”, there is likely not a need to hire internally for PR/Comms yet. However, once you are actively selling, preparing for launch, or communicating with the public, having someone in a PR/Comms role to help own and manage brand and reputation can be very valuable.
- Where? As the “new normal” of the post-COVID pandemic workforce is still taking shape, the concept of a remote workforce is a reality many businesses have embraced. By nature of the role, PR/Comms professionals are typically able to effectively do their jobs in a remote setting. However, company culture will largely dictate location requirements of this hire.
- Why? Your brand is everything, and a PR/Comms lead’s job is to grow and protect your brand. It’s not a matter of if, but when, your business should invest in the function to advance its business objectives.
- Bonus: How? How can you set this person/team up for success, and measure the success of this hire? Two words: Access & Accountability. Provide your hire with access to information, individuals, budget, and resources to truly immerse themselves in your business. Encouraging your PR/Comms hire to develop an intimate understanding of your business is a key advantage of having the role in-house. This will help them build meaningful, effective programs. When it comes to measuring success and effectiveness, work with your PR/Comms lead to establish goals, objectives, and KPIs, and hold them accountable for reporting back on these goals. The nature of PR is that not everything will work out as planned—that’s expected, and that’s ok. But your PR/Comms team must take accountability and learn from failures to inform future initiatives and strategies.
How startups can create better content
It’s important for early-stage companies to know how to tell their own stories. The good news is that new tech is by definition interesting and story-worthy, but too often founders fall back on boring or derivative themes when creating their content. For some purposes (SEO, inbound, etc.) this can work. But truly engaging and unique content is how you separate yourself from the crowd of similar companies and build a voice for your brand.
Tips for building a standout content strategy for your startup:
- Think about your company’s real identity by starting with the team. Who are you? What’s your culture? How does your team work? That’s where your voice starts.
- Look at companies with strong brand identities and followings that you like. For example, Apple, Starbucks, Coke, Harley-Davidson. Also choose brands in your specific industry (i.e. tech startups, finance, healthcare). Check out their content. What platforms are they using? How are they tying it all together? What is their cadence and topic mix?
- Consider what truly makes your company unique. Journalists know how to pull out interesting angles and craft engaging stories, and the first rule is that just “existing” is not interesting. Sure you’re building something that you’re passionate about, but that’s not enough to create content that anyone will care about. What’s the bigger picture problem you’re solving? How does this connect to macro themes that people are already talking about? What one unique thing do you have to say?
- Put a face on it. Corporate communication is generally pretty boring because it’s impersonal. Startups have an advantage though since they’re small and based on a core team. Use that to your advantage by creating content featuring your CEO and other executives. Make everything you send out feel like a one-to-one communication and you’ll create stronger connections and true fans.
Bonus: Enterprise PR Tips
With global venture funding hitting record highs and technology getting smarter, the playing field for getting media coverage in Enterprise Tech is intensely competitive. Continuous disruption and breakthrough innovations in digital technologies play an increasingly important role in how companies operate. These technologies create an exciting backdrop for growth but also a serious identity crisis for businesses that don’t have a clear playbook for building an external brand and articulating how they play into the broader market opportunity. That’s why it’s important to develop a PR Playbook to give your brand ‘purpose’ in a hyper-competitive market.
Tips for building an Enterprise PR Playbook:
- Storytelling – give your brand a purpose. It’s critical to start any PR discussion with an honest and straightforward discussion of the “value” your business brings to the market. Why does your solution matter, and how does it help your customers? Who should care, and why? These discussions form the basis for how you develop your company messaging and positioning. There are many steps to this process: identify your market category, research your competitors, track market influencers, compare notes with industry analysts, and message test. After you identify your story, you now have a narrative that paints the picture of the problem you are solving that is beyond product and features. In addition, ensure you can stand firm against your competitors because you offer something new and unique with a fresh perspective.
- Market education – establish your media/influencer audiences. Now that you have a story (PR folks may call it a “pitch”), you are ready to begin thinking about how you can work with the media. Remember, journalists are influencers – not part of your marketing team. They may ultimately care about your product, but they care more about the problem it addresses. So, always frame the discussion in the context of market problems. And, always research the reporters/influencers’ coverage area and get a sense if your news is something they want to hear about. Customizing your pitch with reporters’ interest is a winning solution. Take the time to build those relationships – it will pay off in the end.
- Thought leadership – establish your brand without talking about your product. The media landscape has changed tremendously. Reporters are straddling many jobs within their organizations, leaving very little time to cover every facet of their industry beat. They need trusted sources who can help them stay current on the market and where technologies are trending without peddling a product. In addition to working closely with journalists, contributed content is a powerful tool to build a strong voice in your market. Editors at top-tier publications and influential trades will be interested in working with you on this type of content – if you understand the rules. Forbes Tech Council, for example, allows you to establish an account and publish a byline article once a month. Creating a cadence of story themes trending in the news cycle or topics that are important to the brand – and developing or ghostwriting content on behalf of the company’s executives – will establish the expert’s persona over time.
- Steady drumbeat – PR is not “one and done.” Even the shiniest placement will quickly become yesterday’s news. Remember, PR is an investment in time and resources. You will need to keep a timeline of PR activities that you can regularly execute to improve your share of voice (SOV) in your market category. As an early-stage company trying to build its brand, maintain an active and deliberate news pipeline, build relationships with journalists, get quoted in their stories, and develop a plan to pursue earned placements of your own contributed content.
Big thank you to all of our PR experts for sharing their tips! If you would like to connect with any of them please feel free to reach out directly or contact me, Allie Klun, at email@example.com.
Check out the Video Recording of the session here.
Looking for tips on Analyst Relations? Check out our Effective Analyst Relations for Startups blog post.
Need tips on Hiring? Check out our blog post on Hiring Advice for Startups.
Allie joined Sierra Ventures in 2019 to lead Marketing efforts for the firm and partner with portfolio companies to drive awareness and provide insights on their marketing strategy. Allie has a background in business and marketing strategy, working with early-stage startups, agencies, venture firms, nonprofits, and political campaigns. Her experience includes forming and running a nonprofit, working as VP of Marketing at a Blockchain company, working in the Entertainment Industry, and managing Fortune 500 business accounts in the gaming and entertainment space. Allie holds a BA in Communication Studies from UCLA and is also a certified Yoga and Meditation teacher. Outside of work she enjoys traveling, hiking, cooking, and reading.