Startup PR Do’s and Don’ts

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I began my career in journalism, writing about technology trends for a healthcare magazine long before the dawn of cell phones–much less social media. As a young reporter, there were times when I easily fell prey to the savvy PR person. I once attended a large industry conference, and was invited to briefing after briefing which I dutifully accepted upon the urgings of my boss. One of those briefings was followed by a fancy dinner. I was one of three reporters present, and we were giddy with all the attention. After three courses and some expensive wine, I went back to my hotel room and realized what I had just done. I had sold my soul to a vendor. I felt obligated to cover the company in my conference coverage; I never made the same mistake again.

Reporters these days are far less naïve. Some of them went through the dot-com boom and bust, and have turned into grizzled harbingers of the truth. All of them must do twice the work for less pay than when I was a journalist. They don’t use the phone and they rarely return emails. They’re bombarded by pitches from thousands of software and digital companies every week. For technology startups wanting to make some sort of impact in earned media, these are tough times. Yet it is still possible to develop a successful PR practice as a startup, if you’re willing to take the time to do it right and be patient. Here are my thoughts on how to make a difference in your outreach.

DO research your audience, and by audience I mean the journalists who cover your space.
Develop a list of 50 key targets to start, and spend time understanding their coverage areas, how they write about the industry and their style. Some reporters only cover news and finance announcements, while others will consider writing about trends or the people behind the companies. Tailor your pitches and emails accordingly and try to appeal to more than one angle, as tech reporters often cover several beats.

DON’T brag that your product is the first of its kind on the market.
Every product has a competitor, even if the competitor is a build-it-yourself product or manual process. Telling a reporter or editor your client’s product is the only product of its kind suggests you’re either not that smart or you just don’t have all the facts. On that same note, avoid typical PR phrases such as “the leading provider of XYZ.” Reporters see right through these hard-to-prove claims.

DO get to the point.
If your email doesn’t have the main message clearly stated in the subject line and/or within the first two sentences, forget it. Nobody has time to wade through your lengthy introductions and meaningless small talk. Spend time on subject lines. Make them explanatory yet brief so that somebody glancing through their inbox can quickly figure out what your email will cover. Avoid writing more than two paragraphs in an email. Keep it just long enough to pique interest so that the recipient will reply for more information.

DON’T use jargon in your pitch or press release.
Journalists hate these buzzwords: “revolutionary, innovative, transformative, pioneering, game-changing…”. Use straightforward language and keep it simple. As well, avoid insider industry jargon such as “de-depuplication” and “neural networks.” If you must use acronyms, write them out first. In journalism school, our professors called this speaking to the lowest common denominator. That doesn’t mean talking down or talking dumb, it just means preventing a situation where somebody has to read your copy twice to understand what you’re talking about – because they probably won’t bother.

DO be an expert in your sector.
Strive to talk intelligently about many topics, not just your own product or service. Get excited about your broader space and convey that enthusiasm to the reporter or editor, especially if you are lucky enough to have them on the phone. If you can, do some public speaking, vlogs or podcasts on relevant topics which you can post on your website. Contribute blogs to third-party websites that are authorities in your sector, such as trade groups, associations and niche publications. Journalists and analysts like smart people who can provide a fresh angle or contrarian perspective. This is especially true in high-tech, where hype is omnipresent.

DON’T call or send email asking if they got your previous email.
If they didn’t reply before, shoot a follow-up email a day or so later if you are highly confident the reporter is the ideal person to cover the news. Use this tactic with caution. But don’t ask if they got your first email. If they did and didn’t respond it’s because a) they’re too busy or b) they’re too busy and aren’t interested. Enough said!

DO lower your expectations.
Yes, your story is great, but so are the stories of about 100 other startups churning emails through the reporter’s inbox this week. Don’t worry if your pitch is ignored once, twice or 20 times: keep looking for the right reporter who’s covering your beat right now. Pre-funding and pre-revenue startups are especially prone to overstating their own worth. You must prove you are credible and have something to offer the market and the reporter’s time. It can take months to develop relationships and get quality coverage. Don’t give up. As well, be happy for any coverage you get, even if it’s critical or in a “lower-tier” publication. Too many startup founders get upset when they don’t see their name in lights two months after hiring the PR firm. They want to read about their company in TechCrunch, VentureBeat, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and so on. This is not a realistic approach for most startups. Instead, seek out a handful of the hundreds of influential tech bloggers who are writing compelling stories every day. They may not be writing for a name-brand media outlet, yet they are often looking for juicy tips and meaty quotes from executives on trends. This can be a powerful way to build up reputable online clips over time.

DON’T pitch boring stuff.
Startups like to write press releases about everything – from minor product updates to puffed-up partnerships. Use your blog for the lower hanging fruit and save the important, juicy stories for the media. Mine your customers, colleagues and partners for original story ideas. Share survey data, novel best practices or techniques in your field. Offer interviews with company leaders who have great stories and perspectives to share. Be funny, when it’s appropriate. Always look at the bigger picture, and how your product/service/strategy hooks into news stories happening right now or trends in development.

DO respond quickly and thoroughly.
When a reporter asks for something, don’t leave them hanging for days. They’re busy, stressed, distracted and they’ll quickly move on to something and someone else – and may never contact you again. Do not, except under dire medical distress, skip an interview because “something else came up.” If you must cancel the interview, give the reporter notice and offer to respond to an email interview if the deadline is tight. Answer the questions; don’t dodge or provide a promotional answer that benefits you.

DON’T employ tricks.
Don’t send swag or invite a reporter out to lunch. See my introduction! What reporters love most is honesty and solid (if not killer) story ideas. Offer exclusives, when you can.

Final words … Reporters and editors are under enormous pressure to deliver a lot of copy, sometimes thousands of words per week. Everything they publish must be factual and spot on to audience needs. Unlike the old days, content is meticulously tracked, measured and analyzed for advertisers and sales. Tech reporters are sometimes cranky and downright rude and who can blame them? They remember a day when they had time to cover a story thoroughly. Now, they must fight for their survival (and survival of their publication) every day. Technology trends and products change constantly, and they must be ahead of that game too. Tech reporters earn more than most, but they are still underpaid and often undervalued in this era of “fake news.”

Whatever you do, don’t criticize someone for small mistakes, such as misspelling your executive’s name. Ask politely for a correction and move on if it doesn’t happen. Make it easy for journalists, in every possible way, and you will develop relationships that last – even when the reporter leaves and go somewhere else.

Polly Traylor is a Canopy Advisory Group consultant and Founder of PST Consulting Inc., a Denver-based content and PR firm. Traylor and colleague Kevin Wolf wrote a book about tech startups, available on Amazon: Startupland: Madness, Brilliance and PR Misadventures.

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