The 5 things startups should know about doing PR

by Bill Hankes

You’ve got the next big startup idea, but how do you get the word out? The trick is knowing when and how to do it. Here’re some guidelines to think about if you want to get some press.

  1. You get one shot, make it count. The mistake many startups make is trying to get attention too early, and often for the wrong reasons, like to attract investor attention. Build your product or service, get user feedback, and gain some traction. Then think about PR. There’s no penalty for waiting, but there are many for going too early. Companies change or pivot. Becoming a media darling before a pivot just means a spotlight will be cast on your strategy changes. Tipping your hand to the competition in favor of some early buzz is another mistake. And setting expectations in the press that don’t pan out later may harm your chances of gaining further attention down the road. Wait till you’ve built some success. That makes a good story.

  2. What’s your story? Think about what you want people to be saying about you in a year, and figure out what proof points, customer wins and technology developments you’ll need between now and then. With this “story arc” you can plan out the individual stories you want to tell along the way

  3. Know what’s news, and what isn’t. Because you have a new product or deal or executive may be good news for your company, but that doesn’t make it newsworthy in the eyes of journalists. It’s up to you to make the announcement relevant. Does it tie into a bigger trend, like the shared economy or Internet of Things? That helps. Is your product disruptive? Better yet. That creates tension that makes a story interesting. Have your founders done something relevant in the past, like created a massive exit or help found a breakthrough technology. All of these are elements that help shape a story.

  4. Timing is everything. Don’t put out a blog on Friday afternoon and expect coverage. Similarly, don’t contact a reporter about “news” the day after it was news. If you really want news, plan it around a reporter’s schedule. Contact appropriate journalists a few days ahead of time and if he or she decides to write, then agree to post your blog at the same time.

  5. Pitch perfect. There are a lot of wrong ways to pitch a reporter. Don’t send your announcement or a long email. Don’t assume your targeted reporter will write. Instead, send a short note, “Hey [name], I see that you often write about [subject]. My startup is working on something [similar/disruptive/additive]. Is this the kind of thing you’d be interested in discussing?” One of three things will happen. You may hear nothing because reporters get a lot of these emails, but the fact that you approached the reporter respectfully and without assumptions increases the chance that you’ll hear back. The second thing that can happen is that you may get a request for more information. That’s when you send the announcement or the long pitch explaining why your news is, in fact, news. Finally, you may get a response declining your announcement. But this is a win too because now you have the beginning of a relationship. Follow up the next time you have something relevant, or drop the reporter a note if you like something he or she has written—which implies that you’re reading this reporters work, which you should be.

Bill Hankes is founder and CEO of Sqoop, a news discovery service for journalists. Before entering the startup world, Bill worked in public relations for more than 20 years, serving most recently as director of Bing Public Relations at Microsoft, and before that vice president of Corporate Communications at RealNetworks.