8 fundamental tips to elevate PR at early-stage startups
As someone who’s been helping out many different kinds of startups in my role at Earlybird Venture Capital since 2020, I’ve had the chance to see fresh ways that founders and teams can share their stories with the world.
From solid pitches to engaging social media posts, there are plenty of ways to get your message out there and connect with your audience.
But first you need to do your homework.
Conduct a business ‘soul search’
To start off strong, it's essential for startups to master their messaging. This means taking the time to be introspective and answer for yourself some key questions about your business.
Ask yourself: What is your vision? Whom do you serve? Why do you exist? And what is unique about your product or service?
It's crucial to be specific and use active sentences when formulating your answers.
Once you have a clear verbalization of your business’s purpose and unique selling proposition, think about the top three messages you want to communicate with your clients and partners. Be succinct: These messages should be memorable; they should clearly convey what sets your business apart from competitors.
By mastering your messaging early on, you’ll set a strong foundation for effective PR down the line.
Showcase your team
My second tip: showcase your team. Investors and journalists are interested in learning about the people behind your business. Who are they? How are they prepared to tackle the company’s challenges?
It's ideal for PR efforts to be able to tell a compelling story about each co-founder. By highlighting the journeys and experiences that led them to start the business, you can make it more approachable and create an emotional connection with your audience. This will inevitably be part of your website team page, so it is worth doing regardless.
Take a picture Make sure you have high-quality, professional photos of your founders (both vertical and horizontal) that you can share with journalists or use across your own channels.
It’s also great if you can highlight the diversity of age, gender background, and nationality in your team, which can add depth to your storytelling. This is good for business generally, and can set you apart from less diverse teams.
Another thing a well-crafted founder’s story can do — it can help differentiate your startup from competitors and position your team members as thought leaders in your industry.
Define your audience
In PR, it's essential to understand whom you’re targeting with your messages; what do these people want to read, watch and have?
Start with asking yourself who your primary audience is. Are you targeting clients, investors, potential employees, or a combination of these groups? Why/where are you trying to reach them? Once you know, your social media and publicity should be targeted to these people.
It’s also important to ensure that your internal and external messaging are related. Consistency across all channels is key to building a strong brand image.
In every message you convey, don’t miss a chance to include a call to action. Encourage your audience to engage with your content by commenting, reading, or interacting with it in any other way. By fostering a two-way conversation, you can build a more engaged community.
Observe your industry
Staying up-to-date with your industry is smart for brands looking to spread their message successfully.
By observing your competition’s media coverage, you can get a better understanding of which journalists and publications are interested in your industry. This knowledge will help you make informed decisions on how to approach and reach out to these journalists.
Regularly monitoring media outlets that cover topics related to your company will also help you stay on top of current trends and understand how the product your startup is working on fits into the broader landscape.
Journalists tend to focus on stories that help their readers understand how the world works, so if your company is part of a trend that’s changing the world, journalists may be more inclined to be part of telling your story. Remember they may prefer to keep your company on their radar for later (broader pieces, listicles, etc.) This is also a great way to be noticed or discovered.
Own your channels
In my view, there are three main channel categories for content strategy: own media, earned media, and paid media. Your owned media are a good way to start spreading the word about what you do. It can be via your company blog, social media, podcasts, vlogs, and so on.
Less is better Stick to a limited number of channels but get them right. It’s better to have an engaging blog and one social media channel that people know about or read, than a podcast, a YouTube channel, plus every possible social media — if filling those sporadically or with poor content.
Your goal is to create a cohesive brand image that aligns with your core messaging and imagery. Focus on creating quality content that tells your brand story and resonates with your audience.
Why is this important? People will Google you, including potential investors and journalists. You want to make sure you’ve built a digital footprint to be discoverable and to look reputable.
Stay consistent with the content you post on your channels, so when you have a follow-up announcement or news to share, journalists can easily trace the “breadcrumbs” you've left behind. Investors may like to see this too for future follow-on rounds.
Interact with journalists
The most important concept to grasp here: Journalists owe you nothing.
Having a good relationship with a journalist doesn’t mean she’ll definitely write about your company when you ask her. You may simply have a more direct route to reach her! But she will still prioritize editorial value and uphold journalistic integrity to ensure the best story for readers.
Building a good relationship is a process and here are several steps to start it:
Find journalists who write about your industry and your rivals; read their stories and follow them on social media.
Pay attention to how they like to be pitched; they may give you clues in their articles or social media posts, or interviews.
Create a spreadsheet with their recent articles, their publication, news beat, and how to pitch them.
Interact with journalists well before you need them.
Sharing exclusive info (covered in the next section) is a great way to entice coverage because it means that a journalist gets to be first with the news. But handle with care. Try other tactics too. Do some extra work: poll your users and identify trends — this can be useful for journalists.
If you see a reporter asking something on social media, comment on their posts in a helpful way, offer exclusive information, industry insights, or contacts.
At our VC, we once noticed a journalist asking about a specific trend on social media. One of our portfolio companies happened to be doing something related to that topic. What started as a conversation eventually turned into multiple published stories and a trustful ongoing relationship.
It’s on the record! Remember that what you say can be printed unless it's agreed to as ‘off the record’. Also, be judicious about asking to check quotes and never ask to read the article before it’s published.
To make this process work, dedicate 30 minutes every 1-2 days to reading news websites and checking the social media profiles of journalists you follow. It is a long game so don’t expect results right away, it can take 3-6 months or more to build up a cadence of posting and learning from what works, so stay patient.
Share the news
Product launch and team intros are fodder for your own channels — don’t necessarily offer that to journalists.
If you have funding news, on the other hand, it may have better odds of fitting into a publication. Reporters would probably be looking for a press release with the key facts and figures, which you can write yourself or with someone’s help.
Consider offering your news exclusively to one journalist. This may help you secure a great publication: journalists want to be the first to break the news. But make sure the journalist agrees to your embargo date, meaning they share the news once this embargo has been lifted.
Make sure to offer an embargo of at least 2-3 weeks out. This will give you time to pitch your story and for the journalist to write it. It also allows for contingency planning in case the first reporter doesn’t take it.
If you pitch an exclusive story, I think it’s fair to give the journalist 48 hours to respond to that. Say, "If you’d like to cover it exclusively, please give me an answer by Wednesday."
Offer two language exclusives at once Exclusive means one person goes first — publishing the news. Note that can be done in 2 languages, since they reach different audiences, but it is still best to be transparent about it. Once the embargo lifts, immediately pitch to your broader list (where hopefully you have built good relationships with as well.) You also might be able to offer them another kind of access, or layer of information, like an interview with your company’s C-level exec. It can be a win-win.
When writing a press release, keep it short and engaging. Start with a captivating title and include three takeaway bullets at the beginning. Your press release should not exceed one page; it should conclude with your contact information for journalists to reach out to you.
Funding news isn’t just about the money. Ideally, it is more than reporting that X-person or company received X-amount of financing. Though those facts are required, you should focus on the superpowers that the funding enables for your users, or for the innovation in your industry. What norm are you breaking or challenging? That’s what will make your story more interesting.
Be prepared to provide additional information and quotes from your C-level management quickly, as journalists often work on tight deadlines.
Stay consistent & up-to-date
On your social media, try to stay aware of, or somehow react to the current news — each business should at least keep up with news cycles to a degree. I am not saying that you should match them completely, but strive to understand what’s changing and leverage it if it's relevant.
Keep in touch with journalists and don’t burn any bridges — some journalists may move on to other outlets like Bloomberg or Financial Times and you’d want to pitch them at the right place. Treat them respectful and learn to accept a no gracefully. There will be more opportunities.
Pick a person (or several) who can handle communication in your company. It can be a startup’s founder, but not necessarily. The CEO may be more tech-focused and might not have much bandwidth to create content or interact with journalists. Choose someone and position her as a voice for the business, making the company accessible. Try to establish a tone of voice that matches all the homework you started up front.
Good luck on your journey! If you want to keep up or chat on tech communications and PR topics, then follow me on Twitter, Medium, or connect on LinkedIn. Thank you for reading.
Cover photo by Dushawn Jovic on Unsplash