August 27, 2015
I’ve witnessed the adversarial relationships that can grow between startup founders and the media that cover them because part of my job is to sit in between the two so that they both get some of what they want.
Seeing the conflicting interests are equally stressful and fascinating. Startup founders and their teams can make the fatal mistake of acting as though the role of press is to market what the company sells. And the journalists who cover the technology field are in the unenviable position of having to develop sources without misleading those sources into thinking that uninteresting stuff is going to get play.
I’m always mindful that the stereotype of people like me is that they get in the way. This mindset, I hope, says something positive about the work my agency does, in much the same way as accepting that one might be insane actually suggests sanity.
The fundamental thing journalists want from sources is information that they don’t already have that their readers or viewers don’t already know. And the fundamental thing companies want from journalists is broad exposure that advances their business interests in some tangible way.
Here are three things a startup company’s operational leaders can do to set this process into motion.
1. Recognize that good marketing does not automatically make good PR, and orient the company accordingly.
Whereas PR has the mandate above, marketing is usually aligned with selling or acquiring users. It also has business responsibilities PR shouldn’t really care about, like deciding what a product or service costs and how it is delivered to users.
The separate sets of concerns can be mutually reinforcing, so the two disciplines do need to understand one another. But they each come with their own conventions and processes.
I’m not suggesting that marketing and PR should be separate roles because I recognize the ability of smart people to hold multiple thoughts in their head at once, which is especially important at early-stage startups. But I do know that trying to build useful PR infrastructure out of marketing material hardly ever produces a positive outcome.
When marketing has priority and unilateral authority over PR, opportunities to use media to advance the company’s business get missed.
2. Treat positive news like you’d treat any other asset: maximize the value.
Achieving funding, making key hires, or getting acquired are, obviously, important milestones for any startup. Founders tend to work on these things in relative silence and isolation — which means that, when a deal gets done, there’s news where there was no news before.
Because good reporters are like good investors in that they crave information no one else has, startups should merchandise real news on an exclusive basis: a scoop. Don’t just put press releases on the wire and hope for the best, and don’t pre-brief multiple reporters under embargo. Instead, break news in the highest-value way possible.
Generally, being able to truthfully approach a reporter with real news that has impact but hasn’t yet been announced gets their attention, and arranging for that reporter to break the story over the course of a week produces better coverage than would otherwise occur. The downside, of course, is choosing one reporter to spend this news-capital on.
3. Continually define what you want media coverage to do for the company.
While “getting ink” is PR’s stereotype, most founders I encounter welcome PR’s broader mandate of helping the company find and seize a beneficial place in its market.
However, one tangible output of PR is media coverage, so it’s worth talking about that in isolation. Startup teams need to achieve consensus on why they want media coverage in the first place before anyone spends any time actually pursuing it.
If the answer is “to get more funding” or “because we need more customers,” then prepare for a pivot. Having to resort to PR for funding or user acquisition signals a problem with the business that PR cannot solve. The business model might be wrong, the offering might need work, the market might be crowded, or the demand might be insufficient.
Recognizing these things will help startup founders and their teams make the most out of a craft many of their competitors don’t understand.
(Image via Flickr.)
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