Many PR campaigns fail to deliver required results. That’s a waste of time and resources which tech startups can ill-afford. Every situation is different but here are five PR mistakes which early stage companies often make:
1. Hiring a PR firm too soon
Most startups outsource their PR programs to an agency. There’s no hard rule here, but bringing in a PR firm too soon is a common mistake. You need a robust proposition, market traction and general business momentum to support an ongoing PR program and to warrant the use of an agency.
Before that, it’s best to use a freelance consultant or to focus efforts on other marketing programs. Many freelancers are highly experienced, well-connected and very capable of sharpening the messaging. They can help gain initial media traction, often on a project basis.
Internally, the company must be able to resource the program – that means budget, but also time. To help make an assessment, think about operational management of the campaign (who is managing the firm), availability of subject matter experts/spokespeople, and the flow of announcements the company is likely to make. Before that point, the priority should be in building out the proposition and winning early customers.
There are times when PR should be the lead awareness-building activity, taking most of the budget and warranting early engagement of a firm. Often though, several marketing programs should be running in an integrated way, which again requires a certain maturity.
As a side note, communications is often a separate function to marketing. However, in a startup, PR usually rolls up into marketing, and has similar revenue-based objectives.
2. Setting the wrong objective
Here’s the common rationale for starting a PR program: “We have a great product, if more people knew about it, we’d sell far more. Therefore, we need PR.” Product + PR = Winning.
The challenge is that in today’s media landscape, PR is rarely a precursor to initial success – it’s an amplifier of that success. So you can’t expect a wave of press coverage to drive those initial sales. There isn’t the number of trade publications there once was and they aren’t writing about new products and services from unknown startups. That’s hard to hear perhaps but don’t expect PR to drive those early wins. Instead, view it through a lens of amplifying success. The bar for coverage is high, so you’ll need the credentials and some momentum to get strong press attention.
Again, there are exceptions and always those lightning-in-a-bottle examples where a unheard-of startup gets a high profile media placement. And for sure, swing for those fences. But it’s not a strategy to hope for outsized, early stage success.
3. Miscalculating the time it will require
Like any good crop, a fruitful PR program needs nurturing over time. There are things you can and should do to make it happen faster, but be prepared to invest time and resources. Any relationship takes time to build and the same is true in media relations. Sometimes those relationships can take years to convert into a story, sometimes they never ink. But they always need to be thoughtfully tended to have any chance of reaching fruition.
That’s why a ‘90-day project to break into business press’ is often doomed from the get-go. Those competitors who might have secured an enviable hit most likely started months ago and have consistently prepared the ground for when they do have a good story. That preparation might have been in the form of an initial intro, a flow of basic news, offering up some expert commentary on national issues, finding a few sources for unrelated stories, sharing and engaging with other articles and generally being present.
Equally, the PR campaign will need senior time. Their time is precious and has multiple demands on it. If awareness through PR is a priority, it needs to be that. A campaign will suffocate when it is starved of exec-level oxygen.
4. Lacking a point of view
This brings us neatly to PR mistake four – a strong perspective. Almost every company wants to be a thought leader. Perhaps obviously, this requires leading thoughts. The agency will help craft and refine them, but ideally they originate within the company. Anything noteworthy will be contested, which requires a level of maturity and self-assurance. Thought leaders will get arrows in their back, and mustn’t be unseated by them.
There’s a related point here about attitude to risk. Life as a startup is de facto perilous. Some companies look to limit the risk they are exposed to in the media. That’s fine. But the reward for that risk is awareness, and the cost for the safety is anonymity. Many startups want the exposure without the risk. If their opinion is the one which is commonly held, it doesn’t stand out. Topics such as gender pay, Net Neutrality, and the role of AI are all getting covered but if you are simply pro-equal pay but not willing to share numbers, pro-NN and think AIs will work in concert with humans, you’re safely mainstream and there are hundreds of other companies fighting for that ‘voice of the majority’ quote.
It’s often the c-suite which has the sharpest takes on the market, the clearest vision and the authority to step outside the comfort zone. The point person running the campaign needs the mandate to take a particular angle. If they are concerned about internal repercussions, they’ll play safe. Equally, the response to a breaking story can be too slow and too safe when left to a committee.
5. Obsessing over competitors
Good markets have a rat pack of 3-5 strong companies competing for share. As the market evolves, the firms will adjust positioning, adopt new terminology and adapt market fit. There’s often one of the pack which the company sees as its main rival.
Competition is healthy, drives innovation and spurs activity. But it can become an obsession – and that’s when it can disrupt the program. Every success the competitor has, every piece of coverage it gets becomes a topic of extensive debate. This is clearly a balance since there are lessons to learn and benchmarking performance can be useful. But only as a valid input to improve execution of the program, not as a running commentary of competitor moves. They’d love to know their activity is a distraction – it means while they execute, competitors are second-guessing themselves. It’s an easy trap to fall into, but analysis needs to earth into better execution not angst.
Morgan McLintic is the founder of Firebrand. With over 25 years’ experience in the tech sector, he advises clients about their marketing and PR strategy. Prior to Firebrand, he was the founder of digital communications agency, LEWIS in the US, growing it to 250 staff and $35m revenue.