PR Secrets for Startups

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Editor’s Note: At a time when anyone can broadcast their opinions about your startup to the world, public relations requires a new level of engagement on the part of companies and entrepreneurs. But what are the new rules of PR? Guest author Brian Solis, who earlier this month wrote a post for us on the evolution of the press release, explains how public relations has changed and offers up 12 secrets of PR for startups. Warning: This a lengthy post. Its intent is to help companies navigate through the rough seas of traditional PR as it struggles, forcibly, to evolve and adapt to the new rules set forth by the Web (regardless of version number) .

Solis is the Principal of FutureWorks, a PR and New Media agency in Silicon Valley and also blogs at PR 2.0. Along with Geoff Livingston, Solis recently co-authored Now is Gone, a book that helps businesses learn how to leverage new and social media.


I’ve been overwhelmed with requests from executives and PR professionals to explain how this new media (r)evolution applies to them specifically and how they can make PR more effective and personal during these interesting times. I recently discussed it here and have been doing so for a long, long time. But since conversations and attention is discontinuous and distributed, I asked if I could bring this discussion to a more prominent online epicenter to help reach a wider array of those looking for answers.

The Long Road Back to Public Relations

Public Relations is experiencing a long overdue renaissance and its forcing PR stereotypes out from behind the curtain where they operated comfortably for far too many decades. It didn’t begin this transformation because of Web 2.0 or the latest Social Media wave, but instead in the 90’s when the Web gained mass adoption. Yes, it’s taken that long and it will continue to evolve over the next decade as communications professionals struggle with putting the public back in public relations.

Regardless of what we think we know about PR and the New Media or Social Media revolution, the truth is that we actually may know less about everything than we care to believe. These are times where we can lead and learn in order to improve an industry long plagued by misconceptions and the lack of PR for itself.

PR is now more than ever, something more capable and influential than simply writing and sending press releases to contacts generated by media databases. The media landscape has been completely blown open to not only include traditional media, but also bloggers and most importantly the very people we want to reach, our customers.

PR 1.0

About 100 years ago, Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays created and defined the art and science of modern-day PR. Believe it or not, their philosophies and contributions can still be used to further evolve PR today – especially when it comes to Social Sciences.

Over the years, the PR 1.0 publicity machine lost its way and its spark. We got caught up in hype, spin, buzzwords, and spam, and forgot that PR was supposed to be about Public Relations. But, its still how many companies continue to approach PR today.

Enter Social Media and the democratization of the Web and content. Now media and content producers are pushing back, demanding a more targeted and relevant form of outreach. For those who confuse Social Media with online marketing, Social Media is anything that uses the Internet to facilitate conversations between people – it is not the practice of social marketing. I say people, because it humanizes the process of communications when you think about conversations instead of companies marketing at audiences.

PR 2.0 = Conversational PR

The Web changed everything and this ongoing reinvention of PR has been dubbed PR 2.0 or New PR.

PR 2.0, as I defined it many years ago, is the realization that the Web changed everything, inserting people equally into the process of traditional influence. Suddenly we were presented with the opportunity to not only reach our audiences through media gatekeepers, but also use the online channels where they publish and share information to communicate more directly and genuinely.

At the very least, PR 2.0 is going back to the roots of PR to bring back relating to the public back into the process.

Now it’s about listening and, in turn, engaging influencers and stakeholders on their level. It forces PR to stop broadcasting and start connecting.

It is a chance to not only work with traditional journalists, but also engage directly with a new set of accidental influencers, and, it is also our ability to talk with customers directly.

No BS. No hype. It’s an understanding of markets, the needs of people, and how to reach them at the street level—without insulting everyone along the way. Conversational PR is becoming a hybrid of communications, customer service, evangelism, and Web marketing.

The evolution from PR 1.0 to PR 2.0 will result in more informed, effective, and meaningful Public Relations, without a version number. It’ll just be good PR.

So what does this mean for you?

It means you have to start thinking about things more intelligently, differently, and personally.

The Secrets

Maybe you’re an entrepreneur with a recently funded company in need of users, or perhaps you’re bootstrapped and actively seeking financing and you need a little something that will land you a more attractive term sheet.

Every VC, as well as every successful entrepreneur, will tell you that great PR can make you, whereas bad or mediocre PR can stifle your growth and possibly damage existing and prospective relationships. And, they all have ideas on how you should proceed.

But right now, the main thing that stands between you and success is getting those customers – and good press (traditional and new media) builds the bridge between you and them.

In order to get to the next level, you need to know the secrets of effective PR, especially in today’s competitive Web 2.0 world.

These are critical times for your business and you can’t simply entrust the future of your brand to anyone who knows how to write a press release, place it on the wire, and send it via email.

Secret #1
Understand You’re Not the Only Story in Town

Bloggers and reporters are some of the busiest people you could possibly hope to meet. They’re actively looking for the most interesting, relevant, and linkable stories out there, preferably before anyone else can run with it. But truthfully, they spend most of their time hacking through the weeds of generic or over-the-top inbound emails, press releases, Facebook messages, Skypes, SMSes, Tweets, and IMs. It’s almost a small miracle that anyone can ever get their story told.

At the end of the day, you’re not the only company with a great story. Just because your story is new doesn’t make it newsworthy.

Bloggers and journalists are interested in good stories and the more time you spend developing that story up front, for each person you’re trying to reach, the more you can help them help you.

Secret #2
Pick the Right Person or Team to Lead PR.

Your investors or advisors will tell you one of two things, usually starting with “you need PR.” From there, they’ll usually recommend that you either bring on an agency or consultant, one that they’ve worked with and can highly recommend. Or, they’ll suggest that you need to do it yourself (DIY) in order to build relationships with those who are highly respected in your target markets while conserving cash.

While DIY PR sounds good, you’ll quickly learn however, that it takes more time than you think to reach those people. Besides, you have other things to focus on and any good PR program will place you in a position to build relationships with the influencers that matter to your business.

Anyone can write a press release and blast it to a bunch of people. Remember, sometimes you get what you pay for and other times you just get ripped off. So, it’s important that you find the right solution that you can afford, but at the same time, offer your PR team the ability to deliver on the results that are realistic to what you need now.

When you do meet with PR people, evaluate them based on their ability to tell you succinctly who they have represented and pay attention to how well they summarize each company and what they do. Having existing relationships and the ability to show previous results is not optional.

Also quiz them on whether or not they understand the market, tech, benefits and the challenge as it relates to you specifically. If they can’t sell you on your product, how do you expect them to sell it to skeptical bloggers and journalists.

The two most important things to ask a potential PR consultant or agency are 1) do you have the bandwidth required to help us achieve these defined objectives and – if it’s an agency – 2) who’s going to work on my account and if it’s not you, can I meet the others on the team as well.

Secret #3
Participation is Marketing

You are equally important to the PR process. It doesn’t hurt to introduce yourself to bloggers or reporters offline and online to start building relationships with influencers who will help craft and guide your company across the market adoption bell curve.

Read and comment on their work. Send a brief intro email before you need anything. Attend one of the many tech networking events in your area to build your social capital, meet those who can help you, and those who you, in turn, can help as well.

Participation is marketing and by actively participating in both the online and real worlds, you forge relationships that will help your brand and social capital grow.

Keep in mind, how you participate, both online and in the real world, also contributes to your brand – especially in the realm of social media. Comments, social network profiles, blog posts, pictures you share, etc., are all discoverable in traditional search engines and new media search tools.

Secret #4
Identify The Target Audience For Every Step Of Your Growth

Observe and document where you are in the state of the technology and market adoption and determine realistic goals and objectives that will help your business get to the next step. This is an especially important part as it will reveal who your customers are and where they go for information.

Now more than ever, it’s important to realize that there is no “one” audience for your story. Influence is usually a left-to-right process that picks up momentum and mass attention along the way. It fans out in the process.

This step allows you to identify which voices, blogs or media outlets reach your target audiences right now and at every step of your growth (you’ll see that your audience evolves along with your company).

Secret #5
Don’t Launch on Mondays

Pick a news or launch date, say Thursday at 11:30 a.m. PST, and build in a cushion to start talking to the right people under embargo before you roll out. Mondays and early mornings are usually the most congested. Releasing it later will most likely earn greater attention.

A quick note on embargoes and exclusives. Embargoes are a form of sharing news with media where they agree to not publish the news before an agreed upon date/time. Whereas exclusives require that you give your story to one person, and one person only. Choose carefully, as once someone runs with the story; chances are that other newsmakers will pass.

Embargoes and exclusives are not to be manipulated or taken advantage of. You should respect them and the people you’re working with.

Allowing journalists and bloggers adequate time to prepare is critical. They’re busy and they need more than an hour to digest and write a story. Once a press release or the news is made public, they no longer pay attention anyway. Their job (in an ideal world) is to break news, not to rewrite press releases.

Determine which reporters and bloggers should be part of the initial news discussions (under embargo). I’m a huge proponent of the “less is more” embargo strategy to try to 1) demonstrate appreciation for those you want to work with—it should be different with each type of announcement you feel is truly “newsworthy,” according to which audiences the news is best suited; and 2) to reduce or eliminate the chance that someone might break the embargo by running the story early (usually by mistake—sometimes you learn the hard way though.)

Secret #6
No Two Bloggers or Journalists are Created Equal

Do your homework. Once you’ve identified those whom you’d like to work with before and after the news date, make sure that the PR team researches individual preferences for contact before they reach out.

This is about relationships and creating a value cycle from PR to bloggers, journalists and ultimately to the people you want to reach with your news. This hopefully isn’t the last time you’ll reach out to these influeners, so work with them, their way, in order to earn the opportunity to collaborate again.

Relationships are cultivated and should be mutually beneficial as dictated by the extra time the PR team takes to personalize and package the story and align it with their workflow.

Perception is everything. Do the legwork and the outreach that contributes to the reputation you wish to earn and maintain. Anything less takes away from it.

Secret #7
Measure Success, Not Traffic

Establishing metrics at the beginning is important for setting expectations on both sides as well as establishing the bar for performance. Coverage is important but no one can ever predict or guarantee whether or not the blogs or news media you target will cover a particular story. However, establishing a quantity (based on quality) of coverage to shoot for is healthy, as long as you take into consideration an attrition factor.

PR can also be measured by conversations sparked online due to initial coverage, referring traffic as well as registrations and/or downloads. Analysis and measurement will reveal a path for prioritizing your targets now and in the future.

Be realistic in the number of visitors you establish as a metric. Also, make sure the site’s registration or download process is simple and that the messages around it are short and powerful. PR can bring traffic all day long, but if visitors aren’t reminded as to why they’re there or if the process is at all too cumbersome, the conversion ratio of visitors to users will quickly diminish.

Secret #8
Customize the News For Each Influencer to Make His Or Her Job Easier

I’ve been privy to an uncountable array of company pitches and it never ceases to amaze me just how few can actually summarize what they do and why it matters.

Focus on the elevator pitch and make it compelling, memorable, and relevant. Brevity is key.

Make sure to summarize each news announcement with a couple of statements and bullets to quickly showcase why anyone should care. Package the story differently for each person you’re hoping to reach, as each will have different needs. Take the time to pull relevant screen shots, create user accounts for each person if necessary, customize video demos and screencasts, and anything else someone may need to write a story instead of having to spend precious time doing your work for you.

Yes, it’s time consuming. But this is about building individual relationships and not about broadcasting spam.

Secret #9
Get a Spokesperson

This one breaks my heart each and every time. As I mentioned before, I’ve witnessed thousands of startup presentations and a majority are too painful to endure. Company founders are naturally enthusiastic and passionate about their product, but unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily make them the best spokesperson.

First impressions are everything, and publicly showcasing your company, on stage, online, in print, or via broadcast media, requires nothing less than a polished, personable, and contagious presentation.

As hard as it is to pass the torch, this is one of those times where you really don’t have much of a choice if you’re not absolutely, 100% the best voice of the company. All hope isn’t lost however. You can embrace media and presentation training, and when tied to a tight elevator pitch and convincing messaging platform, you may indeed emerge as the ideal spokesperson for your brand.

Secret #10
Your Company Blog is More Powerful Than You May Think

I’m sure you’ve all read that having a company blog is critical to maintaining communication with your community.

First, don’t under estimate it. Second, don’t over estimate it. A blog is the voice and the soapbox for thought leadership, vision, solutions, milestones, and advice. At the very least, it contributes to the personality of your corporate brand. The best blogs become a resource and a destination, which helps improve your bottom line. For example, Google’s official blog is number 16 in Technorati’s Top 100 list of popular blogs.

In a world of building relationships with bloggers, reporters, analysts, partners and customers, your strategy simply can’t rely on only contacting everyone when you have news. Relationships require cultivation and nurturing. The company blog can help.

Prior to and in between announcements, make sure you’re out there actively commenting on relevant blog posts. But don’t leave short, irrelevant, kiss-ass, or angry comments. Contribute to the value of the conversation and make sure it links back to your blog. Also host relevant conversations on your blog and link out to your most valuable contacts wherever possible. They do pay attention.

Maybe this goes without saying, but I’m going to mention it anyway. Don’t break your news on your own blog!

Like press releases crossing the wire, breaking news on your blog makes the news less valuable if others haven’t yet had an opportunity to break it for you first. It’s like the new car analogy. The value of the car drops the minute you drive it off the lot. Time your post for after when the news breaks and link to everyone who helped cover the story. (Unless, of course, you are Google, in which case you can do whatever you want)

Secret #11
Blogger Relations Extends from the “A-List” to the Magic Middle

Online conversations are distributed and it now requires PR to identify the relevant silos that reach valuable niche markets.

The best communications strategies will envelop not only authorities in new and traditional media, but also those voices in the “Magic Middle” of the attention curve. The Magic Middle, as David Sifry defined it, are the bloggers who have from 20-1000 other people linking to them. It is this group that enables PR people to reach The Long Tail and they help carry information and discussions among your customers directly in a true peer-to-peer approach. And, in many cases, these bloggers are your prospective customers. Their effects on the bottom line are constant and measurable over time.

Secret #12
Follow the Conversations and Join In

As much as media and blogger relations drive traffic and increase your user base, we can’t overlook the importance of social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Pownce, Jaiku, Digg, Reddit, StumbleUpon, Delicious, Diigo, FriendFeed, Ning, Mixx, Bebo, Get Satisfaction, Google and Yahoo Groups (among many, many others). When executed and managed correctly, and genuinely, the referring numbers can outperform the best articles and posts and the relationships that you create within these networks will prove incredibly valuable throughout the life of your company.

This isn’t about promotion or social network spam. This is about dialog driven by the insight you garner from listening to and reading the people who are talking about your company – with or without your direct participation.

Try searching for your company, product, or competitor’s name in any of the above networks or any other social network, to see how they’re being discussed. By researching individual conversations, threads, and/or groups, you’ll find strategic points of entry across the board. This does take time, and may prove too overwhelming for you to run individually. Hiring a community manager or empowering your PR team to do so is a great place to start, that way they can point you to the conversations that require your attention or handle them directly.

Listening is as important as publishing. The best listeners make the best conversationalists. Make sure to keep a Google Alert for your company, spokespersons, and products. Reading and responding is critical to managing perceptions, sharing expertise, and building loyalty.

There’s no question, you have to compete for attention and in order to do so effectively and genuinely, you need someone who can help tell your story, the right way, through the people who reach your customers. It’s not an overnight process and it’s not something to “be gamed.” It’s a process of investing in, building and leveraging relationships now and in the long term. And yes, if you do things right, bloggers, reporters, and analysts will want to talk to you about your company and vision along the way.

Thanks for reading this far. If you would like to continue this conversation, connect with me on Twitter, Jaiku, LinkedIn, Pownce, Plaxo, FriendFeed, or Facebook.

(Photo by Lexie).

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