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man at a crossroads

I have a friend who is one of those guys who can sell anything to anyone. He’s so likable, everyone wants to be around him. He has no qualms introducing himself to a celebrity with their entourage hanging around, or to the recent immigrant who is working hard to gain her citizenship and make a living for her family.

Because of his innate ability to make people feel special from the moment he meets them, he is continually asked by startups to join their organizations to help them through that initial phase of getting launched.

Most recently, he decided his time is best spent by helping several organizations for a few hours each week…and, because he’s now a consultant, he’s faced with a new dilemma.

When Is It Time to Begin PR for Startups?

One of the big mistakes we often see startups make is to start the PR too late. Most call around a month before they launch.

This is too late.

If you want a PR program to work, I mean really work, ideally you’ll give the firm (or your internal person) a good six months to prepare. If you don’t have that kind of time, three months can work, but it’s not ideal.

Anything less than three months means you’re running around like a madperson, trying to get as much done as you can, and oftentimes the launch will not strategically coincide with the PR launch.

You want the business and PR launches to happen at the same time.

If you have enough time, it will be perceived you’re an overnight success because you will be everywhere all at once. If you don’t have enough time, the PR will begin to trickle in slowly and it won’t be as effective.

PR Tips for Startups

But having enough time is only the first step. Following are 10 other things you should consider as you interview for, and hire, your PR firm.

  1. Your executive team isn’t enough. Many startups have a great executive team who have done amazing things for other organizations. Unless your team is made up of Sean Parker or Andrew Mason or Elon Musk, no one will care. Well, that’s not entirely true. People will care and it might get your foot in the door, but it won’t be enough to get you the stories you need.
  2. You have to have a great product. You’d think this goes without saying, but you’d be surprised how many organizations have “me-too” products. Late in 2010, a friend called me wanting our help because he was building a Groupon-like company. He saw the success they’d had and wanted it, too. The company didn’t make it past an initial website and a few merchants. It’s best to create a new category, like Groupon did, but if you can’t, have a point of excellence the others can’t achieve.
  3. Get media trained. You know your product and your company and your team better than anyone. But that doesn’t mean you’re the right person to tell the story…unless you’ve been media trained. It will cost some money, but it’s worth the investment because it will not only make you a better speaker, you’ll know how to tell your story in a focused way that allows the media to use (and reuse) your pithy soundbites.
  4. Don’t launch until you’re really, really ready. This one is going to be hard to hear: If you think you’re launching in August and your website hasn’t begun to be built, you’d not launching in August. Most PR firms that do startup work will know when you’re close to ready. You should trust them if they say it’s not quite there. They don’t want you to fail…and they don’t want to go to their relationships if you’re not ready. Using the August example, you should have hired your PR firm in February. If you are, in the middle of June, now looking at a barebones site and you haven’t done alpha or beta tests, you’re not launching in August. Use your PR firm to help you plan for the unexpected.
  5. Use social media. This should be a no-brainer in 2013, but sometimes common sense isn’t all that common. In today’s digital age, if you aren’t using the tools your targeted media are using, it’s harder to gain their attention. You also should be using it for branding and for customer service, but that’s a different story for a different day. Use social media to connect with – and build relationships with – your top 10 or 20 journalists.
  6. Don’t forget about bloggers. When a PR firm is working with you, they should also recommend a strong blogger outreach program. If they’re focused solely on the traditional media, keep interviewing firms. Bloggers will help you create that groundswell while traditional media helps you with a top-down approach. You need both.
  7. Know the middle influencers. Sure, you want to get in TechCrunch and GigaOm and the Huffington Post. So does everyone else. Yes, they’ll be very effective for you, but also think about the bloggers and media in the middle. It’s been said the real influencers are those who have 100 readers and all 100 buy when they say buy than those who have 10,000 readers and only 100 buy when they say so. Who would you rather approach?
  8. Make sure everything is integrated. Once the stories begin to roll in, what will you do with them? That’s just the beginning. How will you continue to build relationships with those who produced stories for you? How will you present them on your website? Will you use in email marketing? How will your sales team use them in meetings? Is the product side reading the comments to understand how to improve? Everything you do must be integrated into the rest of the organization. Geoff Livingston and I talk about this in Marketing in the Round. If you don’t know how to integrate, read this book.
  9. You  have to participate. Many, many, many executives think they hire a PR firm and that’s the end of that. It’s not limited to just startups; established organizations do this, too. Unfortunately, no one wants to hear from the PR firm. They want to hear from you. If you think you’ve hired the firm and your job is done, you’re going to have a rude awakening. Be prepared to spend an hour a day on PR and marketing.
  10. Measure results, not stories or traffic. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in big increases to traffic and large numbers of Facebook fans and Twitter followers. These are the wrong things to “measure.” What is it you’re trying to achieve? Is it free trial users? Is it paid users? If the PR firm talks in terms of media impressions and increased Facebook fans or YouTube viewers, keep interviewing. If they can’t talk about how their efforts will get you customers, you’ll feel like you’re wasting your money three months in.

Of course, this is just the beginning to PR for startups. There are many other things to consider, such as staying focused on one feature of your product until after you launch, making strategic hires (including your PR firm), and really understanding how what you’re building is different than everyone else.

Give yourself enough time and follow these tips and you’ll find success right around the corner.

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

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  • Tony Felice

    I would agree with everything here. I would add: If you consider PR as an expense you are unprepared for starting a new business. It is an investment that provides dividends over time. Public Relations now involves traditional news placement, contributed content and alignment with social media and other online engagement. In order to fully measure its impact, these components must work in concert and be measurable. Further, you must be honest about your capitalization and three months of engagement and expectations that PR will catapult you into the stratosphere is an unreasonable expectation. A good PR firm should hit the ground running and be able to deliver you solid news coverage within the first month of engagement. They must understand startups and be able to maximize your resources. Finally, this is a partnership and not marketing by abdication; you need to invest as much time and energy into this process as you did in your R&D and funding.

    • http://spinsucks.com Gini Dietrich

      Amen, Tony! I wrote today about having realistic expectations. Just like you can’t build your business in three months, you can’t expect PR to work that quickly.

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