Whether it’s helpful advice from fellow entrepreneurs or hands-on investors, as a start-up you will no doubt be hearing that PR is critical to business success and becoming the ‘next big thing’. And it is. But that does not necessarily mean you need to be spending thousands a month to enlist outside support. Here are some tips on creating a reputation strategy, how to ‘do PR’ yourself, and when it pays to bring in the experts.
Why simply ‘hiring a PR agency’ is destined to fail
Of course, for your company to succeed you need to get out there and make sure that people are aware of your existence. But perhaps the more important question is WHY exactly do you want to raise awareness? Is it to attract new investors? To generate sales leads? To drive web traffic or social media interaction? To trigger downloads? To make your staff feel good about working with you? To attract the attention of potential acquirers?
The more specific you can be about what you want PR (and the resulting awareness) to achieve, the more successful it will be. Make that the starting point in your reputation strategy, and make a list of all the ways you can measure success.
You also need to be clear about what you want to be known for. You need to be specific, but not so specific that you aren’t interesting to anyone! For example, perhaps you want to be known for being the restaurant delivery company that guarantees food is delivered to the door piping hot. Or maybe you want to be known for the product that makes business accounting beautiful (Yes, really … check out Xero!). Or perhaps you are revolutionising the shipping world by providing access to real-time fuel prices.
Whatever it is, the company’s ethos needs to stand out and be true to who you are as the entrepreneur, at the helm of that business. Take real time to work on this, because everything else you do afterwards is going to be tied to it. A good way to test this is to think about how you might answer that question today (what do you want to be known for?) and see if you could equally attribute your answer to any of your competitors. Challenge yourself to identify what makes you different.
A PR agency might be able to facilitate this discussion, but if you hire an agency too early it won’t have the tools it needs to get you the outstanding exposure you are undoubtedly looking for. How can anyone pitch your story if you’re not absolutely clear on what that story is?
1. Don’t worry about talking to journalists … yet
The best way to build the foundations of a fantastic reputation is simply to have a truly awesome product or service, a happy, engaged customer-base and a passionate, motivated team. This is much easier said than done. Once you have figured out what you want to be known for, you need to agree what your company values are going to be. Far from being words filed away on a server somewhere, these values are going to underpin everything you do in the company. This includes who you hire and fire, how you treat your suppliers, who you chose to partner with and how you react to negative commentary. Your job is to make sure every single thing you and your staff do – every day – is done with the notion that you are supporting ‘what you want to be known for’ and your values. Don’t even think about spending time pitching yourself to journalists until you’ve got this bit right.
2. Who are you talking to?
Once you have defined what you want to be known for, it’s important to define the core audience for whom your product or service is going to be most relevant. It’s going to be very tempting to say ‘it’s for everyone!’ – especially if it is a consumer product. But trust me, the more specific you can get about the problem you are solving, the more it will resonate with your target audience, and the more compelling your story will be. You can define your audience however you like – it could be by certain behaviours, by geography or job title – whatever makes sense for you. And in this data-driven age, it would make sense to use any data you have about where (and with whom) your product is resonating.
3. What’s the story?
Storytelling is a buzzword of the moment for good reason. Editorial space on the Web is virtually limitless and people are continually bombarded with messages of one sort or another. Research a couple of years ago showed that the average adult was exposed to more than 350 TV, radio, print and online ads per day. It’s highly likely that that figure is continuing to grow exponentially, and people’s capacity to absorb what they are seeing, reading and hearing is likely to have been reduced.
The only way you are going to get heard is to tell a story that people genuinely want to hear. Don’t be tempted to think about creating ‘stunts’ as a solution to this problem; their effect is only short term. The starting point should be highlighting the issue that you solve. Make it real for your audience. Show them people just like them – they’ll feel compelled to share information about you with others who share the same issues they do. And then the magic starts to happen.
4. Relationships take time
When you feel your team and product are completely aligned with the vision for the business, you can focus on relationship building with journalists who are most likely to be interested in your stories. You should know who they are because if you are reading everything you can about your sector, you will be seeing the same names pop up time and again. They may be journalists at traditional media outlets, bloggers or podcasters.
Once you have identified a small handful of ‘influencers’, start interacting with them. Comment on their stories – by adding value (and not just pushing your own agenda). Engage with them on Twitter. Reach out by phone or email, but do understand that they are bombarded by companies hoping to ‘sell’ their stories every day. So you truly need to have something that will appeal to their readers. Summarise your story in one line and then ask yourself ‘so what?’. Ask it three times and then you will start to get to the heart of what might be interesting to editors and readers.
5. Don’t forget to listen
It’s not an option these days for a company NOT to listen to what’s being said in the social sphere – about your company, your markets and your competitors. Even if you choose not to engage on social media (which would be a mistake these days), you must at least be listening. There are countless social media monitoring tools – from paid-for services like Brandwatch, Moodraker and Pulsar, to free services like SproutSocial, SumAll and Hootsuite. Do a little research, choose the one you like and monitor consistently, looking for patterns and opportunities.
When to bring in the experts
Using a specialist agency to support your PR efforts is a smart move in several circumstances. It can help you at the early stages by really challenging you to craft a unique and compelling story. At this stage I would recommend engaging someone on a project basis with clearly defined parameters.
Eventually, handling media and blogger relationships will become too big a job for the founder, who needs to focus on scaling the business. At this point, you should consider tapping into a team of people who can help with everything from strategy and writing, to executing digital campaigns – especially if you’d rather not add headcount to your own organisation. A good agency will have people who can genuinely act as an extension to your team, and will be as passionate about your business as you are. It’s one of the reasons we limit the number of start-ups we work with – it is so easy to get so involved in the project that we lose perspective on the value of our own time! However, it will serve you well to continue to foster relationships that you built with influencers in those early days.