In the early days of a startup, it’s common to experiment with a wide range of growth channels —from posting on social media and embracing content marketing to cultivating an online community and testing growth hacks. But there’s one underrated marketing strategy that startups often ignore: public relations.
Public relations, commonly referred to simply as “PR”, is a form of strategic communication that helps companies establish and maintain a positive and trusting relationship with the public through storytelling, reputation management, and crisis communications. PR activities include building connections with relevant journalists, industry experts, and even influencers to build awareness of your company, products, and brand.
A key aim of PR for startups is securing favorable and compelling press coverage in relevant outlets—from major publications like TechCrunch to niche industry newsletters—that attract awareness and action from prospective and existing customers, investors, and stakeholders.
If you regularly read online media, this aim might be discouraging. It’s often the big brands and established companies we see in photo and print. But even small and emerging companies can leverage PR for startup growth, learning how to effectively pitch journalists to secure media coverage that serves as a growth engine, builds awareness of your products, and establishes your company in the eyes of the public.
Much of digital marketing involves telling your own company’s story—publishing a blog post about your vision for the world, sending bite-sized tweets that convey your brand voice, detailing the benefits of your product to an email list. These can all certainly be effective strategies, but one problem is they’re clearly biased. Every company believes their products and services are valuable.
But when considering trying something new, people want to hear from others, whether that’s customer reviews or personalized recommendations. Securing the media’s attention through a dedicated startup PR strategy can have the same “word-of-mouth” effect, but on a larger scale.
Here’s why PR for startups is important:
Part of PR for startups is formulating the point of view that you want to convey to the world. When approaching journalists about covering your company, what story do you want to tell? This is your media narrative.
Taking time to define your media narrative(s) will help you operationalize your startup PR strategy internally and develop cohesive pitches to the right journalists at the right outlets. Remember that your go-to-media stories and angles should be based firmly in the truth—the things that your product actually does, how your company really runs, and what your team truly believes.
Media narratives that lack cohesion with reality are a fast-track to bad press and distrust. But it’s also important to mine the truth for the novel and interesting, the narratives less represented in the media.
The aim of a media narrative with a product focus is to build interest in your product offering, highlighting features that help customers and revealing your distinct market position. Generally speaking, a journalist is looking for something new or a unique selling point. Touting regular features that can be found in any app won’t make for a compelling pitch.
Instead, look towards what makes your product stand out and explain it in a compelling jargon-free way. Or explain how your product fits into a top-of-mind movement or popular trend.
Here are questions to ask as you formulate your product-focused media narrative:
A brand media narrative focuses on big picture storytelling about your company—whether that’s the industry that your company lives in, the underlying beliefs your company holds, or unique ways your company operates. This type of narrative decenters your products and services, and instead zooms in on what your company stands for.
For example, Buffer, a company that makes a social media management tool, has developed brand narratives around remote work and pay transparency in the workplace—garnering them many significant media placements for their unique operating style.
Here are questions to ask as you formulate your brand-focused media narrative:
The overarching objective of a media narrative with a data focus is leveraging existing data, or capturing new data, that tells an interesting story or says something new that a target audience would find interesting.
Spencer Anopol, DigitalOcean’s Senior Public Relationship Manager, has years of experience pitching journalists and landing news coverage. He’s found that building a data-focused narrative is an effective PR strategy. “One area to really explore is original research. Journalists love fresh and interesting data. As you begin doing customer and industry research, think about ways to present this data externally, whether as a white paper, research report, or press release,” he says. “Data coupled with customer stories or examples is a great way to get your name cited out there regularly.”
DigitalOcean regularly releases Currents, a research report where we survey hundreds of startup founders and small businesses executives. These findings are pitched to journalists who cover technology.
Here are questions to ask as you formulate your data-focused media narrative:
Media narratives with a leader focus highlight a key member—or key members— of your team, positioning them as thought leaders and experts who can weigh in on specific areas related to your company.
Often, a leader focused media narrative focuses on your C-suite executives. For example, a CTO with deep knowledge of artificial intelligence can be pitched as someone for a journalist covering AI to speak to.
But, other employees can serve this role, too. For example at GitLab, a company that makes a DevOps software platform, their Head of Remote frequently did press interviews about his expertise about operating as a fully distributed company.
Here are questions to ask is you formulate your leadership-focused media narrative:
Once you have an idea of the PR narratives you want to go to press with, decide on a PR outreach strategy with the aim of connecting with journalists and getting stories placed in the media.
Founder driven outreach strategy is effective because journalists often enjoy hearing straight from the source versus speaking through PR teams and intermediaries. In the early days of your startup, if you are the founder, consider doing outreach yourself and pitching journalists potential stories and angles about your company. This adds a personal touch that can be appealing to journalists.
As your company scales, a founder might have less time to focus on PR and drafting pitch emails. At a startup, it’s often a generalist marketer who takes on the role as an in-house PR practitioner. They spend time scoping the right journalists, perfecting pitches, and sending them out. If a journalist is receptive to a pitch, they will still likely ask to speak to a founder. But this strategy has the benefit of freeing up the founder’s time, but having someone intimately aware of the contours of your business doing reachout that’s relevant.
As a company scales, it’s common to outsource press relations to a PR firm. This can be hit or miss. In some cases, the right PR agency will take the time to deeply understand your business and may have a vast network of media contacts and outlets they’ve worked with in the past, allowing for relevant placements. In other cases, PR firms can send non targeted outreach that doesn’t move the needle or land coverage.
Do your research about a PR firm prior to contracting them, checking with previous clients about the quality of their work to understand their PR services and PR strategy. Ask questions about the PR metrics they use to measure success and their track record on generating earned media. Also ensure they are adept at PR for startups versus only landing press for established brands.
Contracting a PR firm is generally expensive, but can be worth it if you’re in a growth stage as a company. This strategy also allows your team to focus on other priorities, having someone else conduct research, outreach, scheduling, and measuring on your behalf.
Getting a story placed in online news publications, media sites, blogs, or newsletters starts with finding the right person—often a journalist. One of the biggest startup PR mistakes you can make is sending a press pitch to the wrong person, for instance sending a pitch about the novel machine learning techniques your company uses to a journalist that does device reviews. Both of these topic areas fit under the umbrella of “technology” but will most often be covered by different journalists in separate beats.
Increase your odds of coverage by knowing exactly how to find the right journalist to pitch.
Finding the right journalist starts with finding the right media outlet. While freelance journalists write and publish in a variety of outlets, journalists employed as full-time employees generally only write for one. Take time to create a list of potential media companies you would like to pitch that are aligned with the story you want to tell and the potential readers you want to be in front of.
Here’s what to consider when choosing relevant media outlets you want to reach:
Despite the common startup advice to ignore your competitors, sometimes it’s worthwhile to pay attention. When it comes to PR, keeping track of where and how your competitors are covered in the press can be helpful for figuring out your own positioning and discovering the journalists that write about your specific industry.
Here’s how to keep tabs on your competitors in the press:
Find different avenues to connect with journalists and build media relations, whether that’s on the internet or offline. Online, follow journalists on Twitter and LinkedIn and respond if they make a press request that’s relevant to your company. Additionally, read and occasionally comment on their articles. In person, spark conversation if you meet at an industry event they might be covering.
Anopol suggests that building relationships with journalists can start simply, on social media. “One of the best (and easiest) ways founders can establish and nurture relationships with relevant journalists is by simply engaging with them on social media. This includes liking, commenting, and sharing their posts and stories,” he says. “Be careful not to be overly salesy or pushy. Engage with journalists in an organic and genuine fashion to start. Once you’ve done this and begun building a rapport, it’s okay to begin sending pertinent content or information.”
Building familiarity can be valuable for both-sides down the line. For example when you pitch a journalist you’ve become familiar with, you can mention that you previously connected. Additionally, when they’re covering a subject and need a source, they may recall you and your company.
It’s not just traditional outlets and journalists that are producing work that garners interest from the public. Instead, startup PR has expanded to include working with internet influencers and online personalities to shape company narratives.
Similarly to journalists, influencers exist across every niche—newsletter writers covering tech, TikTok creators discussing AI, YouTubers with channels dedicated to web3, and podcasters interviewing founders for business tips. These are all creators you can approach about potentially covering your business and telling your company’s story. Explore different media channels beyond the go-to media outlets.
Remember, influencers generally do not operate under the same ethical code as journalists. At most journalistic publications, outlets do not charge businesses to write about them because it can create a bias. Conversely, online creators often charge companies through paid media partnerships to gain access to the audience they’ve built online. Factor this into your startup PR strategy and budget.
Rather than pitching a journalist to write a piece about your business, pitch an editor to have your own story placed in their publication. Many news outlets have an editorial section where they solicit op-eds. Additionally, various blogs and owned media sites have guidelines for guest posts. If successful, you’ll work with an editor to shape the story, but will largely have the benefit of telling your company’s story in your own words.
Knowing how to craft a compelling pitch, and effectively sell your company to a relevant journalist, is more important than PR tactics or press releases. An email pitch adopts a specific focus—product, brand, data, leadership—providing newsworthy context on your business and why a journalist should cover your story.
Before focusing on what you’ll say in your pitch, consider how it will arrive in a journalist’s inbox. Here’s how to find a journalist’s email address:
A startup PR pitch is not unlike a sales pitch; it needs to stand out. Given a competitive media landscape, it’s not uncommon for journalists to receive dozens or more pitches each day. An eye-catching subject line makes all the difference. Craft a subject line that compels your reader to open your email, with enough detail for them to glean why you’re reaching out to them.
Email subject lines that work:
Email subject lines that flop:
A good PR strategy should include pitching wide and far, especially if you’re developing full-fledged PR campaigns. But it shouldn’t feel that way to the journalist receiving your pitch. Instead, you should personalize each email to make it clear why you’re reaching out to them, specifically.
Anopol suggests that personalization makes all the difference. “It’s vital that you tailor your pitch to a journalist’s beat. Before sending a pitch, make sure to research the kind of stories they write about and tailor them accordingly,” he says. “Make sure to include a personal touch—a well-written, personalized pitch is more likely to stand out and get the journalist’s attention.”
Here’s a few additional tips for making pitches personalized:
The goal of personalizing your email is to make clear that you’ve done your research and are pitching them because they’re the right person.
Provide enough context in your pitch, with enough details, that an interesting narrative or story starts to unfold. Rather than simply saying your company is competing against an established corporation, define the entrenched problems within your space, how your company solves that, and the end result for customers. Alternatively, situate your company or brand within an existing trend that’s top of mind. You’re not selling your company, you’re selling the story of your company.
Aim to include elements in your pitch that make your story newsworthy, from a key announcement, recently published data, or a breakthrough technological development. If your pitch isn’t particularly groundbreaking, ensure that your pitch is interesting in some way to the broader public and adds something interesting to the conversation.
A compelling pitch has to accomplish a lot—it needs to be personalized, tell a story, and be newsworthy. You also need to pull this off in as few words as possible. Keep your pitch as concise as possible, and don’t bury the lede. Instead, include the most interesting part of your email in the first few sentences. Aim to keep your pitch under 250 words and lean into formatting—bullet points, bolding, underlining—so that your pitch is skimmable.
“Keep the pitch short, to the point, and engaging. It should include relevant facts and figures, as well as a clear call-to-action,” says Anopol. “It’s also very helpful to provide the journalist with all the information they need in order to write a potential story—this includes access to sources, images, and any other relevant material.”
As a general rule, it’s okay to follow up once if you haven’t received a response from a journalist in a few days. Briefly mention that you’re following up on your previous pitch, reiterate a detail or two, and be respectful of their time and attention. It’s not uncommon for an email to get lost in the shuffle and a follow-up can increase your odds of a response.
Sometimes you’ll receive a response from a journalist telling you they’re not interested in covering the story outlined in your pitch. That’s okay—most pitches won’t lead to a story. However, these initial interactions can lead to mutually beneficial relationships for the future. If possible, follow up with a rejection by politely mentioning that you are open to be a subject matter expert for future pieces that they cover. Also, don’t be afraid to pitch another story down the line.
On the other hand, you may get a response from a journalist interested in covering your story. In this case, they’ll often request a phone interview. Make yourself available rather than leaning on PR or communications team members to conduct the interview as journalists appreciate speaking directly to the source. Make scheduling as simple as possible, working with their calendar to book an interview.
How the story of your company, product, brand, and people are told in the media largely depends on how thoughtfully you engage with journalists throughout processes like interviews and requests for comment. Understanding how to best interact and engage with the press will help properly position your company and avoid any startup PR nightmares.
While you shouldn’t come to interviews with a PR script and memorized talking points, you should have a strong idea of what you want to put out into the world about your company. Here are a few areas you should come prepared to discuss:
Startup PR snafus can occur when you don’t understand what a journalist can use from your conversation. Unless you have both agreed to a conversation being “off the record,” every portion of your discussion is “on the record” and can be included in their article, even portions of your conversation that feel casual—from initial greetings to discussing weekend plans. Don’t say anything that you wouldn’t want printed in the press.
Put your company’s best foot forward and be courteous and kind during interviews. That includes when you’re talking about company challenges—from ex-employees or co-founder conflict—or discussing competitors. Don’t say anything you might regret that paints your company in a negative light.
It’s not just journalists that appreciate transparency, but readers too. Leaning towards providing as much information as you can will often make for a more compelling piece that resonates with prospective customers, potential employees, and anyone else that reads the story.
While a conversation with a journalist might feel like a casual chat, many journalistic outlets have robust fact-checking processes that occur after an interview. Ensure that you’re truthful and don’t lie or exaggerate anything about your company—from your growth metrics to how you operate.
A media kit is an easily accessible multimedia package, often placed on your website, that includes key information about your company that can be used and referenced by journalists and other press. A media kit is often found on a company’s “Press” page on their website, sometimes alongside previous media coverage.
A good media kit should include the following items:
Get inspired by the media kits of companies like DigitalOcean, Slack, Zoom, and Notion.
Landing media coverage and news articles shouldn’t be where your PR efforts end. Instead, maximize your PR with post-publication activities that amplify coverage and maximize the benefits of being written about.
Share about the press coverage you received across your social media channels. That includes making original posts that point to the coverage, sharing the posts of the news outlets, and further sharing the posts of the journalist who wrote the piece. Amplifying coverage on social media can work towards further building brand awareness and legitimizing your company in the eyes of both current and prospective customers.
Include any press coverage you receive on a dedicated fresh page on your website. A press page can also convey a sense of trustworthiness and indicates a positive reputation.
While some journalists are willing to cover small companies or less established startups, others prefer to discuss more recognizable names. When pitching in the future, you can now mention other places you’ve been featured to hint towards the established reputation of your company. Just ensure you’re pitching a different story.
One reason that tech startup founders often avoid PR investment is because it can seemingly be hard to measure. However, there are several metrics that point to whether a piece of press coverage is impactful for your brand and business. When Anopol is measuring PR efforts in his role at DigitalOcean, he monitors several key indicators:
“Measuring the direct success of PR efforts can be difficult and not always 100% accurate,” says Anopol. “That’s okay, don’t get discouraged. What is important is consistency. One story won’t make or break the business, but consistent and diligent efforts to engage with the media will pay off in the long run.”
PR for startups can be a powerful addition to your marketing mix that helps build brand recognition and reach your target audience. Earning a steady stream of press coverage doesn’t happen overnight. But with a dedicated PR and communication management strategy that includes active PR outreach to journalists, building media relations, and crafting a thoughtful brand story, your company can reach new customers and build an impactful reputation.
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