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How to leverage PR for startup growth

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.

The importance of good PR for startups

image alt text 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:

  • Increase company visibility. Press coverage allows you to reach beyond your current customer base and get in front of the audience a media outlet or influencer has built. If you select for the right outlets, this means having your story told in front of a target audience that’s aligned and interested.
  • Share your brand narrative. Startup PR is an opportunity to go beyond touting your products and services, and dive into storytelling about your brand that differentiates you from competitors and other players in the market.
  • Drive customer acquisition. The right media placement can send the traffic to your website and social media platforms skyrocketing, leading to sales and new customers.
  • Heighten your credibility. When positive media coverage comes from a reputable outlet or a trusted influencer, it often serves as a recommendation that readers feel like they can rely on.
  • Increase your hiring pipeline. Someone taking a bet on your startup is easier when your reputation precedes you. Positive press coverage gives applicants external validation about your company that can help alleviate concerns as they do their research.
  • Secure investor attention. Occasionally, press coverage can land on the desk (or screen) of an investor, prompting them to reach out and learn more about your business. Alternatively, good PR can be included in your investment pitch deck to point towards early interest and traction.
  • Keep growth costs low. If you opt to do startup PR in-house, rather than springing for a PR firm or agency, PR can be a relatively inexpensive growth channel that requires few upfront costs for specialized tools. To start, all you need is email.

Define your media narrative

image alt text 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.

Product focus narrative

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:

  • What obvious edge does our product have over competitors in the space?
  • What does our product allow customers to do that they haven’t typically been able to?
  • Do we have an unusual, interesting, or impressive way our product has helped a customer?
  • What emerging technologies does our product employ (e.g. AI, blockchain, no-code)?
  • What is unique about our approach to product development?

Brand focus 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:

  • What are some of our brand values and examples of how we have lived those values as a company?
  • How can we showcase the broader ways in which our company has impacted our customers’ lives or businesses?
  • What emotions do you want to invoke when people think about or see our brand?
  • Have we built brand partnerships that clearly demonstrate our brand values?
  • What atypical company practices, policies, or traditions exemplify our company values?

Data focus 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.

With this approach, the direct focus is not on your product or company, but serves to establish your company as an expert in a particular area. Ensure that your data collection and distribution is in keeping with your privacy policy and any security and compliance laws in the jurisdictions you operate within.

Here are questions to ask as you formulate your data-focused media narrative:

  • What compelling proprietary data do we have access to?
  • Can we observe any interesting trends or behaviors amongst our customers through our data?
  • Do we have access to a large customer community that we can survey?
  • Who would benefit from our customer data trends and findings?
  • What data-driven content can be developed and distributed to the media?

Leader focus 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:

  • What can members of our C-suite speak authoritatively about?
  • What expertise do broader members of our team hold that they can provide press insights on?
  • Have we made any prominent hires that would lend credibility to our company?
  • Does anyone on the team have a compelling career story relating to why they joined the company?

Outline your startup PR outreach strategy

image alt text 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

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.

In-house PR team outreach

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.

PR firm outreach

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.

Find the right journalists

image alt text 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.

Find relevant media outlets

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:

  • Delve into your niche. Focus on media outlets and publications that cover the type of news stories that your company wants to tell. If you’re a tech company building in the Cybersecurity space, find big publications with a tech section and a journalist who covers cybersecurity. Alternatively, you can focus your efforts on a publication that exclusively covers cybersecurity. If you’re focused on pitching stories about your brand or leadership, seek out media companies that cover business more broadly, and the journalists who write about aligned topics.
  • Find your prospective customers. Think about the online publications that your prospective customer might read and find you. Better yet, if you have a small existing pool of customers, ask them about the publications they read.
  • Consider size and reach. Although it’s entirely possible to get your story in a big outlet, featured in TechCrunch or WIRED, these outlets get hundreds of pitches per day. Increase your odds by also putting effort into pitching smaller publications, for example, local news, trade publications, and niche outlets related to your sector.

Monitor your competitors

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:

  • Google Alerts. Set up Google Alerts for particular keywords like the name of your competitor’s company or the names of their founders. You’ll receive a regular digest of links across the web that mention the keywords you’ve set.
  • Social media mentions. Manually search your competitor’s social media profiles (and mentions) for press features or set up more robust social listening with tools like Brandwatch, Meltwater, or Sprinklr.
  • Website. Look through any press mentions that your competitors include on their website for a sense of where and how they’ve been previously covered.

Network intentionally

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.

Don’t forget about influencers

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.

Pitch an editor instead

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.

Perfect your pitch

image alt text 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.

Find the right email address

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:

  • Check their Twitter bio. Some journalists include their email address in the bio on their Twitter profile so that it’s easily accessible.
  • Browse their personal website. If a journalist has a website, check there to see if they have their contact information listed.
  • Look at their publication byline page. If a journalist writes for a particular publication, check to see if they have contact information on their article index page.
  • Learn the publication’s email convention. Every publication has their own email convention for journalists—from firstname.lastname@[outlet].com to [first initial][lastname]@[outlet].com. Look at journalists across a publication to see whether you observe a pattern and can make an educated guess.
  • Use an email address finder. Try out tools like Hunter, Zoominfo, or RocketReach to find and verify business email addresses.

Write a standout subject line

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:

  • “We surveyed 500 remote workers on the future of work! Surprising results…”
  • “So long, Spotify. We’re a tech startup disrupting music streaming”
  • “At [Company] we’re embracing AI at work

Email subject lines that flop:

  • “Will you cover my company?”
  • “Introducing myself!”
  • “An idea for you to write about…”

Make it personalized

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:

  • Include their name and the outlet they work for
  • Mention previous work of theirs that you’ve read and enjoyed
  • Connect your pitch to their beat and area of interest

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.

Tell a story

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.

Make it newsworthy

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.

Get to the point

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.”

Follow-up

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.

Stay connected

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.

Make yourself available

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.

Media Training 101

image alt text 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.

Know your narrative

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:

  • Your founding story and the origin of your company
  • Company growth metrics and numbers you’re willing to share
  • How you’re differentiated from other companies and competitors
  • What your company wants to achieve and accomplish
  • Your brand values and what’s important culturally

Understand “On the record”

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.

Be courteous

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.

Lean into transparency

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.

Be honest

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.

Create a media kit

image alt text 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:

  • Fact sheet. A PDF fact sheet should include information about your company including what year you were founded, where you’re based, your mission statement and core values, approximate team size, your product suite, co-founder names, investors and board members, and any other pertinent information.
  • Product screenshots. Include screenshots of your product across multiple devices—from desktop and iOS to Android and Windows.
  • Logos. Include a transparent PNG version of your logo for use in press news articles.
  • Brand guidelines. Include any brand guidelines that advise how your logo and brand colors can and cannot be used.
  • Team photos. Include photos of your team members that can be used by the media—from headshots of co-founders to any team photos that illustrate your culture.
  • Customer quotes. Include customer testimonials that provide a sense of the benefits that customers see from your products and who your buyers are.

Get inspired by the media kits of companies like DigitalOcean, Slack, Zoom, and Notion.

Leverage your coverage

image alt text

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 on social media

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.

Add coverage to your website and press kit

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.

Keep on pitching

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.

Measure your startup PR efforts

image alt text 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:

  • Total media hits and media impressions. This is the number of mentions in the media as well as the quality of the media attention you’re receiving.
  • Share of voice. These numbers are tied to a specific theme or industry you’re in, for example, the amount of coverage about “small business” you get versus your competitors.
  • Website and app traffic and conversions. Use Google analytics, or your analytics platform of choice, to see whether a traffic bump follows a piece of news coverage. Specifically track referral traffic to identify exactly where any new traffic is coming from.Set up a segmented cohort to see whether visitors from that segment lead to conversions immediately or later.
  • Backlinks. A benefit of being published in a recognized outlet is that it can garner mentions elsewhere on the web, surfacing in search engines and social bookmarking sites. Track backlinks using a platform like Ahrefs, monitoring referral traffic to your website and how this impacts your search engine optimization (SEO).
  • Social media engagement. Track whether social mentions of a published piece—both from your own company social media posts and other social accounts—are earning impressions, engagement, and shares across platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.
  • Brand sentiment. Use tools like Brandwatch to measure whether your brand sentiment is trending towards positive, neutral, or negative.
  • Further press inquiries. Often press coverage leads to more press coverage. Track whether you see an uptick is inbound press requests.
  • Additional press coverage. It’s not uncommon for news published in larger outlets to be further picked up or syndicated in smaller outlets. Monitor whether this is the case.

“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.

Grow your startup in 2023

Check out all of DigitalOcean’s resources for startups and SMBs in The Wave, our startup resource hub, for more company-building advice to help your startup thrive. Make investments in your technology this year and sign up for a DigitalOcean account to start building your product on DigitalOcean’s virtual servers, databases, and more.

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