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How Startups Can Get Media Attention Without Hiring a PR Agency


In my last post, I outlined four reasons why early-stage startups shouldn’t hire PR firms. There are exceptions to just about every rule, but I stand by that advice for the vast majority of cases, reports Forbes.

Still, that piece lacked actionable guidance for startups to get press on their own. This post will provide that guidance.

In simple terms, startups have two options when ultimately choosing not to hire a PR firm:

1.) Hustle it out on their own.

2.) Find cheaper, non-traditional help.

If you’re considering these options, I recommend sticking with the first. Finding high-quality, non-traditional PR help is very hard for anyone to do, but it’s particularly hard for startups. The freelance PR market is fragmented and opaque, with plenty of dubious actors who can point to a couple minor successes, amidst a history of failures, to lure new clients. 

And as a population largely lacking in the chops to effectively evaluate PR professionals, startups are easy prey for bad actors. You’ll likely spend a long, long time trying to find one of the few high-quality freelancers out there, or end up getting fleeced in the process. My recommendation is to instead spend that time making headway on your own.

I’ll outline just how you can do that.

Gut and Relationships

In simple terms, you hire professional PR help for two reasons. First, they should provide a finely-tuned sense of what does and does not work as a press story, along with a similarly finely-tuned view of how to match those story angles with different publications. Second, they should have the relationships at those publications to get stories placed.

That’s it. Gut and relationships.

So when you think about going the hustle-it-out route, you should think about it in those terms. How are you going to make up for your lack of experience and relationships?

Gut

Let’s start with the first component—the fact that you probably have no idea how to make your company interesting to the press. If you have some effort to spare, there are some easy ways to make up for this deficit.

Before you do anything, you’ll need to acquire a solid understanding for how the press talks about your industry. Step one: head over to Google and spend as much time as you can getting a feel for what people are talking about in your space. What are the big questions, controversies or trends? How do different publications approach these topics? What are people getting wrong? What are they missing?

Basically, you need to soak yourself in relevant media so that, eventually, you can internalize the different lenses through which reporters approach topics and companies in your industry. Think backwards from headlines. How can you see your company plausibly fitting into the conversation?

Next, you still need some professional advice.

As the founder of a startup, odds are that you have some kind of moderately effective network. You may have investors, mentors, advisors, other founder friends, etc. Somewhere within that network is someone who knows a PR professional. It’s even possible that this PR professional knows what they’re talking about.

Find a way to talk to that PR professional and milk them for 15 minutes of advice. If they’re any good, they’ll prevent you from making any number of stupid mistakes within the first five minutes and possibly give you a sense of the most promising angles for your business after the first 15. They’ll also be helpful for tactical tips and etiquette. (I.e., “How long should I wait to follow-up with reporters?”)

And if you don’t have a PR professional in your network? If you live in a media-dense market like New York or San Francisco, there are almost certainly events that have media professionals crawling all over them. Just go wherever reporters are, and you’ll probably find three PR people for every journalist. Since tech PR people need new business almost as much as they need to cozy up to journalists, they’re generally happy to talk to startup founders about a couple of their issues in these situations.

If that’s not an option, find someone who looks like they know what they’re talking about online and cold e-mail them. Some may not take the call, but a lot will. 

Relationships

For early-stage startups, PR firms often appear most valuable for their relationships with the media. This is valid, though you’d be surprised by how many firms survive by just cold-emailing hundreds of reporters. 

That said, relationships with the media are still enormously valuable. As a startup founder, you’ll never be able to match the rolodex of a quality firm, but the truth is that you don’t need to. At your stage, you likely don’t need an expensive, sustained communications strategy. You just need a couple of pieces of decent press, and a couple of relationships to get them. With a little work, that’s definitely achievable.

Here’s how to make that happen:

1.) Again, use your network.

Like I mentioned earlier, as a startup founder you should have some reasonably robust network. There are probably people within that network—investors, founders, consultants—who are on friendly terms with one or more journalists. Find those people, ask for introductions and go from there.

2.) Be helpful.

In order to do their jobs well, journalists have to continuously get information from people in the industries they cover. Guess what? You work in one of the industries they cover. By virtue of that fact, you probably have insights and opinions that could be very useful for them. 

As one prominent tech reporter noted, “If people are going to feed me information, then I’m much more likely to be their friend.”

In practice, this means providing helpful opinions and facts to relevant reporters via social media or a very concise, non-salesy email. 

3.) Go to events.

Again, this works best in a media dense market, but even smaller cities often have local reporters hanging around conferences or panels. Go to these events, talk to reporters like a normal human, and follow-up politely. To find relevant events, I recommend Meetup.com and local newsletters like Startup Digest or, in New York, Gary’s Guide.  

4.) Send thoughtful, targeted emails.

Even without relationships, an interesting product and angle, along with a couple of human-sounding emails from the founder, can do wonders. I gave this advice (pro bono) to the Columbia freshmen behind Readism, for example, and they ended up with articles in The Next WebPC WorldLifehackerBustle and Digital Trends.

Trust me, before they began the process they were just as clueless as you are now. But with a little effort you too can save yourself a couple grand on a PR firm and still get the press you deserve. 

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