Pitching Practice: A PR-Checklist for Early-Stage Startups
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As the co-founder of TalentBin, a recruiting company that got acquired by Monster, we’ve historically been pretty good at PR. But it’s not because we are particularly “strategic” in our communications approach or anything that "hifalutin." Rather, the majority of our success is our ability to roll up our sleeves, do work and execute the proper blocking and tackling required to target, pitch and support press who are excited about our space.
Because of our past success, I get a lot of people asking me about PR and how to achieve coverage, especially around a launch or announcement. At the end of the day, it’s not a big mystery. It’s a B2B sales campaign, where you provide appropriate content to the appropriate people.
Think of the journalist as your customer. You’re selling them on something that is going to make them successful at their job. In the short term, a story that is going to please their readership, get shared and drive page views. In the long term, a relationship where you can provide an ongoing stream of those stories and other help.
White it's not rocket science, it does take work.
Here is a PR-checklist to get you started.
Create a narrative. To get started, you first need a coherent “story.” It should focus on how your offering fits into the larger narrative of your market, the evolution of technology over time, what problem it solves and why your hypothesis is actually valid, as demonstrated by traction of customers, competitors and adoption, among other aspects. (It’s pretty much the same story you’d tell someone at a cocktail party or industry conference.)
A news hook. This is the reason why the reporter would actually cover this now. Yes, your startup is interesting in general, but so are a lot of others. The hook should be the “why cover this now?” Launch or funding are common angles.
A pitch. Your pitch is a manifestation of your story but cut specifically for this news event.
It’s the news hook, expanded out into a larger framework and then supporting components. These are the things you want people to take away from the story that ideally gets adopted into the storyline. When people talk about "setting the tone" of a story, this is what they’re talking about. (For an example, click here.)
The pitch email. It should have a compelling subject line that drives an open (ideally with the news hook in it). The very first sentence should be addressed to the reporter and cover why you think they’ll care. This will show them that you’ve qualified them and done your homework. The pure goal of this sentence is to get them to read the second sentence on what you do. (For an example, click here.)
A press release. Another manifestation of your larger pitch is your press release.
It’s actually debatable if you’ll want to send your press release across the wire, as it costs money, but it’s still good to have to email to folks as text.
The release is the summation of the news event and can be used by a reporter to determine if sje wants to cover the event, want to pass it to someone else, validate her notes or pull materials directly from.
The release should have the expanded version of the pitch, contextualized in the larger story, proof points (i.e. customer examples, counts, stats) and then supporting materials, like a ready-made quote from you, the founder, along with third-party validators, like customers, an industry analyst and so on. Lastly, there should be a boilerplate at the bottom that sums up the company in a tight little package with a bow on it.
You can check out an example of something we did with the launch of “TalentBin 2.0.”
Third-party validators. One thing journalists often will want is third parties to talk with or use quotes from. This could be customers, analysts, VCs and so on.
Ideally you should already have these folks in your back pocket in a Google Spreadsheet, pre-validated.
If they are open to getting on the phone with a journalist, provide some coaching of the message you’d like to get across. (“It would be awesome if you could focus on X, Y and Z.”)
Visual materials for support. The journalist is going to want visuals for their piece. Don’t make them do the screenshots, it’s just more work. You do it once -- make them perfect and on message -- and provide them the material.
Start with the one you really want them to use in the piece, but also have backups for different parts that correlate to your pitch’s messaging components.
Extra credit for a video demo or an explainer video.
A target list. You’re going to need a target list of reporters and outlets who are going to be interested in your news item.
Think about your target list as all the folks who cover your space. But also include the broader business press who have subset reporters who cover your space like The Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek and Time, along with vertical or trade publications.
But importantly it’s not just the publication, it’s the writer. Make sure you reach out to the writers that cover your industry.
How to find these folks? If you have your act together, you should already know the people who cover your space and be following them on Twitter.
Also, if you don’t have Google alerts set up for your competitors do so now. You can start creating a list of reporters who follow your space. It's also a good time to begin looking at recent Google news coverage of competitors/adjacent companies or go to a competitor's press page to get information about who has already written about them.
Now make a list of people in a spreadsheet. Columns should include outlet, reporter, email address, vertical and bonus for "relevant beat." Also, think about adding links to pertinent pieces and status.
By organizing your media contacts, it will make pitching much easier. For instance, “Hey Ryan! I love your coverage of Uber and Lyft and as such, I thought you’d be interested in our upcoming launch of ...”
Don’t worry about getting everyone. The important thing is having a solid list of leads that are targeted, qualified and relevant.
A place to do the press call. All of our above activity is to prepare you for press calls where you can dig into the news item with reporters and have a richer conversation.
At minimum, you should have the ability to share your screen and use visuals.
An agenda for the call. Know what you want to cover on the call. Largely it’s going to be a deeper dive on the content that’s already in your pitch and a chance for the journalist to ask more questions, dig in and get other quotes aside from the one that you provided in the press release.
Also, don’t assume they will remember your pitch email or watched the explainer video. So provide a couple of background slides.
During your conversation, always focus on the main thrust and supporting the components of your pitch. When asked a question, answer it but bring it back to the pitch or the closest relevant component.
They may also ask for customers or analysts' contact information. Because you’re so prepared you will already have them and can offer an email introduction.
Lastly, you should always offer to help if they need more on this piece, or even in the future.
A media relations grinder. Unless you have a demonstrated history with the reporters in your industry who matter, it will be very hard for you to cut through the noise.
This is where working with a media-relations consultant comes into play. She is essentially a PR person who works independently (no longer at an agency or in-house) but has a history of working with the journalists you are targeting.
Because these reporters are constantly being pitched crap, the move here is to borrow the reputation and "contacts" of this media-relations person. They are essentially representing to the target journalists that you and your story are legit.
To vet a consultant look at her past placements and who she follows/engage with on Twitter.
A press packet. Lastly, you need all of the above bundled into a kit to send to journalists post-call.
It should include your release, pull quotes to choose from, images, video and pre-validated customer/analyst references. Also think of adding FAQs, when the company was founded, who the backers are and so on. (Anything the journalist probably asked/would have asked but forgot to in your call should be included.)
Do the work. Be "customer focused" in serving the needs of the journalist and his readers. Have a compelling story. The coverage will come.
-This article was edited for lenth
[The full, unedited version originally appeared on FounderDating, a people network for entrepreneurs.]