What Startups Should Do Differently When It Comes to PR

Startups must specifically address the unique needs and challenges of being a new company while creating their PR strategy.

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By Ivy Cohen

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When I conduct seminars for startups, I typically start out by defining public relations to help entrepreneurs understand what it takes to create and execute a PR plan that achieves their business goals.

So, here we go:

Public relations is the art of establishing and maintaining a company's reputation with the public. It is the function that conducts a deliberate, planned and sustained effort to establish a mutual understanding between an organization and its audiences.

PR for startups vs. established companies

Startups often launch public relations initiatives that are -- seemingly -- similar to those of established companies. However, the fundamental differences between a startup and an established company require variations in strategies and execution. Entrepreneurs cannot simply replicate Apple or Nike's PR strategies and expect the same results. That's not to say they can't seek inspiration from how other companies conduct their PR, but it's imperative for startups to specifically address the unique needs and challenges of being a new company while creating their PR strategy.

For starters, startups begin with a clean slate and no brand awareness. Therefore, an entrepreneur's focal point for generating PR will often focus on one or more startup-specific objectives, such as:

  • Educating the public about a new product, service or idea
  • Raising funds to build or grow the business
  • Generating trials of its products or services
  • Acquiring new customers
  • Attracting top talent
  • Staking out its place amongst the competition

Each of these objectives requires a different kind of story shared with a journalist assigned to the relevant beat. Startups looking to fundraise may be particularly interested in attracting the attention of journalists who write for outlets read by venture capitalists and angel investors, like TechCrunch and VentureBeat. But when they want to create a buzz about their new product, these same startups will want lifestyle reporters and editors to cover or try the product and sing its praises. Perhaps Real Simple, Wired or BuzzFeed will do the trick.

Related: 4 Tips on Generating Buzz for Your Business, According to a PR Expert for Startups

In contrast, established organizations have an historical track record, a variety of internal and external institutional relationships and any number of activities that over the company's lifetime have created a certain level of brand awareness. Therefore, these companies' PR strategies might focus on customer retention or meeting the challenge of growing competition from startups that calls for their brands to be fresh, modern and relevant.

When DHL, for example, wanted to expand its U.S. footprint, my company built a PR program to demonstrate the company's brand attributes through the strong customer relationships, charitable initiatives and unusual delivery stories that demonstrated the company's service dedication and capabilities.

Jump start your path to brand awareness

When an organization has no history, getting initial media placements is challenging. However, starting with a blank slate can provide an incredibly exciting and unique opportunity to create a brand's reputation from the ground up. Startups can do this by being clear about what they want their audience to know about the new brand, how it will differentiate itself from existing companies and how it will otherwise add more value than its competitors.

A young company may not have business partners to leverage or a portfolio of positive customer experiences, but it still can borrow a page from an established company's playbook by finding its own way to jump start a path to brand awareness. Startups can identify short-term opportunities to introduce their brand by figuring out where their audiences are and communicating with them directly. If their customers hang out on Twitter all day, that's where the startup needs to be, too.

To put this in real world terms, an education portal we worked with wanted to introduce its new service, establish its reputation and attract users. We developed a strategy that positioned the company as a leader in content, functionality and services to users, such as parents, teens and guidance counselors. We also introduced the team as influential thought leaders and technology professionals in education. For a medical device startup launching new products and engaged in a funding round, we helped develop a PR program focused on media consumed by venture capital and angel investors, as well as healthcare decision makers.

Entrepreneurs can achieve the best PR results by asking themselves tough questions about the potential news value of a story and prioritizing their objectives. Use your best judgment to assess potential business or consumer news stories and figure out what is best presented as internal communications to be shared with stakeholders, rather than with the media. Some stories are not newsworthy to the press when weighed against hundreds of competing stories each day.

Startups are known to have "press release fever," but press releases alone don't typically lead to media coverage in top-tier news and business outlets. This is where PR pros can be particularly useful, as they can pitch story ideas, place bylined thought leadership articles and submit interview requests with targeted media to fit each company's specific objectives.

Related: How to Get the Media Hooked on Your Business

Continually feeding the media pipeline

An established business has a track record and press activities to build on, so its PR strategy might be about continually feeding the editorial pipeline to keep the brand in the media. Distributing major company news or thought leadership pieces to consumer or trade outlets is instrumental to brand positioning and can help a company's searchability.

Entrepreneurs are pulled in a million different directions every day -- which doesn't leave a lot of time to devote to building a PR strategy on their own. That being the case, entrepreneurs need to determine what resources are available to help them develop a PR strategy and consider whether they have these resources in-house or if they need to invest in an outside PR firm.

Startups can learn invaluable lessons by observing the PR strategies of established companies, but prior to creating their own PR plans, entrepreneurs should consider both the challenges and benefits that are inherent in any startup. Instead of seeking to simply emulate what older companies are doing, see what works best and tweak it to suit your company's unique situation. That's how you'll have the most impact.

Ivy Cohen

President and CEO of Ivy Cohen Corporate Communications

Ivy has spent 20 years advising companies and executives on how to build their reputations across the U.S. and around the globe. A visionary leader who helps clients problem-solve, she creates big ideas and gets outsize results. She is an accomplished executive and small business owner, a results-oriented civic leader and a consummate juggler of professional and philanthropic projects.

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