Five Things Tech Startups Should Know About PR

A video still from the panel discussion "Demystifying PR for Startups"

Technology company incubator Dogpatch Labs recently hosted an event in New York called “Demystifying PR for Startups.” It was fun to attend and hear in-the-trenches stories from varying viewpoints: journalists, PR agency executives, in-house marketers, and tech entrepreneurs.

The panel consisted of Dave Ambrose co-organizer of Hackers and Founders; James Moran and Vin Vacanti, founders at Yipit; Ben Kessler, director of communications at SeatGeek; Jordan Goldman, founder at Unigo; Nick Saint, reporter, Business Insider; Erica Swallow, Assistant Editor, Mashable; Devindra Hardawar, lead mobile writer, VentureBeat; and Adam Isserlis, director of digital media at Rubenstein Communications.

While the panel was definitely informative, many of the same questions and misconceptions were tossed around. Here is perhaps the best example:

For those of you who have been to a tech meet up or conference where startups demo their product or service, the most popular and first question often asked is, “What is your business model?” or “How do you make money?”

Meanwhile, the most popular question at any tech PR event is, “How do I get on TechCrunch?” or Mashable, etc. Of course, there is no easy answer to that question. Just like there is no easy answer to the question, “How did you get your company funded?”

The only guaranteed way to get on TechCruch is to buy an ad.

Let’s expand on this thought and outline five things startups need to know about PR that were discussed at the Dogpatch Labs event and many others.

PR Is Not Just Publicity

Tech entrepreneurs, and many others equate PR to “get me press.” Certainly that is a big, and valuable, part of what a PR agency or internal PR person can do for your company. However, what most startups overlook is that strategy and digging deep into questions like, “Why do I need press, what will I do with it, and what are the business goals?” is more important. It’s said too often but the question “What are your business goals?” is crucial and entrepreneurs should be thinking about that and then mapping back to how PR can help them achieve those goals as opposed to just thinking, “I need to be on TechCrunch.” Adam Isserlis, of Rubenstein perhaps said it best: “The idea of PR is of an accelerant. It helps get you were your going but it won’t get you there by itself.”

You Should Not Always Speak to the Press About Your Direct Competitors

This is a fascination of startups that are competing against many other very similar companies. Lets take group text messaging service Fast Society, for example. The company was just featured in a Business Insider story with the headline, “Your Competitor Is Stealing All The Spotlight — Here Are 5 Ways To Take It Back.” The entire premise of the story was that another better funded and established startup, GroupMe, has been getting more attention than them and how Fast Society plans to combat that.

Why would Fast Society spend time on this interview? It’s super insider-y, and I’d argue Fast Society’s time would be better served conducting marketing that will actually help them grow their user base, instead of spending time in an interview where they named their competitor about 20 times and talked about insider-y competition stuff that is maybe interesting to the tech entrepreneur crowd but likely does little to help Fast Society. Are there certain instances where should mention a direct competitor? Absolutely. Tons of them. However, when you’re a startup in a competitive space, you should be careful not to over focus on wanting to “get back” at a competitor in the press, and instead focus on highlighting your own successes and innovations.

PR Isn’t Based Off Algorithms – a.k.a. – There Are No Guarantees

It bears repeating: the only guaranteed way to have your company or product featured in a publication is to buy an ad. Are their best practices when it comes to marketing communications? Sure. And while it’s crucial to measure and track your marketing and PR efforts as best you can, some things just aren’t directly track-able. Too often executives will want to know if an event is worth going to in advance – “Will it result in sales? Partnerships? A spike in users?” While you can track and vet events and other opportunities as much as you want, sometimes you just have to try things out and see what happens. Persistence also helps. For example, the founders from local deals service Yipit outlined how much effort they spent into getting into The New York Times: “It took like 50 emails and a dinner to make that happen.”

Facts Matter, Opinions Don’t

But Joe, Fox News and MSNBC are thriving on opinion, while CNN is stuck in the middle trying to play it straight. Yes, that is true. But this is a different story. Many companies pitch PRNewser with a lot of excitement about their product. There is nothing wrong with that at all. After all, if the founder isn’t excited about the product, who will be? However, there is a difference between being excited and being way over the top. When pitching your product or service, lead with the facts. Anyone can make a claim like “we have the absolute best customer service” or “this is the best platform for X.” Why not try to change that claim to something factual, for example, “We’ve had 90 percent client retention over the past two quarters” or “Our user base has grown 1000x in the last six months.”

The Purpose of a Press Release Is Not To Generate Press

At the Dogpatch Labs event, and at almost any other tech PR focused event, much breath is wasted debating whether or not the press release is necessary or effective. In most of these conversations, the confusion seems to be that putting out a press release should equal press. Of course, that’s not the case.

Even though reporters say they hate press releases, they will also admit a well written one that delivers actual news can serve as a helpful background document. In the tech reporting world, many of the top sites even embed the press release at the bottom of a story. However, one of the reasons reporters hate press releases is that they get subject to endless rounds of messaging edits by various folks in marketing, legal, or your CEO. By the end of the process you have a watered-down document with tons of marketing speak that doesn’t make any sense.

As Mashable’s Erica Swallow said, “A founder of a startup recently contacted me and wanted to give an exclusive. He sent me four sentences about the product and the potential story. Then someone from his PR team sent a press release about supposedly the same story. [The founder’s] four sentences were more compelling. If he would have sent me the press release first I would have probably said were not interested.”

In conclusion

While much more can be said about these topics, I’ll leave it to Business Insider’s Nick Saint, who perhaps put it best: “The ugly answer to all these questions is to know the right people.”

You can view video of the event here.

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