Brooke Hammerling is an expert in connecting startups with the media. In this article she tackles the issue of how to ‘get into’ the press.

“I can’t tell you how many times we’ve met with early-stage companies, and they start by telling us their big vision. They say, ‘This is what we’re about and what we want to change.’ But when we ask them what they actually do, they can’t tell us. If you can’t answer that question, don’t do anything else until you can. Nothing else matters.”

When it comes to whether startups need help in this area, she has a somewhat subversive opinion: they don’t. Even while at Brew, she’s helped hash out PR plans for a number of entrepreneurs who can’t afford full-time agencies or in-house support. And she’s got a playbook of tactics for those who want to do it on their own.

When You Shouldn’t Hire A PR Agency

Many small startups can pull off a solid media relations strategy without paying, Hammerling says. In fact, she says there are only three reasons an early-stage company should consider retaining the services of a firm:

  • When entering a crowded market startups need to be able to show why they’re better
  • When the startup is disrupting a major industry, like health care.
  • If the CEO is well known in the press

If your startup doesn’t fall into any of these categories, then you could consider going it alone. Hammerling believes that ‘You Are Your Message & Your Message Is Everything’.

When beginning your press campaign you need to be able to answer in depth questions about your company and your team, like What are you? Why are you? Who are you? What problem are you solving and how are you solving it? Why should people care right now?’ This is how a powerful narrative about your company is born, and without a powerful narrative you won’t get press coverage.

Hammerling believes that startups can come up with their own ideas and compare notes, and develop the narrative within the team. She says, “PR isn’t about hits and it isn’t about placement. It’s about focusing your voice. It’s about finding your place in the market.” And if you can’t do that on your own, you need to address that issue first – you don’t need a PR agency for that.

By getting all key stakeholders to think about the narrative you will get the opportunity to say, oh I like how this one person said that, or how so-and-so explained this concept. Then you can combine the best messages and work from there.

The next step is to build a messaging document, starting with your most important messaging at the top. Below that, you can dive a little deeper with the three key messages you’d want to share with reporters about the specific problem your company is solving. Under that, you can get more detailed. Everyone in your company must be aware of these messages so the startup can develop in tune with these messages and so that you are always communicating a consistent set of messages, or narrative about your startup.

Developing messaging that resonates can be tough for highly technical companies. Writers and the general public usually don’t care about the technology. Instead they are interested in how it will change people’s lives. So don’t use technical jargon in your messaging. Keep it simple and make sure people understand it.

Drawing analogies is also not usually the best way to approach your messaging. Saying “It’s like Twitter, only for dog-sitters” can be instructive, but it can weaken your brand. It’s better to boil your message down to its core, and then layer in other dimensions and functionality little by little. Figure out the key benefit of your company and focus on that, not on the other less-core benefits. If you try to pack everything into one press release for example, you’ll probably not be able to connect with writers, or customers.

Sometimes founders find this a struggle. They’ve spent time building a complex product and want to talk about all of its capabilities. But this is almost always a mistake, according to Hammerling. “It’s like telling them their child isn’t ready for an honors class yet. They want to fast-forward.” But she believes you have to take it slowly and educate the market over time, rather than bombard people with everything, all at once.

Case Study: ‘Color’ burst onto the scene in 2011, having raised $41 million in funding. While its success was clear the app’s actual functionality was not. People didn’t knew what the app did or what to expect once they downloaded it. Because of the money, people were expecting something great, but it wasn’t. Hammerling explains that Color’s demise was slow and quiet. In this case the funding dictated the press strategy, instead of the company’s service.

Prepping for Launch

Creating an effective press campaign for a product launch takes time, so start preparing today. Like creating messaging, preparing for an effective launch starts with a list of questions designed to figure out your real motivations for doing PR: Do you just want a lot of attention early on? Is the goal to attract a ton of users? Customers? Is the announcement more about recruiting top talent? Do you want to raise more capital or VC interest?

The answers to these questions will shape your approach and your story. Mostly, different goals mean you go after different outlets. For example, if you’re trying to hire engineers, you should target Reddit, Hacker News, or the blogs engineers you want are reading. If you’re trying to get in front of investors, focus on publications that deal with VC news. Whatever your aims, stick with one basic and powerful message, then adjust it a little for each audience.

Avoid timing any product launches with funding announcements because the amount of money can convince people what to expect from your company and how likely it is to succeed. Instead, the product should stand on its own.

Also, don’t launch before their product is ready. Many startups unveil their product before it works and then they often get bad press as a result. This can kill your brand before it’s even established. If your product launch deadlines are behind schedule, then wait till you’re ready.

Getting on the Media’s Radar

 

Once you have your messeging, it’s all about placement. But how do you get attention from the media? This is all about relationships, and this is where a PR agency with the right connections can really help, though you should aim to build your own media relationships as well.

Figure out which writers are covering your industry. Read everything they write. Try to understand their writing style, personality, and the topics they write about.  Follow reporters on Twitter and try to engage with them before you send out your press release.

You should build meaningful relationships with a few writers in your area. If you’re a young entrepreneur, get to know writers who around the same age. They are entrepreneurial too, and they can grow in their careers as your startup grows.

Don’t Be Shy

Writers who cover your industry tech want to hear from you and to build relationships with entrepreneurs. try to set up some time to take them out for coffee, or at least try to schedule a call. Not everyone will say yes, but if you don’t ask you won’t get. It’s also good to contact writers a little in advance of any big news. For this, a week in advance is good.

One way of getting your story covered is to offer an exclusive article or interview with your CEO. Once you get the first coverage you can always reach out to additional writers.

However, Hammerling believes that in most cases giving exclusives can actually hurt your relationships with other writers in the long term. She says, “Giving exclusives will end up hurting your ability to build relationships in the long run,”

Once You Have Their Attention

Now it’s time to start talking to the media. This is also a time when a good communications agency can help, training your internal team how to effectively talk to the media and answer questions effectively. For example, technical founders may need to shorten their ideas or statements to be more catchy, and less overtly technical.

It’s also good practice to watch YouTube videos of successful entrepreneurs in interviews. Salesforce’s Marc Benioff, Oracle’s Larry Ellison and Aaron Levy from Box are three great examples. When you are talking about your startup or product, you should be active, rather than robotic when talking about key messages. If you’re passionate and having fun, the media will be more interested.

Knowing your competition is also vital to being credible and compelling. When you know your competition better than anyone else, you can be a real source of information. Writers are always looking for good sources and this will help you build a lasting relationship. Speaking about your own company is useful, but being able to speak about your industry is really really useful.

When talking about your competition “negativity never wins,” Hammerling says. You should be respectful of your competition. You’re all part of the same community and promoting your industry as well as your own company can help it to grow.

 

If you are talking about your competition it’s also good practice to talk about the biggest players. Then you’re connecting your startup with large scale successes.  That’s much better than talking about other startups.

When speaking with the press you should be proactive but not obnoxious, informative but not aggressive. Don’t push reporters to run your story – if they have said they will, then they probably will. At the same time, while building relationships with writers, make sure you stay professional otherwise your key messages could suffer.

Once your story is published keep an eye on comment threads. They can give a great impression of how the general public (and your customers) perceive your startup and your product. This will help you shape your key messages in the future, and can help fill holes in your initial communications strategy.

The Irreplaceable Voice of the Founder

In most cases founders are the voice and heart of a startup. They care the most about the company’s success. It’s that energy that inspires people, makes for good stories, and it can’t be substituted, according to Hammerling. Founders should always be a part of your media strategy and should be available for interviews with writers, if required. Your press kit should also contain some compelling quotes from your Founder about the topic of the story.

Writers really want that connection with the founder and their story. This is vital, even if you hire a PR agency.

Edited from original on FirstRound