Top Launch PR Questions Answered: What Early-Stage Founders Should Know

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Caroline McCarthy consults for clients like Gawker Media, Mashery, and Social Media Week. In past lives, she was a journalist at CNET. Her experiences include:

  • Serving as managing editor for Google’s marketing insights journal, Think Quarterly, and industry partnerships manager for Google+.
  • Appearing as a commentator digital trends on TV and radio news ranging from NBC’s TODAY show to NPR’s Talk of the Nation.
  • Executing event and sponsorship strategies at SXSW, Social Media Week, Advertising Week, and the Sundance Film Festival.
  • Ranking on the Forbes top 30 under 30 list for media. 

Ah, startup PR. The uncertainty. As if it wasn’t difficult enough to get a functional product ready, there’s the added stress of making your work visible.

I’ve been on both sides of the table as a journalist for CNET and as a consultant. Here are the most common questions I’ll see.

1. Should I Invest in a press release?

You’ve probably heard this one before about how the press release is dead. In all honesty, the press release is not dead.

If your company is publicly traded, needs to get through easily to shareholders and Wall Street analysts, is beholden to all kinds of SEC regulations, and has a stock price that can hinge on your CEO’s every word, then yes, a by-the-books press release is perfectly appropriate.

For a startup that’s just launching, the format, frankly, looks silly to any reporter whose inbox threshold it happens to cross.

By their nature, press releases speak in canned statements and hyperboles that sound ludicrous coming from an early-stage startup that’s still in the thick of uncertainty.

(The epidemic of “brogrammer” founders continually insisting “We’re crushing it!” in the press doesn’t help.)

If you’re running a startup, your time is better spent on your company blog.

As a founder, author your own launch announcement. And you can keep tabs on your messaging with it.

If you’re spending six paragraphs explaining what your new company does, you may have a problem ensuring that prospective users will understand what its purpose is and how relevant it is to them.

2. Can exclusive stories boost the chances of coverage?

I’m referring to the practice of:

1. briefing a handful of reporters, perhaps as many as a dozen, and giving them some kind of embargo

while

2. letting another outlet (likely the most prestigious of the bunch) publish a little earlier and break your news.

This is fine  if you’re Microsoft or Amazon. Yes, this will piss off reporters, but those reporters can’t avoid covering Microsoft or Amazon. They can, however, hold a grudge against a startup that shut them up while giving the exclusive to another news outlet. Getting reporters to hold a grudge against you shouldn’t be on your list of priorities as you face the uphill battle to get into the press.

If you’re going to run an exclusive story — and, yes, telling a reporter that it’s an exclusive will heighten their interest — get to know that reporter and make sure you have a close relationship. Meanwhile, don’t brief other reporters under the guise of an embargo. The moment that other outlet’s exclusive goes live, they’ll feel baited and switched. And as a new startup, you can’t afford to burn bridges

When you’re working with a reporter on an exclusive, make it clear that the story must be published by a given date, and that after that you (the founder) are free to speak to other outlets about it.

Keep in mind that there are a range of factors affecting whether an exclusive will ultimately run. Here’s what I’ve seen happen:

  • Even in our age of real-time publishing, a reporter’s editor may sit on a story for week.
  • An editor will nix a story idea altogether.
  • More often than not, a reporter isn’t involved in the decision at all.

Exclusives are great in that you have a stronger dialogue with the reporter, more control over your messaging, and the potential for heightened visibility.

But you should always — always — have a Plan B.

3. Should I hire a PR firm?

Folks in Silicon Valley tend to be split on this one: Should a startup (presumably, in this case, one that’s already funded) hire a PR firm for its launch?

In the vast majority of cases, no.

I’ve encountered entrepreneurs who were convinced that their user growth hinged on being able to get a launch announcement in a consumer media outlet like USA Today or CNN — and that in order to make connections in consumer media, they’d have to hire a PR firm for it.

First of all, a great news placement in nearly all cases is a quick fix that will wear off.

Your users may briefly spike, but it’s rare that this alone will rocket your new startup to success.

Second, reporters know the ins and outs of the PR business and likely are familiar with just about every firm that works with companies in their industry.

Hire one of the top-notch firms and you’ll raise some eyebrows about whether you might be a tad profligate with your seed funding.

Hire one of the budget-priced firms and you may wind up with an incompetent representative who at best will annoy reporters with naive persistency, and who at worst won’t actually understand your company.

Even relatively junior reporters can tell when the PR rep who’s contacting them on behalf of a startup is just parroting back talking points and doesn’t actually understand the company. (Seriously, this happens. When I was a reporter I started screening calls from one particular PR firm because their roster of companies was so lackluster, they always managed to pitch the wrong reporter, and their entire staff was the epitome of clueless.)

There are notable exceptions to my “don’t hire a PR firm” recommendation:

  • The biggest one is that if the startup is being launched by a prominent founder who’s likely to attract extremely high levels of press attention by his or her name and prior affiliation alone.
  • Another one, I’d argue, is that if the startup is in an extremely contentious space with either a lot of competition (say, mobile payments) or potential legal liability.

Getting press is a tough business, and the ability to get quick advice when you need it instead of making a huge upfront investment is a massive asset for a new startup. Because sometimes, as much as we all hate to admit it, we just need to be steered in the right direction.


Set up a call with Caroline to learn about getting press, content marketing, and digital media. 

Photo Credit: Mikhail hoboton Popov/Shutterstock

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Comments.

  • http://www.emmasiemasko.com/ Emma Siemasko

    Great, informative post with useful insight for entrepreneurs, Caroline.

    I work at Grasshopper (phone system for entrepreneur’s) and we don’t use PR firms or recommend that startups use them for the same reasons you’ve outlined. They’re really expensive when a business is just starting out.

    We actually just published a guide to how to do PR yourself (the natural extension of a post like this one!).

    Thanks for the insights.