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PR for startups – why you don’t need someone like me… yet!

By Cathy White (@Cathywhite10)

Don’t be a dick- that is the single most important thing I can tell you if you want to PR your startup.

Of course, there are countless other pieces of advice and tips of the trade I can share with you, but none of them will work unless you follow that first, golden rule. Impressions count, and someone who is a “dick” will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.

As part of Wayra CEE’s tour across Europe, I spoke in Gdansk, Athens and Budapest to show early stage startups why they don’t need a PR agency to secure great coverage, and what they can do to kick-start their own PR. A journalist from Greece pointed out that this seemed a bit strange: “Cathy, you work for a PR agency, why would you tell them they don’t need you!” I know, this might appear to be the worst sales pitch ever, but the truth is, I will never do PR for a startup that isn’t ready to work with an agency.

There are numerous agencies out there that will jump at the chance to work with a startup. Startups are cool, sexy and look fantastic on an agency’s roster of clients. But for a startup, an agency will cost thousands of pounds a month – a big chunk of money for a small company – and while an agency may initially promise you a piece in the BBC, TechCrunch and Mashable, the outcome is often very different and unsatisfactory.

So let’s revisit that first rule. Don’t be a dick. I will openly tell a startup if they are not ready for PR, or simply for a PR agency, and give them some free advice.

Below are just some of the tips I have shared with startups across Europe that can help you start to build the relationships you need to get your name out there and get to grips with your own PR…..

1) Are you ready for PR?

Well, are you? How do you know? A lot of startups can rush into doing PR, eager to appear in a leading publication and showcase what they are doing. But you didn’t start your company to appear in Wired, you started it because of your passion and the belief in your product, and this should remain your focus.

It’s rare that a journalist will want to know about a product in development. They want to see the finished product and understand the impact this will make. Yes, it would be amazing to see your startup featured in TechCrunch, but it would be better to see it happen when you can tell them what you’re doing, why it matters, show them the product, tell them about your core market, your competitors, your USP, what investment you’ve had to date etc. Then you have a great story of real value that people will take notice of.

Don’t rush to tell your story until you can tell all of it. And when you do, make sure you’re telling it to the right audience.

2) What’s your end goal?

When you start thinking about PR, you need to ask yourself what your goal is.

Are you looking to drive customer acquisition? Are you looking for investment? Do you want to increase traffic to your site?

What you want to achieve will affect where you tell your story. If you want to drive customer acquisition, you need to pitch a consumer story. For investment, you want your startup to appear in publications read by angels or VC’s, so TechCrunch, Wired, business pages and startup blogs will all be key. For increased traffic, you need online pieces that will include a link. For helping new business you need to look at trade publications and what your clients might read.

This is just the beginning of creating your basic PR strategy, to ensure you’re talking to the right audience and journalists from the start. This way you maximise the value of your PR and should see the return you hoped for.

3) Blog it.

Blogs are fantastic. They take time, but can be invaluable in the long run. This is the easiest way to give your company a story. Started the company? Blog it. Hired your team? Blog it. Won a competition? Blog it. Launched in Beta? Blog it. Want to be a thought leader? Blog it.

Over time you will create an online narrative, showing the full story of your startup from inception to present day. Not only is this a great way of inspiring your team and building a community, but it’s also a fantastic resource for journalists to check out what you’re doing and to see your full back story.

When you come to writing press releases, a blog is a great way to host them and share the news with your followers, through Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn etc.

4) Twitter- your most useful tool!

It’s no longer difficult to contact journalists. Twitter has made it easier. Not only is Twitter a great way to stay on top of news relevant to you, but it makes it so easy to follow and connect with key influencers in your market.

I estimate that I am following 1,000 journalists and newsites through Twitter from all over the world. I can see who is writing about what, who is attending what event, and engage with them when I want to.

One tweet may not mean that you have a relationship with the Tech Reporter of the New York Times, but if you can say something of value about a piece they have written, pay them a compliment, share a joke with them or give them advice – you might just create a connection.

They might follow you back and they might be interested in what you’re doing. It could take a while to get to this stage, but through researching who you want to be talking to about your product, Twitter can be a useful way to start a conversation, so give it a go!

TIP: Oh, and that blog I mentioned? Direct them to it when you tweet them.

5) Research, research, research!

In an agency, one of our jobs is to stay on top of the news and update our clients on anything relevant to them that they could comment on. If we didn’t do this, we’d be a terrible agency!

You can do the same thing, so why pay an agency?

TIP: Want to know which journalists cover your beat and what their interests are? Grab some newspapers, split them amongst your team and spend 15-20 minutes skimming through them for stories each morning.

Put what you find in a spreadsheet and very soon you’ll have your own media database. You will know who writes for what paper, what they cover, be able to track topics they are particularly interested in, and what day they are published.

After a few months, when you come to pitch a story, you’ll know what angle the journalist might like, and can impress them by putting your news in the context of other articles you have seen them write.

TIP: A great resource for start-ups to use is:

6) What is a story?

Mike Butcher, European Editor of TechCrunch, has pulled together a great presentation that tells you what a TechCrunch story looks like, and how to pitch it.


He highlights in this presentation what a story looks like:

Competition /Drama: “X will kill Z”

Gossip: “CEO/Company rumour…”

Insight: “Trend X will change the world”

Evolution: “Startup Y is like the X for Z”

Success: “Awesome Y created!”

Failure: “Company X dying/screwed up”

You are the story: “Kid creates Facebook”

Celebrity: “Ashton Kutcher invests!”

While these are all stories, its best to steer clear of gossip or failure, and the chance of you being the story or celebrity involvement is very small.

If you’ve done your research, and know how what you’re doing fits into the big picture, you’ll be able to create a story that might just grab the interest of a publication like TechCrunch.

Tip: An exclusive, with a publication and audience that is renowned and relevant to you, can be a hugely valuable tactic. If you can offer an exclusive, particularly to a publication like TechCrunch, you’ll not only make a journalist feel special, but it will also be easier to start a conversation.

7) Be bold!

Today it is easier to get in touch with a journalist, but that also means that you’re in direct competition with hundreds of other people trying to contact them.

If you think about your inbox, when you receive a new email you can see the subject line and maybe one other sentence. This is what a journalist will see first, and therefore it is the most important line when trying to contact them via email.

It needs to capture their attention and make them want to open your email and read more. So be bold! Say something that will spark their curiosity or interest, and get that first conversation started. Do your research about what interests them most and you’ll be better placed to know what to say and how to engage them.

8) So, you’re going to write your first press release….

Press releases were designed in such a way that a journalist could copy and paste a story directly into an article. They can be a daunting task at first, but by following a few simple steps they can become much easier.

At school we were taught to provide a summary at the end of our work. With a press release you need to do the exact opposite. Your title and opening two to three lines are the most important ones and must summarise the entire story. This is the inverted pyramid style of writing, where you start top heavy and then fill out the detail as you go down.

The title needs to be exciting and really capture the attention of the reader, similar to your opening email, and within the title and opening summary you need to cover the ‘who, what, where, when, why and how’ of the ‘news’ you are trying to convey.

Once you have that first section nailed, you move on to add more to the story, in a very concise and factual style of writing.  A press release should never be more than a page and a half (at the very most), and if you want to include background information, boiler plates, links etc. you can put these in a Notes to Editors section at the end, along with your contact information.

9) Patience is a virtue

It can sometimes take time to build the relationships you need and for journalists to take notice of your startup, and so patience is incredibly valuable.

Firstly, the demand of a journalist is insane! A colleague of mine used to write for the Telegraph, and at its worst, he had 55,000 unread emails in his inbox.

Your email may have gone unread due to a big story coming through, it may have fallen off the first page of an inbox due to the influx of emails that person receives, or the journalist may have ‘saved it for later’ only to forget about it.

Remember, a journalist is being contacted everyday by Twitter, email, phone, mobile, texts, LinkedIn etc. and can only write so many articles in a day. There is no harm in following up your message, but don’t be a dick, and be patient.

10) Use your network and build your community

Asking for help and paying it forward can really help you PR your startup. If you pull together with your community, you might know someone who can make an introduction to the right journalist. Then it is no longer a “cold” email, it’s a direct introduction to an influencer from a mutual contact.

If you’re worried your story might not be big enough or not quite right, talk to someone and ask for their advice. The tech communities across Europe are there to support one another, and turning to another startup, which may have already done some PR, and asking for their thoughts on what you’re doing, can be incredibly valuable.

While I’ve been travelling with Wayra CEE on its tour, I have been amazed by the developing tech ecosystem across the region, but I knew nothing about them before. There is power in the voice of a crowd, so if you want to maximise your PR and bring attention to your community, you need to bring everyone together to tell the whole story. That way people like me will know what is happening, and will be able to see the development and excitement of each community as it continues to grow.

Cathy White is an account manager for Albion Drive, an integrated PR and social media agency specialising in working with entrepreneurs in the tech ecosystem.  Previously, Cathy worked at Silicon Milkroundabout, a Tech City based recruitment startup, and for the London office of Sparkpr, a Silicon Valley based agency. Current and previous clients include, Brainient, DFJ Esprit, Index Ventures,, Nominet Trust, Seedrs, and Transferwise.