Is your startup looking for PR? Here’s what you really need to know

I attended a fantastic session at The Accelerator Centre in Waterloo this week. The panel, made up of Sarah Efron, Jessica Galang, Terry Pender, and Nadia Matos, provided startups with the basics of dealing with media and what it takes to pique their interest.

What struck me as I listened is that the panel could have easily convened at a gathering of Fortune 500 CEOs, and their advice would have been just as appropriate.

That’s because, like fitness, accounting or car repair, PR is a discipline that works when done properly, fails when it’s done poorly. Simple as that. PR trades in stories, and the size of the company telling that story is often irrelevant. There are plenty of solo entrepreneurs getting press, and just as many big corporations trying in vain to get noticed.

Why? Because one has an interesting story and tells it the right way while the other doesn’t.

Where startups differ from their bigger counterparts is that the latter usually have their stories figured out and, of course, time and people to focus on it.

Not to worry, though – you can get there too, and it will be time well spent. Here are some questions any company,  especially a startup, should be asking themselves before reaching out to media or before looking for outside PR support.

Is this the right time?

Everyone has a dream. I want to finish an Ironman. My neighbour wants to try stand-up comedy. And I’m guessing you want to launch a killer product and make tons of money for investors. Problem is, so does every single company reaching out to media.

At Provident, we often tell startups, you get one chance to launch. If your product is not totally 100% ready, if you don’t have alignment on your senior team on how to position and market it, and if it’s not actually available right now, then wait. You’re not ready. Note this is different than investor relations, but that’s a whole other conversation.

Do I know my story inside and out?

A story can be many things, but I can almost guarantee it’s not your product or service in isolation. The story is what has created the need for the product or service in the first place, and why you are positioned to make a tangible change in the face of that need. The more people affected by your product, and the more unique it is, the better. Focus on those two things. If you have competitors, study how they talk. Then make sure you’re different.

Remember, your elevator pitch is as important to media as it is to a potential investor or customer.

Can I prove it?

Your story is nothing more than a claim without data to back it up. Beef up your pitch with facts and figures – sales numbers, industry studies, related survey results – anything that shows you’re not just talk.

Is it boring?

As a former reporter, I can confirm that people in the media are human too. They listen to pitches all day long, and they’re looking for something that is interesting. Interesting translates into a good story, and a good story gets clicks. Droning on, talking jargon, or trying to impress with your Steve Jobs-like cockiness isn’t going to do it. Worse, you’ve now marked yourself as someone to avoid in the future.

Practice making your story an actual narrative. Every narrative at its heart has a compelling hero/underdog facing a challenge and putting it right. It elicits empathy and excitement. Yes, sometimes it can be about the founder(s), but tread carefully – he or she must have a unique personal story or a long list of achievements to make that an option.  

Am I the right person to tell it?

It’s true, media tend to gravitate to the founder or the CEO. But if they’re the kind of person who can’t hold an engaging conversation, or wants to avoid media interviews, then it’s ok to tap someone else. Anyone who is senior will do – just make sure they exude confidence, know the story and can think on their feet.

PR is one of the most cost-effective and potentially life-changing strategies a company can utilize. But before diving in, remember there’s no rush. Do some research, ask a lot of questions, and talk to people in the industry. That way you’ll minimize hiccups and maximize ROI. And that’s music to any startup’s ears.