Why startups (sort of) don’t need PR agencies

Turkeys don’t have votes, and even if they did, they wouldn’t know what Christmas is. But it turns out PR people do have votes and we do know what Christmas is, so please, dear startup executive/founder/creator, don’t use our services.

Why? Because, and here’s the hard truth of the matter, too many of you don’t have any news to ‘sell’. By news, I mean a substantial piece of information or development that your local paper (The Andover Advertiser, The Slough Express), trade publication (Drain Trader, Lighthouse Digest) or national outlet (BBC News, Daily Mail, The Telegraph) would publish.

As they say on the news-desk, the existence of your fledgling business plan is often ‘not strong enough to get over the line’. Don’t take it personally, journalists are often in a rush and typically have to answer to their news editors, who demand exclusives and new ‘angles’ (takes, for the uninitiated) on major stories in their beats.

All this fast-paced and somewhat stressful reporting happens amid and in reaction to the news agenda, an omnipresent group of macro and micro trends which influence what is news and what isn’t. Launching a sports-related start-up, in and of itself, may not be use, for instance. But launching one as the Olympics loom alongside a notable athlete will get the business in local and regional media outlets, alongside trade publications and perhaps even a few nationals too (more on this later).

Growth companies, therefore, need to keep abreast of the news agenda and the best way of doing this is to digest an array of news media – from podcasts, to digital papers, to online video. Think about the narratives (both micro and macro), then think about your narrative: why did you start your business, what solution is it providing, who is it providing it to and who are your working with and why?

Use plain, simple English (if that’s the language you’re operating in) to outline this story. Try and avoid cliché and repetition since it will turn journalists off. George Orwell’s Six Rules for Writing, which he sometimes ignored, is a good place to start if you want to hone this skill. Once penned, send a short (brevity is key here) introductory email to your target journalist, offering to meet them for a coffee/tea/juice/alcoholic beverage.

This is because you want to build a relationship with the media before you start sending them press releases and other materials. Talking of which, the best way to get your story in a publication is as an ‘exclusive’. Journalism is a hyper-competitive trade, so giving a reporter a story a rival doesn’t have boosts their standing.

This can all be rather time-consuming, and you need to cultivate a story first, so use your time on establishing it by developing your business model and making key hires to ensure that you are in such a position. A milestone (‘Startup X hits £1m in sales’ or ‘Start Y hits 50,000 subscribers’) is usually a good place to start. Equally, you may not even be the story, but that doesn’t limit your PR reach.

You may wish to send some of your wisdom in the form of a short reaction to a major industry event or announcement. This is a good tactic for live-blog-loving publications, where new content is regularly needed. On a related matter, you should have good high-resolution pictures of yourself, your team and the products/services you are selling/developing. It’s the easiest and quickest way to illustrate what your startup is all about.

The above advice is just for starters, a communications entrée before your startup faces the main course of media relations, which can be all about writing, relationships and preparation around the clock. It’s around about this time you should consider calling in the PR people, the brigade de cuisine which can tame the fire and fury of hard-nosed hacks while crafting delicious communication materials.