Five ways startups hurt their PR campaigns

Sep 22, 2016
Five ways startups hurt their PR campaigns

Editor's note: This is part one of a two-part series. Stay tuned for part two next week!

As publicists, it’s our job to advise clients on strategy, and sometimes, run interference on things they shouldn’t have done (or said).

Having worked with my fair share of startups, I noticed that the same snafus came up again and again, across industries, that I didn’t experience with bigger companies.

Since much of what us PR professionals do is marry what the client wants with what they can realistically expect, I’ve found these solutions to common roadblocks with startups to be tried and true.

Here are five ways startups hurt their PR campaigns.

1. Acting as editor.

That big article on a client’s new product finally comes out, and by your assessment it’s pretty solid. Your client agrees, but then sends a few “corrections” to be made. After reviewing their requests, you realize they have practically line edited the entire article, asking to swap out adjectives or delete a sentence that “just doesn’t read right.”

In a perfect world, journalists would write about a client exactly how we wish they would—but that’s not real life. Sometimes startups seem to forget that when they interview with the media, they are on the reporter’s turf and subject to his or her interpretations. It’s OK to address blatantly incorrect information, but it’s not OK to ask for re-wordings that sound better to you than what the reporter said, additions to the article that you feel will “really make the piece work,” or change things that you interpret as negative.

What PRs can do: Pick and choose your battles. Ask the client to clarify what is factually incorrect in each edit, and acquiesce to smaller changes that are legitimate enough to push through. If a client continues to insist on unacceptable changes, simply remind them that demanding those kinds of edits will hurt the company’s reputation with the reporter—as well as your relationship with the reporter. Always politely ask reporters for edits, and never assume they will be made unless you can prove something is factually and objectively incorrect.

2. Corporatespeak.

You spend hours sifting through all the information you gathered on a partnership announcement, and piece it together until you’ve got an informative, to-the-point release with a  strong opening sentence and a curiosity-inducing headline. Then the client sends it back with edits. And it’s so full of “corporatespeak” that you aren’t sure what, precisely, the news hook was after the first paragraph (and fall asleep by the second paragraph).

Some startups seem to think that stuffy, hardcore business syntax makes them sound more legit, and that they should be taken seriously. But nothing will get your pitch chucked faster than a bloated, dry press release busting at the seams with corporate jargon and marketing buzzwords. A press release—in the scenarios in which it make sense to produce one—should be written as if a human being wrote it, and it should simply and clearly lay out the most essential information. And for the love of cheese, it shouldn’t be three pages long.

What PRs can do: Be honest, and show proof. Explain to clients that the nature of the release is changing with the times, and that good releases now include video and photos. I’ve shown them actual performance numbers; I’ve never worked on a campaign where a bloated press release put out over the wire for $2,000 performed better than tailored, succinct and conversationally written emails to reporters. Remind them that top reporters get hundreds of pitches a day, and you have about five seconds to get to the meat of the story. If a client insists on the boardroom-heavy prose, include it below your email signature, after your personalized pitch has done the work, as a way of providing more information.

3. Skimping on information.

You’ve signed the contract, and now you’re ready to roll up your sleeves and start hunting and gathering. Only, you need answers to a lot of missing details, or you see two contradicting pieces of information that need clarification, or you need that infographic they mentioned on the call—but never sent. You ask questions, but they’re busy and slow to get back, and when they do, it’s still missing information. They just don’t have the time, so they tell you to read the website.

If everything the media wants to know is on a client’s website, why hire a publicist? Startup execs are especially close to their work, and they don’t realize that everyone else is outside looking in. Some startups hope that hiring a publicist means it’s off their plate and that we can work magic if only left to our own devices.

What PRs can do: From the start, clients need to know this step is the foundation of the campaign. I interview my clients extensively not just so that I deeply understand what they do and why, but because I tend to find a story or angle that wasn’t immediately apparent from the extended elevator pitch. From day one, find out who the key contacts are and book sufficient time to interview them. Startups are small enough that usually only a few people have all the information you need to get enough background and start planning. Prior to the interviews, come up with a list of questions after reading the website and looking at past coverage—but expect to have more questions as you go along. For more complex clients, I spend up to three hours interviewing and collecting what I need. You should also provide an initial bullet list of things you expect you’ll need access to, like customer contacts or a Dropbox file of approved marketing photos.

4. Executives who interview poorly.

You’ve completed your initial interview with key members of the company, and have all the info you need. Actually, you’ve got way more than you need—pages and pages of stuff. But that’s the’s stuff. After digging through it all, you realize you have a tiny bit of useful info and the rest is noise—asides, unnecessary industry banter, not-so-groundbreaking opinions, etc.

Then it hits you: your executives don’t know how to interview effectively.

Some of the smartest people I know are great at building solutions but absolutely terrible at telling a story. To boot, founders are so excited about what they’re doing they assume the reporter is, too (and doesn’t mind listening to a 20-minute answer to a simple question). As a former reporter, I know that cleaning up an interview transcript is extremely time-consuming, and an initial conversation that meandered made me think twice about whether I really want to get deeper into that hole. A bad interviewee will do anything but get the main messages across and is more likely to say something that should be off-record, or isn’t entirely correct...leaving you to do the damage control.

What PRs can do: Media training is a must for these folks. Start by asking them questions you anticipate the media will ask, and throw them a few hardballs. Pronounce their company name incorrectly when you talk to them and see if they correct you. You should also formulate some talking points—the most key messages you want to get through—and stick to them (and they shouldn’t be more than two sentences a piece). Repeating this process will help execs learn how to keep their answers informative, on-point and succinct. Media training should be ongoing; call them out on going off-topic, or using industry vocabulary that shuts out (or bores) the average reader. You should also be present for every interview to help steer them back on course if they simply can’t help themselves.

5. On-the-side PR.

It’s the weekly check-in with your client, and you’re excited to tell them about who you’re pitching this week. Their response: Oh, that person? I was just speaking with them yesterday about our launch! (which, by the way, is also on embargo.) Or the other scenario, which is more painful: you’ve pitched a reporter only to get the response: “Your boss came to me about this last week and I said no.”


Some startups think the more people working the media on their side, the better. But this almost always leads to double-dipping, miscommunication and sometimes, utter embarrassment. Another common misconception is that just because the CEO met a journalist for five minutes at a mixer they “have a relationship,” or that a reporter who wrote about a similar company will jump at the chance to write about them, obviously.

What PRs can do: Besides making it clear upfront that you should be the initial point of contact for all media, take extra steps to ensure it stays that way. Share your media list with the client as soon as it’s done (I also keep notes like last date contacted, etc.) so they can see who you are talking to. At the start of the campaign, ask them if they have relationships with any reporters (and make sure the relationships are, you know, real). If the client plans on being at an event where they expect to speak to press, go over what they should and should not say (and in some cases, who to avoid entirely).

Stay tuned for part II of this series, coming soon, and feel free to share your grumbles on the most common startup slip-ups in the comments.

Jane Callahan is president of JKC Communications, a boutique PR firm that specializes in helping startups tell their stories and grow name recognition through media campaigns and content creation. Prior to founding JKC Communications, Jane worked as deputy director of communications at Amplify, a News Corp. subsidiary, and prior to that was a freelance journalist. She holds an M.A. in English and a B.A. in communications.

Photo: Startup via Shutterstock

About the author

Keeping #tech #PR classy. Too many ideas. News junkie, mom, Scrabble champ & former world traveler. Life: I'm in it for the laughs.

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