Five (more) ways startups hurt their PR campaigns

Five (more) ways startups hurt their PR campaigns

Editor's note: This is part two of a two-part series. Click here to read part one.

Public relations can be both exciting (nothing beats that high of a great media placement) and disappointing (a particularly cranky diva of a journalist replies with some choice words).

Often, though, those disappoints come from within your camp—like when your clients’ actions unwittingly damage their (and your) chances of success.

Here are five more ways that startups set their PR efforts back, and what you can do to rectify the aftermath.

1. Insufficient assets.

You’re compiling everything you need for the digital press kit and shoot an email to the client asking for product photos and a demo video. “Oh, we don’t have those yet” or “We are still editing, and hope it will be ready by launch” are two answers some of you have heard more times than you should.

Believe it or not, I’ve had clients try to launch a product without any visuals (and one time, without a landing page!) This is usually because they have set too ambitious a deadline for themselves, and you don’t know until you ask how ill-prepared they are.

The more naive clients believe so strongly that the product will sell itself that visuals aren’t needed—but visuals are always needed. Content with multimedia performs better across all channels, from tweets to emails. Plus, why would anyone talk about something they can’t see?

What PRs can do:

Strongly advise the client to push the launch date until they have sufficient assets (though this becomes a far less appealing option if you’ve already given reporters and embargo date).

Provide stats about how campaigns with visuals perform and ask them to look at their target publications—how many of them publish an article without accompanying media? Would many places run an interview with the founder without a headshot?

If you’re truly desperate, select interesting stats and other data on the company, product or industry space and create an infographic with free template builders like Venngage or Piktochart.

2. Poo-pooing smaller media hits.

You’re working with a completely unheard of startup that’s in a saturated market. You’ve told them that finding a strong news hook is going to be challenging, so it might be better to go niche (industry publications, local press, etc.) to start. But they just want to be in The New York Times.

You want your media debut to be in The New York Times? Of course you do, and I would love that, too! This is a mentality that particularly plagues startups who are doing PR for the first time.

If no one has heard of you and your story is genuinely a good one (and those are really fun), that can create an advantage—but if a reporter Googles you and nothing comes up beside your website, it can hurt your credibility. Startups should never turn their noses up at “lesser” coverage; you have to start somewhere, and there are still SEO benefits. Reaching a specialized audience at the start makes it easier to drum up interest, because you’re connecting with readers who are already interested. And, you can learn as you go about what reporters find most interesting.

What PRs can do:

Unfortunately for us PRs, our workload remains the same whether or not the client gets into top tier media, which is why I refuse to do pay-for-play; all that prep and pitching takes a huge amount of time.

Explain to the client that PR is not a one-size-fits-all process, and that strategies should be built around a company’s strengths and weaknesses. Owned media is playing a bigger role in PR and marketing, as are other avenues; a spotlight on Product Hunt can get more results than an article on TechCrunch.

Don’t hate on local media; there are plenty of small operations whose later success started with a solid feature in the city paper. And those reporters who write for “smaller” sites? They eventually move on to bigger and better media, so create a relationship with them now. It’s not just careers that grow; smaller sites have also grown dramatically in the last few years, like Vice.

3. Raiding the media list.

You’re in the weeds, pitching all day, when you get an email from your client “suggesting” (read= DO IT) a list of media contacts they’d like you to pitch in addition to your original media list. You scan the names: one is the executive editor of the entire Wall Street Journal, the other moved to a different publication two years ago and is covering a different beat, and you’re not even sure where they got the third one from.

A surprising number of startups think it just takes an email address to get a story, but those who do their own PR without thorough research are wasting their time.

I’ve heard some complain of not getting any media interest after they blasted the same template email to editors at major papers. Reporters are busy people who are only as good as their portfolio, why would they think your impersonal marketing email is worth taking to their editor? Someone who writes about the intersection of tech and politics isn’t going to write about your new electronic toy for kids, which seems like common sense, but it gets lost in the midst of startups’ go-get-’em enthusiasm.

What PRs can do:

The only rule you need to follow here is do not pitch journalists that you know are not a good fit.

End of story (yeah, pun intended).

I find startups are generally accepting of the reasons I give as to why I don’t want to approach their suggested candidates; half the time they got the contacts from a friend of a friend and didn’t even Google them, so they acquiesce without a fight. But, for clients that really feel their suggestions are worth the effort, ask them to do the outreach. You can even write the pitch and have them send it through their email—but don’t hurt your credibility by sending a doomed pitch with your name on it.

4. Too many cooks in the kitchen.

You’ve edited your press release for the final time, and send it to the executive team for review. But “review” might not be as fitting a word as “destruction”: the Google Doc has changes from the COO, and then the CEO then changes those changes. Then the head of marketing has to weigh in, as well as the product manager—oh, and don’t forget the CFO, the head of business development and the sales intern—gotta have the sales intern weigh in.

The thing about startups is that they are small enough to get everyone’s input, and are sometimes insecure enough to need everyone’s input.

The stakes are so high for them that everything has to be perfect, except each person has a different idea of what that is. This can lead to endless rounds of editing, with too much time put into non-existent issues (“We should really be saying ‘fascinating’ instead of ‘amazing’ here, don’t you think?”). Startups can get cold feet and lose sight of what a press release is about—and that it should be interesting (see: the corporatespeak mistake).

What PRs can do:

Tread carefully, because at the end of the day the only press release that goes out is the one your client is paying for.

To reduce the maelstrom of endless opinions on sentence structure, try to create a blend of the best input with your own. If the release they want is, in your opinion, dead on arrival, then gently let the client know that you’re concerned about how much attention it will get as is, why you think that way, and present solutions. They did hire you for your counsel, after all. That way if the release doesn’t get pick up, you can rest easy (sort of?) knowing you had given fair warning...

5. Going dark.

A prominent journalist likes your pitch and wants to have an exploratory conversation with your startup’s founder, oh joy!

You don’t want to lose their interest and this is time sensitive, so you call your client...no answer. You email them, and a few hours go by. You had asked them to make themselves available on launch day, but they’ve gone dark and you have no idea what to tell the journalist.

Start-ups are known for being the ultimate multitaskers, like having one person do the job of two people until they get funding to hire someone else, so PR can often take a backseat to other deadlines. While it’s normally not a problem to wait a day for a response during the planning process, it’s not OK to disappear in the midst of a launch.

True story: on one client’s launch day, I got interest from both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, only to get an Out of Office response from the client that read “I will be in Africa through next week and will not have access to email on most days.”

Going dark can happen with other contacts—a partner company’s spokesperson not responding with a statement, or a customer who promised to provide a testimonial who just disappears, leaving you without vetted sources—or a story.

What PRs can do:

Know your back-ups before you go forward with pitching. If your startup’s CEO wans to be the only contact with the media, make sure she or he blocks off large chunks of their calendar each day during which they must have their phone on them (with the volume up…). Block off two half-hour increments a day during which the contact will absolutely be available to speak to the media (which can save you a lot of “how about this time?” exchanges).

Make friends with the executive's assistants; they are important gatekeepers who always know who is where and how and when to reach them. For things like customer interviews, have several sources lined up, not just one or two. Prior to launch send a quick note thanking them for their time and stressing that time is of the essence with the media. Find out their free times during the day beforehand.

Lastly, it’s always a good idea to have pre-approved quotes from everyone (outside of the press release) that you can send to reporters. Worst case scenario, the reporter gets annoyed and drops the story; you apologize profusely and thank them for their interest in the first place and wish it had turned out differently. If they aren’t too sore about it, you can always circle back with them another time, when the company has other interesting developments to announce.

Would you add anything else to this list, PR pros? We'd love to hear your suggestions!

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: Team job via Shutterstock

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