A guide to public relations for tech startups

Being able to tell a story to the press is a crucial part of building your company's brand to reach customers, investors, partners and talents. This is where public relations (PR) as a tool is widely endorsed but often misused. This guide will shine a light on how public relations really works, what it is or isn’t, and the common mistakes you should avoid.

What is public relations?

In technical terms, public relations is a set of techniques and strategies used to manage how information about an individual or company is disseminated to the public. But it is more than that.

1. It’s how you earn your voice.

Often referred to as earned media, PR is how you persuade others to write about you. It helps shape narrative across all the channels that you don't own nor control. It's all about how you earn your place and awareness for your brand in the world.

2. It’s how you connect with your audience.

This means the story that you tell through each channel has to be slightly different. It's not just about your product. It's for getting people excited about your company and what you're trying to achieve. It helps build your brand and forge an emotional connection that makes others want to follow and learn more about you.

3. It’s how you get people to care.

PR is about crafting a story that makes the public care. It articulates why you’re building what you’re building. Against the traditional marketing funnel, PR sits at the top because it starts with building the brand, with no need for immediate actions from your audience. If you have that brand awareness exercise down pat, it will help set up the rest of the funnel.

What is not public relations?

To understand and use public relations properly and for the right purpose, it helps to know what it isn’t.

1. It isn’t easily measurable.

There are ways to correlate your spend and make sure you're getting return on investment, but it isn't the same as spending $1 on Google ads and getting $2 of revenue in return.

2. It isn’t an ego exercise. 

It’s not about seeing your name in the most reputable publication every single week. That is the correct way of doing it but unfortunately, the impact it has will diminish over time.

3. It isn’t a primary SEO driver. 

SEO and backlinks can be by-products but mustn't be the main reason for a PR campaign. It’s not worth the risk pushing messages that aren’t consistent with your brand to the market for the sake of building links. Furthermore, most publications have stopped offering outbound links these days.

4. It isn’t a sales pitch. 

PR isn't always the best place to talk about your product, at least not initially. You need to tell a story that gets an emotional response from your audience and evokes an action from them, whether that's looking you up or starting a conversation with you.

How to craft a great PR story

These are a few steps you can go through to build a great PR story for your brand.

1. Start with the problem

What led you to create the product or the company in the first place? Why is it so powerful? How many people is it impacting? Go back to that moment of frustration, either experienced by you or someone you know. Articulate the problem that prompted you to find a better way of doing things. Convince your target market that you know their struggles and that they have your empathy.

2. Tie it back to your expertise

It helps to position yourself as someone fit to create that magical solution. Demonstrate your expertise, years of experience in relevant fields and the knowledge it takes to build what you’re building. That doesn’t mean you can’t have credibility if you’re coming from the left field and doing something completely different. It just means that you need to know it intimately enough to articulate it well.

3. Articulate it well

If you've got an incredibly complex product and you can't explain it in layman’s terms, the media won't care. Explain it in a way that you would to primary-school kids. Avoid technical jargons and fancy words.

4. Communicate your vision

Last but not least, people need to see your vision. How are you making their lives better? What is it going to mean for the entire industry? Find a way to bring that to the forefront of what you do and believers will follow.

How to make the media interested

You’ve got your story ready to go, now it’s time to sell it. But how?

These are what you need to consider.

1. Emotional connections

Great storytelling should invoke emotions, and nothing can do it better than the ordinary people behind extraordinary ideas. People may not recognise names, but they can relate to your customers’ struggles, your own aspirations and yourself as a human being trying to make a difference. The challenge is to build that human element into the broader story.

When you’re crafting media releases, try to include someone who can add authority to what you're doing, for instance, a user of your product – who can vouch for it. That is important but also don’t forget you're the story. And you've got that validation from others. Putting those together can be very powerful.

2. Timeliness

Make sure your announcement is relevant now because that will force the reporter to pay attention. Creating a sense of urgency so no journalist thinks they can sit on their hands for days on end and not miss out on the big scoop.

3. Proximity

Australian media only care about Australian stories and how they’re impacting Aussies. What you’re doing overseas may not pique their interest unless you can put a local lens on it and tell the media how it’s applicable here.

4. Conflict

Find an element of conflict within your story. Are you disrupting an industry that hasn’t changed for centuries? Are you challenging the big players on the market and forcing them to improve the way they play? Alternatively, you can lean on topical events – such as inflation or labour shortages – to add a more interesting take to your story and what you do.

5. Digital footprints

Check your digital footprints, especially your website, because that will be the first customer touchpoint outside your PR campaign. Ensure it tells the same story you’re putting out there.

How to pitch to journalists

These are a few things to consider before you set your pitching game in motion.

1. Understand what journalists do 

A journalist’s job has changed a lot over the last decade. They are more time poor than ever because there have been considerable staff layoffs, but the same amount of stories are still pouring in. They don't have time for casual coffee catch-ups anymore, and any minute away from their desks has to pay off.

They're also more generalist these days. A lot of times, they only have a surface level understanding of the topic they're covering because they have to work across so many different verticals. Keep that in mind when you reach out. Just because they’re not experts in an industry, it doesn’t mean their attention isn’t worth your while.

They’re also natural sceptics because poking holes in things and seeing through the bs is their job. According to a research report from Scission, 70% of journalists delete a quarter of the pitches they get each week straight away. Make sure you're being authentic and the story you're telling is so important it cuts through the noise.

2. Think like a journalist

Think about your target audience, how you can reach them and why your story is relevant to them. Knowing your readers will help you decide what angles of the story matter most to them. For instance, if you're reaching out to a tech publication, hone in on the tech elements and industry. If you're hitting up The Age, you can go a bit broader so as to resonate with the general public.

3. Collate a list

Keep a list of journalists, write down their bylines, their associations and what they write about. Then start with those who are relevant in your space. Reach out and build relationships with them. You can trade stories up the chain, too. Start on the Startup Daily and the likes, then pitch that further up.

Twitter is still a fantastic medium for journalists, where they all share their thoughts day and night. It may be as easy as following them to find out what they're writing about. Oftentimes, they'll also put out calls for sources on the platform.

4. Go straight to the point 

Don’t be that random person off the street who spams every journalist in their wake. Having a great story is key, but so is credibility. Whatever makes you the best person to tell the story – expertise, experiences, job title – name it.

If you have an actual piece of news, writing a press release with the most important information up the top can be a great way of just getting it on a page. You can send that to the journalist, just don’t cut and paste the same email to a host of different recipients. Be real about what’s in it for them or their readers.

5. Be mindful of their time

Sometimes you have to cut your losses and leave things where they lie. If a journalist is interested in the subject but asks you to come back at a later date as they’re too strapped for time at present, you can follow up a few months down the line once you’ve got a better story to sell.

While it means you haven’t succeeded at first, having that history with them will give you a better chance next time because you're not starting that conversation from scratch.

6. Do your homework

Don't just blast out a press release to everyone on your list and hope you'll get a response. You often won't. What you need to do is to get to know the reporter you're trying to get in front of. That means researching them. What are they writing about? What are they writing about right now? Is there a trend they're following? Use that in your pitch to grab their attention. Knowing what interests them will allow you to get straight to the right point.

How to nurture relationships with journalists?

Relationships matter in all industries, particularly in media where there are fewer and fewer publications existing nowadays. Aim to forge those relationships before you’re known as someone who’s selling the same thing over and over again and doesn’t have much to add to the conversation. Unless you know them on a personal level, at some point they will stop responding to you. If there’s a way you can make their job easier, do it, even if you gain nothing back in the immediate future. That’s how genuine relationships are built.

The four most common PR mistakes to avoid

You can’t do PR the right way if you don’t know the wrong ways. Below are the four most common mistakes you should avoid.

Mistake 1: Foregoing brand building

Many startups go straight to acquisition without first building their brand. The issue with that is they don't have the credibility – not yet – that activates the rest of the funnel. It's all about getting your story in front of the right audience and giving your brand enough credibility before you can expect your customers to have confidence in what you offer.

Mistake 2: Not amplifying your story

You can put a lot of effort into getting the story broadcast, but if you do nothing with it once it’s out there, you won’t reap the benefits. Amplifying the content after it has been published is even more important than being published in the first place. This is because people don’t often go to the front pages of news websites anymore. They get their news from social media. If you're not sharing your story through your own channels and network, readers will miss out.

It pays to have a strategy around content amplification. Work out what to share on social media when the story is out. Find ways to get others in your network to share it within their own circles.

Mistake 3: Not fact-checking

Ensure you’re happy with everything before it is published, because it might be too late then to make changes. You can’t leverage your hard-earned relationship with a journalist for that purpose either, if you want to keep it. Oftentimes, the final version of the story is also subjected to editing.

What’s even more important is to make sure all information relevant to your startup is factually correct. And no, fact-checking isn’t just the journalist’s job. Factually incorrect content will have to be amended, but if you want to maintain your credibility as a source, you need to pull your weight and make it as easy as possible for reporters to put together an error-free news piece.

Mistake 4: Going too broad

To reiterate, journalists care more about what’s happening locally. Before you pitch, tailor your story to appeal to the local readers. If you’re a global company with a presence in different markets, focus on what’s relevant to each of them.

If you’re looking to expand, avoid using PR to gain market penetration because you won’t have much of a story yet. Get some customers on the ground first, then some partnerships or whatever your milestones are. Show some traction before using PR to amplify your story. You won't get it right the first time but don't get disheartened. Build those relationships and go from there.

Should you use a PR agency?

The biggest value a PR agency can offer is their unbiased perspective. Because they haven’t spent their blood, sweat and tears on building your startup, they can see it for what it is, from an outsider’s perspective. They know if and how your story will arouse interest. At the end of the day, a journalist is also an outsider. They have a job to keep, and unless your story can add to a glowing performance review, you may struggle to elicit a response from them.

Furthermore, a PR agent often has well-established relationships with reporters up their sleeve. If you’re not enthusiastic about building rapport and connecting with journalists – or with people in general – engaging a PR agency may be your best bet.

Another advantage of enlisting help from PR experts is they know how to best articulate your story. Nobody understands the customer’s pain points as much as you do, but a PR agent from a non-technical background can show you how to tell that story in a way that everyone can understand and relate to.

This post was created in collaboration with Sling & Stone and is part of Stone & Chalk Masterclass series. You can watch the full masterclass here.