Public relations is an essential and necessary part of startup construction; PR will help you increase your brand awareness, consequently helping you get on the radar of both investors and customers. But what if you don’t know all that much about PR? We called in a true professional to help you out: Lydia Prexl, VP communications at Getsafe, who helped the startup reach a quarter of million customers. Lydia was kind enough to go over her top 5 misconceptions early-stage founders have when it comes to PR. Let’s dive in!
Expect to Un-learn
- I can do PR on the side
- Everyone can do PR
- PR is essentially just free advertising
- PR can be measured perfectly
- Reporting must be positive
”You always need news value. Without relevance, without added value for the readers, you simply shouldn’t say anything at all.
Communication is an important success factor for startups, as they have to convince investors and talents at an early stage. Many founders are actively involved in PR work. In practice, however, they sometimes lack the knowledge of how journalists work, what is relevant for them, and what happens behind the scenes of the media. While there is nothing wrong with that, it gets in their way.
Misconception 1: I can do PR on the side
Sometimes founders who are at the very beginning of their startup journey do external communication themselves. It also makes sense to stay involved in PR as a founder, because this largely determines the external and internal perception of the company. But if you want to exploit the potential of great PR work, you should hire a professional.
Corporate communications are more than just writing an email to journalists and giving an interview at a financing round. PR is not about parties and traveling, nor a metrics-driven content machine that only cares about clicks and sales. PR does not spin trash into treasure, but it is not rocket science either. Public relations should actively foster relations and this takes time. As a founder on top of your mountain of other responsibilities this is time you simply might not have.
So when is the time to hire a professional and when can you do it yourself? That’s the million-dollar question, and one there’s no standard answer to. There are startups that hire the first full-time communications director once they have a couple of hundred employees. Personally, I find that much too late – I joined Getsafe already as employee number 30. It is unusual for startups to invest in a PR person that early, but it pays off.
Whether it is time to hire a PR professional also depends on the scope of the job: I started as a one-woman-show building media relations, organizing events, applying for conferences, writing blog articles, doing social media and much more. Another option for startups might be to hire a freelancer to start off with. This may be more convenient, but there are evident trade-offs in outsourcing your narrative, which you have to balance when making this call.
Misconception 2: Everyone can do PR
People with a high school diploma should be able to write an error-free and grammatically correct text, but this does not make them communication experts. Making such an assumption is as nonsensical as thinking that every person with a penchant for computers is a good software developer, or that every person who plays an instrument can conduct an orchestra; communication is a skill that must be carefully trained.
Communication experts in startups have to master this skill across many different areas: corporate, technical, product, lifestyle, and CEO communication. In addition, there are social media channels, internal and external events, and sometimes even content marketing. Generalists who quickly acquire strong expert knowledge are in demand, especially for early-stage startups. If founders want to set up a communications department, they should not rely on rookies – although they may be cheaper and easier to find, they will rarely be up to the task. You don’t want to have accounting done by someone who just read “Accounting for Dummies,” do you? That’s why you pick the best ones in the field.
The most likely initial hurdle for a PR hire will be understanding the intricacies of your business. Founders have usually spent months to come up with a minimal viable product, and thus understand it the best. More generally, there will be a great deal of embedded background knowledge about the logic and path that brought a startup to their current offering. As a founder you need to be willing to do the work to bring the PR person up to speed and have the willingness to let them build their own picture, which might be somewhat different to your own. From a skills perspective, you need your PR person to therefore be an effective listener, and to have the capacity to understand your industry in addition to their communication abilities.
Misconception 3: PR is essentially just free advertising
“Please place the article” or “Make a post that goes viral” – these are statements that you may hear from founders time and again. Behind them lies the misconception that PR is nothing more than unpaid advertising. That is wrong.
You always need news value. Without relevance, without added value for the readers, you simply shouldn’t say anything at all. You need to have a convincing pitch: What is your why? What makes you different from other companies or products? What is the topic? Who has something to say about it? Why is it important? Each answer should be compelling and captured in three sentences.
News value extends to the quality, not quantity, of communication, which should be challenged at each stage. This applies to all of your communication, including your own channels. You need authentic content that is aesthetically pleasing, not too promotional and, at best, inspiring.
Misconception 4: PR can be measured perfectly
What good is a post on Twitter? Do we really need the blog? What is the point of the twelfth interview in a trade medium? Why should we go to conference X and not event Y? The answer to this would be through the question: how do you measure success?
Understandably, founders want to know how communication drives financial success. And yes, communication needs both to have clear goals and should contribute to the company’s success, since without goals performance can’t be assessed. But most methods for controlling and measuring PR are approximations – PR cannot be perfectly mapped in numbers, much like the sustainability and quality of a friendship or relationship can hardly be measured on a scale of 1 to 10. Measuring the value of PR solely in quantitative terms does not help anyone understand the level of trust between you and the public.
The reason is obvious: PR works indirectly. Corporate reporting in a medium is more credible than a printed advertisement because a journalist is in between and mediates the conversation between company and audience.
Over the years, many tools and indicators have been developed to remedy the situation – from clippings and equivalent advertising values to views and likes. These metrics shouldn’t be dismissed because they can show a trend. Have I had more interviews than the year before? Has the tone in my coverage changed? These are the important indicators that founders and press people should evaluate.
Then how do you measure PR?
For quantitative indicators, communicators can look at:
- The number of (top-tier) clippings
- Ad value equivalency (AVE)
These measurements are far from perfect and there’s been a large debate in the discipline of whether or not they should be used. You can also look at positioning & benchmarking (What is your share-of-voice? How do top tier publications position you in comparison to your competitors?), but you should be aware that this requires monitoring tools that are quite costly. I would personally advise using tools such as Cision, Meltwater, Signal AI or others when you are in three markets or more. If you make sure to always get your data from the same sources, these numbers can give you estimates and reference points as to whether you’re moving in the right direction.
For qualitative indicators, I find it helpful to look at:
- Key messaging
- Credibility & prestige (Which top-ranked publications talk about you in a positive way?)
- Thought leadership (Are your spokespersons recognized as experts in their field through interviews, statements, guest posts in top tier publications?)
- Tangible effects (Did PR coverage cause specific positive developments for the organization?).
For example, we always like to ask new team members how they heard from us and how they would summarize if our story is convincing and easy enough to be understood.
Misconception 5: Reporting must always be positive
Journalism must not be mistaken for obsequious reporting, but as committed to the greatest possible objectivity. So be prepared for journalists to ask critical questions. As long as they do not publish false accusations, it is their right under the freedom of the press.
It is therefore your responsibility as a founder, to prepare for interviews. Think beforehand both about what you want to say, and what you don’t want to say. It is okay not to comment on some things and not to engage in speculation. You may also want to keep some information to yourself because you have not yet communicated it internally or it has not been agreed with partners or investors. Journalists almost always accept this.
When it comes to mistakes, you should put your cards on the table. Not everything runs smoothly, journalists know that. It’s normal that startups sometimes miss their targets. If you admit weaknesses, you are more credible, whereas if you lie or promise things you can’t keep, you cross a red line.
Once you have lost your trustworthiness, it is very difficult to regain it. It can take years to build a certain reputation in the market, and if you don’t communicate honestly you can destroy your reputation in a matter of days. It’s therefore preferable to be transparent from the get-go.