Startup storytelling: five tips for creating an effective PR strategy

May 20, 2018 · Guest post from Heather Baker, CEO, TopLine Comms


There can be any number of reasons that your brilliant business idea might not become a reality: a lack of investment, a hostile commercial environment, an ailing economy. Often, however, it boils down to communication. How you talk about and promote your business can dictate its success.

An effective PR strategy is therefore one of the cornerstones of an effective launch. It’s also one of the hardest things to get right. Communicating your message without coming across as off-puttingly eager, or secretive to the point where you diminish everything interesting about your story, is all-important.

In a fast-moving industry with an almost canine attention span, it’s essential to strike the right balance with your PR strategy. Here are five tips that will help you tell your story more effectively.

1. Don’t hire a PR agency until you can afford a good one.

There’s no such thing as a ‘cheap’ PR agency. Some firms might market themselves that way, but you’ll end up paying more when you’re disappointed with the results and want to upgrade to the real deal.

A quality agency is always worth the cost. But if you can’t afford one, it’s worth doing some research into your niche and figuring out which journalists might be interested in your offering. They generally like hearing directly from founders: it’s an opportunity for an unfiltered and unmediated story, and it doesn’t come about very often.

Then, when you’ve got some name recognition, some market traction, and some budget, hire a quality agency to take you to the next level.

2. Don’t rely on PR for everything.

A good PR strategy is essential, and it offers several benefits to businesses willing to invest in it. But it’s still just good PR: it’s not magic, it won’t do everything for your business, and it shouldn’t be expected to.

Here’s what it can be reasonably expected to do: boost your profile in target media and improve public perception in your particular niche. Here’s what it can’t be reasonably expected to do: generate all your leads, convert them, nurture existing business relationships, and generally create reliable recurring revenue streams. That’s marketing, and PR is only one component of a successful marketing strategy – alongside SEO, social advertising, content marketing, sponsorships, promotions, partnerships, events, and good old-fashioned business development.

While PR can positively influence these other components (for example, it can help you build links back to your website, which helps your search engine rankings), it’s never going to be an effective substitute for them.

3. Don't let the intern handle your PR strategy.

A PR or marketing intern is there to learn a complex, highly-skilled discipline that requires years of experience to properly execute. Expecting them to create, cost, and implement your strategy by themselves is futile – and yet many businesses expect just that.

Let’s say you do find your ambitious, omni-talented PR wunderkind who lives and breathes their discipline and can immediately generate excellent results for your business. What happens when a business with more money and greater recognition snaps them up? Their strategy – meaning your strategy – leaves with them.

If you don’t find a genuine prodigy (and statistically speaking, you probably won’t), then what you have is another employee to manage. Their salary might be low, but the cost of looking after them will invariably be quite high – as will the opportunity cost when they eventually get it wrong.

And they should get it wrong. They’re there to learn. The burden of your PR strategy should never be on one (very young) person’s shoulders.

4. Don't make journalists sign NDAs.

Non-disclosure agreements are for businesses that people already know and care about. So if you’re Elon Musk, Tim Cook, or Jeff Bezos, go ahead and make sure that journalists sign your comprehensive, legally rigorous contract. If you’re anyone else, you’re going to have to work to get journalists interested in you: many receive hundreds of pitches a day, and if they’re going to write about your innovative SaaS offering, they want to do so without artificial restrictions.

Don’t make it harder for the media to care about your business than you strictly have to. If they want to talk or write about you, let them!

5. Do focus on your story.

With the above in mind, don’t expect journalists to fall at your feet and offer breathless, uncritical admiration in their articles. Their job is to tell good stories, not to promote your brand – so give them one.

Often it’s a matter of simple execution. How you tell your business’ story is as important as what the story is. Do your homework: research any journalist to find an angle that reconciles your offering with their area of expertise. Don’t assume that they will care about you without giving them a good reason to.

For example, if you’re marketing a product to pop culture-savvy millennials who spend a lot of time on social media, consider inviting journalists to an experiential event that they’ll be interested to attend – and tweet about. If, however, you’re looking to attract investment, a discreet roundtable is probably a better idea: few VCs are going to make an offer on the basis of a few retweets. When it comes to storytelling, the medium is as important as the message.

Harness PR correctly, and it will contribute to your business’ success. But it should not be employed half-heartedly. A proper strategy requires an investment of money, time, and energy – on your part, and on the part of your agency. Put in the effort and you’ll reap the rewards.


Heather Baker, Founder & CEO of TopLine Comms

Heather Baker is the founder & CEO of TopLine Comms, an integrated communications consultancy based in London that helps companies grow. She’s also mum to an 18-month old human and London’s coolest office dog.

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