Blog Post

How to 'flack' effectively — off a startup budget!

One of the biggest challenges for startups is keeping in the public eye – getting the word out on a consistent basis to drive an audience, customers, buzz, etc. There are lots of marketing techniques for startups but one that I think is under used and under appreciated is public relations.

Generally, PR is used to reach the mainstream press and a mainstream audience. (Reporters call this “flacking.”) Anyway, a lot of startups don’t (or can’t) focus much energy (or resources) on PR – especially those living in a Web 2.0 bubble. If your startup is in the Valley or another true startup ecosystem, you may be able to generate sufficient buzz through the community, but for the rest of us, we need everything we can to keep in front of people, garnering attention.

The thing with PR is that it’s not just for attracting mainstream press, although this is a good reason to use it. The press certainly looks at blogs, social media and less traditional avenues for its scoops, but they still work via press releases & press relationships as well. And even companies living in a Web 2.0 bubble – the ultra-coolest of the cool consumer apps only for the “Facebook crowd” – can still benefit from breaking into the mainstream. Ultimately that ultra-cool Valley crowd is still pretty small, and you’ll need to break out beyond it for real success.

So what can PR bring a startup?

* mainstream press
* increased reputation as an expert
* speaking engagements
* analyst interest
* writing opportunities
* partnership opportunities
* customers

And how do you get it?

A. Tell a Good Story: The key to PR (and it’s the same with using social media and blogs) is that you need to tell a good story.

PR isn’t simply about stating facts, or announcing straightforward news. It’s about telling a good story to the right audience at the right time. A great press release is crafted to tell stories behind the words, to trigger ideas and possibilities in other people’s heads, to indicate the direction your company is going without stating it explicitly.

Before publishing a press release, ask yourself, “What’s the purpose of the press release?” Are you trying to reach potential partners, customers, mainstream press, investors, etc.? You can’t target too many audiences at once, so really think about the type of press release you’re writing and who will be interested in it.

The timing is important too. If you’re attending an event, for example, publish a press release just before to get people’s attention. It can lead to more buzz around the event. If you’re going to release a new version of your product soon – think about staggering in some press releases beforehand – to build buzz.

And PR isn’t just about posting press releases to the news wires. PR is about building relationships with your target audience (primarily mainstream press, analysts, but now also online press as well) to develop a strong reputation in your field of expertise. You want journalists coming to you asking for quotes, opinions, etc. — so that your press opportunities aren’t exclusively for news about your startup, but also for industry trend stories that journalists are writing about.

B. Outsource PR
It doesn’t have to be expensive, or consume a huge part of your marketing budget to work. It’s an evolving process that should create a snowball effect — one press release lands you a couple press mentions, the next one a few more…then you’re invited to speak somewhere, and then some partners come knocking…

And you certainly can and should do some of the PR yourself. First, every startup should have a company blog. A startup blog isn’t used exclusively for PR, but it certainly can help.

Matt Hulett even suggests that you should fire your PR firm. He points out that the startup CEO should do the PR because s/he’ll get better results:

Startups will get better results when a CEO takes the time to target a writer directly. There is so much noise that an authentic conversation from an executive does punch thru the sea of press releases being stuffed into inboxes by agencies.

I completely understand Matt’s point, but most startup CEOs won’t be schooled enough in good PR to pull this off. But consider hiring a contract PR person instead of an agency. Make it clear that you’re hiring the person to execute on PR efforts but also to educate you (as the startup CEO) on doing some of the work yourself. Turn it into a collaborative effort.

C. Don’t Forget PR

PR might be seen as blogging & social media’s old cousin (and to a degree it is), but don’t dismiss it too quickly. All the mentions on a handful of tech blogs might not be enough (although they’re great!), especially when it’s time to break out of those relatively closed circles and reach a much bigger audience. I found a Startup PR 2.0 ebook (for free!) from Brian Solis that might interest you.

Startups need every advantage they can get their hands on to stay top-of-mind with as many people as possible. And a good, constant (but still relatively small) PR effort can help.

Additional Note:
I just read a post on CenterNetworks about press embargoes from guest writer Rick Turoczy. Definitely worth reading.

Ben Yoskovitz is the founder of Standout Jobs, based in Montreal, Quebec Canada. Earlier Found|READ posts by or about Ben include: Presenting at DEMO: 12 Do’s. 5 Don’ts; DEMO Went Great, Then “All Hell” Broke Loose; and 5 Tips for Maintaining Vision in the Day-to-Day. For even more, visit Ben’s terrific Instigator Blog.

3 Responses to “How to 'flack' effectively — off a startup budget!”

  1. Great article. I think more attention needs to be assigned to PR for modern startups. That is my focus in our startup, is capturing users through PR and viral marketing. Currently I am doing a lot of cold call and referral type hunting for our first great targeted client, which I would then use for joint PR in local business publications and national trade magazines.


  2. My strategy is to separate Web 2.0 buzz and outreach from traditional PR. The two require different skill sets. Traditional PR is all about knowing editorial calendars and developing relationships with reporters. In contrast, Web 2.0 buzz focuses on quick reactions to emerging memes, and making sure that you engage with the community.

    I usually hire PR professionals to do the traditional PR, and handle the buzz myself. There’s no benefit to using your CEO’s time to compile and editorial calendar or pitch story ideas, but engaging with the community can drive greater insights and understanding.

    As an example, I handled getting our recent product launch into TechCrunch and Mashable, but our PR firm was the one that found and cultivated an opportunity with InformationWeek. Both are important and valuable.

  3. Good article. I agree that doing your own PR can be very effective, but it takes time to build relationships with the press and using an agent or even an agency (I use a small ethical PR agency) who will ‘work with you’ saves eons of time, but allows me to maintain the relationships they have created during the times when my budget doesn’t stretch to paying for a campaign.