For early stage startups, public relations (PR) may seem like an afterthought compared to urgent priorities like product-market fit and user acquisition.
However, integrating PR into a startup’s marketing strategy from the beginning can provide outsized benefits for brand building, thought leadership, and driving growth.
While paid advertising and owned channels remain core startup marketing pillars, earned media exposure can greatly complement these efforts.
For cash-strapped startups, PR also offers a cost-efficient channel compared to paid ads.
Read on to learn why PR matters for startups, key PR tactics to leverage, how to measure impact, whether to hire an agency, and tips for integrating PR with other marketing initiatives.
Let’s get started with 5 juicy statistics on why PR for startups matters:
- Startups with effective PR campaigns are 30% more likely to be successful than those without (source: PRLab).
- 82% of consumers have more positive feelings about a company after reading custom content (source: Forbes).
- 92% of consumers trust earned media over traditional advertising (source: Userp.io).
- Startups with a PR strategy are 50% more likely to survive their first five years (source: HubSpot Blog).
- The global PR market is worth $88 billion and is projected to grow to $129 billion by 2026 (source: Userp.io).
Well-executed PR provides startups with vital brand exposure that paid media often can’t match.
Successful PR: The Monster pr Story of Dollar Shave Club
Dollar Shave Club demonstrates how strategic PR can be a game-changer for startups. In 2012, the fledgling company hired a PR firm to spread awareness of their online razor subscription service.
The PR team created an irreverent, viral launch video that garnered millions of YouTube views. Within 48 hours, orders spiked to over 12,000.
The momentum continued as the video amassed over 100,000 subscribers for Dollar Shave Club within 6 months. This PR-driven viral content established credibility and cemented Dollar Shave Club as a disruptor in the shaving industry.
The example illustrates how creative PR execution can rapidly propel a startup’s brand and growth.
Driving Credibility and Trust
Positive media coverage in leading publications establishes credibility quickly. Savvy press outreach early on lays the foundation for long-term success.
Startups rely on PR to earn media exposure versus having to pay substantial sums for advertising.
Appearing in respected industry and mainstream media builds legitimacy and trust with potential startup customers. It shows you’re making waves in the market and are worth paying attention to.
Generating Website Traffic and Leads
Media coverage also drives new visitors to your startup’s website, fueling lead generation. Startups should ensure press mentions include links back to relevant pages on their site.
Website referral traffic from media exposure is often higher quality since it comes from trusted publishers.
Building Brand Awareness
Earned media expands reach to new audiences at little to no cost. Startups can gain brand visibility beyond just current customers or social media followers.
The halo effect of positive press coverage also rubs off on shaping broader perceptions.
Establishing Thought Leadership
Media coverage provides opportunities for startup founders to share expertise and insights. Rather than constant self-promotion, startups should use PR to position executives as trusted thought leaders.
Managing and Protecting Reputation
Public relations helps startups monitor and manage their reputation. It allows them to get ahead of negative press and play a role in shaping the narrative.
Handled strategically, even bad publicity can be turned into opportunities.
Clearly PR should be an essential part of any startup marketing strategy. Next let’s examine specific PR tactics startups can leverage.
Navigating the PR Minefield: Lessons from Pepsi’s 2017 Blunder
Credibility and Trust: How Not to Build It
Pepsi tried to join the social justice conversation with their 2017 ad featuring Kendall Jenner. But instead of gaining trust, they faced severe backlash for trivializing important issues. The ad’s failure is a lesson in how you can lose credibility if you don’t understand the social movements you’re trying to engage with. If you’re a startup, this is a red flag. Your early PR moves need to be calculated and sensitive to social issues to build long-term trust.
Driving Website Traffic and Leads: The Negative Impact
After the ad aired, Pepsi certainly got more website visits, but not the kind they wanted. People were mainly going there to criticize or find out if Pepsi had apologized yet. While PR can drive high-quality traffic, make sure it’s for the right reasons. You don’t want the links back to your site to be ones of infamy.
Building Brand Awareness: The Wrong Way
Pepsi’s ad did expand its reach, but it was for all the wrong reasons. It became a topic of conversation not as a product to buy but as an example of what not to do in advertising. Startups need to be careful to gain visibility for positive achievements, not PR failures. The way you’re talked about in the public matters.
The Halo Effect: When it Turns into a Storm Cloud
Usually, positive press creates a “halo effect” that improves people’s perceptions of your brand. Pepsi got the opposite. Their insensitive ad colored how people saw them, and not in a good way. For startups, steering clear of such pitfalls is crucial. Positive press can give you that halo; just make sure it’s deserved.
Establishing Thought Leadership: A Missed Opportunity
Pepsi had the chance to make a meaningful statement about social justice but failed by making the message superficial and commercial. Startups should use PR to show expertise and insights that matter to people, not to exploit sensitive topics for profit. When you’re a thought leader, people listen. Just make sure they’re nodding their heads, not shaking them.
Managing and Protecting Reputation: The Recovery
Pepsi did apologize and pull the ad, which are essential steps in reputation management. Even bad publicity can be an opportunity to show character and values if managed right. Startups can learn from this by being proactive in addressing issues and transparent in their actions.
In Short: Be Thoughtful in Your PR Strategy
Clearly, Pepsi’s mistake illustrates the risks of engaging with social issues thoughtlessly. For startups, PR should be about building trust, driving quality traffic, and genuinely engaging with audiences. Be sensitive to social issues, and don’t use them as a marketing ploy. It’s not just about avoiding failure; it’s about building a brand that people respect and trust.
While startup PR requires creativity and customization, core tactics like media relations form the foundation:
This involves building relationships with relevant journalists and reporters to earn press mentions. Startups should research media outlets and writers covering their industry.
Send newsworthy pitches and story ideas tailored to different publications.
Help reporters do their jobs by providing valuable insights and exclusives. Respond promptly to media inquiries. Being accessible and honest with the press fosters goodwill.
Thought Leadership Content
Position startup founders and executives as go-to industry experts. Secure speaking opportunities at trade events and conferences.
Publish guest articles for media outlets focused on trends and innovation.
Developing great thought leadership content takes consistency. Avoid overt company promotion. Provide actionable advice that builds credibility.
Create and distribute content like blog posts, ebooks, whitepapers, webinars and videos. Focus on addressing pain points and providing value.
Compelling content earns press mentions while also attracting website visitors through search and social media.
Social Media Engagement
Have company leaders establish their expertise on platforms like LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Share content, industry news and PR wins.
Respond to press coverage and customer conversations. Guide social media followers to media coverage.
Industry Awards and Lists
Apply for relevant startup awards and rankings like the “Top 100 Startups to Watch.” While not guaranteed, inclusion in key industry lists expands credibility.
Awards also make great press release and content fodder.
Have founders speak on panels or give talks at trade shows and industry conferences. This further cements thought leadership. Startups can land high-profile speaking gigs by first guest posting for related media sites.
Record and repurpose presentation content too.
Those are just some of the foundational earned media strategies startups should incorporate. Now let’s examine how to track the impact of PR efforts.
PR measurement has historically been fuzzy. But focusing on the right metrics helps startups continually refine and improve efforts:
- Media Coverage metrics – track press mentions secured in terms of volume, outlet authority, potential reach, tone (positive/negative), etc.
- Website traffic and leads driven – analyze traffic spikes from media coverage. Watch for lead form conversions.
- Social media growth and engagement – monitor increases in followers, engagement, clicks, and site referrals.
- Industry awards and recognition – compile awards won and list appearances as credibility markers.
- Brand awareness and sentiment – conduct surveys with target segments before and after press launches to gauge impact. Or use tools like YouGov BrandIndex.
- Sales pipeline impact – track leads and deals influenced by press coverage. Referral codes and UTM links help connect dots.
While not immediately revenue-driving, positive PR momentum compounds over time as brand visibility and trust grows. Patience and persistence pay off.
Now that we’ve covered startup PR strategies and metrics, should you handle PR in-house or hire an agency?
Initially, startups can often handle PR internally to save costs. Founders may draft press releases or personally reach out to reporters. However, as companies scale, working with a PR agency usually becomes necessary to achieve greater exposure.
In-House PR Pros:
- Greater control over messaging and brand voice
- Flat monthly costs vs. agency fees
- Founders directly build media relationships
Hiring a PR Agency:
- Established media connections for guaranteed placement
- Experts handle time/labor intensive tasks
- Outside perspective on story angles
- Added capacity and bandwidth
Professional PR agencies cost between $5,000 – $15,000 per month on average. They’re hired for a mix of strategy, media outreach, and content creation.
Given limited resources, startups need to determine the right time to bring on an agency partner.
For pre-seed or seed stage companies, basic DIY PR can be effective for generating some initial press pickups. As Series A funding comes in, hiring an agency often becomes a smart investment.
The volume of coverage and brand positioning power they provide will justify agency fees.
Regardless of whether PR is handled in-house or outsourced, consistency and integration with other marketing channels is key for maximizing impact.
Here’s a typical scenario when hiring a startup PR agency:
Eco-Friendly Product Rollout
The client was an eco-conscious startup with a groundbreaking sustainable product. They had just secured a partnership with a major grocery chain and needed to create a buzz.
Our Role as Spark Hat:
Spark Hat was engaged to amplify the client’s brand story. We implemented a full-spectrum PR strategy, including press releases, social media campaigns, and influencer partnerships.
Major media outlets picked up the story. The client’s website traffic soared, and the brand trended on social media. The client transformed from a startup to an industry thought leader in sustainability. The grocery chain also gained recognition as a responsible retailer. A win-win for all.
While earned media is uniquely valuable, it works best when integrated with startup marketing programs like:
- Paid Advertising – Promote content and press coverage through paid ads on platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn and Google. Paid boosting helps amplify organic reach.
- Influencer Marketing – Engage industry influencers and analysts. Seek product reviews/mentions from known bloggers. This drums up interest prior to broader media outreach.
- Email Marketing – Promote and distribute press coverage through email nurturing campaigns. Share published articles or founder commentary.
- Content Marketing – Repurpose media content, quotes, images and videos on owned startup channels. Or expand into long form content like ebooks.
- Social Media – Share press wins across startup social accounts. Use clips and quotes as social content. Tag media outlets and reporters.
- SEO – Ensure press coverage includes backlinks to startup website. Get maximum SEO mileage by syndicating articles on industry news sites.
- Events – Have execs reference recent press coverage during presentations and speeches. Display media logos at exhibit booths.
The more startups can magnify press wins across channels, the greater the ROI. This integrated approach to PR and marketing lengthens the lifespan and impact of earned media coverage.
Public relations may not be the first thing that comes to mind when plotting startup marketing plans. But incorporating PR early on as a core channel provides both short and long-term value.
Keep these core tips in mind:
- Earned media builds legitimacy and trust – drive credibility through smart PR.
- Prioritize developing media relationships and partnerships.
- Find unique angles to pitch based on industry trends and innovation.
- Balance proactive outreach with fielding reporter inquiries.
- Use PR and content to establish thought leadership.
- Promote press wins across all marketing channels to maximize exposure.
- Track website traffic, social growth, leads and brand surveys to measure impact.
- Bring on PR experts when bandwidth becomes limited.
With the right strategy and commitment, startup PR success is achievable even with the leanest of budgets. Positive momentum then snowballs thanks to the halo effect of media credibility.
Public relations may not be the easiest or most glamorous marketing channel, but it delivers immense value. Make PR a priority and watch your startup brand take flight.