We discussed the latest trends in startup public relations with Jason Kinnear, senior vice-president and national technology sector lead of Edelman Canada. We explore why public relations is a powerful tool for supporting your business objectives, when to engage and how to build a high-impact PR strategy.

1. What is PR? Why is it important?

Public relations or communications marketing is an often misunderstood function of the marketing mix. At its core, it is about telling your company’s story through various intermediaries and stakeholders, such as the media, influencers, partners, academics, customers, analysts and employees. The channels to tell this story are vast and include print and electronic media, social channels and owned channels.

To be clear, communications marketing is not advertising. The notion that intermediaries are telling your story for you is important, as it helps to build your credibility and earn trust among your target audience. This is particularly necessary in the technology startup space.

First, and most obviously, startups are new to the marketplace and have little mindshare among the public. Second, the impacts of new and innovative products and services that target businesses and consumers aren’t always easily understood, and in some cases are met with real skepticism. If you can articulate your story well, you can raise potential barriers to adoption and get people excited about what your company is trying to achieve.

PR is more than just landing “hits” in the media, though. Coverage for the sake of coverage doesn’t always move the needle. The best results come when you’re able to tie your efforts across your marketing functions and channels and then measure their impact on your business goals.

2. What’s changing in PR that startups should be aware of? 

Edelman recently released a study titled “Storytelling in the Age of Social News Consumption,” which I encourage everyone to read. In short, the study examined what made a news story “social” across general news in five industries: technology, energy, finance, food and beverage, and health. We analyzed the top shared stories and which publishers are seeing their stories shared most. We then surveyed 250 journalists.

This research revealed that:

  • More than 75% of journalists say they feel more pressure now to consider their story’s potential to be shared on social platforms.
  • To make their stories more shareable, journalists are infusing their stories with five key ingredients: video/images, brevity, localization, more use of human voice and a proximity to trending topics.
  • Nearly three-quarters of journalists are now creating original video content to accompany their stories. However, very few journalists (13%) are relying on sourcing consumer-generated video and only 3% are using corporate video.
  • Journalists see five key trends impacting their profession this year: more mobile-friendly content, faster turnaround times, more original video, less newsroom staff and social media growing in influence.

It has always been critically important to understand the day-to-day realities of the media. The need for a strong story that will resonate with your audience hasn’t changed, but the ways in which you can tell that story have. This research helps us navigate how best to do so.

3. What kind of prep work do you need to do to get started? What assets do you need to have ready that a journalist might request?

To run an effective communications campaign, the right amount of preparation is key. Understanding the market, your customers, your competitors and where you fit in that mix is a critical first step to developing your unique voice and articulating a core story. This is particularly important for an early-stage company or startup that is trying to gain much needed traction with the media and influencers. Oftentimes, and with the best of intentions, companies skip this step and go straight to pitching the media and engaging with key influencers. The result is muddled messaging and an inarticulate value proposition that only undermines your efforts. Developing a core story provides the umbrella from which to hang your broader efforts, while also maintaining focus on “why” you exist and how your PR and marketing tactics reinforce this.

In terms of assets, there a number of things you can consider. At the very least, you’ll want to create a package of materials that acts as a guide for media and influencers to really understand your company. Typical assets include things like company and product fact sheets, biographies, third-party research, customer references and testimonials, infographics, images and art, and a working demo or prototype that the media can review.

4. What are some ways to meet journalists, producers and bloggers, and to find the right ones to build relationships with?

Building one-to-one relationships will be key to any successful communications efforts. Spend the time to find the right people to connect with. If you’re simply blasting out pitches and invites to people who have no interest in your space, then you’ll burn more bridges than you build.

If, for example, your product or service is ready for primetime, think about your target audience and then understand how they receive and consume their information. Research those outlets and make sure you’re opening the lines of communication with topics and angles that will resonate with their readers and followers. Would you lead with a pure technology angle for an industry vertical publication, or focus more on the direct business benefits for end users, with the backend tech as a secondary message? If you’re targeting consumer outlets, which may not have a tech-savvy readership, outline how you’re going to make someone’s life easier or better, then how it all works.

In terms of actually meeting people, the tried and true method of setting up a face-to-face meeting—say, over coffee or lunch—still works best. The goal of that first meeting shouldn’t be landing a story; it should be introducing who you are, what your company is all about and the types of topics you’re passionate about. Be proactive—if you’re attending an event, try to determine who from the media will be there and reach out to them beforehand, or attempt to get an introduction. Be disciplined, too: tell yourself that you’ll attempt to meet at least one person every two weeks, or monthly.

Remember, be relevant to the audience, be prepared to answer questions and be respectful of the person’s time.

5. Many startups have unique sets of data. How can you pitch data to a journalist?

Compelling data can be a rich source of story material. Data can be used to help lend credibility to an idea or the very reason you have started a business (filling a gap in the market), or as a snapshot of the behaviour of companies or consumers. The goal, as always, is how relevant the data is to an outlet’s audience, to a particular trend in the market or to a timely news story.

6. When do you know you’re ready to focus on PR? 

I’ve shared a lot in terms of what PR is and how best to get your story out, particularly via the media, but this only touches the surface of what you can do. It takes commitment to get it right and the first question you should ask yourself is: “Am I prepared to give it the time it requires?” There’s nothing wrong with a phased approach. Each startup is at a unique stage in its existence and the goal of PR will change as you grow and evolve.

Ask yourself:

  • What do I hope to gain by investing in PR? Are my expectations aligned with reality?
  • Am I really ready to tell the story of who I am and the value proposition my company is serving in the market?
  • Is my product ready to be tested and critiqued by the media, influencers and, ultimately, customers? If not, what’s your strategy for rollout? You only have one shot after all.
  • Can I develop the assets I need to tell my story in a compelling way?
  • Are there credible people I can turn to to help me answer these questions?

JKinnearJason Kinnear is senior vice-president and national technology sector lead for Edelman Canada. He is a regular advisor to startups and a frequent guest at MaRS. Reach out to him on email.

Aislinn Malszecki

Aislinn is a strategist, designer and education producer for entrepreneurs that seek practical lessons to grow their startup companies.See more…