5 takeaways on startup PR from the Canadian tech community

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PR is often a key part of any startup’s launch marketing plan, since being covered in publications like BetaKit can build brand awareness, drive interest from stakeholders (investors, partners, etc.), and generate users, downloads, and sales. Founders often have questions about how to approach PR though: should they use an agency, hire in-house or do it themselves? When should they time their launch? And how do you actually get coverage?

This past Friday a lively discussion erupted in the Startup North Facebook group about startup PR. It was sparked by Michael Koral, the founder of advertising platform Needls, who initially posted about how he hasn’t had good experiences with Toronto PR agencies, and was looking for recommendations for local companies. What started as a simple request for recommendations turned into a debate about the value of public relations for startups, and how startups should evaluate who should be doing outreach to media.

It got me thinking about my experiences in PR: first at a mid-sized agency (120 people); then in-house at a startup; then on the other side of the fence as the Managing Editor of this very publication; and now leading boutique marketing agency 88 Creative, which has a small PR team. Here are some takeaways based on my experience, and the advice shared by journalists, founders, and agency owners in the Startup North thread:

1) You don’t need to use an agency – you just need time or a great in-house resource.

Even though I run an agency, I’m the first person to tell founders that they don’t need us (yet). I spent a few years as Community Manager at Sprouter, and my role encompassed a little bit of everything – PR, customer service, digital marketing, and business development. Having someone handling PR in-house means you can also have that person focusing on other communications or admin functions, and it means they live and breathe your brand. I built great relationships, and had the ongoing time to focus on the profiles and non “newsy” opportunities. You can also do PR yourself as a founder, since journalists love hearing directly from entrepreneurs (as BetaKit’s current editor-in-chief Douglas Soltys and Bloomberg writer Gerrit De Vynck echoed on the thread). The caveat? It takes a lot of time, effort, and relationship-building. BuzzBuzzHome co-founder Matthew Slutsky, who also owns our agency 88 Creative, outlined his approach to PR in the thread, talking about how he goes to lots of industry events to meet journalists, and sends them tips about other companies. He focuses on relationships, and finds by becoming a helpful resource to journalists they’re more likely to listen when he does have news (a recent announcement resulted in coverage in Post City, CP24, CBC, and Global News, among others).

2) The benefits to using a freelancer or agency? Industry expertise and relationships.

Not every founder wants to be the PR relationship-builder, and not everyone wants to onboard a full-time employee who handles PR. Lots of founders turn to PR agencies, and usually it’s for two main reasons: they know agencies have the expertise to execute a strategic PR plan; and they know agency staffers have great relationships with journalists. Agencies spend their days building great relationships with producers, journalists, freelancers, and influencers, so when you plug into their network you know your company will at least get in front of them. PR agencies also know the steps to executing a well thought-out plan: creating relevant media materials; creating a targeted media list; crafting pitch and story angles; conducting outreach; and finding opportunities for coverage. I outlined a few more signs it’s time to hire an agency here.

3) The key to agency success? Do your research, find the best fit.

This is probably where most founders make a mistake: they choose the wrong agency. Maybe the agency is way too big (large agencies typically work with retainers of $25,000 and up), or maybe they don’t have expertise in their industry. If you’re a B2B tech startup don’t hire an agency that does beauty PR – find someone who has a track record of success with other B2B tech startups. Ask for case studies, and examples of campaigns they’ve worked on. Ask who will be working on your campaign – will the senior team be working on your campaign instead of delegating everything to junior employees? And be upfront about your goals: where you want coverage, your top 5 publications, your ideal headline, your version of success. Finally make sure they care about your product/service – you need to work with people who are passionate about what you’re doing. As communications consultant Eden Spodek said in the thread “at the end of the day, you want someone (almost) as passionate as you are about your company whether they’re internal or external.”

4) The key to PR success in general? Have a good story, and have realistic timelines and expectations.

Startup North founder David Crow made a great point in the Facebook thread: sometimes when startups don’t find PR success (either with an agency or otherwise) it’s because their expectations and/or budget are unrealistic, or their story isn’t compelling. Your company existing isn’t news, and often you need to pull in current trends, statistics, or other newsworthy angles to make it compelling to a journalist. A good agency should help you develop those newsworthy story angles, and if you’re doing PR yourself make sure you do that before reaching out. In addition, make sure your timeline is realistic – like SEO, PR doesn’t happen overnight, and often it can take time pitching and working with a journalist to secure coverage. Also make sure you understand that PR isn’t a silver bullet – as I learned when I was doing PR for a startup, media coverage is great in terms of brand awareness, stakeholder positioning, and spikes in awareness, but it’s not a consistent, ongoing source of conversions, and should be only one piece of your overall marketing plan.

5) Pay-to-play doesn’t work for most agencies.

A lot of entrepreneurs have asked about a pay-to-play model for PR – only paying when the agency successfully secures coverage. Most agencies won’t adopt this model because a lot of the work that goes into a PR campaign happens before we even connect with journalists. Brainstorming compelling story angles, building the media kit, writing press materials, creating a media list, writing pitches – it takes time to build a great campaign. While there’s no guarantee of coverage, any PR agency worth their salt shouldn’t take you on as a client if they don’t think they can secure you coverage, so it should be a given that you get coverage. While you can certainly outline goals for the amount of coverage, and goals for metrics like downloads, user sign-ups, or website traffic, most agencies won’t only accept compensation based on successful placements (and media outlets like TechCrunch hate that tactic anyway).

Looking for PR help for your startup? There are some really great boutique agencies/consultants who specialize in tech startup PR, including Herscu & Goldsilver, Communicable, Onboardly, Echo Communications, and of course 88 Creative (shameless plug). Those are ones I’ve connected with and know do great work, but not an exhaustive list – David Crow created a more comprehensive list of startup PR resources here. Feel free to add your recommendations and tips in the comments, or add to the Startup North thread.

Erin Bury

Erin Bury

Erin Bury is the Managing Director at Eighty-Eight, a creative communications agency based in Toronto. She was formerly the Managing Editor at BetaKit, and currently writes a monthly column for the Financial Post. Follow her on Twitter at @erinbury.