Neil Patel

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A Beginner’s Guide To Public Relations For Tech Startups

Public Relations: The art and science of establishing and promoting a favorable relationship with the public.

Human Relations: The social and interpersonal relationships between human beings.

Startup PR 101

For many startups, public relations begins and ends with receiving a nod from TechCrunch. While TechCrunch is a great publication (and a mention from them is no small feat), there’s a lot more that goes into a winning PR strategy. As Dave McClure tweeted, “TechCrunch don’t pay the rent.”

techcrunch and public relations don't pay the rent

Startups that have a great product their customers love can benefit from public relations in more ways than one. Aside from the obvious benefit of publicity, entrepreneurs gain credibility. Many people (in fact, at least 15,000) place a lot of stock in what tech writers like Erin Bury of BetaKit have to say about upcoming startups.

For a startup that hasn’t settled on a product customers love, press coverage can be a huge mistake. Despite popular belief, getting as much press attention as possible right out of the gate is rarely a good idea. If you’re an entrepreneur who is ready to start scaling, that nod from TechCrunch and mention from Erin Bury could be invaluable.

But we’re just getting started!

PR is Altruistic in Nature

For a long time, the act of public relations has been thought of as a selfish one, where a publicist aims to get without giving in a vain attempt to secure media coverage for a client, merely building a relationship in exchange for a sought-after positive public portrayal of the client’s company.

Well that sounds unpleasant.

It’s time for a refreshing new take on PR.

Instead of waiting to engage individuals at the exact moment you need something from them, try using a more proactive approach: start building relationships early on. There is incredible value in viewing the daily public relations of your startup as a two-way street.

Public Relations vs. Human Relations

Both concepts revolve around building relationships. That much is true. But examine the two meanings further. The end goal of each is completely different. A public relations pro has coverage and favorable public image in mind; but after all is said and done, what are they left with? On the flip side, a human relations pro works hard for meaningful, social relations that provide value and create long-lasting relationships.

It begs the question: Is there value in adopting a human relations mindset over that of a public relations one?

We think there is.

Make Friends – Not Contacts

The idea of focusing your efforts on human relations is driven by the fact that there is measurable value in building and maintaining social relationships between your startup and the media. The focus of your PR plan of attack should be on making friends, not contacts.

Consider the impression given when attempting to make dozens of contacts based on pitch emails or cold calls. Go ahead, state your case – all they’re hearing is “blah, blah, blah.” Your efforts are just like everyone else’s: they lack authenticity. And they more than likely suggest that you’re really reaching to get coverage.

Reality check. These cold emails don’t leave a lasting impression on the writer. Nor do they suggest you genuinely care if the writer does have the capacity to cover your story. You want one thing, and they know it. So why should they deliver? What do you have to offer them, other than a story angle? If you aren’t giving the impression that you would like to invest in a relationship, writers will not willingly invest in you or your startup.

Just consider early thoughts on social media as a marketing channel. Brands would spend a few minutes scheduling tweets and posting Facebook updates. Since the push for authentic engagement, social media has really taken off as an inbound strategy. Just as you must invest in relationships with your customers instead of mindlessly pushing promotional social media content, you must invest in building genuine relationships with writers.

One of the fastest ways to burn bridges before they’re even built is to annoy writers with cookie-cutter emails. After years of practice, they can spot a mass email miles away (and it doesn’t look good for your startup). Not surprisingly, word travels fast in the small world of tech journalism. The last thing you want to do is develop that reputation.

Time is precious and no one understands this better than a startup founder. Instead of focusing all your efforts on cold pitching to as many writers as you can, why not concentrate on pitching to fewer in a more strategic, relationship-focused way?

By working hard to invest in others who, ultimately, will become vital to your company’s success, you are not just building a contact list; you are making real friends in strategic places (from whom you can ask favors). Think about your contacts that you interact with daily. Would you consider them to be friends, or are they merely names on a list? Would you feel comfortable
asking for their support?

Consider the value of one friend in the media compared to the value of a dozen contacts in the media. Your friend will notice your emails, associate your name with quality pitches and get back to you with feedback right away. And if the story doesn’t fit or the timing is off? Maybe your friend knows someone else she can put you in contact with who can help. In contrast, your contacts will vaguely recognize your name, respond with “thanks, but no thanks” emails, and forget about you and your startup until your next pitch.

As with most things in the startup world, it’s all about quality over quantity! So, how can you strengthen the relationship you have with your existing contacts to make them more meaningful and personal?

Build First – Ask Second

To build relationships, start small. It is common in the startup world to want to hit the ground running, but when it comes to making friends with the media, we recommend baby steps. You can begin by simply engaging via social media. Reply or retweet a tweet. Comment on one of their recent articles.

Be but a blip on their radar at first.

Harvey Mackay wrote the book Dig Your Well Before You’re Thirsty: The Only Networking Book You’ll Ever Need. Just as Jason Cohen of A Smart Bear recommends looking into potential hires before your startup is ready to hire, you have to build media friendships before you need them. If you until you’re thirsty to dig your well (or wait until you’re completely overwhelmed with work to look for potential employees) you’ve lost. You’ll make desperate, snap decisions about things that just shouldn’t happen overnight.

Send a warm introduction email. While you may already know what you’d like to gain from the relationship, now is not the time to request it. Make your introduction and tell them a bit about who you are and what you do. Reinforce that you believe you could potentially be of benefit to them by offering insights or relevant story material.

Always stress how you can be of value to them. Great PR is altruistic and selfless in nature. At this point, the relationship is not about you; it’s about them.

“The real question is this: In a world of spammers and those trying to create a sense of familiarity, how do you – as a business – truly connect with customers and media in a more powerful and profound way?” wrote Mitch Joel for The Vancouver Sun. “The answer is simple (and not all that technical): How would you approach someone you really wanted to meet if you ran into him or her at an airport lounge?”

If you met someone you admired at an airport lounge, it would be your honor to be in their presence. You would consciously be aware of the fact that you may have merely a moment to say what you’ve dreamed of saying to them. You would make it count. But above all, you would want to stand out from the crowd (and the hundreds of admirers before you). The last thing you want is to come off as “just another fan.”

This is an effective mindset to have whenever you’re given the opportunity to interact with writers, investors or influencers. This may be your one and only opportunity to connect and leave a lasting impression or to have any kind of meaningful interaction.

Remember the Following:

  1. Be Brief – When making intros, do so in a short but meaningful way. Who are you and why are you important? Never leave home without a tight and effective elevator pitch. When pitching media, don’t send multiple emails when one clear, tight email will suffice. Remember, they’re busy people.
  2. Be Genuine – Don’t fake familiarity. Harness helpful insights from social media, but don’t leverage them to the point of being creepy. Provide value that you really, truly believe is beneficial to them. Tell them what they need to know. Remember to have their best interest in mind. If you’re genuine, it’ll show. And if you’re not? Well, that’ll show, too.
  3. Be the Listener – Never underestimate the power of listening. If writers decline, it may seem tempting to pressure them until they say yes. Of course, you shouldn’t. If now isn’t the time, be understanding. If they just aren’t interested, accept it. Be respectful and be conscious of their needs (time, space, requirements and interest).

Pressuring writers almost never works. TechCrunch writer Ryan Lawler is famous for his criticism of the PR world. He recently tweeted about a PR professional who not only cold called, but followed with an email and an unsolicited infographic as well. Some PR folks are put off by his honesty, but he really does tweet the truth.

Tech writers are sick of startup after startup wanting something for nothing from complete strangers. If you don’t make the investment, why should writers like Ryan invest in you?

Sometimes “No” is Just “No”

By keeping these rules in mind and concentrating on long-term value over immediate gratification, you will see greater success in achieving media coverage. Why? Because you have come across as genuine, you haven’t wasted the writer’s time and you’ve actually listened.

If you’ve continued to focus efforts on connecting and staying connected, you’ve developed a natural relationship that is more likely to last. Writers may even approach you seeking a story or expert opinion.

For example, Sean Grech from Breakfast Television recently tweeted to ask his 400 or so followers for story ideas. What’s great is that you’re likely to get a warmer response if the writer is actively searching for fresh ideas and angles, especially if you have a pre-established relationship. Imagine having relationships with even five writers who turn to you and your startup on slow news days.

Additionally, writers tend to hop around. They may be at the New York Times one day and Huffington Post the next. By making real relationships, there’s a greater chance they’ll care about you when they continue on to other publications. A “no” right now isn’t the end of the world if you’ve played your cards right and developed a real relationship.

Media Doesn’t Equal Success

When building relationships with the media, it is important to always remember that attaining media coverage doesn’t necessarily equal success. Writers are great at their jobs because they’re good at telling stories. And yes, they could potentially write greatness about your product regardless of whether or not it’s true.

The key to success lies in your ability to solve a universal problem by offering a solution to others. If you’ve made this possible, then you’re more likely to be successful in the long-run. If you haven’t, media coverage won’t make up for your mediocre product or service.

This is especially important once you’ve connected with writers and they’ve offered their opinion of your product. Maybe they’ve told you that it simply won’t work for them. If you’re smart, you’ve politely asked why (without passing judgment). If they’ve offered a reason, don’t be quick to question their intelligence or grounds.

As Joel Spolsky, co-founder of Stack Exchange, says: “Nothing works better than just improving your product.” As an entrepreneur who eats, sleeps and breathes her startup, it’s easy to be blindsided when someone doesn’t “get it.”

So often we think that we have a great product when, really, it’s not the groundbreaking solution we originally thought it to be. Alternatively, it may not be the product, but the angle you’ve chosen to market it. Writers are pitched hundreds of stories, products and services. They’ve seen almost everything the market has to offer, which is why you should hold their opinion highly.

If they say it won’t work, take the time to understand why. Re-evaluate and re-strategize.

Long-Term is the Future – Short Term is Yesterday

Contrary to popular belief, getting covered that one time by TechCrunch won’t solidify your success. Media coverage is brief and but a ripple in the grand scheme of things. It is already old news from the moment it is published, which is why concentrating on the future and your long-term goals as a startup is crucial.

Startups are continuously undergoing change, and your ideas and branding will evolve. So will your beliefs. After all, startups love to pivot. There will be those resistant to change who will no longer see value in your company or what you’re offering. That’s all right.

But this is where the hard work you’ve put into creating meaningful relationships comes full circle. It will be those followers and those friends who will be by your side as your company adapts to the marketplace and adjusts goals. Why? Because you’ve instilled trust in them, and they have confidence in what you do.

For example, Dan Martell’s Flowtown received coverage on TechCrunch after a round of funding in 2010 and after a huge acquisition in 2011. When Martell moved on to found Clarity this year, TechCrunch covered that launch as well. Even as the circumstances change, the relationships built with writers and publications remain the same.

Lastly, the importance of connecting with writers on a personal level can be extremely handy if the timing isn’t necessarily right for your story right now. We talked about writers admitting that it simply won’t work, but that doesn’t mean the story angle won’t work in the future. If your story doesn’t work right now, that’s tolerable. Build upon it and adapt. How could it work in the future?


At the end of the day, we’re all just humans moving through life; and some of us are crawling, some are shuffling. In the startup world, we’re all hustling. As soon as you focus your energy on building mutually beneficial human relationships, rather than one-sided business relationships, your PR efforts will start to pick up pace.

So throw away the Rolodex, because just like investing in your customers will bring you more sales, investing in friendships with writers will bring you media coverage on major tech blogs more quickly and effectively than cold calls. It’s time to change the perspective of PR and put the “human” back into our relations.

About the Author: Heather Anne Ritchie-Carson, Co-Founder, Onboardly. Heather’s focus is all things PR and Promotion – helping introduce our portfolio of amazing startups to a wide variety of media outlets, influencers, and networks. She believes that good PR is all about good ideas and a ton of hustle; not a hefty Rolodex like your typical PR agency claims. As a result of that approach, she has helped her clients secure coverage in publications like Inc, Entrepreneur, Shape Magazine, New York Times Magazine, BetaKit, TechCrunch, PandoDaily, TechCocktail, and Mashable among other industry-specific outlets.

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