Why Most Startups Suck at PR and How to Fix It to Get More Press Right Now

Dave Gerhardt by

I was having coffee with someone who works in a senior marketing role at a startup in Boston.

“I want to pick your brain on PR” she said.

“OK, shoot. What about PR?”

“Well we’re having a hard time getting any press.”

This company is well funded. They have a solid team. And they’re in a space that is filled with boring old incumbents. There should be plenty of angles here.

So I asked her what she meant when she said “press.”

“You know like Wired, TechCrunch, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe — that type of stuff.”

press logos

^ that’s why they are having a hard time getting press.

And this is something that countless startups get wrong with PR today.

Think about it: You don’t rely on those places to get your information on a daily basis any more, so why would your customers?

The Landscape for Press Has Changed.

And we know this…But just like most things in startups, we don’t often think about what we actually do as consumers. We have a hard time separating ourselves from the things that we want to do with our businesses and how we actually do things as people.

How often have you read the WSJ or NYT and heard about a company, product, or idea for the very first time? That almost never happens any more.

We don’t start our days with the the Journal or the Times any more.

Sure, we check what’s going on there, but we start our day doing things like checking Twitter, reading blogs (and Medium articles) from our favorite people and companies — and we listen to podcasts on our commutes on the way to work.

Getting PR today starts with understanding that what PR is has changed. More people have audiences today than ever before, and anyone can be a publisher.

PR today is all about reaching an audience — not about getting a logo to put in the footer of your website.
And getting more PR starts with understanding that the landscape has changed — and as a result, the tactics that you take to get PR need to change too.

Why Most Startups Suck At Getting PR

Most startups struggle to press because their “pitch” starts from the inside out. And that make sense. It’s human nature. You started a company (hopefully) because you so passionately believe that you’re solving a big problem or meeting a huge need in the market. Spoiler alert though: most people don’t care.

Have you ever read the comments on Product Hunt? Every single day, hundreds of new products are posted and launched there. And every single day, there are countless comments that ask:

“How is [New Product] different than [Existing Product]”

Even if you really are different, there’s just so much noise out there that it is so hard to stand out with your product story.

Take any product in any industry, and there are at least a handful of similar products. Heck I mean there are even three different people trying to invent new ways to send ROCKETS into SPACE.

space companies

So there are probably at least a handful of existing products in your industry, too.

And even if you have dreams of landing a nice story in the NYT or WSJ, there are usually only two typical pitches work:

  1. A huge round of funding led by a well known investor that’s always on the forefront of the next big thing.
  2. A handful of powerful customer references (and that story needs to be something more than someone saying “this marketing tool got me 200% more leads!” or “because of X product, I can now run my business while on the go!”).

How to Start Getting More PR for your Startup

Knowing that the landscape has changed, here are the two keys to getting more PR today:

First, your pitch needs to be all about you. Throw out your industry and your “game changing technology” and talk about YOU. Yep. You, as a person — as a founder, as an entrepreneur, marketer, whatever. This is the story that will give you a better shot at landing PR. We (people!) love hearing tactical, authentic stories about businesses today. It’s why we read Medium. It’s why we listen to podcasts. It’s why we follow brands on Snapchat. Use that to your advantage.

Take the crew at Buffer for example. Leo Widrich and Joel Gascoigne are PR BEASTS because from day one, they’ve been sharing their story as they’ve been building a company.

Maybe you started your company after working at Public Company X under legendary Manager Y for 5 years and that’s why you started this company.

That’s your story.

Or maybe this is just straight up the first time you’ve run a business — start sharing all of the things you’re learning as you’re building.

People would rather hear about those stories than about how you’re disrupting hiring, travel, or marketing technology for the 73rd time. Authenticity is the way that the best companies are getting PR today. Figure out what angle you can take to do the same.

This is an especially good strategy for your company to take if you’re still pre $1-5M in ARR and don’t have a ton of news or hundreds of happy customers that will go on record for you.

Second, the channels you’re using to get press need to change. Stop chasing the WSJ, NYT, Wired and TechCrunch and focus here:

  • Speaking engagements. You’re most likely an expert in your industry if you’re building a company around this business — so find every conference that’s relevant and try and get yourself a speaking slot. And this doesn’t mean make a list of the top 2–3 conferences in your industry. Find the small ones — speaking in front of 100 people who will love you will have a bigger impact on your business than speaking in front of 1,000 people who will be checking their phones the entire time. Plus, speaking forces you to sharpen your story for when you’re ready for that dream interview.
  • Podcasts. Think about the explosion in podcasts. There are podcasts for every single topic, niche and industry you can imagine. Go on every single podcast that you can before you starting pitching press. Podcasters are like mini PR outlets — and some of them aren’t so mini. There are thousands of podcasts that have THOUSANDS of monthly listeners. I can’t stress enough of much of an impact going on podcasts can have (and it’s the most authentic version of PR — you speaking directly into someones ears as they shop, workout, commute to work, etc.) And not only can you find every single podcast in your industry to go on, but there are also a whole set of sub-topics you can talk about. Let’s say you’re the founder of a startup that is building marketing software. I’d find every single marketing podcast to go on (for one angle) and then every single podcast about startups and entrepreneurship for a different angle. There are even podcasts about company culture, work/life balance, etc. ← my point is there are so, so many angles. Find them all before worrying about getting some “print PR.”
  • Content. Content is PR, but we just don’t think of it that way. Just like you should find every podcast to be on, apply the same stuff we talked about there and find every single site and blog that will take your writing. And this doesn’t just have to be media sites — every brand is a publisher now. Find all of the blogs you read and the ones you like in your industry and find a way to write for them. Nearly everyone takes contributed content now — you just have to put in the time to write something original. For example, if you have a SaaS sales product, make a list of the top 20 startup sales blogs and try and write posts for as many of those blogs that will take your stuff. You can also use Help A Reporter Out as a tool to source opportunities (you get a daily email with a list of reporters and bloggers who are looking for quotes on particular topics; it’s a great free way to get more links and press).
  • Figure out who’s already written something about your competitors. As we talked about earlier in this post, you’re probably not the first company in a given industry. You can actually use that to your advantage for PR. Find everyone that’s ever written about one of your competitors and reach out to tell your story. And don’t just look at the traditional press — make a list of every podcast interview they’ve done, site they’ve guest blogged for, AMA’s their founder has done and more. You can use a tool like Moz’s Open Site Explorer to find all of the backlinks to your competitors blog, homepage or particular landing pages — or use BuzzSumo to find influencers on a particular topic — and then make a really targeted list of people to reach out.

Whether you’re struggling to get PR or just think you should be getting more PR, spend more time focusing on the tactics in this post (content, podcasts, speaking) than pitching traditional media outlets and journalists.

And switch up your angle too — make it more about you than the industry you’re trying to “disrupt.”
We love reading and hearing authentic stories from real people, and I bet your prospects and customers do too.

Oh and this PR stuff isn’t just something I wanted to write about on Medium — this is something we focus on at Drift and it works.

Since the fall we’ve had over 70+ PR features — none in the WSJ, NYT, or TechCrunch — and that’s led to us doubling traffic to Drift.com, growing our blog traffic 7500%, and increasing organic search by 4x.

Now go and get some more PR of your own.

  • Interesting piece. As a real-life PR person, I’m going to have to disagree with you. I guess the only real difference between publishing something yourself and chasing down “tired” media outlets like the Wall St. Journal just MIGHT be the millions of readers they have and the credibility and trust that comes with years of providing news and facts to people. But you’re right, I can totally see how a startup’s channel of their friends and family and Kickstarter backers would be exactly the same thing. The latest Pew Research shows that 9 out of 10 people do not trust a single word spoken by most companies and that is a completely earned reputation. Even if brands had the reach (startups do not), they lack the credibility and thus, the need for media relations. Actual media relations or as you call it — chasing down WSJ, Wired and TechCrunch. Real PR is about building trust and for my money, the media is still the best path.

  • Raj

    Dave, you’re mostly right except the part where you think “PR today is all about reaching an audience”. Most definitely PR is about creating awareness, however, PR is an equally important tool to create an impact or to build a brand – and for that it’s important to be there on WSJ, NYT, Wired and TechCrunch of the world.