Julija (JJ) is Black Unicorn PR’s founder and CEO. JJ is a trained journalist and counts with over a decade of experience in PR and communications, and has worked both in-house and agency-side internationally. JJ’s
Well-executed PR can be an asset for startups striving for international success. A favourable public perception can maximize your chances of attracting investors, partners, talent, and customers. However, PR can be especially challenging for early-stage startups from smaller countries, where English is not the main language and where marketing resources are scarcer. But it’s not impossible. The startup PR game has a few key principles that, if understood, can take a huge weight off your shoulders, and can allow even small teams to start executing and collecting PR wins. Below are six areas packed with actionable and conceptual insights to help you get started with PR for your SEE startup.
Improve your ‘PR infrastructure’
First things first. You need to look presentable, before you even take any steps in media relations. If you are ready to do PR, that means there is no excuse not to have a polished, easy-to-understand website. Journalists do appreciate clarity when it comes to products, benefits, and features. But they are also looking for information about the company itself and the founders. An ‘About Us’ section is a must, a press section is definitely recommended.
Similarly, you will want to have a polished social media presence. When it comes to PR, Twitter and LinkedIn are the most important social networks. A lot of startups are not confident when it comes to Twitter. The important thing here is to have a polished profile. Anything that goes into LinkedIn can be shortened to go into Twitter.
Understand the concept of newsworthiness
To understand how PR works, you need to understand newsworthiness and how journalists think. Every day, journalists and editors make decisions on what is worth covering. When you send a pitch, they estimate how newsworthy your story or startup is.
Newsworthiness can be broken down into five main components. The first is timeliness. There is a certain type of news, such as fundraising announcements, partnerships, product launches, and country expansions. They simply occur on a certain date, and when sent to the right publications, it will simply be part of their mechanism to cover them. Another way to think about timeliness is to understand how favourable the news agenda context is with regard to what you are pitching. For instance, during the football World Cup, certain journalists might be more receptive to sports tech startups. Or, with the collapse of FTX, to a thought piece on centralised versus decentralised crypto.
The second newsworthiness variable is impact. The impact can be measured in terms of funding raised, yearly revenue, employee count, number of users, and number of international offices. But also less tangible things, like the impact your product can make on the life of one individual. Can your product prevent heart attacks? In general, it is straightforward: the larger your startup gets, the more it will be impactful, and therefore newsworthy.
Thirdly we have geography. This can really work to the advantage of an early-stage startup. Simply put, if you are a Romanian startup, you will be of interest to Romanian startup outlets before you are of interest to international outlets. Even if you are an early-stage startup, with a minimum of traction, you will find opportunities with local media. The same applies to regional media, and The Recursive is a great example for South East Europe and later to European media. To have a realistic chance at global top-tier outlets, you will need strong newsworthiness in other areas like impact and timeliness.
Finally, we have celebrity and conflict. These are less common for startups to leverage for newsworthiness, although celebrity investors such as football players, such as Luka Modric, or actors are helping many startups get more coverage. Conflict is not simply a David versus Goliath storytelling approach, but could include lawsuits, accusations, and more. Usually, it’s not employed purposefully, so it’s safer to steer away from it without the right experience.
Understand how you can connect your startup to relevant media
Now that you understand how journalists tick, think about your startup’s potential newsworthiness and the media you should target. A rule of thumb is, to begin with, local and trade media.
Think about where you are based, and the local startup media there. If you conduct business internationally, you can also look at local media in other countries, depending on your footprint there (impact). With a bit more traction, ideally some VC funding, you should also think about podcasts covering the national or regional scene, as well as regional outlets. These outlets may only be in the local language only, but you should still develop relationships with them.
Also, consider your vertical. Normally, verticals fit well into trade media. Nowadays, traditional trade media makes space for startups, but there are also plenty of trade media outlets dedicated to technology. A great example is fintech, where you have UK-based, pan-European or global publications such as Finextra, The Fintech Times, Fintech Magazine and Fintech Finance that cover news and opinions. It doesn’t matter where you are from, whether Bulgaria or Germany, these outlets are interested in news coming from the fintech world.
Of course, you should also develop a wish list of media you would like to get covered in. However, now knowing how newsworthiness works, assess what stage your startup needs to get to in order to have a realistic chance of getting there. For instance, for an early stage startup, TechCrunch is unlikely to be attainable without a funding round and interesting story to go with it, carefully pitched as an exclusive.
With any publication that you target, make sure you get a good understanding of their coverage topics, article types, and watch out for instructive articles on how their team prefers to get pitched.
Thought leadership can be a powerful tool if there is willingness to pursue. In the startup world, founders are crucial because the startup idea and execution often depends on their story and ability to execute. Journalists know this, and will always look to get the founder’s side of the story. In fact, it would be strange, or even a red flag, for a journalist to not be able to find information about the founders. We consider founders to be crucial within a startup’s PR strategy.
What makes startup founders different to lifestyle business owners is that they are not just in it for the money. They see an inefficiency in the industry or a product that could help people, and want to make a real difference in the world. That also means that they will have strong opinions about the industry, about the way things work in the world, and about running a business. Making those public and driving conversations in the public arena is the definition of thought leadership.
Building up a founder can help get different kinds of placements such as interview opportunities, podcasts, and speaking at events. Founders should be encouraged to maintain a polished presence on social media, if possible in English.
Another advantage of developing thought leadership is the appeal of a contributor to publications. The trend in the media world is that publications need to publish more content with fewer people. This has led to the growth of contributed content by guest authors with a depth of expertise, which is a great opportunity for startup founders.
Plan various PR activity tracks
They say that ‘if you fail to prepare, you should prepare to fail’. While you can still get PR wins with an ad-hoc approach, planning can make PR feel a lot less like a dark art and more like a system. With the steps above you already have a good understanding, now it’s time to ‘media map’ and identify the exact, specific opportunities that you can pursue for your startup.
Within the media you identified as relevant for your business, check what types of news they cover and decide whether you have any upcoming company announcements that would be a fit.
Also check for ‘atemporal opportunities’ such as founder Q&As, startup profiles, podcasts, and others. Make sure you understand what they are looking for in a startup. Sometimes, you need to have at least a VC investment or good revenue traction. In some cases, publications look for startups that have recently launched.
If you are able to write guest articles, do check if the publications accept them. Usually, there will be public guidelines for how to write and pitch these articles.
Now, it’s time to put it all together in a plan. Prioritise important news and announcements. Understand what will happen in the next 6 to 12 months at your startup, but leave room for flexibility. Aim for a steady, consistent PR activity, pursuing atemporal opportunities during months of little news.
Tactical execution tips
There is only so much that can be outlined within a certain word limit. However, there are a lot more tactical elements that can be mentioned. Here are a few to make sure you can hit the ground running after reading this article.
In dealing with journalists, don’t be phony in emails. Journalists want to get straight to the point. No need for sugarcoating. Also, avoid sending press releases to enormous lists of contacts that have not been checked for relevance. That is called ‘spray and pray’ – and it can literally burn bridges, hindering rather than building relationships. Don’t phone journalists in the English-speaking world, they hate it and most likely won’t pick up anyways.
Use exclusives for your fundraising news. You can only give the exclusive to one journalist. What does it mean? It means no one else can get the same access to information other than that one journalist. Once they publish their article, you can distribute your press release to other outlets.
Until your startup is a rather large scaleup, the fundraiser announcement will likely be your most newsworthy story – so aim as high as you can with it. Depending on the amount raised, founder and investor background, and vertical, you could aim for different outlets. The typical outlets sought after are TechCrunch and VentureBeat, but also the more European-focused tech.eu and Sifted. You will have to go with one for your exclusive.
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