We have been pleased to work with more than one hundred clients over the past four years. They come to us for different reasons — support for raising brand awareness, thought leadership, and becoming visible to potential investors, for example. In working for them, we have encountered diverse understandings of the nature of public relations (PR). Some see PR as a marketing tool, whilst others think of it only as putting out a series of press releases. A failure to understand what PR is and what effective PR can do for a firm has led to a set of common mistakes. To help startups avoid these mistakes and efficiently leverage resources, we wanted to share some of the common mistakes startups make with PR. From considering everything newsworthy to misunderstanding strategic communication tools, here are five of these missteps and how you can avoid them:
1. Not having clear PR goals by which to measure progress
Startups sometimes seek to engage PR firms without clear goals or understanding of what they seek to achieve in three months, six months, and a year. It is critical to establish clear objectives to get the best out of PR activities.
Delineating these objectives, and mapping them to the business’s goals for fundraising, growth, or new market entry, provides clarity and helps to define the strategy. If the corporate goal is to attract talent, social media and media features can be leveraged to amplify the company’s values and culture, boost its reputation as a great place to work, and showcase its people. Similarly, a startup seeking corporate partnerships can raise its visibility to these partners through targeted messaging in op-eds, media mentions, speaking opportunities at events, and tailored social media strategies.
A startup’s PR objectives will help to identify audiences, decide key messages to prioritize, and determine the best channels to employ. Ultimately, the objectives also help to evaluate progress over time.
2. Not every announcement is newsworthy
When companies engage PR firms, one of their biggest priorities is immediate media coverage. They often consider every new development and company milestone newsworthy and push to have these announcements shared with the media. Whilst hiring a new CFO might be interesting news within a company, it is not likely that the press will want to write about this in isolation unless the hire is from a very popular startup or they have built a substantial public profile. Likewise, just starting operations in a country without major scale lacks the data that can make an announcement meaningful.
Journalists are looking for news that will drive public conversations and attract a wide readership. Typical announcements that attract media attention include significant fundraising, exits, acquisitions, major milestones, and high-profile partnerships.
Press releases should be deployed as parts of an overall PR strategy rather than a means to end themselves. Therefore, the overall PR strategy will dictate which announcements are newsworthy and when and how they should be shared. Some more minor announcements are, for instance, best shared on social media or company blogs.
3. PR is not Marketing
Startups frequently confuse PR with marketing. Public relations is managing how others see and feel about a person, brand, or company; whereas marketing refers to activities a company undertakes to promote sales of their products or services.
PR broadly addresses perception through efforts to get companies in the news organically, crafting and spreading a brand narrative through original content, and positioning a company as a thought leader in your sector. (We have a more comprehensive piece on the topic here: How PR Differs from Marketing). PR is not about billboard or radio ads and cannot be measured directly in customer acquisition.
4. A digital footprint is the foundation for mainstream coverage
Most startups approach PR firms seeking coverage in top-tier media outlets, but this is usually impossible when there is no foundation in place. The foundation for coverage in global outlets includes a public digital footprint which is a trail of Google-able references to a brand on social media, blogs, forums, listicles, directories, news channels, local media publications, and more.
For example, targeted publications like Fintech Times for fintech or Green Biz for the clean economy help build the foundation for mainstream coverage as journalists and editors at mainstream platforms read these niche platforms to inform their coverage. Journalists with international media houses are inundated with pitches and may not have the bandwidth to thoroughly analyze story pitches. They, like everyone, often first go to Google or Linkedin and rely on the information they find through these platforms to vet story ideas.
Additionally, niche and smaller publications are effective ways to reach specific target audiences with more in-depth and sector-specific content. While the Financial Times may find the announcement of a newly launched partnership of fintech startups in Nigeria too narrow for its broad business readership, TechCabal which covers Africa tech is more likely to write about such a partnership.
5. Thought leadership is not meant for self-promotion
Op-eds are important tools to establish expertise in a particular field or on a particular topic. Entrepreneurs can author op-eds that demonstrate their understanding of the market, use of technology, and relevant policies. Op-eds usually contain strong fact-based arguments or novel ideas that address issues with broad implications on society. However, clients often try to promote their companies within these pieces, thereby turning them into advertorials.
Editors typically turn down self-promotional pieces as the point of these op-eds are to provide valuable insights into a particular issue rather than promoting a particular brand. An op-ed will typically recommend actions and ideas by stakeholders in a sector, industry or area. Examples include: Better economic data can drive inclusive growth in Africa, Why Investors Should Go Beyond African GDP, Cash is Still King in Africa. We Need a Human Touch to End Its Reign. Promotional pieces do have a place in PR strategies and are best suited for inclusion on a company’s owned platforms like Medium or LinkedIn.
Understanding and avoiding these five mistakes provides a great foundation for startups looking to deploy an effective PR strategy to advance their business.
Do you have questions about public relations for your startup that you would like us to answer? Drop a comment or reach out via email@example.com!