In the startup world, public relations is usually something founders do at night, after product development, fundraising, strategy sessions, hiring and everything else. That’s fine. In fact, until you have funding and a marketing lead, you’re better off doing PR on your own than hiring a firm.

This guide outlines a strategy that requires no more than two hours per week and helps get your name into the world.

Does PR for Startups Even Matter?

Short answer: yes.

Every company should do PR, even if the “company” right now is just you and your laptop. The key is to understand that, in the early days, the goal of public relations is not to convince a New York Times reporter to write a cover story about you, it’s to build relationships with people who can increase your profile in the long term.

Increasing your profile – helping the public find out about your business – can pay off in a big way. Most early-stage startups launch PR efforts with the hope of achieving some combination of these three things:

  • Boost sales
  • Recruit talent
  • Raise money

There’s evidence that PR can help with all three. In fact, research has shown that PR efforts generate conversion rates 10 to 50 times what advertising yields.

This guide will help you establish and grow those key relationships. It won’t explain how to pitch, because pitching is a waste of time until you’ve done the background relationship-building work. (But I will put together a beginner’s guide to pitching, too. Stay tuned.)

Okay. Enough background. Let’s get to it.

Step 1: Set Your Objectives

As I said, most startups are usually interested in PR for its ability to help them sell, recruit, raise money or do some combination of those things.

You may know automatically that you want to do one of these, but take a moment to consider whether the others – or some other goal – might also be worth including in your strategy.

Step 2: Identify 10 Media Targets to Help Meet Your Objectives

The idea here is to find the journalists and freelance writers who are most likely to write a story about you. Depending on the goals you identified in Step 1, you may consider…

  • Reporters at local publications.
  • Reporters at trade publications.
  • Beat reporters at any publication.
  • Reporters at startup / entrepreneur publications.

Another way to find likely targets is to scour the media pages of your competitors. But don’t just assume a reporter who wrote about them will write about you; make sure you understand why they got the coverage. To do that, read a few articles by the reporter to understand their beat and interests.

Print and online pubs are good targets for most startups, but don’t stop your search there. Podcast hosts, analysts, and anyone else who might have an interest in your business, your industry, or your story can be on your list.

Once you have your initial list, find an email address for everyone. There are a few ways to do this:

  • Sleuth manually: Some publications have contact pages that list email addresses for various contributors. Others list enough addresses that you can guess your target’s based on the standard format (E.g., firstletter.lastname@publication.com)
  • Check social media: Some reporters list contact info in their LinkedIn or Twitter profiles.
  • Try Hunter: This Chrome extension does the sleuth work for you for up to 100 searches per month (more than that, and you have to pay). Visit any domain, and Hunter lists any email addresses known to be associated with it.
  • Try MailDB: This Chicago-based startup is still in beta, but it offers a service similar to Hunter’s. We at Propllr have been using it on a limited basis and are so far pleased with the results.
  • Pay a little money: Buzzstream and JustReachOut both offer more in-depth tools for running in-house PR efforts. They’re paid services, but you can start with a free trial. If you’re in the very early stages of your business, these services probably aren’t worth the money – you’ll have to invest a fair amount of time to make them worthwhile.

Okay. You’ve got email addresses for 10 people most likely to spread the word about your startup. Where to keep them? You can try a spreadsheet – it’s free and simple. But my recommendation is the Gmail plugin Streak.

Streak is CRM built to work inside Gmail. We rely on it pretty heavily here and it’s flexible enough that you can adapt it to any sales cycle – even a bare-bones PR contact cycle.

Step 3: Create a Private Twitter List of Your Targets

If you’re not a power Twitter user, check out Twitter’s guide to creating lists for guidance here. What you want to do is make a private list of the 10 reporters you identified earlier.

The idea is to have a single place where you can keep track of what these folks are doing. Once you have the list…

  • Check it once or twice per day.
  • When a post is relevant to your industry, company, or mission, engage. When you share or comment on their work, be sure to use their handles so they’re notified.
  • As you learn what makes them tick, add notes to the “Contact” section of your Streak.

Important note: Authenticity is key here. Most of what these folks tweet will be irrelevant to you and your company. That’s fine. You’re trying to do two things: first, figure out what kinds of things they write about and what interests them.

A reporter who covers fintech issues for a startup publication may reveal herself to be a huge fan of Star Wars. A reporter on the local startup beat in San Diego may be helpless before fancy donuts. Get to know these reporters as people so when it comes time to reach out to them, you stand out from the folks who read one of their articles and sent an overeager note.

The second goal is for the reporter to see your name. If, over the course of a few months, they see that you commented or re-tweeted their stuff a handful of times, they’ll recognize your name when it shows up in their inbox – and be more likely to read your email and respond positively.

Which brings me to the next step…

Step 4: Introduce Yourself

Once you’ve engaged a few times with each of your target reporters, reach out via email. The first email should be a simple introduction:

Hi, Wendy –

I launched a company called BlatherTwist, which turns the things people say to you into greeting cards. We just hit 50,000 users this week, so I thought now was a good time to introduce myself. I know you cover the greeting card startup beat in Milwaukee, so I wanted to get on your radar.

Hope you’re enjoying the latest season of [TV show reporter has tweeted about repeatedly]!

Best,

Josh

Here’s a MadLibs version of that you can use:

Hi, [Reporter’s name] –

I launched a company called [your company’s name], which [describe what your company does]. [Note a milestone or two here], so I thought now was a good time to introduce myself. I know you cover [reporter’s coverage area], so I wanted to get on your radar.

[Something personal here to show you’ve done your homework, but be genuine].

Best,

[Your name]

The phrase “get on your radar” is key here. Ideally, you’ve been getting on their radar in stealth mode for a while now via your authentic Twitter engagement. With this email, you’re being more explicit.

Don’t expect the reporter to follow up asking to do a profile. That’s not the point. You’re aiming to build an actual relationship that results in mutually positive outcomes. After all, if the reporter covers you before anyone else does, that’s good news for you (obviously) and good news for them when you go on to do great things. Pay attention to who they are and what they write about, and you’ll make a stellar first impression.

Important note: In this email and in subsequent conversations, make sure you position the story of your company so that it’s compelling to reporters. That means getting it as close to the end consumer as possible, even if you’re a B2B company. In other words, your product or service helps industry x, which means Jane Doe in Iowa can protect her family.

Step 5: Follow Up

Once you’ve sent your email introduction, aim to follow up at least once per month. What to include in these follow-up emails? Here are some topics that have worked in the past:

  • Updates about your company. It doesn’t have to be huge, but it shouldn’t be fake, either. Evidence you’re evolving is great: hiring a new employee, launching in beta mode, revamping your website, etc.
  • Trends you notice in their field. Again (I can’t emphasize this enough), be genuine. If you’ve had conversations about a topic or noticed a trend that might interest the reporter, it’s worth reaching out to mention it, even if your business isn’t involved. For example, are all your entrepreneur friends suddenly talking about sleep hacking? Or aqua-puncture, the new underwater acupuncture that guarantees a boost in creativity and problem solving? Or a strategy for running meetings more efficiently? If it’s within a reporter’s area of interest, let them know!
  • Thoughts on a recent piece. Whether you like something, strongly disagree or have a wildly different perspective, genuine engagement helps build a rapport.

Remember: these are just suggestions. If you have something of substance to say that’s likely to interest the reporter and it’s been about a month since your last email, reach out.

One note: don’t set a calendar reminder for the third Thursday of the month or the sixteenth of the month as your outreach day. Even if you’re strategizing these interactions, it’s best if they feel organic rather than formulaic.

Step 6: Meet in Person

Once you’ve made email contact a few times, you’ve hopefully gotten a response or two. Assuming that’s happened, it’s time to look for an excuse to meet in person. The goal of your first meetup is to get to know each other and have an open-ended conversation. You are not there to pitch, so don’t worry about having the perfect pitch ready.

In fact, don’t have any pitch. Be prepared to talk about their work, your work, and your network. You may know someone who’s perfect for a story they’re working on! They may have gone to school with your cousin!

Even if you don’t uncover handy connections, face time means the reporter will be more likely to think of you in the future.

So how do you initiate an in-person intro?

Again, authenticity is key. If it’s a reporter in another city, reach out next time you’re headed that way. If it’s someone nearby with offices in a different part of town, let them know next time you’re up that way.

This isn’t supposed to be a momentous conversation, so you don’t need an elaborate excuse to set it up. Suggest a coffee.

Once you’ve met a reporter in person, the name of the game is maintenance. Continue regular email contact and relevant Twitter engagement. Introduce people in your network who might be able to help the reporter. Keep the pot a-simmering.

Step 7: Build Your List

Ten reporters is a great place to start, but eventually, you’ll want a network larger than that. Rather than trying to compile an uber-list upfront, though, let it happen gradually as you’re working on building relationships with the first batch. To do that, set up Google alerts for…

  • Keywords and phrases relevant to your company or industry: For example, Chicago startup, 3D printing, Chicago internships, office dogs, etc. This will let you know who’s writing about not just the core work you do but also other topics relevant to your business that reporters consider newsworthy.
  • Names of your competitors: It’s always good to see what they’re up to, who’s covering them, and what angles this coverage focuses on.
  • Names of businesses complementary to yours: This might include companies in your space (e.g., HR tech) offering a different product or service. Take note of which reporters are interested in the industry more broadly.
  • Reporter names: As you see who’s writing these pieces, set up alerts for the reporters themselves so you never miss a story (even if they don’t tweet about it).

As you find reporters interested in the types of things you’re doing, add them to your Twitter list and start the process again.

Step 8: Join HARO and ProfNet

Warning: this will require slightly more engagement (and time) than the other strategies outlined here.

These services connect journalists and potential sources via regular query emails. So if you sign up for HARO (Help A Reporter Out), you’ll receive emails three times a day with story queries from all kinds of reporters. When a reporter is looking for someone like you, you can reach out as a source and possibly appear in a story. Hurrah!

But a few words of caution before you dive in:

  • The emails are long. Some have a few dozen story requests. Reading through all of them can take more time than you have – and you may not find anything relevant for days or months.
  • HARO is free, but ProfNet charges. Not necessarily a deal breaker, but make sure you’re getting your money’s worth if you sign up.
  • Not all of the outlets are worth your time. Sure, sometimes writers from heavy-hitter pubs use these services, but so do writers from personal blogs and other places that might not be worth your time and energy.
  • Not all wins are in your field. Okay. I know this sounds contradictory, but the other thing about these services is that you won’t always find the best matches in the category that relates most closely to your industry. If you can swing it, I recommend scanning the queries as fast as you can, and reading in in depth anything that might be a fit.

It’s possible to limit what you get from these organizations, so do what you must to ensure your inbox isn’t clogged and your time isn’t wasted.

Words of Warning

That’s basically the whole strategy. Build real and authentic relationships with reporters who might one day cover you. It’s straightforward and fairly simple – but it does require that you actually do it.

Now, a few things to watch out for as you navigate the world of online reporting.

  1. Focus on precedent. Before you reach out to reporters, make sure you’re crystal clear on why the reporter covered what they covered in the past. That will give you a good idea of how receptive they’ll be to what you have to say. For example, did the coverage involve funding news? Were the reporter and business owner at the same conference (and did the coverage revolve around that)? Are the reporter and business from the same city (different from where you operate)? Remember: close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.
  2. Focus on freelancers and staff reporters. When you see an article related to what you do, read the writer’s bio. If it’s a contributed piece by a thought leader at another company, don’t bother reaching out to that person. They’re probably writing the piece as part of a thought leadership / content marketing / PR effort at their company and aren’t likely to write about you.
  3. Watch out for common scams. Once your company has earned a little coverage, you may start getting incoming media requests that look promising but are actually pay-to-play. One common format: someone emails you, offering a video-based interview with a $1,500 “fee” for shooting costs. Don’t bite – these setups are designed to get money from unsuspecting business owners eager for press coverage. A few tells that an opportunity is a scam:
    • They charge you to participate.
    • The company is based in Florida (for whatever reason, these companies often are).
    • There’s a celebrity host (don’t be fooled; the celebs are usually filmed in a completely separate location from you).
    • The company’s website is below par.
    • More generally, if you feel like something’s off about the request, trust your instinct. If a reporter from a really amazing publication is truly interested, trust me: you’ll be able to tell it’s legit.

Tracking Your Results

If you’re doing this right, you’ll build relationships with your targets so gradually that you’ll be able to keep them straight in your head like your friends. But it’s wise to track your results anyway, for two reasons:

  1. We all forget things.
  2. When you’re ready to hand off PR efforts, having a written record of who you’ve been in touch with makes it easier.

The good news is that Streak, the “CRM for Gmail” plug-in mentioned earlier, takes care of all the tracking for you. In addition to keeping track of when you last emailed someone, you can include notes about what they cover, stories you liked, and more. That means you have all the information you need in one place – which happens to be the same place you’ll actually compose your emails.

When It’s Time to Hire a PR Firm

It’s time to consider hiring a PR firm to take over when two things are in place:

  1. Your management and board approves PR as a budget item; AND
  2. You have an internal marketing person to manage the agency relationship.

That second piece is crucial for a few reasons. First, the marketing lead is usually the point person for a PR agency, and we have found this person to be the single biggest factor for predicting the success of a PR program. Without the point person, PR inevitably gets pushed to the bottom of the founder’s to-do list.

The second reason to wait is that your marketing lead will want to choose their own PR firm. Maybe they’ve got a great contact or maybe they know they want to approach PR in a specific way. PR is a long-term game; if you hire a company too early and then replace them midstream, you’ll have wasted a lot of money and effort, as all the relationships the firm was cultivating on your behalf will be lost.

Final Thoughts on PR for Startups

With so many demands on your time already, adding PR efforts may seem impractical. But remember: it takes just a few minutes each day to build the relationships that can earn your company coverage and recognition. And the next time you’re in a funding conversation or angling to hire an amazing CTO who’s being courted by bigger, better-established businesses, that coverage could make a difference.