What You Don’t Get About PR

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According to a startup communications guru, the way most young companies go about attracting press attention is completely backwards. Try this instead. By Jessica Stillman (Editor, Women 2.0)

You’re doing amazing things at your startup. Now you just need to make sure the world hears about them. This is, of course, a job for the press, but how do you interest reporters and get your story out?

This is a question many startups struggle with (just ask any reporter who writes on these subject who will point you to an inbox overflowing with lousy, poorly thought out pitches). But it’s something Brooke Hammerling of Brew Media Relations has clearly mastered. Her company represents press darlings such as Wordpress, Charity:Water and About.me, and she’s appeared on the cover of The New York Times’ Sunday business section as the poster woman for creative, effective PR.

Recently she spoke to First Round Capital’s consistently interesting First Round Review about her approach to PR and the mistakes she’s seen startups make again and again. “No matter how many PR agencies or freelance consultants say otherwise, a small startup can pull off a solid media relations strategy without shelling out for help,” Hammerline believes according to the article (with a few minor exceptions such as startups with a celebrity CEO) -- you just need to follow her playbook. It outlines a process that probably turns how you’re currently approaching PR on its head:

When Hammerling takes on a new client, the first thing she does is separate the key members of the team, including the investors. Then she fires questions at them about the product: “What are you? Why are you? Who are you? What problem are you solving and how are you solving it? Why should people care right now?” The idea is to hear what all of them say — where are the differences? Where are the overlaps? What do the people who care most about the company’s success think it is? This is how a narrative is born…

A startup can use this strategy without a communications team. “You can come up with your own ideas and compare notes, and develop it together. You might end up somewhere you didn’t predict.”... “It’s not like there’s one perfect answer. Everyone will be right. This just gives you the opportunity to say, oh I like how this one person said that, or how so-and-so explained this concept. You can see who phrased things succinctly and who has a better grasp of the longer narrative. Then you can combine the best.”

The next step is to build what she calls a messaging document, starting with your most succinct, resonant messaging at the top — maybe it’s just one sentence — “It’s what you want to say at cocktail parties,” she says. Below that, you can dive a little deeper with the three key messages you’d want to share with reporters about the specific problem your company is solving. Under that, you can get more detailed. Then make sure everyone has a copy.

“PR isn’t about hits, it isn’t about placement — it isn’t ‘You pay us and we’ll get you a clip here or a mention on that blog.’ And it isn’t about a first-day bump that gets no traction,” Hammerling says. “It’s about focusing your voice. It’s about finding your place in the market.”

Only after this is all nailed down should you start thinking about placement. Interested in learning much more about Hammerling’s approach and advice for startups? Check out the long and thoroughly interesting article.

Are you putting the cart before the horse by looking to place your story before you even know what it is?

jessicaJessica Stillman (@entrylevelrebel) is an editor at Women 2.0 and a freelance writer with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She writes a daily column for Inc.com and has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM and Brazen Careerist, among others.