The Right (And Wrong) Way to Do PR for Your Startup

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Improve your startup’s media presence by adopting four top tips from a PR insider.By Taryn Scher (Founder, TK PR)

So you’ve launched your business but are wondering why the New York Times isn’t calling yet to feature you prominently on the front page of the Business section? Unfortunately media opportunities rarely fall out of the sky.

If you’re constantly seeing your competitors featured (which makes you secretly stew knowing you’re doing it better), it’s likely because they have a PR firm doing the work for them.

What is PR?

PR has changed significantly over the past decade. What used to be a world of faxing press releases to journalists has shifted into a circus of trying to nail down overworked, underpaid, always-on-deadline media types who are being bombarded by 140-character tweet pitches.

If you ask 12 PR firms what they do, you’ll likely get 12 different answers. For some, it’s a strategy that includes everything from the marketing plan to social media, for others it’s a much more specific approach.

Our firm specializes in “earned media” placements. This means we aren’t paying for stories on television or in magazines. Our ultimate goal, like many firms, is to see our clients featured in O, the Oprah Magazine or on Good Morning America. And while buzzing around sets in New York City is all fun and glamour, those opportunities don’t just fall out of the sky.

In order to achieve top placements, one must do the work. And that work is not so glamorous.

1. Target Your Pitches...

On an average day, I will send out anywhere from 100 to 300 emails. This doesn’t mean I’m blind copying 75 people on an email and sending them all the same email. This means, I’m searching one by one to find the right contact at an outlet and sending them an individual pitch.

I am frequently on the receiving end of pitches as well (thanks to my work as Contributing Fashion Editor for US Airways in-flight magazine) and I receive more emails that were clearly blasted out from a database service than I do personal pitches.

My business coach Gil Gerretsen made me laugh by calling this method “Spray and Pray”, but it’s actually quite true. Rather than sending out one email to 1,000 contacts and hoping that some of them might respond, we try and target every single pitch we send to the person that’s most relevant at any outlet.

It takes a lot more time to do it that way, but the outcome is much greater.

...and Avoid Unpersonalized Press Releases

I hate press releases, and our firm has a policy of not sending them. It’s not the content of a press release that I dislike, but the anonymity, the non-personalized approach of a press release.

Many of the journalists that I’m reaching out to are people that I’ve worked with before, that have featured another client in the past. I think it’s rude of me to send an email that starts FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE rather than Dear Sarah, How is your summer going? to someone that I have worked with before.

A pitch includes the same “who, what, when, where and why” as a press release, but I find a way to make it relevant to the person I’m emailing. I almost always try to tie it to a current event or season using interesting data or statistics. And whenever possible, I talk about a recent story they did that’s on a similar topic or subject.

After I create a pitch, I spend hours in cyber space searching for stories that are of similar topics. It’s likely that if a journalist covered a story about a similar client/industry, they may well be interested in hearing our pitch as well. There’s no easy way to do this, it takes time. Sometimes the stories are as simple as a quick Google search, other times you have to be creative in your searching and dig beyond the surface.

Every once in a while I’ll get a response from a journalist that says “Please remove me from your list” and so I take the extra minute to email them back and let them know that I don’t work off a list, that I actually took the time to find a story they’d written so I apologize if they’re no longer interested in that particular topic. I’m very sensitive to being viewed as a blast PR person.

2. Coach Your Clients

TV appearances are a great opportunity for any business. However, we never let a client go on TV without rehearsing. Even a seasoned veteran will appear disorganized if the segment isn’t pre-thought out and well-planned in advance.

We position our clients as experts in their industries whenever possible. One of our clients, who is President of a major browser-add on, has been called upon as an online shopping expert on a number of occasions.

Prior to his appearance, we will go over talking points, making sure he doesn’t come off too sales-like but more as an industry expert. We will rehearse the segment over and over so it sounds natural and unrehearsed. We’ll go over everything from a checklist of the items he needs to bring with him to the set, to what he plans to wear on TV.

Remember, you’re not trying for a one-shot deal, you want to be the go-to expert so the next time that station has a story in your industry, they’ll call you again.

3. Be Available All The Time

Just because you cross off the last item on your to-do list by 6pm doesn’t mean a journalists’ day is done. If you send a pitch out, you need to be ready for a response at any time.

I have a basic rule of thumb to respond to a journalist’s email within 2 hours – even if it’s to say that I’m traveling and won’t be back to my computer with the information they need until later that night or the next day. I do this because I want them to know that I’ve acknowledged their email and will get them the information they need. If you don’t do this, that’s when you wind up seeing your competitor featured instead.

Often times a journalist will file your email into a folder and call it up months later when they’re working on a story that’s relevant. You never know when a journalist will call you back but when they do, you always want to answer.

4. Remember – They Didn’t Have to Cover You

Send a thank you to the journalist who featured you. Not an email, but a physical thank you note. Many times we’ll even send a gift basket to a journalist who went over and above and featured our client on a national scale. They didn’t have to choose us, but they did. Don’t ever forget that.

Do you have other PR tips to share?


About the guest blogger: Taryn Scher, “The Sparkle Boss”, started TK PR in 2008, representing clients in the hospitality and consumer product industries. Taryn was named the Small Business Administration’s 2011 South Carolina Young Entrepreneur of the Year and one of PR News’ People to Watch in PR.