Startup 101: The PR Basics You Need to Know

by: Rebekah Iliff

Ahhh, Public Relations (PR): that mysterious, wondrous creature that seems to evade even the smartest of the smarts. You’ve heard her name whispered in dark corners during pitch fests, you know the President has one (a good one!), and you’ve even looked her up online – innocently thinking you’d be able to understand her purpose, tricks, and wily ways.

All sorts of people say all sorts of things about PR – they talk trash and say she isn’t needed. They say she’s a waste of time and energy; and if you’re good, you just don’t need her. But the questions still remain: what is PR, why do I need her, and where do I find her?

Let’s break it down…

What is PR?

  • In short, PR is any activity related to keeping a brand/person top of mind within a particular industry and among business and consumer targets in a positive way.
  • Companies (and people) use the “PR engine,” along with other marketing and advertising activities, to build and monitor their public-facing image.
  • Historically, PR is difficult to measure because, unlike direct marketing, it relies on a third party or “authoritative” endorsement to drive awareness. Without a direct call to action, it’s often difficult to track the outcomes of a PR campaign through to conversion.
  • PR includes a variety of activities, ranging from creating a specific strategy to positioning a brand in the marketplace; leveraging relationships with the media (media relations) to tell a brand’s story; facilitating opportunities for key spokespeople to participate on panels and attend various industry-related events; developing and executing social media plans; and nominating clients for awards.

Unlike Advertising (bought media) or company “online real estate” (owned media) such as websites and social media channels, PR (earned media) requires a third party (newspaper, blog, digital magazine) to endorse or talk about a brand.

Why do startups need PR?

  • Nothing screams “credibility” like having others talk about your brand or product in a positive way. Unlike sales, where customers often feel pressured to buy, PR is a softer way of influencing potential customers toward making a buying decision.
  • PR, when done well, provides an extraordinary opportunity to build a positive reputation for your brand/product while simultaneously reaching your target audience (end-user) with your message.
  • Particularly in terms of new market products or categories, PR activities are a meant to educate the marketplace about why they should care about you, visit your website, or ultimately, purchase your product.
  • Without a public-facing message or image, your product has little to no opportunity of reaching market adoption.
  • Another important thing to note: PR is not the solution for a poorly performing product and must be used in conjunction with other marketing tactics in order to be truly successful.

Earned media (PR) can be an important part of an overall company strategy by providing potential channels to drive traffic, acquire users, and ultimately increase your brand equity and awareness in the marketplace.

Who should do PR for your startup?

Here’s a run-down of your PR choices:

  • Large firms: Most often reserved for large corporations or enterprise brands, agencies with 50+ employees will typically charge clients between $30k – 50k/month.
  • Small or Midsize firms: Agencies of this size, usually between 10 – 50 employees, are reserved for companies who have budgets of between $10k-30k/month.
  • Boutique firms: Popular as of late, boutique PR firms are generally run by 2-5 executive level PR professionals who have come from large agencies but want to give more of a “personal touch” to their client base. They generally charge between $5k – 20k/month, and are ideal for startups with working capital between $2 – 5 million.
  • PR Independents: This breed of PR professional (aka “The Contractor”) can often be found on short-term contracts for virtually any size company, but can typically manage only 2-4 clients at a time. Rates are usually between $3k -10k/month. PR independents are a great option for startups with less than $2 million in working capital.
  • YOU!: Believe it or not, if you have enough time and energy and are willing to learn, you can do your own PR. Many small companies are opting to tackle their own PR activities. Often, with the input of a few trusted advisors and consultants, you can get off to a good start without spending thousands of dollars. Here’s a good article for learning more about DIY PR.

Final word on PR for startups

PR activities must be tied to solid business objectives. In other words, utilize PR in conjunction with the following key objectives (and other marketing tactics!), and you will have an easier time assessing success:

  • Market launch
  • Fundraising
  • Brand awareness
  • Company growth
  • Customer acquisition

Regardless of the perception or reputation of PR, if key PR principles are applied properly, it can be a boon for any brand or product looking to generate awareness and earn the attention of key influencer groups.

About the author Rebekah Iliff @Technori
Rebekah Iliff is the Director of Product for AirPR, a technology platform to increase PR performance. Previously, she was the CEO of talkTECH Communications, one of the fastest growing, launch-only PR firms in the US. As co-founder of talkTECH, she created an industry-first methodology for emerging technology companies. In addition to her business roles, Rebekah is a tech startup blogger for The Huffington Post, and a featured columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine’s “Young Entrepreneur.” Rebekah is a mentor for Startup Weekend Bay Area, an instructor for General Assembly San Francisco, and an advisor for startups at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business and StartX. Rebekah holds a B.A. in Philosophy from Loyola University Chicago, and an M.A. in Organizational Management and Applied Community Psychology from Antioch University at Los Angeles (AULA).

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