Startup 101: The PR Basics You Need to Know


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.


  1. Glad this topic is getting some visibility. It’s quite important. I just left the PR industry (was a Digital Director at a Global firm based in Chicago for the last 3 years) to start my own company. Here are a couple of tips I’ll offer based on my own experience:

    1. Prioritize your audiences and understand what story you want influencers to tell their audience. Do you need to focus more on getting the attention of investors, users, other media, or employees? The answer is of course all of them, but the ratio is different at various moments in time. Make sure your pitch is going to the right publisher at the right time.

    2. Based on the above, which publications are most likely to be read by your most important audience? Within that group, who gets more eyeballs? (you can use basic tools like to figure that out) Spend more time and effort trying to win over writers who command the most influence. A media hit is not a media hit is not a media hit because ANYONE can be the media today.

    3. Prior to talking to media, try to brainstorm about several news “hooks” or angles for the same story you’re telling. You don’t want all the press you get to sound exactly the same. A) Providing a variety of angles to reporters makes news reporters want to talk to you even after you’ve gotten coverage and B) this method makes it more likely for your story to get a wider variety of headlines. And having unique headlines is critical in social media. I’m not suggesting you feed reporters headlines (they’ll want to write their own obviously), but it’s quite easy to nudge them towards your ideal version if you drop these lines in your conversation and focus on certain key points that ladder up to a headline that you would want.

    4. Know when to pass on media inquiries because you may have to if you have lots of success and interest in your product. The reality is that you’re going to run out of time at some point and you won’t be able to appease every report. You certainly should value every interested party, but be mindful of how you prioritize. Personally, I’m ok with the “file-away” approach for folks who reach out to you via email. You’re not deleting people’s emails, or ignoring them, you’re just reading them and filing them away for a response later down the road. You probably won’t actually respond to many in the future, but you’ll feel better about yourself in that moment. Another option is to collect all the emails of folks you don’t have time to respond to and BCC them all saying you appreciate their inquiry but unfortunately you have a limited amount of time and can’t do interviews in the immediate future. Direct them to your latest blog post or press release that have lots of good quotable quotes and pictures in it so they can at least craft a story on their own. Lastly, for the more notable journalists that are pretty high-profile, but that you don’t need at the moment, respond to them personally. Tell them you’re slammed but you’d like to follow up in a few weeks/month to share your progress.

    5. Remembered one more thing. If you’re unfamiliar with a media outlet that wants to interview you, make sure you check out their recent posts before agreeing to talk to them. You don’t want to get featured on a site or by an author who tends to be critical or skeptical of startups. Obviously down the road you’re going to get this, but you don’t want it early on. Sure, they might go and write something anyways, but giving them quotes up front gives them more power. They can twist/spin/critique your words before you know what they’re going to write. On the other hand, it’s a lot easier to respond or comment on a negative post after you have some time to think about it. This tip is just personal opinion. I think many in the PR industry may argue to just issue a press release and be done with it.

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