Q&A: PR for start-ups

Grou of people talking - PR for start-upsSecuring favourable media coverage can be very good for business. Former IT PR specialist Jane Lee explains how start-ups can harness the power of effective public relations

What is PR?

Press or public relations is basically a method of communicating via print, web or broadcast media, to raise and reinforce awareness of your brand with customers and prospects. Non-media PR includes sponsoring a local sports team or event, donating products to charity auctions, giving talks at conferences or other events and taking a stand at an exhibition. These are not a substitute for media PR, but they can be highly effective.

But why is PR important?

When you start a business, you must let potential customers know you exist and how your products or services can benefit them. PR can be key to this, but it's just one part of the marketing mix - you must use other promotional methods, too. However, post starting up, PR should be a regular activity.

Why PR as opposed to, say, advertising?

Editorial is regarded as independent and therefore more believable than an advert. Positive PR marks you out from your competitors. Additionally, I've read that it's 50% easier to sell to someone who has read positive things about your business/products/services. And such publicity is usually no cost or low cost. Even if you have to pay someone to do your PR, gaining one piece of coverage per month can be much cheaper than advertising.

Can a small start-up really expect to get media coverage?

Size is irrelevant - it's the quality of the story that's important. Every day, editors receive hundreds of press releases and emails offering article ideas and interviews. For yours to stand out, it must be interesting, topical or different. Often it helps to have a PR agent who knows your sector and has good press contacts. An email from them is more likely to be spotted. Crucially, if an editor responds, you must react quickly.

What if I don't have a strong news story?

You could offer punchy comment on a topical news story related to your sector or pitch an opinion piece or expert article. You could conduct market research and publish the results - the press love statistics. Email your views to a magazine or newspaper letters page or comment directly online or become a blogger. Put yourself forward to be a case study, supply prizes for a competition or offer video or podcasts.

How important is it to target the right media?

Absolutely - 'spray-and-pray' tactics don't work. Think about which media - online and offline - potential customers read and target these. You can find contact details on directory sites such as Media UK, but Google searches can provide useful information, too.

Do I need to establish good media contacts?

As with all things in business, good relationships are essential. I tell my clients to treat press people like VIP customers or prospects. It's often more cost-effective to hire a PR freelance or small agency who knows your sector and its media. If you do it yourself, if it's a print title, call up and ask for a sample copy and features list or simply a media pack. This will tell you about readership, type of content published and the editor's name.

What then?

Make contact and introduce yourself succinctly. Check if they would like to receive your press releases and any other material, plus, put yourself forward as a local business owner prepared to provide comment. Always deliver on what you promise, stick to deadlines and keep detailed records of your communications with press contacts.

How should I deal with negative publicity?

It's unlikely a micro company will attract bad publicity, but if you do - deal with it quickly and openly. Don't go down the 'no comment' route. Admit it if you're in the wrong, acknowledge mistakes, promise to investigate and do what you can to put things right. Importantly, you must learn from the experience.

I'm never going to be a PR guru…

If you can afford it, contract an independent PR consultant or small agency. To find one, seek recommendations from other businesses or visit directory websites such as ResponseSource. If you just want to send out press releases periodically, service providers such as Press Dispensary can help.

What if I write my own release?

For a small fee, you can use a news distribution sites with which journalists register. Ask what sectors the service is strong in and whether it covers just online or print media distribution as well. Examples include ResponseSource (general business and consumer), Journalism website, Real Wire and Neon Drum (the last two will provide reports of where the release has been published). Setting up a Google Alert for your business name may indicate coverage, but it's better to subscribe to a press clippings agency - print and online. Check out International Press Cutting Bureau.

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