Public relations is one of the most powerful tools in the marketing mix, particularly for young, emerging technology companies. More cost-effective than advertising, PR helps create awareness and credibility for a new product, category or entity. The primary medium through which PR communicates is the media: business press, trade/IT press, vertical press, as well as many of today’s online outlets and blogs. PR also communicates with industry research analysts, influencers, consultants and sometimes, financial analysts. There are other audiences to consider in your PR targets: certainly, your prospects, customers, investors, business partners, and employees.
A deliberate and strategic ongoing PR relationship provides air cover for sales and delivering meaningful value to the organization, helping a company tell their story and get noticed.
How to begin crafting an ongoing PR relationship
You have to know your “story.” Here are the key elements to consider.
Messaging and Positioning – At its core, messaging answers the question “What’s Your Story?” And positioning illuminates your competitive position in your market. Who are you and what do you sell? What is your unique value proposition? Consider a positioning template that will help you develop your “elevator pitch,” a set of concise and defensible statements that identify who are and what you do.
Target Market – Make sure you know whom you are selling to. CIOs? CFOs? Business-line managers? Consumers? Each of these audiences reads different magazines and newspapers. Your PR program needs to focus on the publications and channels that best reach those individuals.
Competitive Differentiation – Be sure to think about your competitive differentiators. It not about be better, per se. It’s about how you offer value or performance in a different manner, in a different market, or through different channels. And remember, you have to be prepared to identify your competitors. There is rarely a credible market of one.
Crafting Your Story – So how do you tell a great story? Your company may have a great story … but that’s not enough. To hit home with the media, your story has to be articulated well and stand out from the fray. News creates the bulk of media coverage; news is the timely reporting of new, important or interesting information that’s driven by change, urgency, currency or the need to educate. Follow these rules to get the coverage you want.
- Make it relevant – tie your story to today’s media issues and interests
- Identify the actors – great journalism is about people
- Back it up – data, statistics, numbers and proof
- Bring it to life – use anecdotes and customer examples
- Ask yourself “so what?” – empathy with the reader and the journalist is a must
- Take calculated risks – go off the record or give an exclusive
- Be a maverick – find two to three points on which to be bold
- Become a reporter’s resource – it’s not all about you
- Establish trust – communicate in good times and bad
- A controversial stance/personality is more important than being likable
- The best story ideas often come from going off script
- Make networking part of your media strategy – lunch with a reporter can lead to a story
- It can take many months to develop a story – keep at it
- Know the audience – do your homework on the pub, its reader and reporter
- Communicate company, market and product in sound bites
- Talk business, not code
- Customers are willing to talk for the right opportunity
- No competition = No story (without it a seasoned reporter will dismiss you)
Agency or in house. Who is going to do your PR? You can hire a freelancer or contractor, you can hire someone to do it in house, or you can hire an agency. Depending on your stage of growth, a very early start-up with minimal funding should probably opt for a freelancer to do a few very tactics or just wait until you can afford an agency.
An agency will typically bill a monthly retainer, and with that you will have a team of PR people working for you. They bring a third-party objectivity and a greater platform of relationships to the table. When interviewing agencies, make sure you meet the people who will be on your team. Know what technical experience and relationships they have. Find out how long they have been working there. Make sure you “like” them, because you’ll be working with them a lot. Get them to tell you what they think your story is.
When is the best time to engage PR?
For young companies, the best time to engage a PR firm or any kind of PR activity is when the first version of the product is complete, working and installed at three customers. Those customers should be willing to serve as press references (there is a big difference between a press and a sales reference). And usually this company will have completed or is about to complete a C round of financing.
For larger companies, of course, the need for PR is constant. Whether it is to change a market perception, enter a new market, deal with a crisis or take the company in a new direction , PR should play a key advisory role to the C-suite. Many companies feel they should go “dark” in bad times, or hide from the media with “no comment.” Nothing could be worse. It is important, particularly as a public company, to continue communicating with the media and be honest about ones issues. If they detect you are hiding something, they will come after you and find it, and the result will be a much less pleasant experience.
PR also needs to be measured. Sometimes, customer references don’t come through. Editors aren’t interested. Stories get written, but don’t make it into print. This is an unfortunate but real aspect of the business. To make sure your PR program is working for you, set up realistic objectives up front: coverage in specific magazines with a certain frequency per year, messages you want to see in print, a larger sales pipeline, and so on. Measure the progress you have made to those goals every three months, but be prepared to change course frequently. Market dynamics and technology move fast; PR does too and needs to map to the environment.
PR is not spin. This may seem novel to you. The best PR tells the truth to help a company achieve its objectives. PR when it works, it’s magic. It can create the perception of market and thought leadership. It helps people and companies understand the value of a new technology and embrace it, try it, buy it and use it.
Sabrina Horn is president and CEO of the Horn Group.