Matt Phillips, founder and MD of PPR, a PR service for startups & challenger brands, is incubating his business in Basingstoke.
I joined the SetSquared programme in Basingstoke in late 2018. We are aiming to make it easier and quicker for challenger brands to do PR effectively on a budget using a ‘virtual’ staffing model with freelancers; as PR is hard to measure, relies on (expensive) experienced people to do it well, and is (generally) quite time-inefficient, our aim is to build a highly scalable service with technology at the core by standardising and automating many of the processes in PR, for which we will need funding.
The experience has been brilliant thus far, and a big takeaway from me is how similar the process of preparing to go for funding is to creating a PR campaign. This blog aims to help you convert your investor deck into compelling PR coverage.
Investors respond to stories. Journalists are no different.
Effective b2b PR is about storytelling. Investors, would-be staff, partners and customers do not respond to crap stories. It’s human nature. Journalists are no different. But instead of asking them to part with cash, you’re asking for their time – of which they have very little.
You need to convince them that you have something to say that’s worth listening to, and a story that is more interesting than the 172 other people who have emailed them a pitch this morning.
The good news is that most challenger brands have great stories because by design they are doing something different and worthwhile. And the meat of the story is there in the Customer Journey Canvas, Value Proposition and Business Model canvas you’ll create in Basingstoke (and indeed on any incubator programme). This provides the essentials that marketers and PRs need to do their jobs.
Frameworks like Simon Sinek’s circle and the founder’s Hero’s Journey story arc can help you tell that story too.
Your company story is important, but only takes you so far.
If your story is compelling, you have a decent track record, and/ or an early proof point that your business has legs, it’s possible to generate a good news story around your launch.
After you’ve launched, you need to show credible business momentum to get repeat coverage. Babies are only born once. After that you need to show growth, or proof of progress.
If your investors still believe in the dream and business plan a year later you may well secure further funding – but for journalists they need facts, and not dreams, to write news. The news is driven by companies that are powerful, visible and reputable; but proof of this is hard to come by for early stage firms.
This is why companies that are not famous tend not to be news, so you need to borrow other people’s fame to get that coverage; case studies, well-known non-execs, partnerships, new customers – that sort of thing.
Or, don’t worry about news.
Focus as much as you can on the customer story
As most companies are not famous, they don’t often create news. So how can they create stories that journalists are going to be interested in?
Most PR coverage comes from views: adding value to a story that matters to your audience and the media they follow. We call this the customer story because it’s NOT ABOUT YOU. Rather, it offers a practical take on how your category solves the customer problem.
We use a process to find the “six As” – the core elements of a story – to create evergreen pitches that can be tweaked and tailored in line with the news agenda into content that journalists will find useful, and may even print.
Otherwise known as ‘thought leadership’ – by taking a wider view you avoid the sales pitch and offer expert insight into what’s happening behind the news.
Relationships matter; be sceptical about tools and platforms
I’ve often heard the phrase ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’, in the context of PR. This is both completely true, and complete bollocks in equal measure.
The main issue I have with this is that it suggests PR is simply about lunching, networks and soft skills. Nonsense. Journalists will not write crap stories even if they come from their best mates.
But relationships really matter. There are lots of tools and platforms that do bits of the process of PR (issuing press releases, databases of journalists, basic measurement and reporting, media monitoring etc) some of which are very good. But none of them that I have seen, thus far, have succeeded in getting journalists to write non-stories, and journalists generally don’t use these tools to find stories.
They tend to go to, and respond to sources they trust and brands they know. And for all the nasty things that are said about poor PR people by journalists (some of it harsh, much of it fair & true) PR people are trusted sources. They are tuned in – and this is not easy or cheap.
This is why PR agencies are so damned expensive – they live in these journalists world and know how to convert what you want to say into something a journalist wants to hear, at the time they want to hear it.
Make sure the budget fits the marketing plan
Done well, investing in external PR support is an incredibly cost-effective way to grow your business. But its money down the drain if your business is either not PR ready, or – if it is – you rely it to do everything.
Advertising, and other forms of paid-for marketing may be more cost effective at certain points. When budgets are lean, stuff like paid social and google adwords may be a more cost-effective way, pound for pound, for certain outcomes (like driving traffic to your website).
For a total marketing budget (not PR, marketing) of £200k+ annually there is value to be found in the right traditional PR agency. For a marketing budget of under £50k+ a freelancer may be a better – virtual agencies such as ours work in between those parameters. There are always exceptions, but the main point is not to expect PR to do all the sales and marketing work.
Be prepared to put the work in.
Generally speaking in marketing services – advertising agencies, media agencies & marketing agencies – can do a lot of the work for you. The clue is in the name, you give them the agency to operate on your behalf.
PR requires you to invest considerable personal time to make it work. A lawyer still needs their client to turn up in court; your agency needs to get to know your people, and your people need to invest time in filling the opportunities the agency creates.
And the more opportunities you turn up for, the more come your way; someone who has been featured in their trade press 10 times in the last year and is involved in their trade organisation, or the local chamber of commerce, or a charity (for example) is far more likely to be invited to offer a view than someone who sits there stubbornly waiting for the best opportunities.
Start by writing, regularly, about your industry (or enlist someone to ghostwrite for you). If you don’t have the time/ money/ inclination to do that, it’s unlikely the PR will work for you!
So in conclusion; PR can be an effective channel for startups and scale ups but before investing in it make sure you have a clear budget (and know how that fits in your wider marketing plan); be mindful that you are unlikely to be news until you are seriously scaling and that focusing on the customer problem is the best route to coverage; and put the work in!