A PR Framework for Startups

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

This is a PR frame­work for startups.

Public rela­tions for star­tups is a par­tic­u­lar chal­lenge — a chal­lenge dear to my heart.

The star­tup enthu­si­asm and naiv­eté are mes­mer­ising and con­ta­gious. Something extraordin­ary about spend­ing time with people tak­ing con­sid­er­able risks to ful­fil their dreams.

But work­ing with star­tups is also a risky busi­ness. Most star­tups per­ish, and many founders are inexperienced.

Many star­tups need help sort­ing out their PR strategy — des­pite being boot­strapped and fight­ing the odds.

Here we go:

The Startup PR Framework

The key to this strategy is to focus on one object­ive at a time. This one-focus-at-the-time busi­ness philo­sophy bor­rows much of its logic from the growth hack­ing community. 

In my exper­i­ence, I have helped vari­ous types of star­tups, from obscur­ity to estab­lished brands. I recom­mend star­tups go through four primary stages: Preparation, Milestone, Baseline, and Campaign Work.

All four stages are about work because put­ting in the work is crit­ic­al for any PR suc­cess. Each stage con­sists of tac­tic­al imple­ment­a­tions suit­able for all star­tups need­ing digit­al success.

Stage 1: Preparation Work

It’s said that one hour of pre­par­a­tion saves three hours of exe­cu­tion. This is excep­tion­ally true when it comes to PR work. So before you can expect sig­ni­fic­ant res­ults, pre­pare your star­tup for what’s to come. 

In Stage 1, we will con­cen­trate on the Surround Effect and the Viral Loop.

Stage 2: Milestone Work

Most star­tups are impa­tient — and rightly so. They want quick wins, low-hanging fruit, and sig­ni­fic­ant res­ults. Because who knows if the star­tup will even be around for a few months? 

In Stage 2, we will con­cen­trate on the Milestone Focus.

Stage 3: Baseline Work

Once you decide to move from Stage 2 to Stage 3, you must start think­ing long-term about PR. After all, what you do every day will determ­ine your PR suc­cess, not aggress­ive mar­ket­ing activ­it­ies every once in a while. 

In Stage 3, we will con­cen­trate on con­tent themes and Set And Forget.

Stage 4: Campaign Work

When your baseline activ­it­ies run smoothly in the back­ground, it’s time for the next sig­ni­fic­ant growth phase. Now it’s time to make your splashes even bigger! 

In Stage 4, we will con­cen­trate on Quant-Based PR.

Stage 1: Preparation Work

Workshop: The Surround Effect

Here are two things to consider:

1. Since star­tups evolve so quickly, your star­tup can be a com­pletely dif­fer­ent type of oper­a­tion in a year or less. And then you have to start all over again. Developing an entire PR strategy with a detailed PR plan can be costly — espe­cially if you have to do it all over in 6 – 12 months. 

Few star­tups could afford this, and even if you could, I doubt you’d like the idea of duplic­at­ing your PR costs.

2. Your pro­spects are already suf­fer­ing from a lousy inform­a­tion over­load. Clay Shirky fam­ously said, “There’s no inform­a­tion over­load, only fil­ter fail­ure.” Even though I agree with his sen­ti­ment, it makes sense for any star­tup to do some fil­ter­ing for the prospects. 

When they think about your star­tup, how many core mes­sages do you think they can keep in their heads about your com­pany? You only get to con­vey one core mes­sage to rep­res­ent your brand. So why are you send­ing out so many dif­fer­ent types of messages?

Since every hour and every penny counts, you need your PR efforts to work. You need to be about one thing and one thing only. Wherever and whenev­er pro­spects are exposed to your brand, you need to rein­force a mes­sage or emotion.

By focus­ing on one thing on your web­site, your social chan­nels, your selling, and everything you do or sell, you can cre­ate a “sur­round effect” simply by only talk­ing about one thing! 1Think of Coca-Cola’s Enjoy, McDonald’s I’m lov­ing it, or Nike’s Just do it. These brands have made their Surround PR Message into a slo­gan (which you don’t have to), but the import­ant thing here is … Continue read­ing

So, what’s a “one thing”?

Well, a “thing” could be anything. 

Red Bull, for example, their one thing is that they’re almost obsessed with people fly­ing through the air, wheth­er it’s aero­planes, snow­mo­biles, skate­boards, stra­to­sphere bal­loons or bicycles. So people fly­ing through the air is Red Bull’s one thing. The con­nec­tion between energy drinks and extreme sports isn’t exactly obvi­ous, which shows that your one thing can be almost anything.

So put your team in a room with a white­board, set aside a couple of hours and play around with ideas for what should be your one thing. Come up with what should be the one thing for your brand — this will be your boot­strap PR strategy-in-a-box!

Testing: Fixing the Viral Loop

A vir­al loop is all about social engin­eer­ing. When someone is exposed to your busi­ness and act­ively exposes your busi­ness to anoth­er per­son in their net­work, that is your vir­al loop. 

Examples of vir­al loops:

Youtube: When you see a funny video, you share it with your friends, and some of them share it with their friends. If Youtube instead focused on mak­ing people upload and share their videos, the “time to infect” would be much longer. 

Tesla Motors: Geeks, car enthu­si­asts, and envir­on­ment­ally con­scious con­sumers argue with their friends that elec­tric cars can be cool, look fant­ast­ic and com­pete with fossil-driv­en cars in terms of per­form­ance. If Tesla relied on hav­ing people see oth­er Teslas on the streets, the “time to infect” would be much longer — since there are still so few Teslas on the streets.

Doctor Spin: Blog vis­it­ors read, sub­scribe and share free art­icles and free email courses with friends and col­leagues in the PR- and mar­ket­ing industry.

You can get all fancy about socially engin­eer­ing a vari­ety of vir­al loops, but you need to focus on one as a star­tup. How do you get people who use it to tell their friends about it if you have an app? If you have a web­site, how do you get vis­it­ors to tell their friends about it? If you have a product, how do you get users to tell their friends about it? And so on.

Without a Primary Viral Loop (PVL) that is rock sol­id, your star­tup will con­tinu­ously be “leak­ing” time and money!

When you’ve chosen a PVL (and I can­’t stress the import­ance of focus­ing on just one vir­al loop enough), then you need to optim­ise it:

  1. Test your PVL; is it “leak­ing” somewhere?
  2. Experiment with dif­fer­ent solu­tions for your loop.
  3. Figure out who your audi­ence is for a spe­cif­ic loop.

Stage 2: Milestone Work

Focus: Decide on Your Next PR Milestone

After a few months of pre­par­a­tion work, you’re prob­ably eager to start pro­du­cing a tan­gible res­ult from your PR efforts. Most PR work is long-term, and most res­ults come from long-term strategies, which is challenging. 

To suc­ceed as you reach this stage, there’s only one key secret (and it’s straightforward):

Focus on one major PR mile­stone at the time.

With lim­ited resources, you can­’t afford to spread your­self too thin, so focus your star­tup only n the suc­cess­ive big PR win and the next big PR win 

So what could be examples of such big PR wins?

  • Excellent cov­er­age (pub­li­city) in a crit­ic­al medium.
  • Key influ­en­cer endorse­ment for your product or service.
  • A suc­cess­ful launch event both online- and offline.
  • Landing a con­tract with a power­ful brand ambassador.
  • Running an online activ­a­tion to col­lect email addresses.
  • Attracting traffic through con­tent marketing.

And so on.

Please note: Don’t choose a mile­stone that requires too much effort; choose a mile­stone you can hit with­in six weeks. This will allow you two big PR wins every quarter. Make sure that your chosen mile­stone is aligned with your Surround Effect message!

Stage 3: Baseline Work

Calendar: Epic Content Themes

Your long-term PR suc­cess will depend on what you do every day. So it would help if you star­ted focus­ing on every­day PR actions. However, this can eas­ily over­whelm a busy team star­tup team. You guessed it — you must focus on one thing at a time.

Side-Story: A Content Marketing Experiment

A couple of years ago, I exper­i­mented with the Doctor Spin blog. My “secret” Surround PR Message is that shar­ing is caring. I want to con­vey that I have lots of valu­able know­ledge about PR- and digit­al mar­ket­ing — and I’m eager to share it whenev­er pos­sible. But with­in the over-arch­ing mes­sage of Sharing is caring, I can focus on dif­fer­ent aspects of PR- and digit­al mar­ket­ing at the time.

I decided to focus on talk­ing only about Influencer Outreach for a while. There is noth­ing else, just blog posts, sem­inars and inter­views about Influencer Outreach, and noth­ing else. The res­ults amazed me; poten­tial cli­ents quickly star­ted to relate to me as the go-to guy for any­thing influ­en­cer-related. I wrote about the whole exper­i­ment here.

Therefore, you need to decide on con­tent themes. A con­tent theme is a stra­tegic­ally chosen top­ic you act­ively dis­cuss across chan­nels for a while. Once they reach a spe­cif­ic size, most brands set up a Conversation Calendar to sched­ule and keep track of gen­er­al social media updates and spe­cif­ic con­tent to promote.

When I sug­gest using con­tent themes, a com­mon ques­tion Is, “But won’t it get bor­ing for the pub­lics to hear us go on and on about just one top­ic on every chan­nel?” The some­what sur­pris­ing answer is “no”. But here’s where your team’s day-to-day cre­ativ­ity comes in. 

Let’s say that you decide to talk only about Brand Journalism as a con­tent theme:

Content Themes

Let’s use a fic­ti­tious example of an IT com­pany. First, they decide on a prom­ise fil­ter for their con­tent strategy:

Promise fil­ter: We make IT easy to understand.

Then, the IT com­pany breaks their core mes­sage down into four busi­ness-crit­ic­al con­tent themes:

Q1 con­tent theme: We make people under­stand the Internet of Things (IoT).

Q2 con­tent theme: We make people under­stand busi­ness auto­ma­tion.

Q3 con­tent theme: We make people under­stand cloud com­put­ing.

Q4 con­tent theme: We make people under­stand man­aged services.

For each quarterly con­tent theme, they pro­duce con­tent pack­ages. Each con­tent pack­age could con­tain the following:

  • Infographics
  • Blog Articles
  • Whitepapers
  • Social Media Updates
  • Landing Pages
  • Lead Magnets
  • Swipe Files
  • Template Files
  • Content Upgrades
  • Online Courses
  • Podcast Episodes
  • Livestreams
  • Email Send-Outs
  • Events
  • Case Studies
  • Webinars
  • Video Tutorials
  • Interactive Quizzes
  • Press Releases
  • E‑Books
  • Testimonials
  • Influencer Collaborations
  • Mobile Apps
  • Slide Presentations

Learn more: The Content Themes PR Strategy

With just a little cre­ativ­ity, you can cre­ate lots and lots of con­tent on the same sub­ject without being bor­ing. You could stretch out your con­tent theme across a whole year for most sub­jects if you want to. 

A nifty side-effect of using con­tent themes is that this tac­tic tends to do well in search engines, espe­cially if you cross-link all your resources.

Automation: Set and Forget

This is a simple and indeed also a swift part of the jour­ney. Now that you’ve star­ted to have a baseline of con­tent for your vari­ous chan­nels, it makes sense to start to auto­mate and cap­ture, auto­mate and cap­ture.

Setting and for­get­ting it is espe­cially import­ant for two reasons:

1. Most star­tups soon learn that the biggest chal­lenge isn’t to get people to dis­cov­er you. The chal­lenge is get­ting people to come back to you repeatedly. For this pur­pose, email har­vest­ing is one of the most potent tools in any star­tup’s PR and digit­al mar­ket­ing tools.

2. Marketing auto­ma­tion does a lot of heavy lift­ing while you sleep (or whatever you do when you’re not work­ing). Most busi­nesses must scale soon­er or later, so whatever can be auto­mated should, at least, be considered.

Now, mar­ket­ing auto­ma­tion tech­niques can be a bit shady. In gen­er­al, people tend to dis­like being talked at through machines. So prac­tice com­mon sense!

Recommendation: I use Mailchimp as my default email list manager.

Stage 4: Campaign Work

Method: Quant-Based PR

In 2010, Noah Kagan wrote the short (but epic!) blog post, The Secret to Effective Marketing — Quant-Based Marketing.

The idea is to map out OPA (Other People’s Audiences) that you want to reach and then work towards secur­ing pub­li­city with them. By estim­at­ing reach and con­ver­sion rates, you can work back­wards from the actu­al res­ults you need in a simple spread­sheet like this (avail­able for down­load over at Noah Kagan’s blog):

In this example, you ensure 104,225 users. The trick is, of course, to work hard towards ensur­ing con­firm­a­tion of pub­li­city before the fact (which isn’t easy).

However, this will be pre­ferred if you’re ser­i­ous about mak­ing a massive PR splash for your star­tup launch or some oth­er spe­cial occa­sion. I recom­mend not doing these types of cam­paigns too often — they require lots of resources, and if you don’t have a sol­id pitch, it will be super tricky, no mat­ter how many resources you pour into it.

But quant-based PR for star­tups in a cam­paign-type format like described here is a power­ful addi­tion to your baseline con­tent themes activ­it­ies, maybe once or twice a year, depend­ing on your star­tup’s pipeline.

Please sup­port my blog by shar­ing it with oth­er PR- and com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als. For ques­tions or PR sup­port, con­tact me via jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

1 Think of Coca-Cola’s Enjoy, McDonald’s I’m lov­ing it, or Nike’s Just do it. These brands have made their Surround PR Message into a slo­gan (which you don’t have to), but the import­ant thing here is that they, too, try to be con­sist­ent around their one thing.
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwerhttps://doctorspin.net/
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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