Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Instagram)

This is a PR framework for startups.

Public relations for startups is a particular challenge — and 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 getting their PR strategy sorted out — 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 Work, Milestone Work, Baseline Work 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 types of 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 it’s time to move from Stage 2 to Stage 3, you’ll need to 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 PR Message and one core feeling 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 single message or a single 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 … 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 a viral loop of yours.

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 their videos and then share them, 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 getting 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, so this 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 on the successive big PR win and the next big PR win only.

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 this notion that I have lots of valuable knowledge about PR- and digital marketing — and I’m eager to share it whenever and wherever I can. 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 a Content Theme. 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 I get 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:

  • Blog posts: A post on what Brand Journalism is. Two posts with two case studies. A post on how to get started. That’s four blog posts!
  • Podcasts: Round up the leading experts on Brand Journalism and do a podcast interview with each and every one of them.
  • Video: Produce an animated explainer video and a couple of video case studies.
  • Outreach: Collaborate with bloggers and influencers on their platforms, either if your startup does some guest posting or if you can engage them in putting the spotlight on Brand Journalism.
  • Lead magnet: Create an ebook on everything related to Brand Journalism for professionals who would appreciate downloading an easy-to-use handbook.
  • Education: Launch a mini-course with video tutorials and valuable notes and drip it out via email over the course of a few weeks.
  • Infographics: Create some easy-to-glance infographics with valuable statistics on Brand Journalism.
  • Landing pages: Make sure you set up a few Resource Pages for Brand Journalism.

And so on!

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

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 tricky aspect is getting people in the habit of coming 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!

Here are a few useful tools to start with:

Email automation: Mailchimp
Social media publishing: Buffer, CoSchedule, Edgar
Triggers: IFTTT, Zapier
Landing pages: Leadpages
Lead capturing (WordPress): Sumo. me

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 a preferred approach 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.

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 Silfwer
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.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here


Grab a free subscription before you go.

Get notified of new blog posts & new PR courses

🔒 Please read my integrity- and cookie policy.

Write B2B Blog Posts

Use my storytelling template (with action prompts) to create blog posts for B2B experts using The Outline Method. Including my 16-page How-To Guide, Demo Post, and professional feedback.

I've created the Venn diagram of corporate awareness to emphasise the importance of internal collaboration between public relations, marketing, and branding.
Most popular