On a mission to find the perfect public relations formula to grow your brand-new business into a household name?
For startups, PR plays a more important role today than ever before and is a critical piece of the venture growth puzzle. Seeing your company’s name in print and watching new prospects click with your story is gratifying, but it requires an investment of time and energy, and can open you up to risk.
Here are six lessons from entrepreneurs who have successfully mastered the art of public relations.
Timing is Everything
In business and in newsrooms, timing is everything. Just ask Sanjay Kamlani and David Perla, co-founders of legal outsourcing firm Pangea3 and managing directors at 1991 Ventures. Several years ago, Thomson Reuters was negotiating with Kamlani and Perla to acquire their company.
On the morning of a big meeting in New York City with senior executives, Kamlani and Perla opened up The New York Times to find Pangea3 splashed across the front page of the business section. “We joked that it was no big deal—just a little press,” recalled the co-founders.
The timing was a fortunate coincidence, but the impact was remarkable. Media coverage is free advertising, and it means credibility and increased attention for your business. Thomson Reuters didn’t have to take Kamlani and Perla’s word on the value of Pangea3; the Times also helped make their case through advantageous PR, and the acquisition was completed.
Be a Thought Leader
Dr. Temple Grandin, professor of Animal Science and autism advocate, found herself reaping the rewards of print PR in the early days of her agricultural design business. A self-proclaimed “weird geek” and one of the first women to work in a male-dominated industry, As a thought leader – someone who thinks differently from others in their industry – Grandin initially relied on articles she’d written to sell her designs to ranches and meatpacking plants.
Stories in trade magazines and newspapers shifted the attention away from Grandin and allowed her designs to speak for themselves, which helped her sell her work, not herself. At the same time, the media attention provided a boost to Grandin’s confidence as an entrepreneur.
Another path to establishing yourself as a thought leader: becoming a guest contributor. Think you have something to add to the conversation in your niche? Many journalists will publish guest content in their columns and blogs. It takes more work than just giving an interview, but the reach is worth it. Moreover, by writing the content, you can ensure that a quote never gets taken out of context.
In addition to press coverage and reputation building, there are softer benefits to mastering PR. They involve dealing with customers, avoiding missteps that generate negative press, and learning to be diplomatic in the marketplace. Ask any hustling entrepreneur and they’ll tell you: free PR isn’t free. Seeing your company’s name in print and watching new prospects click with your story is gratifying, but it requires an investment of time and energy, and can open you up to risk.
Develop Media Savvy
Glenn Kelley, an adjunct lecturer in the Marketing Division at Babson College, points out that startups don’t often have a lot of flexibility when it comes to their spokespeople. “The danger,” he says, “is that you put your founder out there in front of journalists. Are they the right voice? Are they media savvy? Media can be dangerous because you lose some control.”
Perla can relate. He recounted one interview in which he spoke colorfully with a journalist about domestic temporary attorneys. The article ran on the front page of the widely read New York Law Journal, accurately quoting some of his more memorable comments. It ruffled feathers in the industry, and dozens of angry emails found their way to Pangea3’s inbox. Being provocative and opinionated can make your company sticky, but as Perla says, “We ended up making enemies unnecessarily, and needlessly hurt a lot of feelings.”
External agencies can help novice spokespeople avoid these potholes, but the best results come from the entrepreneurs themselves. “It’s a big mistake for an entrepreneur to think that hiring a PR firm is all they need to do to win media coverage,” says Kamlani. “PR teams know what types of stories the media are looking for, but the entrepreneur needs to be thinking about angles and how to catch the media’s interest.”
Understanding the risks and benefits is a great first step, but when is the right time to pull the trigger on a PR strategy? So long as there’s a plan in place, Kelley says it’s never too early. But Pangea3’s co-founders caution that media exposure comes at a price. “It generates competitive attention, so you must be prepared to protect your business from inevitable competition.”
Think you’re ready to dive in to the media world? Consider these backdoor strategies from entrepreneurs who have successfully harnessed the power of PR.
Budget your dollars and your time. Kelley, who also heads the advertising agency, Kelley & Cohorts, advises against entrepreneurs spreading themselves too thin. “Too many people try to do too much with too little. They bark up the wrong trees,” he says. Be realistic: start with roundup stories in trade magazines and blogs, and build from there.
Get to Know Journalists
Follow them on social media, comment on their articles, read their work regularly. Focus on writers who cover your industry and audience. Connect with reporters abroad. Stories from foreign correspondents in India and Asia often are placed prominently in the domestic editions of international papers. If your business has a global angle—foreign clients, research in emerging markets, outsourcing, anything—use it! Take it from Kamlani: “Our PR dollars went much further in India than they would have in the U.S. and Europe.”
This article was originally published in June, 2013. It was edited and updated by Daniel O’Hanlon ’21 in 2018.
Posted in Research & Insights