How to Get PR For Your Startup

  • October 27, 2022
  • Josh Steimle

As background, I’ve lived in the startup world since 1998, when I got my first job at a dot-com.

I’ve raised funding, I’ve bootstrapped, and I’ve gone into crushing debt. I’ve worked with and am friends with tons of folks in the VC and PE worlds (they’re not really such bad people). I wrote the winning business plan for a contest when I was at university. I led a chapter of StartupGrind in Hong Kong for two years, I’ve interviewed countless entrepreneurs for my writing in Forbes, Inc., Entrepreneur, etc., I’ve spoken at startup conferences, and someday I’m going to get a PhD and research startup hubs and what makes them tick. I love the startup world. I know startups.

I also know PR. I’ve written hundreds of articles for more than two dozen publications, I still write for a number of publications (no, I don’t sell placements in my own articles—that’s a big no-no), and of course, I run a PR firm.

Is there someone out there who knows PR+startups better than I do? Maybe, but I bet they don’t offer guaranteed PR services like we do…but I didn’t bring you here to sell you on startup PR services, I actually want to teach you how to do your own PR, for free. But first, you need a basic understanding of how PR works.

How PR Works

Publications make money through advertising and subscriptions. Subscribers pay for subscriptions because they want access to great content. Advertisers pay because they want access to readers. In order to get subscribers and readers, publications create content by employing writers. Writers want readers to read their articles. Therefore, your job is to:

  1. Pitch writers stories they believe people will want to read…
  2. And which editors believe people will want to read…
  3. And that readers actually read…and share.

Success hinges almost entirely on the pitch, because if you fail at the pitch, you don’t get an article. But before we go into how to pitch, let’s talk about how not to pitch.

How Not to Pitch A Story About Your Startup

  • Do not offer to pay writers. It’s against their contracts and they risk getting blacklisted. Writers have done it, but you don’t want to get involved in that.
  • Do not pitch 100 journalists at once. They can see through you in 0.25 seconds when you send your email to hundreds of them at once, or do a copy and paste with minor customization. They don’t want to write a story someone else might write at the same time. One pitch at a time is the way to go.
  • Do not make the action of pitching all about you. When you want someone to do a favor for you, show that person how doing that favor benefits them. Give value before expecting it.
  • Do not make the story about you. You heard me right. Do not pitch a story about yourself or your company, not unless you just raised $50M and you’re pitching TechCrunch (they love funding news). Writers are more interested in topics than companies.
  • Do not tell the writer that you’re special. You’ve got a great company that does great things for people? Your company is innovative, revolutionary, and disruptive, right? Yeah, that’s what the other 200 people who pitched that writer this week said about their companies.
  • Do not make your PR pitch long or detailed. The longer your email, the more likely it will be ignored (TL;DR) or marked for follow up. How often do you get back to the emails you mark for follow up? Journalists are even worse, because they get more emails.
  • Do not follow up too much. Day 1: “Would you please write an article about me?” Day 2: “Perhaps you didn’t receive my email yesterday, I’d like you to write an email about me, please get back to me soon.” Day 3: “You probably missed the first two emails I sent, but I’d really like you to write an article about me.” This type of pitch will be ignored, or marked as spam.
  • Do not send pitches like this: “hi, can you help me publish on forbes unde ryour name please?” Yes, that’s a real pitch, and I’ve received 100 others like it.
  • Do not act as though you’re doing the journalist a favor. Journalists aren’t sitting around wondering what to write about. Most of them have 50 great articles they’re working on. If they want to write your article, they have to postpone a different article. Act as though they’re doing you a huge favor.
  • Do not use pitch templates. Or if you do, don’t use one anyone else has (make your own). There are lists of pitch templates out there and 99% of the pitches I’ve received and continued to receive (I can’t escape them!) are using these templates. They quickly become recognizable and just as quickly they get filtered out. Anything that looks the least bit like a template gets deleted immediately.

Now, let’s talk about how to pitch.

How to Pitch Your Startup For PR

1. Understand the writer’s motivation. Many writers don’t even get paid to write. Many writers are “contributors,” not a professional journalist or staff writer. That means they write for free, or very little in compensation. If you’re pitching a writer and thinking “Why doesn’t this guy want to write about me? I mean, this is what he gets paid for, right?” No, they don’t get paid to write about you. In fact, it’s going to cost them money to write about you. Either it takes their time or it takes the time of their staff who assist them. Each article I write costs me around $800 in time and/or direct costs.

If you want someone to write about you then you need to show them how they get “paid” for it. Contributors, many of whom are entrepreneurs, get paid with exposure. They’re looking for articles that will generate attention for them and their businesses, or help them build their personal brand. If you want a contributor to write an article about you, you have to figure out how they will get what they want by giving you what you want.

2. Know what the writer wants to write about. Every writer has a swim lane, a focus. If someone writes about marketing, don’t pitch them a tech story. If they write about Fortune 500 businesses, don’t pitch them a startup story. Find the writers who write stories like the kind of story you want to be in.

3. Make a connection. Personalize your pitch by noting a connection you have with the writer. Do you already know each other? Did you go to the same school? Are you from the same city? Do you share a hobby?

I’m a skater. If you put “I saw you’re a skater, I’m also a skater…” at the beginning of your email to me, I guarantee I’m going to read it. Not just because we share a hobby, but because I know with 100% certainty that you sent me an email that was sent only to me and no one else. Other writers are the same.

4. Make your pitch about the reader. I want to write stories that readers love and share, and I don’t think I’m too different from other writers. Help the writer you’re pitching help you by pitching them a story that focuses on what readers want, rather than on what you want. I know you want a story that talks about how great you are as an entrepreneur, or about how great your company is, but unless you’re Elon Musk nobody cares. Sorry, but it’s true. You’re going to have to give before you get.

Instead of going straight into pitching your story, deliver value. You’re an expert on whatever it is you or your business does, so give the writer you’re pitching an interesting tidbit of information you know, but which their readers may not know, but which would be super helpful to them.

When a client here at Canvas can’t come up with ideas for articles I ask them “What are the secrets in your industry that you’re afraid to talk about? What are your competitors afraid to talk about?” Those questions often generate answers that turn into great stories. For example, does your industry publish pricing? In the SEO industry they generally don’t, unless they’re lower end SEO firms, so I once wrote a post with the headline What Does SEO Cost? for Forbes, which has now been read over 100,000 times. Tell secrets, get readers, gain trust.

Another way to focus on the reader is to pitch articles that focus on questions your customers ask. If you’re not sure what questions your customers ask go talk to your sales or customer service departments, or take a look at what content on your website is already popular. Then craft your pitch around what you now know people will be interested in.

5. Make it easy. If I’m writing something like this blog post where I’m just spouting off about my own experiences and I don’t have to find any quotes, sources, data, etc., then I can write it in as little as 30 minutes. However, if I’m writing about someone else or their company, then it’s two to three hours of work. If I’m going to source quotes from three or four people, it’s three to four hours. And so forth. A well researched, substantive article is going to take me four to eight hours to write, revise, and edit for publication. Don’t get me wrong, I like to write those articles, but if I have the choice of writing for an hour or eight, and the benefit to me is the same either way, which article is more likely to get written?

If you want someone to write an article about your company, help them out. Give them the raw materials they need. Don’t make them work for it. The “raw materials” that help a writer put together an article include:

  • Quotes. From authoritative sources, like one of your executives.
  • Data. If you’ve got visuals, so much the better for the writer, and therefore you.
  • Media. Video, Slideshare, photos, etc.
  • Lede. The lede is defined by Websters as “The introductory section of a news story that is intended to entice the reader to read the full story.” You might also call it an angle, or the whole point of the article.
  • Outline. What do you think the story is? Who’s the audience? What do you think they would find most interesting? What do you think is the best way to present it all?

The more you can provide a writer with the above information, the more you cut down the amount of work they have to do, which increases the chances your article will see the light of day this week, instead of sometime in the next month or two as they have the time to squeeze it in, if and when they get around to it.

Heck, why not just give the writer a rough draft article? I guarantee they’ll scrap 75% of it and rewrite it, but it makes the process easier.

“Wait, I write the rough draft for the writer? Isn’t that your job?”

You could also say it’s their job to get quotes from your execs, source the data, and come up with the lede, but it’s not about whose job it is or isn’t–that’s irrelevant. If you’re going to make a writer spend a lot of time to do a favor for you then they’re going to pass. Not out of spite, or even a lack of interest, but because extra time is something they’re short on.

Reduce the time it takes for a writer to produce an article and you increase the chances of it getting written.

6. Wait. Don’t bother the writer who is doing you a favor after you pitch them, nor after they agree to write your article. If you contact a contributor then understand that they have a full time job, are probably running a business, and they’re only putting out three to four articles per month, and they might have thirty articles they’re already working on.

Even if the writer says they’re interested in writing about your company don’t act as though they’re now obligated to provide you with regular updates and keep you in the loop. Maybe they’ll do that, maybe they won’t, but if they doesn’t it’s probably because they’re super busy, and if you are bugging them every other week asking “When are you going to publish my article?” you may be annoying them and making them wonder if they should reconsider publishing your article at all. Remember, they’re not working for you, you’re not paying them–they’re doing a favor for you. Treat the relationship as such to stay on the writer’s good side.

If you have given the writer information that is time sensitive and you need it published right now or you need to take it elsewhere, then communicate this in a respectful way, not as a threat.

The wrong way: “Hi Jenny, I sent you information about [topic] and my startup several weeks ago but I haven’t heard anything back from you. Can you tell me the status on the article? I’m hoping we can get that published within the next week.”

This sounds entitled, as though the writer owes you something.

The right way: “Hi Jenny, I know you’re super busy and I appreciate you considering publishing an article using the information I sent over. The information I sent is time sensitive, so if you’re too busy right now to use it no worries, just let me know. But if you do want to use it and can publish it within the next [deadline] then I definitely want you to have it. If I don’t hear back from you by [deadline] I’ll assume you’re busy right now. Thanks!”

That’s still a veiled threat, but it’s respectful, understanding, and reasonable. However, unless you’re worried about the writer publishing what you’ve sent after you’ve decided to give it to someone else, I would move on without following up at all. If you’re not hearing back from a writer then chances are they’re not going to use what you sent them.

PR Pitch Templates That Actually Work

Startup PR Pitch #1 – “Hi Jenny, what articles are you currently working on? I read some of yours, and if you’re writing more like those I think my experience and background may be helpful, or I may know someone who would be a good source for you.”

Startup PR Pitch #2 – “Hi Jenny, my startup solves X problem for Y audience. Is that relevant to any of the articles you’re working on? Would love to be a source or provide any information I can, if that would be helpful.”

Startup PR Pitch #3 – “Hi Jenny, I’ve put together some raw materials for an article on X topic. I thought it might be a fit for your column and give you a quick and easy article. Would you like me to send it over?”

Notice that these pitches are short and to the point. They’re obviously pitches. They’re polite and respectful.

These PR pitches are also very, very different from what people normally use. People are afraid to not give all the info, so they send loooong pitches that nobody wants to read, but give a writer a short pitch that takes 10 seconds to read, and can be responded to with a simple “Yes,” and you have increased your chances of a response by a few factors.

Why Pay For PR?

If you can do PR for your startup for free, why would you ever hire a firm like Canvas?

First, because it’s not as easy as I’ve made it sound. You’re going to strike out a lot of the time. You’re going to get tired of pitching. You’re going to wonder if you’re doing it wrong, even if you follow my instructions to the letter.

Second, you’ve got other things to do than sit around sending out pitch emails.

Sometimes you don’t have a choice, you have to do your own PR. But if you’ve got the budget, check out our startup PR packages and let us take this task on for you.

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  • February 15, 2022
  • Logan Derrick
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