Are you a shaky, flying or false startup? Here's how a PR views you

This is a guest post by Jon Silk. Silk was a technology journalist for eight years before moving into to PR in 2005. Now Creative Director at Lewis PR, he advises companies large and small on traditional and digital PR strategies. He blogs at and and Twitters.

As a technology startup you will, at some point, decide you need some PR. You might not know what that really means, or how much it might cost, or even who could be able to do it, but you’ll want it.

Public Relations is one of those rare business services with no value aside from the amount people assign to it. Essentially, you’re paying for the relationship that someone you’ve never met has with someone else you’ve never met. That’s a tough thing to cost up.

You’re also often paying PR people to do nothing. Actually, you’re often paying them to tell you to do nothing. Confused? Say a video pops up on YouTube that you don’t want people to see. Do you tell everyone not to look? No, you don’t. But you’d be surprised how many times a PR person has had to convince their client not to issue a press release protesting innocence. (Note: “Company CEO denies dungeon orgy” is just as bad as admitting to enjoying them.)

In my four years as ex-journo-turned-PR-man, I’ve had all sorts of tech startups knock on my door in the mood for buying. These meetings can be long, tough and caffeinated. They can be fun, relaxed and alcoholic. They are always eye-opening. And thinking about those experiences, I did what every self-respecting PR person does best. I made a list.


1. The shaky startup

New to PR (and probably business, and possibly the inside of an office) a startup can forget the agency is a potential supplier and nervously pitches their idea. The presentation is well oiled, having been recently given to numerous investors and family members. When it’s the PR person’s chance to speak, they get three minutes before the questions start. “What’s a press release?” is a well-documented example. The product or service will have been thought up in someone’s garage (but then so was Google). The first month’s PR retainer will be paid on the founder’s (and only permanent employee’s) credit card.

2. The flying startup

Still a small business, the brains behind this commercial proposition already understands the media and the tactics they should employ to get seen. They know how a viral video, with the right promotion, will drive traffic to their site. They know the press they want to be in, and that a review programme is critical. They understand that they’ll need to be trained before they go on TV. The budget is still going to be small, but this company wants it all and wants it yesterday. They are seeing six agencies today, and the decision will be tonight. (The email arrives at 3am.)

3. The false startup

Some meetings are long, and an agency can get a feeling that it – to coin a phrase from Auto Trader – is having its tyres kicked. In the worst case you realise, well after the meeting has ended, that you’ve been had. With so many tech companies not understanding PR, inviting a series of agencies to spend a week getting their best people to generate ideas can be a great value exercise. Throughout the meeting, the agency will get the feeling that everything they say is close to genius, and come away thinking they have a new client. A month later, one of their ideas surprises them by appearing in a national paper.

4. The fresh startup

Have you ever dreamt of giving up your day job and going it alone? Guess what – some people have gone and done something about it. One of the best pitches you can give is to an experienced business person working for a small, newly-formed company. The agency gets a client with big-business processes with startup-style creativity. The startup gets a PR agency that cries with joy every time their idea to create a ridiculous viral video gets approved… In triplicate. (There is a downside – three years later the company will probably be acquired and end up with startup-style processes and big-business creativity.)

5. The head startup

We may not be partying like it’s 1999 but – as many startups will testify – there are investors out there for those with enough luck and tenacity to out-manoeuvre the crunch. At that point, PR will be top of the shopping list. Armed with a blank cheque from their VC backer and the gummy-eyed confusion that follows an eight-hour flight from San Francisco, a pitch to a company with capital will be quick, to the point and results focused. PR takes time to implement, people to execute and a miracle to effectively measure. The agency has a week and is clearly on its own. Start praying.

So after all that, what’s my advice? It’s important not to worry too much about which category you fall into. Firstly, the list above is not exhaustive. Secondly, a good PR agency will guide you through the process, tactics and ideas you’ll need to get noticed. Whether you’re sitting there wondering what a press release is, or waving a blank cheque in the air and ready to drop £50k getting your message heard, make sure you cover the bases and do your homework. Ask around, check references, and approach agencies that demonstrate an understanding of companies in your space.

Most important of all, send your proposed media spokespeople to the meeting well informed. They will need a solid idea of your target audience, your overarching business goal (Sales? Brand recognition? Staying out of prison?) and the keywords being optimised for search on your homepage. These three things alone should be enough to form a killer PR strategy.

The final ingredient for a successful PR campaign is chemistry. Treat the meeting like a date. Did conversation flow? Were the jokes funny? Are there similarities in tastes or aspirations? If so, take things further. If not, let the agency down gently (but honestly) and move on. You’re a young business, with your whole life ahead of you. With so many different types of agency out there, your perfect match could be just around the corner.