Media relations for startups: Going beyond just press coverage

Think about this question—what is media relations?

If you said, “Getting featured in the press”, you’ve only done half the job. 

Today, media relations isn’t just a one-time activity to attract investors, or get a customer’s attention. It ties in with your brand identity as much as marketing. It matters when, where and how you are seen, and whom you are seen with. And the foundation to all this lies in looking at media relations as human relations.

Building a give-and-take relationship with journalists is important not just to be featured in the press, but to also ensure that your side of the story is heard in moments of crisis. Let’s say there’s a potential negative story expected in the press about your brand. You can reach out to those journalists you have built a rapport with to present your side of the story and chances are high that it would help balance the narrative—something that would be really difficult if you only have transactional relationships with them and haven’t invested in building up trust. 

Let’s now look at how best startups can manage their media strategy and media relationships. 

Why do you need a media strategy?

It could be to build credibility, hire good talent, get investor attention, get customers and so on. While all these are good enough reasons, the right answer lies in approaching all these with the long-term goal of positioning your brand.

In fact, you have to think long-term regardless of which (growth) stage your company is in. Place your PR strategy in two buckets: one, think about how you want to shape your narrative in the media one or two years down the line. For example, think about the headline you want to see about your company in the press in the long term. That way, you’ll get clarity on how you want to position yourself and what are the messages around your brand that you need to keep reiterating. 

In the second bucket, think how you can leverage short-term, tactical announcements to highlight the bigger picture. For example, when you’ve onboarded a huge client/customer, or when you’ve raised funding, there’s high interest in your brand in the press. Now, if you bolster such point-in-time news with messages around company’s vision and mission, you can reiterate critical messages with your audience and, in turn, build your company’s image. 

Which media should you approach?

If you are running a tech startup, it doesn’t make sense to get featured in a food magazine, does it? Unless you’re a food tech startup, of course.

Identify where you want to be featured. Find out five to eight publications that are Tier 1 and core to your audience. Find writers in these publications who write about your space and get a sense of who they are and how they write. Follow them on social media to know more about them, read what they write exhaustively, get a sense of what interests them. 

Identify where you want to be featured. Find out five to eight publications that are Tier 1 and core to your audience. Find writers in these publications who write about your space and get a sense of who they are and how they write.

Once your list is ready, reach out. Email, tweet or connect with them on LinkedIn and introduce yourself and your company. Make sure not to spam them—that’s counterproductive. If your story is compelling enough, they will respond.

Pro Tip: In the early stages, it’s very easy to get pulled into every opportunity. But, because your bandwidth (as a founder managing multiple tasks) is limited, don’t put time and effort into a story that won’t reach your audience. Take a call to let go.

What’s the best way to approach them?

The crux lies in preparation.

Journalists invariably work on super tight deadlines. They receive hundreds of emails everyday. So, what can you do to stand out among them and make that first call or email worth their time? 

Familiarize yourself with their work. For a start, get to know your business and market thoroughly and get familiar with the topics that are trending in your industry. In fact, even the morning before speaking to the journalist, read their latest story, know what’s got their time and attention and see if you have anything to add. That will be your topical hook.

Secondly, it’s a give-and-take relationship so don’t be transactional. Often, we pitch the story, get the coverage and forget about the journalist until we need them the next time. Instead, look at the person behind that transaction. Build a relationship, just like you would with a friend. For example, if you read something they’ve written, reach out to them and give them your genuine feedback. Or, if you know they’re working on a story, offer to help them—put them in touch with someone you know who can give more information, or share more data. That way, they’ll start looking at you as a valuable resource, as a thought leader.

Pro Tip: In the initial days, you might be tempted to give a lot of information hoping that it will help you build a relationship with journalists. Always remember, nothing is truly off-the-record. Don’t say things you don’t want to see in the press.

How frequently should you be in the press? 

One of the differences between planning a media strategy for a large vs small or young company is that the former always has something to talk about: be it a product launch, a new CXO-level hire, an acquisition or such. 

If your company is an early-stage startup, on the other hand, you need to constantly explore other opportunities like soft profiling of founders, getting leads on industry stories that journalists are working on and pitching in with data or insights of your own. You can also conduct (relevant) studies if it’s in line with your business, publishing them on social media platforms and sharing them with journalists so that they can pick it up if they find it interesting. 

Pro Tip: The key to good communications is patience. Sometimes, you’ll see your competitors going all out to get media attention. Instead of reacting, hold back. It’s more important to land your messages effectively and at the right time, than to react to someone else’s narrative. 

On the other hand, let’s say you’ve been featured in a significant publication. Chances are, a lot of other publications may want to do follow-up pieces with you. Choose your participation depending on the platforms that target your audience; you shouldn’t spread yourself too thin. 

For example, first, instead of simply looking at the number of viewers/readers/listeners, look at who they are—are they relevant to your brand? Second, look at the ROI—for example, how much time are you giving to get a quote in an industry piece? If it’s significant, rethink your participation or sharpen it to be more efficient. Third, if you have larger milestones that you are on track to achieve, don’t mention them piecemeal during regular conversations. Instead, save them for big-league pieces. 

Are press releases still relevant? 

A few years ago, a standard company practice when announcing a fundraising round was to draft out a press release and push it out to publications and wait for it to be covered. 

But today, things are a little different. While press releases are still very relevant, it’s important to go both wide and deep. For example, one day before you send out that fundraising press release to your entire media list, reach out to the more relevant ones for your business and share the release under embargo. This gives you the scope to have a deeper conversation with the reporter and increase your chances of getting more nuanced coverage.  

Pro Tip: Another way you can go wide is by extensively promoting your story on social media platforms. Share it on your feed, and get your investors and employees to share it on theirs. The way algorithms work on most social media platforms, the more a post is amplified, the higher the engagement it gets.  

Earned vs paid media

In the early stages, you may be tempted to take the paid route for your announcements as well. Once you go the advertorial route, you may end up setting expectations that are difficult to change. That is neither scalable nor credible. 

In the early stages, you may be tempted to take the paid route for your announcements as well. Once you go the advertorial route, you may end up setting expectations that are difficult to change. 

Instead, invest in building those relationships we have been talking about. And if you have a good story and a strong product, publish the stories consistently on your own channels like blogs and social media platforms, and ramp it up through content marketing efforts. It’s a slow and steady process, especially for young companies that may not have raised large funds or may not have a well-known founder. But if your content is compelling, eventually, you will get noticed.  

Paid marketing for your content can be switched on when you want to promote your own posts on social media channels. And sometimes we see brands exploring speaker opportunities at events they sponsor. Several platforms also offer the option of placing paid content (this tends to be clearly marked out on the platform as an advertorial or sponsored content). But, when you follow this route, remember to have separate teams/people handling marketing and editorial in order to manage expectations. Don’t obliterate the lines between the Church and the State. 

The importance of technical translation 

Let’s say you’re running a startup in deep-tech, manufacturing or cybersecurity. When you’re pitching to the media about your business,  not everybody is going to understand what exactly you do, or the space you operate in, especially if it’s highly specialized. 

In such cases, your message may get diluted because the writer, understandably, will not have enough domain expertise to understand technical jargon. Try a two-pronged approach. Limit technical conversations to those who understand your space deeply. For more mainstream stories, try the ‘grandmother test’. Explain what you do so that your grandmother would understand it. Make the narrative simpler so your story is interesting for the layperson. Speak the language your core target audience speaks. For example, if you want to explain what an API does, you can draw a real-life scenario to how things take place in a restaurant. You place the order, and the food is served at your table. But, who communicates it from you to the chef? The waiting staff. In simplified terms, this is what an API does. Deliver a message from the sender to the receiver and back. 


About the Speaker

Payal Banerjee is the Vice President and Head of Communications for India and Southeast Asia at Sequoia Capital. She has played an instrumental role in launching two key initiatives in Sequoia: Surge, the rapid scale-up program for early-stage startups in India and Southeast Asia, and Sequoia Spark, the office-hours mentorship program for women founders.


Cover image: Vignesh Rajan

The above post is written based on Payal Banerjee’s talk at Against All Odds Startup Summit by Freshworks for Startups.

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