Pitching Practice: Public Relations Launch Checklist for Early Stage Startup Founders
Who’s ready for some pitching practice?
The post was inspired by my buddy who’s approaching a launch. I wanted to document 4 years of startup PR learnings for him.
At TalentBin, we’ve historically been pretty good at PR (some examples).
But it’s not because we are particularly “strategic” in our communications approach, or anything that hifalutin’. Rather, I would attribute the majority of our success to being willing to roll up sleeves, do work, and execute the proper blocking and tackling required (and that 90%+ of others don’t do) to target, pitch, and support press who are excited about our space.
This is a list of those things you need to do to have success in your launch / announcement
I get a lot of people asking me about PR, and how to achieve coverage, especially around a launch or announcement.
At the end of the day, it’s not a big mystery. It’s a B2B sales campaign, where you have a qualified, relevant list of targets (media list), a means by which to reach them (email addresses), a coherent argument for why what you’re doing is both a. news, and b. relevant to them (a pitch), supporting materials (press release), an agenda and narrative for your presentation to them (a press call), and then ready supporting materials to assist them as they write (a press kit).
None of this is rocket surgery. It’s primarily well crafted text, and maybe some images, in a Google Doc, to be delivered via email, and eventually trickle into a Content Management System editing interface, with the hope of it going live on a blog / media outlet. But it does take work.
If you can internalize one thing in this process, it’s that the journalist is your customer. They are busy, overworked, with deadlines, and lots of irrelevant dogshit pitches crufting up their inbox. And they have their own constituencies to please (their readers, their editors). This is why this is B2B sales: you’re selling them on something that is going to make them successful at their job – in the short term, a story that is going to please their readership, get shared, and drive page views, in the longer term a relationship where you can provide an ongoing stream of those stories and other help.
So always think about it in that context: How can I help this reporter deliver pertinent content to his readership, in the most streamlined, least time-intensive way possible, and, shocker, a lot of that will revolve around doing annoying pre-work for them. Which leaves them more time to do the writing and analysis – which is what they and their readers prefer, anyway.
Do I need an agency?
No. You don’t. Not for your launch.
A PR agency is composite of a bunch of different services. They can write. They can send email pitches / call. They can get your pitch listened to. They can schedule meetings with press. They can aggregate supporting materials. They can help you evolve and tighten your message. They can help you pull together your list of valid targets. They can do that on an ongoing basis. They can position you as a thought leader in the market and get you opportunities for guest writing, quotes, etc. They will do this for you for $10-20k a month that you don’t have. They will wave their hands a bunch about “strategy” and “honing your pitch” and so on. You don’t need all of this right now. You just need to launch.
Agencies are very helpful for ongoing support, and for labor augmentation, again, longer term. I’ve worked with Resound Marketing for nearly two years now and they’re fantastic. But for a one-off launch, you can do most of this yourself.
What do I need?
You need to do work.
As an early stage company, you can do all the things needed for launch PR, probably with the exception of the pitch press, and get your pitch listened to. Sorry dude, you don’t have enough cred to get listened to, and that’s where a PR Media Relations consultant comes in. More on that later.
But you can do a lot of the other stuff and do it better and cheaper than a PR person who is never going to be as intimate with your problem space and market as you are.
The below is not particle physics. If you put on some fast punk rock on Spotify, you can rip through the below in a Saturday afternoon. Just do it.
First, you need a coherent “story.” About how your offering fits into the larger narrative of your market, the evolution of technology over time, what problem it solves, and why your hypothesis is actually valid, as demonstrated by traction of customers, competitors, adoption, etc.
The good news is, a lot of this should exist from your sales pitch (either to your customers or users) or fundraising pitch. And, honestly, this story should be pretty damn easy to tell, provided your offering actually makes sense. It’s pretty much the same story you’d tell someone at a cocktail party or industry conference.
This is the central idea of your company and its place in the world, which will then be manifested in the various actual deliverables that we go into below. It’s not an actual piece of writing. It’s a narrative arc that can be re-told in different formats, of various lengths, of various depths.
A News Hook
This is the reason why the reporter would actually cover this now. Yes, your startup is interesting in general, but so are a lot of others. And because this is a launch / funding / etc., the hook should be the “OK, why cover this now?” reason. Launch. Funding. New massive product release for existing company. BD deal. The easiest is going to be launch of new company. But if you don’t have a news hook, just stop. No one will care.
(That’s not 100% right. You can do ongoing pitching for “trend” pieces, but that’s black diamond skiing right there, and agency / in-house PR team realm. So you’re not there yet, tiger.)
Your pitch is a manifestation of your story, but cut specifically for this news event.
It’s the news hook, expanded out into a larger framework, with the main thrust, and then supporting components (ideally no more than three - too many gets overwhelming). These are the things you want people to take away from the story, that ideally gets adopted into the story line. When people talk about ‘setting the tone’ of a story, this is what they’re talking about. Creating the frame of reference around which the story is understood.
For instance, a product launch would be the main news hook and thrust, supported by the ‘why does this matter’, which would be drawn from your larger narrative arc and where you fit in, and then your supporting arguments.
So for an Uber for Mopeds, this might be “MoBuddy, an Uber for Mopeds, is launching in San Francisco. It’s important because there are many riders who would like a public transit alternative, but for whom even UberX or Lyft is cost prohibitive because their price floors are based on the capital and operating cost of full size cars along with the labor cost of drivers. Moreover, there are many people who’d like to drive to supplement their income, but the capital and operating cost of a car - even a Prius - is prohibitive to many drivers. Lastly, with the rising congestion in cities, mopeds offer a more expedient and greener way to get around, rather than stuck in an Uber in traffic. MoBuddy is launching to help solve all these issues.”
The Pitch Email
This is a first date with the journalist. The goal of the pitch is a second date - an expression of interest by the journalist to learn more, ideally on a call, and then to write.
What does your pitch email look like?
It’s delivered via email, so it should have a compelling subject line that drives an open, ideally with the news hook in it. The goal of the subject line is to get the damn email opened. “Uber and Lyft are cool, but mopeds are even cooler. New moped ridesharing network launching in SF.” Or something like that. The “From” line is probably what’s really going to get this opened (That is, an email from a PR person that the reporter trusts), but the rest matters too.
The very first sentence should be addressed to the reporter and cover why you think they’ll give a shit. This will show them that you’ve qualified them and done your homework. More on this in our “Media List” section below. The pure goal of this sentence is to get them to read the second sentence on what you do. To wit:
You do a great job covering ride-sharing like Uber, Lyft, SideCar and the future of transportation networks. As such, our about-to-launch moped ridesharing network should definitely be interesting to you and your readers…”
This flows into the first piece of actual story content, which should be a paragraph-long version of your larger pitch. It should have the news hook in it. It should have more context. It’s going to look somewhat like the first meaningful paragraph of your press release. If you have an explainer video (here’s TalentBin’s), it should probably be linked in there too. And it should have a strong call to action at the end. “I would like to get on a call to tell you more.”
You can put more content “below the fold” (after your call to action and signature) – maybe some cherry picked stuff from the release – but the whole idea is that this is short, to the point, information dense, driving to the journalist hitting “Reply” and saying “Yeah, let’s set something up.”
A Press Release
Another manifestation of your larger pitch is your Press Release.
Press Releases are weird, vestigial things. They historically went out across press wires, which charge by the word, so they are typically pretty terse. And back in the day, distributing it across the wire was a necessity, because email didn’t exist.
But in the process, the release became the lingua franca of “the story” and as such the “Release” persists as the common object of the news event – which is why having one is pretty important. It’s actually debatable if you’ll want to send your press release across the wire ($$$), but it’s still good to have, to email to folks as text / PDF / etc.
It’s kinda like a resume, for your story. Resumes are helpful, in that they’re a boiled down representation of someone’s career, but they’re also somewhat vestigial, in that the 8 ½ X 11 single page format, as necessitated by filing cabinets that no longer exist, isn’t really required anymore, but still persists. But if you’re applying for a job, and don’t have a resume, that’s weird.
What is the release for?
The resume metaphor above is helpful in thinking about this. The Release is the summation of the news event, and can be used by a reporter to determine if they want to cover the event, if they want to pass it to someone else, to refer to validate their notes, or even pull materials directly from.
What should be in the release?
Based on that, the release should have the expanded version of the pitch, contextualized in the larger story, handy proof points (customer examples, counts, stats) and then supporting materials, like a ready-made quote from you, the founder, and third party validators, like a quote from a customer, a quote from an industry analyst, and so on. And then handy boilerplate at the bottom that sums up the company in a tight little package with a bow on it.
You can check out an example of something we did with the launch of “TalentBin 2.0” in this release here or the announcement of TalentBin’s crawling of the US Patent Database for recruiting purposes.
Tie it up. Put a bow on it. And put it on the shelf because reporters will ask for it.
Third Party Validators, Ready to talk
One thing journalists will want is third parties to talk with, or use quotes from.
This should be customers, analysts, VCs (though, that’s usually more the VC wanting to get some press than the reporter actually thinking they would add to the story - unless it’s a funding event), and so on.
Ideally you already have these relationships in place – if you don’t, there’s no time but the present to make sure you’re interacting with your customers and following industry analysts on Twitter and engaging in banter with them. This will help you for this use case.
Think of these third party validators as supporting struts for your pitch’s arguments. Ideally, you should already have these folks in your back pocket, in a Google Spreadsheet, pre-validated (“Would you be open to being quoted in a press release?” “Would you be open to talking to a reporter?”). Even better if you wrote the quote for them, making them looking brilliant and articulate and awesome, and served it up for them to say “Yup!” or “Yup, if you can tweak this!”.
If you can get a set together, handling different parts of your story, even better. Like in our MoBuddy example, a quote from a customer who can’t afford UberX, for whom a bus commute is 60 minutes each way, but MoBuddy gets her there in 15 minute for $4. And another quote from a student who needs money, but can’t afford a Prius, so driving for Lyft isn’t an option, but now makes great money as a MoBuddy driver. Make it clear they may not all make it in, but once you have them in your back pocket, they’re helpful in other places, too.
This can largely be achieved while you’re getting the quotes for your press release. You can validate someone’s willingness to speak to press at the same time. (And BTW, while you’re at it, get quotes for use on your website, your pitch deck, your sales deck, etc. and get it all OK’d in one fell swoop. Put them “in the cupboard” for future use).
And if they are open to getting on the phone with a journalist, provide some coaching of the message you’d like to get across (“It would be awesome if you could focus on X, Y, Z”), again correlated to the messaging in your pitch. Send it to them via email so they can refer to it.
And after they’ve helped you out, send them a nice Treatful gift certificate for taking the time. Yes, they are getting publicity out of it, and that’s good for their career, etc. But come on, they did you a solid, so show some love.
Visual Materials to Support
This is one of the things that founders and PR folks often forget. The journalist is going to want visuals for their piece. Don’t make them do the screenshots. It’s just more work. You do it once (and make them perfect, and on-message), and you can provide them. Moreover, if there are various companies to be covered in the piece, but you provided screenshots, guess who’s more likely to get the visual? Yup.
My favorite move here is Skitch screenshots delivered as hyperlinks (because email attachments suck and get lost) in the press kit you’ll be sending over.
E.g., New Export Functionality in TalentBin:https://www.evernote.com/shard/s56/sh/1e30249e-a692-47aa-8b4c-7f3392217ee8/c32d9b01f9b0a016baa86b8dc0e6db93 or something like that.
Start with the one you REALLY want them to use in the piece, but have backup ones for different parts that correlate to your pitch’s messaging components. (Plus, you’re going to need these for your sales deck anyway.)
So in our MoBuddy example, a screen shot of user-facing app, screen shot of driver-facing app, chart of capital and operating costs comparison of mopeds vs. a Prius, and maybe a picture of a driver and passenger riding together.
Extra credit for a video demo or other video materials. An explainer video is great (video plays great in a blog post, so providing that video in the materials so it can easily be embedded is key.)
My favorite tool for this is Jing. I can just take a screencast while you talk over it. It may not have amazing production value, but it can be referred to by the journalist, and if it’s good enough, it might get on the site.
E.g., “ Video demo of TalentBin’s new MobyGames crawl: http://screencast.com/t/ZMh8VB7C”
A Target List
You’re going to need a target list of reporters and outlets who are going to be interested in your news item.
But it’s not just TechCrunch, and that’s it. Think about your target list as all the folks who cover your space. So yes, that’s the “tech press” like TechCrunch, Wired, ReadWrite, Mashable, GigaOm, VentureBeat, etc. But it’s also the broader business press who have subset reporters who cover your space – like in TalentBin’s case, the people at the Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, Time, Inc, etc. who cover HR and Recruiting. And the vertical publications who specifically focus on your space. In TalentBin’s case, that’s SourceCon, ERE, Talent Management, HR Executive, SHRM, etc. Or even local publications - like the San Jose Mercury News, SFGate, or LA Times - who have reporters that focus on business, tech, or your particular vertical (like HR / hiring).
But importantly it’s not just the publication. It’s the writer. Writers have “beats” that they follow. Leena Rao at TechCrunch is the enterprise and finance person. Anthony Ha is the AdTech guy. Ryan Lawler is the ride-sharing guy (you can tell - he covers Uber and Lyft and SideCar here, here, here, here, and here.)
Are we seeing a theme here?
How to find these folks?
If you have your act together, you should already know the people who cover your space, and be following them on Twitter.
(Caveat: if you’ve been following and interacting with these folks via Twitter, you actually might be able to get your pitches responded to yourself having established cred. But that’s black diamond skiing left for another time.)
If you don’t have Google Alerts set up on your competitors, do so so you can start creating this list of reporters who follow your space.
If not, now’s a good time to start by looking at recent Google News coverage of competitors / adjacent companies. In our case at TalentBin, anyone who writes on LinkedIn or Monster or Indeed would be relevant to us to talk to. In fact, you can often go to your competitors and adjacent companies’ “Press” pages, where they’ve already helpfully linked to all the reporters that you should pitch, having already demonstrated interest in a related company ; )
This can also be where your Media Relations person (more on them shortly) can help you out. They’ll probably have access to Cision / Vocus to build these lists.
So now you’re going to make that list of people. It’s a Google Spreadsheet so you and your media relations helper can share it. It should have the columns of Outlet (e.g.. “TechCrunch” or “ERE”) Reporter, email address, vertical (e.g., “Tech”, “HR Press”, “Biz Press”), and bonus for “relevant beat” (e.g., “Linkedin” or “Recruiting”), and maybe even a link to a pertinent piece, and “Status” (as in, To Be Contacted, Contacted, Followed Up, Responded, Call Scheduled, Done.)
This is going to be the list you rip down, and it’s a mini-CRM too (you’ll track state of pitches in there) and you want the data you’ll need for outreach.
“Hey <first_name>! I love your coverage of <beat> (like <recent coverage> <link>), and as such, I thought you’d be interested in our upcoming launch of…”
“Hey Ryan! I love your coverage of Uber, Lyft, etc (like Seattle’s recent ridesharing mess), and as such, I thought you’d be interested in our upcoming launch of …”
Don’t worry about getting everyone. The important thing is having a solid list of leads that are targeted, qualified, and relevant.
You’ll have more success and better responsiveness if the list is targeted to people for whom your news event matters, and whose readers will care.
A Place to do the Press Call
This may seem obvious, but a place to do the press call is going to be key. All of our above activity is driving to setting up press calls where you can dig into the news item, and have a richer conversation.
I use Clearslide for this, because I use the heck out of it anyway (I previously used Crunched). There’s a phone bridge that multiple folks can get on, you can share slides (which more in the “agenda” below), and you can share your screen.
Join.me is also good for this.
AT MINIMUM, you should have the ability to share your screen and use visuals. This is transformative and should not be understated. The ability to “show” instead of “tell” is so important, so do it.
Include all of these coordinates in the Google Calendar meeting invite that is sent to you and the relevant journalist for the meeting so even if they miss it, you can say “Look in the meeting invite. Click on that link.”
An agenda for the call
Know what you want to cover on the call. Largely it’s going to be a deeper dive on the content that’s already in your pitch, and a chance for the journalist to ask more questions, dig deeper, and get other quotes aside from the one that you provided in the press release.
That’s good, but I always like to make sure to drive the agenda to ensure your call doesn’t go off half cocked and you miss important context.
This can often times be achieved through a couple of slides of background on what you do, etc. Don’t assume they remember your pitch email. Or watched the explainer video. Etc.
Remember, these folks are BUSY! They have heard four other pitches like yours today. They’re walking into this only having half-read the pitch. So be helpful and refresh their memory.
During your conversation, always focus on the main thrust and supporting the components of your pitch. You will be tempted to go afield and demonstrate your intelligence. Don’t. Focus on your pitch and its components. When asked a question, answer it, but bring it back to the pitch or the closest relevant component.
You will hear furious typing in the background. That’s the journalist trying to get this all down so they can choose what to go with later. (By the way, this is why delivering them reference materials after the fact is so key!)
If you can focus on what’s critical and central for your pitch, it’s more likely that this will make it into the piece.
It’s not that you’re trying be evasive. It’s just focusing on the parts that matter to your business and, ideally, to the reporter’s readership and larger market.
They may also ask for customers or analysts to speak to. And because you’re so prepared (right?), you will already have them, and can offer to email introduce the two, after the call. If they don’t ask, you can offer. Again, more potential column inches for you, and you look helpful and thoughtful.
Lastly, you should always offer to help if they need more on this piece, or even in the future. As in “This was really great, so let me know if I can answer any follow up questions on this, or in the future on recruiting and HR technology, social analytics, big data, and so on. I love talking about this stuff.”
A Media Relations Grinder
This is where the professional help can really be impactful. Unless you have a demonstrated history with the reporters in your industry who matter, it will be very hard for you to cut through the noise.
This is why Twitter following and engaging with the relevant journalists and analysts for your space RIGHT NOW is good, but that takes time to establish credibility.
The means by which you can short circuit this is by working with a Media Relations consultant. Essentially, a PR person who is typically out on their own (no longer at an agency or in-house), but who has a history of working with the journalists you are targeting.
Because these reporters are constantly being pitched bullshit, the move here is to borrow the reputation and ‘contacts’ of this media relations person. They are essentially representing to the target journalists that you and your story are legit.
So you need someone who will be listened to. And the way that you can tell if this person will be listened to is to look at their past placements. They’ll have a book to show you. You can also check out who they follow on twitter and whom they interact with there. Oh, they don’t follow the target journalists? Red flag. They’re not engaging in twitter conversations with the target journalists? Hmmmm…could be better.
You could technically be your own Media Relations grinder, and get a subscription to Vocus / Cision for journalist contact information. But if you have any budget, this is where to deploy it.
Journalists who matter know which PR folks are legit and don’t pitch bullshit, and as such the pitches those folks present will get a second look.
A Press Packet to deliver after (can also be delivered in lieu of meeting.)
Lastly, you need all of the above, bundled into a helpful little kit to send to journalists post-call.
Your Release, all your pull quotes to choose from, images, video, and pre-validated customer / analyst references. FAQs like pricing, when the company was founded, who the backers are, and so on. Anything that the journalist probably asked / would have asked but forgot to in your call, bundled up so they can refer to it and not rely solely on the furiously typed notes.
I like to house this all in a “living” Google Doc and just send the hyperlink after the call in a “thank you” email. You can also just copy and paste all the materials into that thank you email, but just do so below the fold.
Lastly, if you can get a meeting, it’s better than not. Richer interaction and you’ll start forming a relationship by demonstrating expertise. You miss a lot of that if you just send a lot over the transom.
So don’t send it instead of meeting, except as a last resort.
Go Forth and Conquer
There’s a lot of specification above, but I assure you, this is not hard. If I can do it, you certainly can.
So much of this is just good marketing practice anyway, and much of these materials you ought to have in your back pocket for your website, sales team, investors, and so on. It will definitely be reusable so invest in nailing it.
Do the work. Be ‘customer focused’ in serving the needs of the journalist and his readers. Have a compelling story. The coverage will come.