Want your startup to make headlines? Here’s what you need to know about PR

9 min read
22 Feb 2019

s recently as six years ago, the launch of a new startup was a story in itself for some media outlets, says Berlin-based founder of Laika Communications, Michaela Krause. But today it’s much different. Whether the aim is to attract talent or create awareness of the startup, entrepreneurs can catch the attention of journalists if they deliver a solid story – even one which doesn’t involve fundraising.

While many founders may know that publicity can be crucial for the success of their startup, they might not understand what PR is exactly, let alone how they should go about implementing PR techniques.

PR is about talking to the public strategically and communicating a unique message to specific audiences, Dan Levitan, senior vice president of communications firm BerlinRosen, told Startup Guide.

In the world of entrepreneurship, PR has changed a lot in the past few years. For instance, it’s not really possible anymore to get media coverage simply for launching a startup, as was the case in Berlin in 2012 and 2013, according to Michaela Krause.

It helps if your story involves female founders. A team that's as diverse as possible also really helps startups tell a better story.

With ten years’ experience working at several PR firms in the German capital, last September Michaela launched her own agency which works specifically with tech companies and startups.

Nowadays, she tells Startup Guide, rather than focusing on investment rounds and coverage by big tech news platforms, you can create awareness of your startup by backing it up with a story that connects to a bigger idea, trend or movement.

What else should entrepreneurs be aware of when it comes to pitching media outlets? And what do Berlin-based founders need to know with regards to the current PR landscape in their city? Michaela had a long chat with us to answer these questions and more.

The TV tower in Berlin. Photo: Unsplash/Camilla Bundgaard

How has the Berlin startup scene changed from what you’ve seen?

It's gotten much bigger. Years back, there were only a couple of tech startups and being a startup in itself was a story. It was easier because the media was really interested in covering these types of stories.

Right now it seems really easy to get money. Looking back, I remember the funding rounds being much smaller. Now, it’s seemingly easier for some companies to get funding.

In Berlin six or seven years ago, companies didn’t know where to look for funding, and it was tricky reaching out to international investors. But now the ecosystem is more connected and investors are looking to invest.

It now seems easier to be able to at least raise a seed round of funding – something that was significantly harder to do before and also got more attention.

Next week we're announcing a seed round for one of our clients that’s really high: €6 million. Years ago, this amount likely wouldn’t take place in a seed round.

The media landscape has changed a bit, too. While some outlets covering the tech ecosystem have completely died out, such as the German version of the Wall Street Journal, a few of them have gotten pretty big – Gründerszene, for instance.

What I find interesting is that a lot of PR agencies now target tech or startup clients. Even the larger, traditional marketing and PR agencies are now moving into these areas.

What is it about a startup story that makes it newsworthy for journalists?

If you have people who invest in a sector they don’t normally invest in, that can be worthy of a story. It can also be a story about refusing investment. Or, it could be about avoiding the big tickets and negotiating a smaller investment deal.

If the round is really, really high, it's always going to be a story. But it’s hard to get investment stories with mediocre numbers.

But I generally think founders focus too much on their fundraising story. A lot of my clients wonder how they can be featured in TechCrunch. But if you think about their PR or business goals, it’s not as important as they think.

My mom and friends, for instance, don't read TechCrunch. If you want to target them as customers, you need to be present elsewhere. Say your company is only active in Germany and you're a B2B business. Why should your funding round be reported on TechCrunch which is talking to an international audience?

While an investment story can be helpful to show momentum and strength, it’s not very useful from a consumer’s perspective. Also, I don't think average people are interested in how companies raise funds. So keep in mind that TechCrunch is not the holy grail for all your PR goals.

Consumers meanwhile want to know how the startup solves a problem or how they deliver extraordinary service. They want to hear about products that are desirable or have really cool branding. This is not done by multi-million dollar investments alone.

Let's say a startup wants to create buzz around their company but they don't have any fundraising rounds to announce. What tips would you give them?

It all comes down to connecting your own story to a bigger picture, movement or trend. It's often not enough for media or influencers to talk about what a single small company is doing.

You need to find out what major topics are being discussed and how your story fits into it. Look at how the market you’re in is developing. Ask yourself what the market share is for your solution and determine why it matters.

Find out about like-minded companies and if you can collaborate with them to tell your story together. After teaming up with these companies, pitch this as a sort of trend which you’re all addressing. Your story then becomes much more appealing to a journalist.

Journalists are busy. That means it's up to you to demonstrate that your product or startup story has potential and is worth reporting on. You help them do their jobs if you deliver on a bigger trend, for instance by using data from user behavior, market research or Google Analytics.

Communications techniques are more often successful when you actually get to know people and build a relationship with them.

As ridiculous as it sounds, it also helps if your story involves female founders or female voices. Since the startup scene is dominated by men, journalists are looking for stories that involve women.

Another thing that could really help your story get out there is if you make sure your team is as diverse as possible. You might not think you could make an impact in this way, but diversity really helps startups tell a better story.

We once worked with a startup in Prague that had a cool tech product which detects when machines are broken or need maintenance by using sensors. If you tell this story in a straightforward way, nobody will understand it or get excited by it.

It helped a lot though to simplify the story as much as possible, make it very visual, as well as name the product ‘The Machine Whisperer.’ This is the kind of thing you want to achieve with PR.

What about companies of one? Where should they begin in terms of PR?

Whether you’re small or big, your size doesn’t really matter when it comes to being able to tell a good story.

If you’re a startup of one, you probably shouldn't approach PR agencies too early. It will be a lot of work for you to handle. Plus agencies are expensive.

Instead, start by doing a lot of research. Find out who your audience is, come up with a couple of target personas, think about what they want, then define the channels you’ll use to reach them.

Will you go to events, or reach out to journalists or influencers? Once you determine your multiplicators, you need to tailor your content to them.

Don't just bang out emails or use mass distribution. They don't work and you’ll annoy people.

"Since the startup scene is dominated by men, journalists are looking for stories that involve women." Photo: Pexels / Startup Stock Photos

What other do-it-yourself PR techniques can you suggest for entrepreneurs?

I think it would be useful for startups in general to really sit down on a regular basis anywhere from fifteen minutes to half an hour each day.

In this time, founders can brainstorm topics, research a few journalists, read stories about their industry, keep up with news about their competitors and send out pitch emails every now and then.

If you can keep up with this, you’ll get into the flow of connecting with journalists and they’ll get to know you. It’ll be a small investment of your time but it can help a lot.

Communications techniques are more often successful when you actually get to know people and build a relationship with them. That's why it's called public relations, and not marketing, for instance.

Journalists are busy; it's up to you to demonstrate that your product or startup story has potential and is worth reporting on.

Successful communications also comes down to understanding things like the market behavior of a place and its cultural differences. Doing PR in the US is different from how it works in Europe, for instance. Similarly, PR in Germany is different from PR in France.

PR is very much a local job, meaning it makes sense to localize and tailor your content to your audience.  

You can also "hijack" a journalist’s agenda. In thinking about your pitches, remember that publications typically write pieces which are pegged to important dates on the calendar, such as Christmas, Black Friday or Valentine’s Day.

Make your story timely. You can also make it fun, insightful and engaging with surprising data, an actual event or experience people can have and talk about.

This year, we’re working with a company that’s going to launch one of its female health products to align with International Women’s Day. That’s because we know a lot of publications will be reporting on topics about women and society in general on and around this day.

Is there anything founders in Berlin need to know about the PR landscape in their city?

It’s harder for people here to get excited about startup stories compared to other, smaller cities. There’s also more competition.

On the other hand, there's a bigger and more supportive network in Berlin. There are also more events and helpful meet-ups here that you just don’t have in other cities.

From what I’ve seen when it comes to events, Berliners can be extremely flakey. So if you’re hosting an event here, you have to be very persistent. It’s hard to predict how many will show up.

Don’t forget about conferences. Local ones include Tech Open Air and Heureka. You can really leverage conferences to lock in interviews and have the chance to meet the journalists you’re trying to build a relationship with.

In terms of Berlin-based media outlets, take note that not many publications are actually based here. If, say, your startup is in the fashion or the automotive industry, or you have a consumer product, the media outlet you might need to target may be based in Hamburg or Munich.

Michaela’s list of useful (and mostly free) PR tools

  • Hunter.io - Helpful for finding out journalists' email addresses
  • ResponseSource - A UK-based service where journalists can leave their request for experts and startups can reply offering their knowledge
  • #Journorequest on Twitter - A hashtag used by English-language media and influencers to find expert voices, information or product raffle partners
  • Google Alerts - You could set these up not just for your company’s name, but also for your competitors and certain topics
  • TechCrunch editor list - Wondering who writes for TechCrunch these days? Here you go!
  • Templates for networking emails - Wondering how to connect with important people? These templates might be a starting point!
  • List of worldwide tech conferences in 2019 - Brought to you by the team at Laika
  • 250+ additional tools for every need can be found on PR Stack
  • List of minor secular observances - A helpful list of calendar events you can tie your story to

Photo: Michaela Krause

PR dos and don’ts for startups

  • Connect your story to a bigger picture, trend or movement. Don't just talk about yourself or your startup.
  • Back your story up with lots of data. The data can insightful or even entertaining.
  • Write in easy language. Avoid buzzwords and industry jargon.
  • Set aside a few minutes each day to manage your PR and storytelling ideas (e.g. researching topics, analyzing competitors and reaching out to journalists).
  • Meet journalists and influencers at events. This is when you’ll have a bit more time and you can form a personal bond with them.

  • Use mass distribution or expensive wire services. They don't work.
  • Pester journalists (for instance by calling them too often).
  • Communicate too early. If your product can't keep up with what it's promising in the initial stages of public outreach, you might harm your name before you even have the chance to build a reputation.
  • Make the world your target. Work your way from market to market instead of trying to aim for the entire globe all at once. PR most of the time starts locally.
  • Hire an agency too early. It's pricey and a lot of work to coordinate external service providers.