There is Such Thing as Bad Publicity

It is said that all publicity is good publicity. Does this bode true? Is it relevant to startups in their first steps in the PR world?

As a startup that is ready to show the world what you got, you are in constant pursuit to generate buzz about your company or product (some startups more eager than the others). You personally reach out to reporters, or hire a PR firm, all in the quest for the holy grail - an article about your company or even a mention  in a relevant or reputable media outlet.

In my experiences with startups, I had the chance to advise to startups that had an easier time on the PR front, along with others that had experienced a harder time.

In order to get good, authentic PR - I’m not talking about paid mentions - you need to have an interesting story or unpublished news. You need to know how to pitch them and to whom.


Real life story

A startup I’ve worked with was very anxious to get its name out in the media but was in a tough spot: The founder had raised capital, was in a hot industry, but the announcement of the round and launch was made in a small publication.

If the story is out, it’s out. This is an important point that some may feel is obvious but many founders are unaware of. After a story has been published, the interest level plummets, leaving it almost impossible to pitch to another media outlet. The founder of the company wanted PR, and like all startups schedules she wanted it yesterday.


Finding the right angle

As a marketing advisor to this company, I tried to think of a story or an interesting angle that could work and get us good PR, and fast. I sat down with the founder and explained her our tricky situation that would require out-of-the-box thinking. The startup’s product was not a cool app. We had no news or an obvious interesting story and we had to work really hard to grab the attention of mainstream media reporters.

So, we decided it would be best that along with continuing our reach to mainstream media outlets, we would target the top blogs and newspapers within a couple of the industries relevant to the company.

As PR requires a lot of research and legwork before any article is out, and as our resources, especially human ones, were limited, we decided to focus on 2-3 industries.


The founder agreed with this strategy but more than anything really just wanted an article in a good publication.

Being a data-driven company, I spoke with the research team to try to find some eye-catching data we can mold into an interesting story.

It was hard. The startup was young and there wasn’t much data. However, we managed to find several talking points from the data we could turn into a pitch.

To increase the odds of the pitch, and make it more accessible and interesting to reporters, we backed it up with specific industry reports that included an overview of the industry and our data.


It worked

Reporters from leading industry publications replied back saying they were interested to learn more.

Something all founders should understand is that the PR work had just begun.

PR isn’t a set-and-forget deal. Once a reporter “bites” into your story, they don’t necessarily just publish it as-is (in fact, that rarely happens). The pitch is usually the first step in intriguing the reporter but they will often ask to follow up with a phone interview or send questions via email. Startup founders have limited time, but for PR, you need to take into consideration putting aside some time to accommodate a reporter’s needs.

I explained to the founder of the startup that once the gates of PR open, it would be much easier to pitch to other publications as there will be articles online about the company we could refer the journalists to, and the company will have a broader online presence.


A great opportunity missed

The first reporter who replied back asked to schedule a phone interview. He had previously exchanged emails with our PR firm, but most times journalists would like to speak to the “horse’s mouth” and quote the founder or CEO of the startup in the article.

We scheduled the call for the next day and had an internal prep meeting before, going over the pitch and the talking points we wanted to emphasize.

Journalists, like all people, vary in nature. Some are more inquisitive and some are not. The reporter we spoke with was very inquisitive. Especially since we made some bold statements in our pitch and he was keen on understanding how we reached those.

When speaking with him, I noticed the founder seemed in a rush. The reporter did ask many questions, but in order to tell our story as we wanted it to be published, we needed to be patient and reply to all of the questions.

It was obvious the founder was reluctant to cooperate with the reporter, and her answers were accordingly.

Shortly after the conversation ended, the reporter sent us a list of new, clarifying questions. At first, the founder was inclined on not replying as she thought the reporter had all the information needed. After discussing it further, she replied but it seemed very short and at times unclear.

Making bold statements in the pitch coupled with the startup operating in a fairly technical field, it was important to expect tough questions.

The email correspondence continued and we received several emails asking for urgent answers as the reporter had a deadline for the story.

At the end, after a couple of days of back-and-forth emails, the article was published. But, it was not at all what we had hoped for. The tone of the article questioned our statements and it included a lengthy interview with a founder from a competitor, to shed more light on the industry.

Instead of getting a good company profile, with a spotlight on our research, we turned into co-interviewees and the spotlight was taken away.



Final words

Although this was not necessarily bad publicity, it was not what we’d hoped for. It was not optimal PR.

Even if you, as the founder, are anxious to get a story published, you must play the PR game. Reporters don’t work for you, and will not recite what you want. You have to remain kind and be prepared.

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Eugene Khot

Eugene Khot is a marketing executive experienced in brand recognition and revenue improvements through marketing initiatives in domestic and international markets. You can connect with him through his LinkedIn profile