How New Startups Can Win at PR — Advice from a 20-Year Comms Career
PR & Marketing

How New Startups Can Win at PR — Advice from a 20-Year Comms Career

Terra Carmichael leverages two decades of comms experience with companies like Eventbrite, Yahoo, Mattel, Nike and more to dispense advice to young startups finding their footing with the press.

Planning a press launch for your startup can be a lot like throwing a party — you want it to be big. You want a lot of people to come and be amazed. You’ve worked hard to make everything perfect. In this case, it’s a product you feel passionately about. You’ve finally pushed the button to set it live, and — nothing happens. No one shows up to your party. Your emails to reporters go unanswered. Your launch — your one opportunity to make a splash — makes nothing more than a small ripple on the surface of the internet.

A lot of companies learn this lesson the hard way, says Terra Carmichael, VP of Global Communications at Eventbrite. While corporate communications encompasses more than media relations, that specific task requires a confluence of special ingredients, and even when you have them all you still might not get there. These days, startups are feeling this pain more than ever because the tech media’s in flux — fewer companies are getting covered, and there’s a daunting amount of noise to break through.

But there are still prime tactics to get the attention you need. In this exclusive interview, Carmichael identifies four steps you can use to find and pitch the right journalists for whatever you’re building (even if you’re a total unknown). She also leverages two decades of communications experience with companies like Yahoo, Eventbrite, Mattel, Nike and many startups, to walk you through what to do, and how to keep your own team aligned and enthusiastic as you go.

Why It’s So Tough Out There

Tech journalism has changed in a few marked ways. Amid economic turmoil around 2008-2009, many newsrooms shrunk. Additionally, some outlets have struggled to make the transition from print to digital. All the while, the number of startups looking for media attention has surged. “We’ve got fewer reporters covering a pool of companies that’s growing massively,” says Carmichael. “Competition is stiff, and founders need to understand that calling TechCrunch or VentureBeat won’t guarantee them a story anymore."

Landing national press — like The Wall Street Journal or New York Times — sounds like the ultimate win, but it’s very rarely necessary. “In my early days of doing media relations for Mattel and Kellogg’s, we all wanted to get on Oprah or the Today Show — but that was back when everyone actually watched those things,” she says. “That’s just not the case anymore. Audiences are incredibly fragmented. Now, you can have the same impact through a combination of smaller, more targeted outlets."

To make good on this, founders must let go of the idea that they have to land a ton of high-profile press to make the impact they want. “Your goal should be to reach the people you truly need to reach — whether that’s candidates for jobs, prospective customers or investors — the real win is getting your message in front of the right people,” she says. And there are many more ways to reach your intended audience.

When you set the bar for coverage so high, you end up ignoring the more valuable ways you can get your message out, and that’s what hurts your company — not getting snubbed by The Times.

In the early 2000s, for example, Carmichael had the foresight to spot the emergence of personal blogs and their potential to promote the companies she represented. To capitalize on the upswing, she flew a number of rising star tech bloggers in to get face time with executives. “We legitimized their work at a time when they weren’t getting respect from the establishment,” she says. “The strategy to embrace them — and more importantly, to ask for their feedback to make the product better, created a lot of loyal, influential connections for us."

The plan worked: Bloggers frequently read by their core audience covered the company frequently and positively — they felt invested in how the product was evolving and the success of the team. Eventually, the company was acquired. “The world of media has opened up even more since then,” says Carmichael. “The more niche outlets you pay attention to, and the more of those relationships you nurture, the more that coverage and credibility compound.

It’s harder than ever for startups to get press. Don’t just aim high — aim smart.

PR Planning for the Scrappy Startup

The first step many founders think to take when they are in need of media coverage is to hire a PR agency. But most of the good ones want a $20K a month minimum retainer fee. There are options for companies who aren’t ready to shell out for this, Carmichael says. One option is to invest time in your own execution. Particularly if you're at an enterprise company, or not needing to get a huge press round to reach your goals, you can run your own PR strategy. Her key guidance: Think about PR the way you think about product.

“People develop products to create a solution to a problem,” she says. “So ask yourself: What do the customers for your solution really need? What’s the language that they speak (i.e. what is in their regular vocabulary)? What’s going to resonate with them? You would evaluate all the same things to craft a good product. Now, your challenge is to craft a story that resonates with them.” This is where everything has to start, regardless of whether you’re working with an agency or not.

Let’s say you decide to go it alone — that is a totally valid decision, and one that many startups have had great success with. Carmichael has a four-step plan for those who choose this path:

1. Create your strategy. “Too often, people fling themselves into the currents of media without a paddle. They start Googling reporters and firing off emails asking for coverage without pausing to think about the best possible approach, whether they’re speaking to the right people, or how the stories they’re pitching will fit together.” You need a cohesive plan to start, and that actually entails a lot of moving pieces. Make sure you have these three components ready:

  • Write down the headlines you want in advance. What do you want all these stories to say? Probably some variation of “this company is amazing,” but what specifically? Do you want to get several different headlines out of the same announcement? For example, do you want TechCrunch to speak more to engineers who might join your company while you want WSJ to generate customer leads? Write out all the variations you’d like to see. Start with these headlines and then walk backward into the messaging you need to share, and with who in particular. “What data do you have that will support that headline? What proof points do you need to acquire and present to the press to convince them of the argument you’re making?” Carmichael says. “If you answer these questions, you’ll be ahead of 90% of your peers.”
  • Really, truly, cut out all the jargon. You should assume that your audience doesn’t know or regularly use any of your industry specific terminology. Don't use anything that remotely sounds like it. You should be able to explain the product or service you’re offering with familiar words. If you’re having trouble, employ an analogy to something familiar to help with clarity. “If you can’t explain in a way your parents would understand, that’s a big problem,” says Carmichael. “Let’s say a reporter gobbles up all the jargon you put out there — then you’re just amplifying a confusing message to your larger audience. Always test out a 1-2 sentence description of your company on your friends, family and strangers. Make sure they get it.”
  • Make relationships that transcend launch. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of complacency when you get press around your launch or funding announcement. “A lot of outlets are partial to covering launches but then nothing else,” she says. “You’ll see a spike in traffic, but in no way can you count on that continuing.” You need to think about a steady way to generate interest — which is where trade outlets and non-mainstream publications come in handy. Use your launch to form lasting relationships with reporters. Be grateful. Volunteer to be a resource for them on other topic areas they might be covering. Offer to make valuable introductions for them. Host a dinner for reporters interested in your sector where they get access to experts or data that might help them out. This will heighten your chances of future coverage, and make you friends who you can ask more casually for press advice or help going forward.
One media field day isn’t going to do it. What’s your plan for getting consistent coverage?

2. Choose who to pitch carefully. Make a spreadsheet of the publications and reporters you want to target. “Absolutely do not send scattershot press releases to every reporter’s email you can find. Way too many people do this and it’s a total waste of time,” says Carmichael. “The better you get at targeting the right reporters, the higher your chances of success.” Here’s how she hones her targets:

  • Pinpoint your intended audience. Always start this process by asking: “Where do you want the company to go? Who are you trying to reach to get it there?” For example, do you really need to grow? Then you need to get in front of prospective engineers. What do they read? “One CEO I worked with wanted to sell the company,” says Carmichael. “So we profiled the type of people who would buy it — investment firms or corporate development execs. We figured out what they read.”
  • Pick smaller publications. “Remind yourself that reporters at big publications are reading the smaller trade outlets. That’s often how they source ideas,” she says. “Trade readerships are so relevant to what you’re doing and the chances of coverage are better. Trust me, all of those stories compound.”
  • Background check reporters. Conduct searches for news that’s related or relevant to your announcement or subject matter. Who are the journalists covering those stories? Make a spreadsheet, capture this information, including links to their past stories. Reporters have concrete beats and interests. You want to find the people who cover the area most relevant to what you’re doing. Get to know their work — what questions do they seem keen to answer? What trends show up in their stories again and again? Which of their stories seem to get the most engagement (shares/comments/reads)? How can you mold your message to speak to these things?
  • Research your readers. “Most people think about the story they want to tell — not the story a publication’s audience wants to read. Journalists are thinking about the latter,” says Carmichael. “Consider how a reporter might sell your story to their editor. It’s actually not easy to get a story approved in many cases. Give them the facts, figures and arguments they need to make a strong case to cover your story based on what readers want.”
  • Craft and time your angle. “Read your industry’s media compulsively,” she says. “What’s being said? What are topics that get covered repeatedly? How can you start to pattern match what’s interesting or hot to cover? How can you connect your interests and message with those patterns?” Never send a press release with limited context to a reporter. Always reach out with a specific explanation for why you chose to write to them, why you think it fits their work and their audience. Don’t be verbose. Just be clear.
There’s a Venn diagram of stories you want to tell and the stories the press wants to tell. The crossover is always tiny. Finding it is an art that takes time.

3. Resonate with reporters. This is the hardest piece to execute, and it needs to come from an authentic place. Journalists are busy people who receive a million pitches, most of which are irrelevant to them. Many have stopped reading them entirely. “This is why you must build relationships with journalists over time,” says Carmichael. “If you’re an early-stage company without a big brand name, go to events. Have a conversation with the journalists you meet — just get to know them as people. If they recognize your name and your face, they won’t always report what you want them to, but they will open your emails and that’s half the battle.” Here are her key tips on developing valuable reporter relationships:

  • Warm intros are vital. “Who do you know that reporters have a real and professional interest in maintaining relationships with? Who is useful to them? Probably at least a few of your investors and board members. Have those people intro you.”
  • Meet reporters in person. While at a startup looking to be acquired, Carmichael figured out she needed to get a story in American Banker to get in front of the right audience. She looked up its staff, found a reporter in the Bay Area, and invited him to lunch. “That lunch led to him coming in for coffee with the CEO. We got nine articles in six months and ultimately had a great acquisition,” she says. “The point of having lunch — or initiating a casual conversation at an event — is for the reporter to get to know you as a person. To recognize your name in their inbox. To feel like they want to help you.”
  • Keep up with reporters regularly. “You have to put the work into grooming these relationships once you have them. Be inquisitive about their interests on and off the job, but it must be genuine. Share and make nice comments on their stories. It can be something as simple as “Hey, congrats on the piece today — you nailed XYZ…” Don’t go overboard, but you want multiple and ongoing touchpoints with these people. Just like how in advertising and sales it takes several repetitions to get someone to purchase, the same is true for reporters writing about you. A lot of what we do is built on trust, so don’t kiss up or have inauthentic exchanges. It has to come from the heart.
  • Don’t get frustrated and bitter. “Good communication strategies are games of patience and persistence. It takes time and you will fail,” she says. “Press is not easy to get for startups, especially if your work isn’t consumer-facing. All you can do is nail your message, find the right reporters, and keep trying. Don’t expect things to happen just because you put in the work and don’t let rejection deflate you.” Remaining helpful and friendly to reporters, even if they haven’t picked up your stories in the past, wins you the long game.

4. Land the dismount on your pitch. “Pitching in a way that cuts through all the noise surrounding reporters is an art. Keep in mind that most of what they receive is not interesting or relevant. If you take the time to be more strategic, you’re giving yourself a significant leg up. Here are tips for delivering a winning pitch:

  • Differentiate your story. Reporters aren’t going to write stories that are already out there. Never pitch something that someone else has already covered. Don’t pitch the same old angle that has been out there forever. “Reporters are under pressure to write something truly original, something that puts a different spin on things or stands out. Explain to them why yours is a breakout story.”
  • Time your approach. “Don’t ever cold call a journalist with a pitch. That pisses them off more than anything else. Do not send repeated emails asking if they saw your first email,” says Carmichael. There are a number of unwritten rules. You want to always reach out early in the week — ideally Tuesday. Mondays are too busy, and by Wednesday they have plans for what they want to accomplish. Send emails before 8 a.m. in time for them to bring the idea to a morning editorial meeting. Never send a pitch on a Friday afternoon.
  • Prioritize founder outreach. Depending on the stage of the company, it might be best for the founder to actually send it. Reporters can be much more receptive to founders than anyone else. They want to know they’ll have that level of access, and it will be in their best interest a lot of the time to have a good relationship with the founder.
  • Make it easy. “When I lined up that meeting for my CEO and the reporter from American Banker, I sent the journalist a brief package beforehand of information with background on the CEO, relevant data about the company, key things we were working on,” says Carmichael. “I wanted him to come in feeling prepared to ask the bigger questions.” Afterward, she sent a follow-up with all the stats and points that had been mentioned during the meeting. Many of them ended up in future stories because they were right there on a silver platter.
Terra Carmichael

What to Do If You Can’t Get Press

Don’t lose heart. There's a rapidly increasing number of ways to get your message out. You don’t have to be 100% dependent on the press. More than ever, startups and their leaders are creating content that attracts a lot of attention. Carmichael recommends supplementing (or even replacing, depending on your audience) your PR efforts with the following approaches to increase exposure and achieve your goals:

Release data or studies.

“At Eventbrite, we noticed journalists were writing about the huge growth in music festivals,” she says. “No one was writing about the people attending these festivals, so we conducted our own study on this audience and put out a report right before a conference where our CEO was speaking. It presented a ton of data on the mentality of people everyone at that conference was trying to reach, and it was a big hit.”

One of Eventbrite’s top customers said they received the report from four different people they knew — it was the must-read of the week, and totally saturated their target audience. “Eventually, this study earned us seven press hits in the U.S. and 32 globally because the data was so new and original.”

It ended up being useful on an ongoing basis, too. Whenever festivals are in the news, Eventbrite can cherry-pick and re-release segments of the data, which can then get a whole new round of attention. For instance, when Coachella announced they’d livestream the event, Carmichael’s team was able to get fresh eyes on their study and brand. “We dug into the data to show that millennials are willing to pay more for experiences, and that got picked up everywhere. “

We found a cultural touchpoint, tied it to our business, and built a long-standing campaign around it.

Land select speaking opportunities.

“For founders, speaking takes a lot of time, but it goes a long way toward building credibility," says Carmichael. "It’s also an opportunity to meet reporters. When you’re sitting on a panel, make sure the people on it with you are of a caliber that elevates you and your company through brand association. You always want to be at events that you perceive are a tier up for you.”

Speaking opportunities help you start to build a ‘legitimacy CV’ — you can list the events you’ve presented at in future conversations with reporters, etc. to get in the door. They also help make you ubiquitous to reporters and your target audience. If they keep hearing about you or seeing you again and again, you automatically seem more successful or worthy of note. Additionally, there’s often press in the audience that cover panels, so sometimes speaking is a good opportunity to get on their radar.

Reach out to other types of influencers.

“At Eventbrite, we had a large music promoter who was really pleased with our product and service, and would talk about us all the time — dropping our name when speaking to the press and more,” says Carmichael. “He brought additional credibility to our offering in music and helped us become part of a broader, more relevant cultural conversation.”

If you’re struggling to get traditional press, identify your influencers who regularly come into contact with your target audience and get some warm intros to them.

Publish your own content.

Content marketing is exploding in popularity, mostly because companies have had more success with it — sometimes even more so than traditional media relations. The beauty of owned content is that it's yours start to finish.

Press, on the other hand, isn’t a guarantee, it can be hard to get, and — unlike owned content — you don’t write your own headlines or control the content. Carmichael notes that the best approach is to have both a content strategy and a comms strategy that are aligned, but not entirely dependent on the other.

Content marketing is a huge topic unto itself, but here are some top considerations when putting together a content strategy that plays nicely with communications:

  • “If you build it they will come” does not apply to content marketing.  Content can't be effective if no one reads it — you have to double down on distribution. Optimizing for search results is a long game, but it's also one of the most effective strategies for getting your content found — no matter how "enterprise" your customers are, they still use Google.
  • Pick the right type of content for your company. There are many to choose from — white papers and webinars, thought leadership pieces and ebooks.  Different customers respond to different types of content, and knowing your customer and how they want to receive information is key. If, for instance, you’re selling to an audience that requires multiple tiers of approval within an organization, consider that when developing content — make it easily shareable, consistent with your brand, and possibly even beautiful with highly designed visuals. You want people to feel proud to have found this piece of content and share up the chain.
  • Placing owned content with other outlets is also challenging. In many ways it can be harder, as owned content is often designed to convert a prospect to a customer — which can make it feel "commercial" or less valuable than something written by a neutral party. If press is the target, write your content with less of a promotional/sales bend and make sure your content does have value — it should be educational, entertaining, and insightful. Stop selling.
  • Publish at a regular cadence and don’t bail too early. A lot of companies expect content to generate conversions immediately.  ROI on content doesn’t work like that. It builds slowly and deliberately. It can take 6 months to a year to really kick in, so you need to have patience and conviction in the strategy. If you shut it down too soon, you’ll negate hard work before it has a chance to pay off.

Prioritize Internal Communications

It’s easy to get so wrapped up in chasing press that you forget your number one audience — your employees and teammates. Sometimes founders get so caught up in the hype of their launch that they forget this audience altogether. Regular communication to your team is incredibly important and powerful when executed with authenticity, consistency, and timeliness.

Additionally, employees can be your most potent ambassadors from day one, every day, around the clock. Their experiences and perception of what’s going on at the company will make it out into the world continuously. They’ll tell their friends and family how and what to think about you and the company. And they’ll either enthusiastically amplify your message — or not.

“I’ve seen the incredible impact that press can have on internal morale,” says Carmichael. “There’s something powerful that happens when an employee’s parents can see a story about their company. It makes them proud to work there. So, if there’s a change in the amount of press your company generates and little internal communication, morale can take a hit — particularly for companies that are used to being in the limelight. Having a strong internal comms plan can fill this gap when you’re not regularly getting this external validation.”

In her experience, here are some small things that can go a long way internally:

Newsletters. Even if you’re a small team, you want everyone to feel like they’re getting the same information everyone else has. Send along updates about what’s happening around the office, announcements, events and gatherings. And setting a consistent cadence can reinforce with your team that you’ll be sharing news with them, at the very least, on the day the newsletter is distributed. “What’s been most helpful is the brag section of our newsletter: we compile all the positive indicators that we’re doing something special and amazing, whether it’s press or something else. We encourage all of our employees to share the win.”

Regularly-scheduled Q&As. “We hold sessions called Heart-to-Hartz (named after our CEO Julia Hartz), where employees get to ask any questions they want. It’s optional to attend and not recorded — just 30 minutes every week. We videoconference people in from around the world and the questions are all over the map.” Because the questions are never filtered, they can often be quite difficult. Hartz is known for not shying away, but will readily admit when she doesn’t know how to answer something. “I think a lot of leaders are too intimidated to do something like this. But we discovered how effective it is for Julia to ask the employees in attendance for help working out problems in real time when she doesn’t have all the answers.” These sessions have also tipped Carmichael and her team off to cultural issues before they’ve become bigger sources of tension.

Empathetic notes. “Last year seemed especially full of tragic events — natural disasters, fires and shootings just to name a few. It was important for employees to know their workplace doesn’t exist in a vacuum — especially those with family in affected areas. These things impact people and the way they show up at work,” Carmichael says. “In these moments, the authenticity of our leader and what we stand for shines through. It’s not uncommon for Julia to write company-wide emails calling attention to how we can pause and support each other. People notice. They feel cared about and invested in. That’s much more motivating, authentic and impactful than any press hits could ever be. And it comes from the heart.” If empathy isn’t a trait of your top leader, identify an attribute that is and lean in to that. Authentically acknowledging a challenging moment can go a long way to building trust and pathways to open communications.

Prepare for a Different Future

Accept the reality: It’s going to be harder than ever for your startup to get press. You can no longer rely on the old game plans and strategies that worked for startups just 3 to 5 years ago. There are no guarantees even when you pay a traditional PR firm to get your name out there (though their relationships and strategic storytelling can pay off if you can afford it). The media and tech landscapes will only continue to change.

There are a few things you can do to survive these shifting tides — and all of them are about building and nurturing relationships. You want to do this with reporters, influencers, readers and your own employees. All four can spread your message much farther and wider than you can on your own — but you have to make them feel special and give them all of the tools they need to do it. Target them specifically, get to know them as people, and think carefully about how your message and goals can align with their message and goals. Approach them all accordingly.

“Don’t let yourself get deterred by this new media landscape,” Carmichael says to founders in particular. “Instead, think about how there are more channels than ever for companies like yours to make themselves known. Keep your eye on the prize — reaching the people who you want to galvanize to take action. How you do it doesn’t matter as long as you reach them in a way that makes them listen, learn and feel understood.”

Image courtesy of Mihajlo Maricic / EyeEm / Getty Images.