This article was published in the Winter 2021 issue
by Josh Heath, Senior Vice President, Codeword
Let’s start with a simple truth: Your PR team (and my PR agency) prides itself on making our jobs look easy, but in reality, it’s never been more difficult to get impactful media coverage. If you’re a startup executive who feels like you should be getting more media coverage than you’re getting, I wrote this article for you.
The media industry is always evolving, and there are many reasons why PR is more challenging than ever, but the main reason is there simply aren’t as many journalists out there writing stories. The Pew Research Center noted a 50 percent decline in staffing at U.S. newspapers since 2008, and halfway through 2020, The New York Times estimated that 37,000 employees of news media companies were laid off, furloughed, or had their pay reduced.
And even as the press corps is shrinking, news cycles have never been busier. Political, economic, and public health news is sucking up all the oxygen, eyeballs, and attention. When your audience is living through multiple once-in-a-generation crises, it’s hard for tech and startup news to have the same impact.
So over the past several months, we’ve rewritten our playbook for helping tech startups get the media coverage they need. Here are a few helpful insights that have helped our clients succeed.
Build a brand narrative that is greater than the sum of your products
Crowded news cycles, depleted newsrooms — if you’re going to break through in this environment, your story needs to be better than ever.
We push our clients toward a narrative-first approach, especially if they’re in a competitive space where target customers have more than one option. Focusing on the brand narrative first, even before you launch the company or announce your first funding round, sets you apart from the moment you enter the worldwide stage.
Your brand story is more than the logical explanation of why your product or service exists. It’s the “why” of your company, the problem you’re solving for people, the emotional reason your company exists. It’s a way of looking at product-market fit through the lens of making peoples’ lives easier.
LensCrafters and Warby Parker both sell glasses. LensCrafters even has more selection and higher-profile fashion brands. But Warby Parker has a strong brand narrative that gives people a reason to root for it and advocate for the company. Warby Parker is about more than correcting vision problems; they’re on a mission to be a sustainable company that helps those in need, and their customers are invited to participate. They clearly understand whom they want to sell to and why they exist.
Bodyguardz is a local brand (and a client, full disclosure) that has put a lot of effort into its brand narrative. The company started with phone cases, a heavily commoditized, crowded industry with lots of fast-follow imitators. Bodyguardz has managed to maintain leadership, and they rise above the fray with their overarching brand narrative of “Protection for a Life Worth Living.” This narrative hasn’t pigeonholed the brand into one specific product; instead, it’s empowered the company to grow into other markets, like smart home (or “Smart Life”).
If your brand story answers the “why” and powers your ambition instead of limiting it, then you’re doing it right. Congratulations!
Think like a news producer
The biggest scarcity in the media business is a journalist’s attention. Louder for the people in the back: Getting a journalist’s attention is really hard in 2021. There are six times more PR people than journalists, which means there’s inexhaustible PR demand for a very limited supply of media attention and coverage.
And yet, there are still many great publications with a lot of great journalists, still doing what they do best.
The dirty secret here is that it doesn’t matter how well I know a journalist; if I pitch them a mediocre story, they’ll ignore it because they have so many other stories to choose from. The best PR professionals are themselves “news producers.” Being a news producer means you think like a journalist before you approach one in the first place and do as much of the work for them as you can. The story you’re preparing should appeal to the same audience the journalist writes for and contain all the necessary news elements the journalist needs to write a complete and compelling story.
Our rule of thumb is that a solid news story should contain at least three to four core news elements (immediacy, proximity, prominence, impact, celebrity/expert, human interest, conflict, and shock value — that’s a whole separate essay). For instance, closing a funding round is an important company milestone, but it is only one component of a broader news story and a small part of a brand narrative. A good funding story will mention the funding amount while telling a complete story about how the funding helps your company solve important problems, how that solution impacts real humans, and how you are challenging the status quo.
Another benefit of thinking like a news producer: You’re more likely to create interesting content for your company blog, social channels, and speaking appearances, which in turn drives better media coverage.
Use your data insights & analytics consistently
Data analysts are the new PR rockstars, and adding them to your team could be the shot in the arm your comms program needs. Verifiable data and hard numbers are the first things journalists ask about when we pitch them. You might think that “data-driven storytelling” has become a marketing industry cliche, but the truth is, the industry doesn’t talk about it enough.
In Codeword’s case, one of our secret weapons as an agency is our Insights and Analytics department, with a tech stack of AI-powered tools that let us look beyond the standard metrics and identify industry trends, key audiences, competitive landscapes, even competitors’ strategies and tactics. We use this data to get ahead of compelling stories before they become news and identify emerging trends that correlate with our clients’ narratives.
We aren’t a dev shop, and our tech stack isn’t proprietary — you can get the same tools off-the-shelf just like we did. What’s different is that we give data a primary place in our day-to-day PR activity. It makes our story angles richer and our pitching so much more effective.
In my 15-year career in PR, the only rule has been “what works today probably won’t work tomorrow.” This constant change has forced PR pros to continually evolve to keep up and help our clients get noticed. While strategies and tactics may change and evolve, there still are a few basic principles that remain the same. If anything, the events of the past year have reminded us that we should never lose sight of the fundamentals. Know your audience, engage them openly and honestly with good stories, and deliver as promised. If you can build around these core principles with a solid storytelling and data insights engine, your brand will have the advantage.
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*Read the latest issue of Silicon Slopes Magazine, Winter 2021