How to respond to the dreaded: “Let’s do some PR for this”

At some point, every marketer gets this request. This request almost always means, “We need to send a press release” and that is almost always a waste of time. I’m going to assume you know why a random press release won’t solve your problem and move on from there.

Let’s talk about how to elevate the conversation from the dreaded press release request to a productive conversation about your communications strategy.

The dynamics of communications

There are three dynamics at work in every communication you put out as a company:

  1. Your audience
  2. How accessible that audience is to you
  3. The message you want an audience to understand

Your company is probably very good at communicating in scenarios like this:

  • We need to send a marketing email (target market, owned, marketing promotion)
  • We need to let our partners know about this new release (partners, owned, product announcements)

You send communications like this all the time.

Let’s talk about the combinations of these different dynamics that tend to result in the dreaded, “Let’s do some PR” request.

#1. You want to reach new people in your target market to tell them about a new product release.

You don’t own this attention, so you’ll have to earn it or pay for it. Earning attention might include things like:

  • co-marketing
  • a social media campaign (part earned, part paid)
  • media

That third one is the trouble spot.

There is only one way to consistently get coverage on this type of news — you have to do media relations. Media relations is a long-term play. It takes time. If you’re thinking about this two days before launch, you’ve missed the boat, that’s ok, just start preparing for the next time.

In its most simplistic form, media relations should look like this…

You identify a short list of reporters who would realistically cover you (pro tip: it won’t be someone from NYT or WSJ) and develop those relationships over time. Retweet those reporters, invite them to host a panel discussion at your event, send an email comment on their article, meet up with them at an event, and keep them informed about your company. Did I mention this is a long-term play?

The only reason this effort is worth it is because repeat coverage tends to be more valuable that one-time coverage. Reporters who cover you multiple times get to really understand your business, they ask better questions, they understand your industry.

Overtime, you can build your bench. But these early reporters will be the people who make you interesting to bigger reporters at more prestigious publications. Did I mention that this takes time?

#2. You want to reach new people in your target market to build brand awareness.

This one takes a little less time than media relations. You want to earn the attention of people in your target market and hopefully gain a little more ownership (i.e., get that email address) . You don’t have a specific message, you just want to get out there.

Your advantage here is that you don’t have a specific message so you can prioritize being interesting. Your challenge is to come up with something very interesting to say :)

There are two great approaches to earning attention like this:

  1. Focus on reach via search (be interesting enough to get backlinks)
    Here’s a great post on using content to build your reach in search
  2. Focus on reach via the media (be interesting enough to get coverage)
    Here’s something I wrote about using content to get press coverage

These are almost always mutually beneficial, but it’s worth being clear about your primary goal as it will determine how you resource a project (ie., do you want PR expertise or backlink expertise?).

You can also think about combining this strategy with your media relations strategy. Go to reporters on your shortlist about data or research you could provide them that might be interesting to their audience. Some reporters are surprisingly open to this type of collaboration and it’s a great way to firm up that relationship.

Elevating your “PR” conversations

Can we talk about words for a bit? I think that “PR” is misunderstood to the point of being useless. I’m writing mostly for tech startups (that’s my experience), and companies like this have very little understanding of how PR fits into an overall communications strategy. So marketers often get stuck having conversations for which we lack a vocabulary. Here are my preferred words:

  • Communications: I prefer to talk about communications rather than PR, it’s a more precise word that says what you are doing “communicating a thing.” Nearly every tech startup is good at communicating a thing to customers, prospects, etc. We’re less good at communicating a thing to employees, prospective employees, and partners.
  • Media relations: I’ve talked about this already. But if every time someone says “PR” you say “media relations” you will be well on your way to shifting the conversation away from “do a press release” toward “build strong, ongoing relationships with members of the press.”
  • Corporate communications: This refers to a specific type of message. Corporate communications include things like a notable executive hire, an acquisition, a funding round, a new office, a new milestone, or corporate giving initiative. While tech startups are often good at making product announcements, we’re less good at providing steady updates on company news. These types of communications are rarely headline grabbers, but they tell a consistent story about company performance that is valuable for partners, investors, and prospective employees.
  • Employer brand: These are communications that are specifically tailored to people who might be interested in working for you (more about employer brand here). It’s an often forgotten part of communications work. Tech startups often think that press coverage will result in loads of new signups…it rarely does, but that doesn’t mean press coverage doesn’t matter. It’s often an incredible way to attract new employees, and reframing that internally will help your leaders understand why local press might actually be more desirable than national press.
  • Crisis communications: If you want to see how absolutely terrible most companies are at communicating during a crisis, just take a look through all the pointless COVID-19 emails in your inbox and contrast it with this legitimately thoughtful response from HubSpot. Most tech startups are not prepared to communicate effectively regarding a product outage, national crisis, or internal upheaval. If your boss is pressuring you about “doing some PR” it could be a good time to talk about how building good media relations today can help your during times of crisis.
  • Executive communications: Sometimes the best way to reach new people in your target audience isn’t pitching directly to the press at all, it’s your executive team! Get them to make a video and share it on LinkedIn, or write a blog post, or maybe share these assets with a journalist and see if they’d like an interview. If your boss wants media attention, ask them to put in some time to help you make that happen.

My point in listing all of these is this — “PR” lacks any useful meaning. You can elevate this conversation internally by using more precise language to describe your work.

Reader // Writer // Editor