Public Relations and Media Outreach Strategies for Startups—a Guide for Emerging Businesses
By Olivia Barrow
If you have seemingly unlimited resources, a penchant for outlandish actions, and the world’s most powerful rocket, it’s pretty easy to get press coverage. But if you’re a bootstrapped startup, getting the attention of the local news media can seem like a total mystery.
Many startups miss out on opportunities to get great press coverage because they don’t understand how to work with local media and they don’t see the value in local coverage if their goal is to reach a national audience.
As a former newspaper reporter and a marketing and PR consultant for almost five years, I can tell you firsthand that getting local news coverage is not as complicated as you think. And you can do it on a shoestring budget.
Why is local media coverage valuable?
Before we get into how to get local media coverage, let’s get into why. Why should you even bother putting in the effort to get local news coverage, especially if you’re an emerging startup that’s aiming to reach a national audience? Is getting a short online write-up in your hometown newspaper going to lead to a tidal wave of online sales?
Short answer? No.
But it’s still extremely valuable for an early-stage company, for several reasons.
1) If the newspaper links to your website, it will provide a boost for your search engine optimization.
2) Getting local coverage boosts your credibility in the eyes of your early customers, because you’ve essentially been vetted as a legitimate enterprise by the news outlet.
3) It can give you something exciting to share on social media, keeping early supporters hyped about your brand (this is especially important when you haven’t opened or launched yet).
There is also some intangible value in simply going through the process of putting together a press release. A press release should always include an About Us paragraph at the end to give the reporter the context of who you are and why your news is important. If you’re early enough in your startup journey, you may not even have a succinct one-paragraph About Us statement. You might not even have a 30-second elevator pitch committed to memory.
Creating a press release will force you to at least craft the first version of your “About Us” statement. You will probably revise this statement 100 times over your first five years, but it’s an important part of the process of building your brand, and figuring out how to talk about yourself, and how to communicate your value to your customers.
And here’s another fun tip: publishing press releases on your own website to chronicle your company’s milestones adds to your credibility in the eyes of website visitors even if no news outlets actually write about your announcements. It helps to tell the story of your journey so far and creates the impression that you are an up-and-coming company that people should keep an eye on.
What kind of stories will local news outlets actually cover?
Here is where a lot of business owners struggle the most (and to be honest, a lot of PR professionals, if the thousands of pitches I got as a reporter were any indication): recognizing what kind of business news is actually newsworthy.
But it’s really not that hard. Business newspapers want to write about things that affect their readers’ lives and businesses and that give them useful information.
Ninety-nine percent of the time, this means MONEY. You’re spending it, or someone else is spending it on you. In either case, it lends credibility to your business and indicates that you’re someone worth paying attention to. The newspaper’s readers might want to do business with you or try to earn your business.
If the story you are sharing could serve as a sales lead for a business development professional, it’s probably newsworthy in a business newspaper.
Here’s a small list of potential story ideas. Note that “ribbon cutting” and “25 year anniversary” do NOT appear on this list:
You bought a building
You leased a new space
You’re going to do a major renovation to your building
You closed a fundraising round
You finished a successful crowdfunding campaign and will now launch your product
You took out a loan to buy a half-million dollar piece of equipment
You just got acquired
You just acquired another business
You’re about to hire more than 5 people
You just hired a high-profile local executive
You just won a major lawsuit
You just signed a huge contract with a major customer
There are a few other kinds of stories that aren’t as directly tied to you spending money that can still be considered newsworthy:
You just launched your product that is very innovative and new
You just expanded your coverage area to multiple states or a national audience
You just became the first company in your city to do something that’s trending in other cities but hasn’t shown up here yet
You, as the founder, are about to do something widely regarded as cool and dangerous, like climbing Mt. Everest (but this mostly only works if you’re already a high-profile executive—and let’s be real, one of the main reasons this is newsworthy is because you’re spending tons of money...it costs something like $60,000 at a minimum.)
How do you get local media coverage?
The most important thing to understand about getting local news coverage is that you have to reach out to the right person, at the right time, about the right topic. Really, this applies to any kind of PR outreach. You don’t need to format your press release in a certain way, but you do need to make sure that the news you’re trying to share is front-and-center.
There are a lot of resources already available online to tell you how to prepare and submit press releases, so I’ll keep this part brief and just share my quickest tips on each of these steps.
Figure out which reporters in your area cover news that is most similar to the story you’re going to pitch.
There are expensive services online to help with this, but when you’re starting out, you can just do this the old fashioned way by reading two or three weeks’ worth of online archives of your local publications’ business stories. TV news tends to be very shallow on business coverage, so if you’re short on time, skip reaching out to them altogether. Focus on the business publications in your region and state, any industry-related publications that include reporters’ bylines on their articles, and the business sections of local newspapers.
Find their email addresses.
Most newspapers include some instructions on their website about how to contact their reporters either directly, or how to submit press releases for consideration. This information is sometimes a little hard to find, but it’s often tucked away in the footer of the website under “About Us” or “Contact Us” or “Staff.”
Write a press release.
Don’t bury the lede. Don’t start with a dumb story about where you came from. Don’t be cute. Just tell the reporter exactly what the news is, and if there’s room, give a little insight into why you’ve done the thing you’re announcing. For example:
The Doyenne Group has purchased a boxing gym to expand its membership benefits for women entrepreneurs to include therapeutic punching to relieve stress.
(The news here is the large investment into a boxing gym and punching bags, which seems odd for a professional networking, support and advocacy organization.)
In the rest of the press release, share a few quotes from your founder/CEO about why you’re doing the thing and how it’s going to be the key that unlocks your next phase of hockey-stick like growth, and then drop in that About Us paragraph that I mentioned above, and you’re done.
Send it to the reporters at 8 a.m. on a weekday, preferably not Friday.
Nobody really reads the news on Fridays.
Examples of local media coverage of startups and small businesses
I gave a talk about PR strategies for Startups, which is available on Doyenne’s Learning Lab, an on-demand course library. In that course, I talk more in-depth about a few examples of press coverage.
I’ll briefly cover a few of those here, but if you want the full explanations, I recommend listening to the class! It’s just 45 minutes and $10 for non-members (or free for members).
Example 1: Announcing a national expansion
Expanding your coverage area from local to national can be newsworthy, but what made this story especially newsworthy in Milwaukee is really the fact that the person leading this organization has been a local celebrity for several years. People in the local community are curious about what she’s doing next. If you’ve already had some kind of successful venture, it’s easier to get news coverage about your next venture because people are nosy.
Example 2: Announcing milestones around customer growth
The story above about a health tracking app gaining users is newsworthy because it shows that a local startup is gaining traction. By gaining customers, it’s getting closer to being profitable, or perhaps getting acquired. This could affect the current users or the employees of the company, or employees of competitors’ companies. When you’re a startup, any tangible proof that your company is gaining traction is newsworthy, especially when you hit nice big round numbers like 100,000 or a million.
Example 3: Announcing an innovative product and a major new customer
Non-alcoholic beer wasn’t a completely new concept when this story came out, but it was still relatively new in the area that this story was published in. The other reason why this story was newsworthy is because the local company (Great Central Brewing) just landed a new large customer (Big Drop Brewing Co.). A new contract like that might lead to hiring, or a need to expand their facility, or buy bigger fermentation tanks, or just start buying larger quantities of hops and barley. All of that information can be useful business intelligence for a reader.
Alternatives to traditional media OUtreach
It’s 2021, and guess what: the news media doesn’t have a monopoly on distributing information. There are a lot of powerful alternatives to consider when you want to get the public’s attention and improve your credibility and search engine optimization.
A great way to get links back to your website to improve your SEO is to offer to write an informative, educational blog post to get published on another company’s website. Find companies that offer complementary services to yours, and offer to write a guest post. There are a lot of guides to doing this online, so check those out if this seems like a good option.
Whether you listen to podcasts or not, getting interviewed on a local podcast that reaches a few thousand regular listeners can be a great way to both build relationships with well-connected people (podcast hosts have to meet a lot of people in order to keep a steady stream of content) and get your name out in front of people you wouldn’t otherwise meet. And, similar to the intangible value of writing out your About Us paragraph for the first time, going on a podcast and telling your story is great pitch practice.
Share your news with industry groups/associations you’re a member of
If you’re a member of a business or industry association, don’t forget to share any announcements about your success with them. In many cases, they are looking for success stories about their members to share with the public and/or lawmakers, because it makes them look good or it can help them advocate for your industry. (And if you’re a Doyenne member, we want to tell the world about your business growth! Reach out to us directly or use this form to submit announcements for us to share on social media.)
Little to lose, much to gain
Reaching out to local media outlets about your company announcements doesn’t have to take much time or money, and it can provide major benefits. Even if you don’t get coverage immediately, you can post your press releases on your own website to chronicle your journey and build credibility in the eyes of your website visitors.
The local media is eager to share your news, so get out there and tell them! Don’t miss out on these low-hanging-fruit opportunities to spread the word about your business.