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Building Effective PR for Startups

In the fast-paced and highly competitive world of startups, effective public relations can make a significant difference in building credibility, attracting investors, and gaining traction in the market. Julija Jegorova, the founder of Black Unicorn PR, a boutique agency specializing in PR for European tech startups, understands the unique challenges faced by these innovative companies. With over 13 years of international PR and communications experience, Julija shares her insights and expertise in this interview, shedding light on the journey of founding Black Unicorn PR, the challenges of PR in the startup world, and valuable strategies for startups to navigate the PR landscape.

 

Can you tell us about your journey of founding Black Unicorn PR and the motivation behind creating a PR agency specifically focused on supporting tech startups?

Throughout my professional journey of 13 years living in Amsterdam and London, I’ve been lucky to work with both global brands like TomTom, ASUS as well as emerging startups. This allowed me to identify a significant gap in the market: we saw there were innovative startups with enormous potential, yet the traditional PR agencies were often ill-equipped to cater to their unique needs.

The typical startup is cash-strapped, doesn’t have frequent news or updates, and has a skewed perception of how PR works. They have high hopes for placements in Tier 1 media, but little understanding into what goes to obtain it. Unfortunately, big, traditional PR agencies often attempt to apply a one-size-fits-all approach, offering the same strategies and services they’d use for larger, more established corporations.

And it doesn’t work! This mismatch results in less-than-optimal PR efforts for startups. Startups need a more tailored approach for PR that understands and aligns with the specific challenges and needs faced by startups in their early stages of growth. 

I was Head of PR at a startup where I faced those exact challenges, which is why, in 2018 I started Black Unicorn PR. Later that year my best friend, Mauro Battellini, who had been working in sales and marketing, joined the team as a co-founder to complement our skills. Now – in 2023 – we are a strong team of 15 catering for startups from seed to Series B from across the world, but with a distinct CEE flavour.

 

You mentioned in one of your LinkedIn posts that the perception of PR as an easy and glamorous profession is far from the truth. What do you think are the biggest challenges in PR, particularly in the startup world?

One of the biggest myths in the industry is the belief that PR is easy and that anyone can do it. Well, if anyone could truly do it, why are PR agencies still in business? 

There is a lot to PR that is not visible on the surface. A career in PR is demanding, often stressful. PR activities consume a lot of time and can be extremely daunting. To succeed in PR, you need an extraordinary degree of adaptability, foresight, and precision.

Some of the most significant challenges in PR, especially in the startup world are:

Limited resources available: startups often have limited resources. Not only financially speaking, but also in terms of the time core team members can allocate to it. Many startups don’t need to make experienced PR hires until later stages but might have PR needs that require some type of support.

Misunderstanding the role of PR in the marketing mix: contrary to what many believe, PR doesn’t necessarily translate directly to sales. If you end up in TechCrunch, Sifted, or Tech.eu it doesn’t necessarily mean that client leads will rush in. Your website will likely not crash and your product won’t be sold out. While PR can indirectly influence the sales funnel in the long run, its core purpose is to build and boost a startup’s credibility and trustworthiness.

Getting that desired media attention: in top-tier media, startups tend to compete with established brands for journalists’ attention. Startups’ mere existence or great idea alone is not enough to convince them of coverage. Unlike large corporations that are already making a big impact in society, and that consistently generate news, startups don’t usually have frequent newsworthy stories. And they do not yet make a tangible impact on the life of enough individuals or on the business of enough companies. That is why startups must first understand their newsworthiness, and exploit that by seizing opportunities that are actually available to them, including niche and local media, speaking at events (beginning with smaller, local ones), working on thought-leadership pieces and so much more.

 

As the founder and CEO of Black Unicorn PR, what has been your unique approach to managing the demanding and unpredictable nature of the PR industry?

PR is often considered a dark art but the truth is there is a little bit of science mixed into it! So with the right preparation and planning, there are a lot of things you can predict. However, sometimes even the best preparation won’t matter. The media is susceptible to current events and what is happening in the world more than most other industries. 

There are 3 key elements that help us to navigate through turbulent times. 

First, flexibility. In PR, flexibility and adaptability are crucial. We have a rather agile work environment, which helps us with client needs. We also understand that each of our clients (in different industries) might be facing different challenges, so we try to be as accommodating as possible.

Secondly, preparedness. In PR, it is always important to stay one step ahead. We are researching industry and competitor trends and news, monitoring news cycles, and understanding the landscape of our clients’ industries, so we can anticipate changes and adjust our planning. In the startup world, it is often said that if you don’t ship your product while it’s still imperfect, you are shipping too late. With PR, it’s slightly different. If your plan wasn’t solid, things can backfire – timings, messages, and ultimately result in a negative impact. You can’t update your reputation based on user feedback. 

Finally, resilience. The world of PR is not for the faint-hearted. There will be times when campaigns don’t go as planned, or a news story we’ve worked hard on gets overshadowed by a larger event. Resilience is key in such moments. We learn from these experiences and move forward. You can’t take it to heart, because things outside our control do happen quite often in this industry.

 

Startups often struggle with determining the right time to initiate PR activities. In your experience, when is the ideal time for startups to kick-start their PR efforts, and what factors should they consider?

For many startups, figuring out the ideal moment to kickstart PR efforts can be tricky. And that is understandable, there are so many moving parts when running a business! 

The timing of PR is crucial. Too early, without planning, without enough understanding of PR, and you might find yourself having spent time and resources with no results to show for it. Too late, and you’ll be playing catch-up in a market in which important stakeholders such as investors or future hires don’t recognise you, or worse, are not able to get any validation to trust you.

Unfortunately, PR is often just an afterthought as people fail to understand how much time, strategy, and planning goes into execution. That means that they often miss out on unique windows of opportunities to send signals to their most important stakeholders.

As a rule of thumb, we would advise startups to think about PR during their first VC fundraising round and hire someone internal or external to help. This is typically once the startup has raised a seed round, and at least around €1 million or more. This can be a great way to get your foot in the door and shout about your startup in the relevant startup media. 

However, every case is different. Some startups might have genuine newsworthy stories to share before raising any money, including bootstrapped startups that can grow without outside investment. Conversely, some business models might not require big PR investments until much later in the game.

 

Building relationships with journalists is crucial for successful PR. How can startups identify the right journalists and media outlets, and how can they add value to their audiences? 

When building relationships with journalists you want to be a resource, not a nuisance! There are a lot of things that can help to achieve that. 

Perhaps the most important tip would be to understand who the journalists are before reaching out to them. Familiarise yourself with their work. Tailor your pitch to their specific interests and style. This means demonstrating that you understand what is newsworthy to them. It does not mean that you should give them fake praise for previous articles they’ve written. Journalists can see through that.

Part of the process will include making sure the contact is a relevant one. You may really want to be in certain publications, but if you haven’t actually made an effort to get to know the publication and its journalists, you might not know whether your story is really a fit, or whether you are too early for them. So identify journalists whose audience matches your target (e.g. there are a lot of fintech journalists, focusing on different fintech verticals), and whether they cover startups at your stage. If so, what types of news or articles do they cover pertaining to startups? Which do they not? Is it coincidence or is that on purpose? Does the journalist provide any guidance in their Twitter bio or personal website? The relevance of your news to their audience is key for it to be picked up. Again, too many spray and pray and waste the journalists’ time as well as their own.

Once startups understand the basics a bit more, they can move to building relationships. That means connecting with journalists ideally in real life at events like conferences, but also through social media and engaging with them. Don’t make it creepy! Don’t ask anything of them, but offer them value. Always add value where you can. Provide journalists with access to expert insights (e.g. founders, C-level execs) or other insights that might be relevant to their beat, even if it’s not directly related to you or your client. This can help build your credibility as a reliable source. By building genuine relationships early on, you’ll have a foundation of trust and rapport when it’s time to pitch your story.

When sending your story, ensure newsworthy and relevant. Make the journalist’s job easier by providing all necessary information upfront. For instance, make sure you have your photos ready before making the pitch. Journalists are looking for reasons why your story is relevant and interesting for their readers, they are not providing you with ad space, so remember this is not a promotional exercise first and foremost. No CTAs, focus on the story, not the product and don’t overdo it with the hyperlinks. Journalists will be able to identify an advert in disguise from miles away, so just don’t go there.  

Finally, timing is everything in media and PR, so make sure you give journalists ample time to digest your pitch and the news or information you are sending them. Get in touch well in advance and don’t expect your stories to go out within 24h! You might need to reassess the timelines for your preparation. If you fail to prepare, prepare to fail! And remember that journalists receive countless pitches. It might take time to hear back. Be patient and respectful of their time and privacy.

 

Crisis management is a critical aspect of PR. What advice can you give to startups on effectively navigating high-pressure situations and maintaining a strong public image during challenging times? 

In the vast majority of cases, PR crises are something that will not worry early-stage startups. 

In general, journalists covering earlier-stage startups tend to focus more on startups in terms of positive traction. Given the lower impact and market share or number of consumers or clients, there are also fewer chances to arrive at a crisis. However, at this stage, founders should still look to understand whether they are in a more scrutinised and regulated environment in which a false move could compromise them, and prepare accordingly for the future. However, initially, this is more of a legal preoccupation, and should they conclude they are navigating difficult waters, then they should also prepare from a communications point of view. it’s more important 

However, for most startups crisis comms is more relevant when they reach a certain size and therefore level of scrutiny by society and the media. For example, if you have a substantial number of employees, or if you have millions of consumers, a round of layoffs, or a faulty product could lead to negative press. It’s always better to prepare in advance and put structures in place to deal with potential crises based on a range of scenarios requiring different levels of response.

It should go without saying that being deceitful, lying or engaging in illegal activities cross a line. Every action has a consequence. Cases like Theranos or Wirecard cannot be saved with any crisis comms, and PR should not be a tool to cover up illegal activity.

 

In your view, what are the current challenges and opportunities for women in the tech industry, especially in PR and communications roles?

Women face the same challenges they do in most industries. The tech industry, particularly startups, is known for being skewed. You can also find these trends in PR and comms – gender biases, lack of representation in leadership roles, and – of course – gender pay gap. However, opportunities are also emerging as organisations increasingly recognise the importance of diversity (be it startups, large corporations, or agencies). 

In PR and communications, women’s skills in collaboration, emotional intelligence, and multitasking are increasingly valued. More women are breaking the glass ceiling, there are initiatives encouraging women to pursue careers in tech, and organisations are adopting inclusive hiring practices.

I am a strong believer in the transformative power of mentoring and am always eager to lend my support to fellow female professionals in the PR sector who may need career guidance and advice. Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to receive support from some of the leading figures in the industry.

 

How do you see the state of startup PR evolving in the coming years, and what trends or changes do you anticipate?

With the rise of AI tools, especially Chat GPT and the likes, the barriers of DIY PR for startups are lowering. Startups from all over the world will be able to produce content with no English grammar or spelling mistakes, including press releases. 

However, excessive use of AI tools will also be a danger. Already, many publications are banning the use of ChatGPT by journalists or contributors, including press releases sent by PR professionals. It is becoming increasingly easier for journalists to tell the difference between human writing and AI-generated content. That does not mean we should keep away from leveraging new AI tools altogether. They can be helpful but startups should see it as a tool for their teams, not a replacement for real, human work.

In terms of the media, it is likely that every journalist will continue to face increasing pressures to produce more output (content). New media will emerge and thrive, such as Sifted and tech.eu in Europe, but also on the more traditional side of the media we are likely to see layoffs and new business models. I estimate that the demand for authentic and original content from startups will be on the rise. Whether it’s in the form of ideas, insights, news, or contributed content, I think there will be good opportunities for PR professionals to alleviate the burden and provide value. This will benefit those that play their cards right. 

As the market becomes more crowded, with the VC and startup industry growing, startups will need to differentiate themselves not just through their products or services, but also by positioning themselves as thought leaders in their respective fields.

 

Meet JJ at How to Web ?

Julija Jegorova’s experience and expertise in the field of PR for tech startups make her a valuable resource for entrepreneurs, founders, and PR professionals alike. Don’t miss the opportunity to meet Julija in person at How to Web Conference 2023, where you’ll see her both on stage and as a mentor for Spotlight 2023.

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