Creating brand awareness is getting increasingly difficult — marketing budgets continue to get slashed, and have plummeted to 6.4% of overall company revenue. More importantly, 2021 has had a brutal effect on trust in the big PPC giants such as Facebook and Google.
Brands are looking for cost-effective ways to reach their audience without financing powerful, shady tech giants. It makes sense then that we should redirect our budgets to advertising’s more cost-effective cousin, PR. Free media exposure is THE most cost-effective way to reach your audience.
If done right. So how do you create a solid PR strategy?
We sat down with two PR pros with years of experience in helping startups and young companies hit the ground running in 2022. Sabine de Witte is a PR & Communications specialist working with fast-growing startups like Dusk Network, BOTS, and Zoku. Bianca Zwart is the founder of Black & White Communications, a PR agency working with European fintech players such as bunq, BUX, and Tellow. Here’s their go-to plan when it comes to building a solid PR strategy:
- Establish your motives
- Begin with research
- Determine your target audience and messaging
- Set goals
- Choose tactics
- Determine your channels
- Define your measurements
Bianca Zwart, former head of PR at European challenger bank bunq, has made it her mission to provide entrepreneurs with the tools and knowledge to get a seat at the table of their industry’s most important conversations.
1. Establish your motives
PR is often misunderstood. Yes, PR pros can do a lot but they are certainly not magicians. “It’s PR, not the E.R.”, they say. Bianca and Sabine both stress that it’s important to manage expectations– PR is a long game.
So before you start building your strategy, it’s crucial to understand what PR is. Essentially, PR is about engaging with and building relationships with key stakeholders in order to influence the public perception of an organization. There are many functions that fall under public relations such as crisis communications, internal communications, investor relations, events, content creation, etc. Once you and your team have a grasp of what PR can do, it’s important to settle why you want to invest in PR. One trick Sabine has learned in her experience is to sit with the owners of the company to ask them a set of questions to understand what they want to get out of these PR actions. “In this conversation, people begin to understand that PR is more than just landing coverage.
That leads to another common misconception in PR: most companies will invest in it just to see their faces on the front page of a newspaper. Sure, you’ve got a hell of a good story. But sometimes that’s not enough to get featured in the Guardian, Wired or the New York Times. Bianca shares that many startups do PR for the wrong reasons.
“People come up to me and say, “I want to get featured in TechCrunch. Can you make that happen?”. And my answer will always be “sure!”. But I always ask for their reasons why. Is that feature going to boost your ego or your business? People tend to choose their PR goals for vanity reasons. It’s important to realize that these major outlet articles often don't add much to your business. Your dream publication might not necessarily be the right publication to reach your business goals, simply because it’s not where your audience hangs out.”
2. Begin with research
After establishing clear expectations of what your PR strategy can achieve, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and start building. To begin, you need to map out your environment. That means analyzing what your industry looks like, learning what your competitors are doing, and finding ways to stand out. Research does require some effort and resources – but it’s incredibly important. Without it, you’ll end up with campaigns that won’t resonate with anyone.
For starters, Sabine usually initiates this process by conducting a good old S.W.O.T. analysis. Although it’s simple, the findings from this analysis give you a clearer picture of your industry and its players. In this assessment, one of the most crucial points, according to Sabine, is identifying who your competitors are and their voice. By determining what their narrative is, what channels they use, and who they target, you can clearly identify if they will be collaborators or direct competition. To monitor the conversations happening in your industry, sentiment analysis tools are recommended. Sabine recommends Buzzsumo, as it provides a holistic view of what audiences are talking about and how they feel about it.
Bianca points out that many startups enter the scene thinking they will start the conversation around their product. Most of the time, that conversation is already happening. By reading and monitoring what journalists are writing about and how they portray your competitors, you’ll find that conversation. “Every organization, no matter how innovative, has a competitor. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be a market for your product”, says Bianca. “So before you build your PR strategy, you first have to understand what your audience is talking about.”
Before you get started on your PR strategy, it makes sense to take a step back and give your communications strategy some thought. By laying the groundwork for your message and tone, you’ll reduce the chances of getting ignored. Need help getting started on your communications strategy? Here’s our step-by-step canvas to help you map out your own.
Sabine de Witte defines herself as an "eclectic PR- and online communication expert - forever on a mission to interlink humans and companies to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts." - Photo Credit: Liselore Stap
3. Determine your target audience and messaging
Understanding your surroundings helps you find a message that will resonate with your audience. Getting a grasp on basic demographics (gender, age, education level, geographic location, etc.) is one thing. To fully know who you’ll be speaking to, you need to understand your audience on a deeper level. You need to get a sense of what moves them, what troubles them, what excites them, in order to craft messages that will resonate.
When it comes to establishing your key messages, Bianca advises steering away from talking about your product or features. Instead, you should focus on your target audience's reality. "If you are a bookkeeping software company, for example, you don’t want to promote the fancy features that will help people with their finances. You want to talk about the confusion they go through when trying to figure out how to do their taxes. By creating news around that problem (and the scale of it!), you get the conversation going. You obviously offer a solution to that problem, but that’s not the point. The point of PR is to initiate a conversation that will create a need for your products.”
Sabine agrees. In her experience, many startups tend to talk about things they think are important, but they are not necessarily going to make the cut with the media. "I once gave a pitch training course at The Family in France, and one of the toughest things for these startups to 'unlearn' was that using the fact that they are from/in France is not necessarily newsworthy. You have to be creative with your angles in order to catch a journalist's attention."
4. Set goals
Goals can either set you up for success or be the determining factor in your pitfall. That’s why being realistic and specific is crucial. We’ve all heard of how to set S.M.A.R.T. goals, but what else should PR pros keep in mind when setting a game plan for your actions? Sabine says you shouldn’t underestimate the power of being featured in smaller or even niche publications. Although the audience may be smaller and more specific, the impact it can have is more profound. "Niche media is an overlooked option and important part of your continuous PR presence, next to the high level titles", says Sabine.
When it comes to setting goals, Bianca is a firm believer in the phrase: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars”. Sometimes reaching for the impossible gives you better results (and a greater motivation) than establishing more achievable, realistic goals.
Here are three examples of goals you can set for your company:
- Increase the awareness of your brand amongst your target audience
- Position yourself as an expert in your field
- Move the conversation forward on a problem you offer a solution to
- Increase your share of voice in the media amongst your competitors
It’s up to you how you formulate these goals to work for your company. We recently wrote an article on how to set up good, measurable goals. Below are some examples of objectives for PR teams:
5. Choose tactics
As the lines between PR and marketing begin to blur, there are a plethora of tactics you can take advantage of to spread your message. Fortunately enough, there are no guidelines when it comes to choosing the right tactics for your strategy. Creativity is well-advised. Sabine suggests that regardless of which methods you use, you should focus on building strong, human relationships with the stakeholders that matter most. And then engagement will follow.
Here are a couple of PR tactics to help you get started:
- Press Releases: The very core of public relations lies in the relationships you build with the media. A strong press release is your way of sharing important, newsworthy information from your company that can add value to a journalist’s story.
- Influencers: PR is essentially about good storytelling. People pay attention when they can either relate to the person telling that story or aspire to be them. That’s where the magic of influencers comes in. Influencers become your spokespeople to help you amplify messages, reach larger audiences, and increase your credibility.
- Newsjacking: Reactive PR or newsjacking refers to the way a brand can capitalize on the popularity of a news story in order to be featured in media outlets, and eventually, increase brand awareness or sales.
There’s a lot more to PR than just a press release. Here are more tactics that will help you build a robust PR strategy.
So how do you know which tactics to pick? Bianca says there is only one way to find out: try them all out. There is no way of knowing what will work unless you give it a shot. “Research, build, execute, measure success, and learn from it. If something isn’t quite working, stop doing it and try something else.”
6. Determine your channels
Once your messaging and tactics are set, your PR strategy begins to take shape. The next step is deciding which channels are most appropriate to amplify your message and reach your audience. A few examples are:
- Featured articles
- TV appearances
- Social media posts
- and so much more.
According to Bianca, what’s most important is making a clear connection between your channels and the goals you want to achieve.
“What I see happening with many PR agencies is that they start ramping up news to get a company more publications without really analyzing how that will impact their business goals. Sure, it’s nice to land some more coverage, but will this help me reach my objectives? Again, through trial and error you should determine which channels will have the most impact and bring you one step closer to your business goal.”
- Bianca Zwart
7. Define your measurement plan
The success of any PR strategy lies in whether or not you can learn from it. As you may know by now, measurement in PR is a vague subject. Every other PR pro will let you in on their secret to measuring success, and each strategy will vary vastly. We distinguish two basic measurements in PR: hard and soft measurements. Hard measurements include data you can easily measure such as clippings or impressions. Sabine shares that her favorite tools to measure media mentions or coverage are CoverageBook and Buzzsumo.
On the other hand, we have soft measurements which can be more subjective and vague. One example, according to Bianca, is measuring the share of voice. “Ultimately, you want to dominate the conversation being held in your industry, compared to your competitors. By doing so, people will keep talking about you and come to you for expertise, instead of having to beg them to do it”, says Bianca.
Sabine agrees: “The goal of media relations is to get the media to approach you, instead of working the other way around. Essentially, you want your brand or your CEO to become a thought leader so that journalists come to you for news.”
While this all sounds great, you’re probably wondering what kinds of measurements you should establish. Both PR pros will agree on one thing: don’t overcomplicate it. You don’t need to measure 85 factors or create endless reports to showcase how your actions are paying off. Stick to two or three measurements and track the value your actions are bringing. If, after a couple of months, your strategy is not adding value to your business goals, throw it out. Don’t be afraid to throw something away if it doesn’t work. Sabine adds, “I would advise to stick to one monitoring service, a couple of key factors, and keep those numbers up to date.”