Is Your Startup Ready For A PR Blitz? The 7-Step Checklist

You want a big PR splash, but if you do it wrong, you'll just get mud on your face. Here's how to make sure your big debut isn't a bust.

Timing a launch is one of the single most critical business decisions to be made, but many entrepreneurs get it wrong. The term "launch" holds different meanings to each entrepreneur. Some immediately think of a media blitz as the pillar of a launch, but I've seen many startups launch publicly much too early because they want their idea covered in every major news and trade outlet right away.

That comes secondary to developing a sustainable product or business model. It may seem counterintuitive, but it's best to avoid media blitz until you have fully fleshed out your idea.

Here are seven signs you're actually ready to launch publicly:

You have a working product.

You must be your startup's biggest cheerleader, but don't fall into the excitement trap and forget the actual audience--and how your product makes life easier for them. Your focus shouldn't be on building a "cool tool," but rather a product that someone needs because it fills a void or solves a problem for them.

It's always risky to launch a product that is still in idea phase. The chances of gaining traction are not very high--and traction is especially important to investors. A good PR firm can initially work with an idea phase product to make it sound interesting and build an early user base, but they can't give you all of the users or feedback that's necessary for fine-tuning your product. Beta test instead. This provides valuable information on how to improve your product and gives you an idea of the public's reaction, both of which are crucial factors that contribute to a successful launch.

You understand the competitive landscape.

Surprisingly enough, some startups don't do their homework. I've seen firsthand three almost-identical companies launch within one month of each other, and it didn't end up well. It's imperative you know what else is out there so you can understand how you measure up to the competition.

You've found your startup's "edge."

What makes you different? How do you ensure that you're always one step ahead of what competitors are doing? And make sure not to miss the key opportunities that help you stand out from the crowd.

You're ready to devote internal resources.

Hiring a PR firm to aid in your launch isn't about handing over the reins. It's only natural that a busy startup CEO doesn't necessarily have the time or energy to worry about the tactical details of your public relations plan, so it's important to delegate marketing/PR initiatives to a designated contact who will act as the bridge between your startup and the PR firm.
This person should drive your overall market strategy and have an understanding of where the brand will stand in the future. He or she will help develop the story that you'll tell to the public over time, which leads into the next key sign that you're ready to launch publicly.

You know what story to tell.

If you don't have a story, develop one. Journalists easily recognize weaknesses in the way you position your product and if they're doing their due diligence they will let everyone know what those weaknesses are. You must understand why your product is better than anyone else's and be ready to communicate that effectively.

Part of this process is poking holes to figure out who your users are and why your product is valuable to them. Cut out the fluff, especially in your elevator pitch. Howard Tullman said it best in his Built in Chicago blog: "What you can't basically say in ten minutes about your business or your idea really isn't worth saying."

PR comes into play once you've developed a compelling message that is easily understandable and resonates with consumers. At the end of the day, people want to know the "so what?" You'd be surprised how many times I've seen a startup CEO so close to their product or service they even they couldn't answer that basic question. Think of the most successful startups: I bet they were simple, solved a problem, catered to a key audience, and had long-term benefits.

You follow a roadmap.

Launching publicly isn't just about the now but the vision for where you're headed. You must create a roadmap not only for your initial product launch, but also a more advanced map for your long-term goals. You may not end up following the roadmap in its entirety, but having a visible plan of attack is the best way to keep yourself on track.

You're over vanity metrics.

A shiny logo of a top-tier media outlet on your website is pretty, but that's not a solid metric for your launch. Consider the "why" and the overarching strategy that fits into your larger marketing mix. This is your chance to:

  • Tell a story
  • Shape your positioning
  • Build a foundation of awareness that will accumulate over time
  • Establish your credibility
  • Differentiate yourself
Focusing on vanity metrics--such as the sheer number of media placements you received this month--will only set you up for disappointment because it's not a strategic way of thinking about what delivers the best ROI.

Many startup CEOs will ask, "Why didn't Fast Company cover me again when they did just last month?" It's often more effective to respond back with the question, "What have you done that warrants their coverage again?" Media mentions aren't the only ROI for your business. We've done SEO analysis and found that some of the "small" placements actually provide the best search value. Once you understand this, you're one step closer to a successful public launch.

You're ready to let go of control.

Your startup is your baby, and maybe you're even a little bit of a control freak because of that. That's okay, but once you launch to the public, you open yourself up for scrutiny. Ideally, you've established strong messaging and a solid product to avoid or fight the criticism, but psychologically, you need to put trust in the people around you that are handling your PR and marketing efforts.

Once your product is out there, it's out there. Then, the rollercoaster ride begins. This is why it's crucial to really be prepared, but also know when to pull the trigger. Don't let the fear of letting go of control stop you from stepping back once all of the puzzle pieces to your startup are in place.

It's important to keep in mind the "snowball effect of public relations." PR done right should build up over time and align with the growth of the startup. A big splash at first is great, but it's not the be-all end-all. Think about an overall strategy that makes sense and will provide the best ROI.

The best advice is to take a step back and evaluate the situation as objectively as you can. It's better to launch the right way than have to backtrack.

Mike is president of Walker Sands Communications, a public relations and marketing agency specializing in technology and startup clients. Follow Mike on Twitter.

For more from Mike, read 4 Key Opportunities Your Startup Shouldn't Miss.

[Image: Flickr user Presidio of Monterey]

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4 Comments

  • MarketShare Game

    Timing a product launch is crucial indeed. You don't want to start too early, but you can launch before you have working product provided that you're not too far away from releasing it and know your time frames. It's about managing the risk. In creating a buzz so to say before the product is ready you could hit the ground running. Excellent reading. Thanks.

  • Amber King

    Why launch a PR without a working product? That suicide. Before releasing a PR make sure that your product is working perfectly. It is okay to have minor glitches, it can be overlooked but you should make sure that your goods are working well, otherwise you are just releasing a negative PR.

  • Alexandra Sheach

    I got butterflies just reading that! I'm in the process of putting together a start-up and we really want to launch in a blaze of glory. We've got some influential people backing us so when the time is right and we say "go" we need to make sure our product is ready. A PR plan and an outstanding product are 2 things we need to get in order.

    It's so tempting to start already though - to shout from the rooftops "hey listen to my clever new idea!". 

  • Lynda Radosevich

    Hi Alexandra - this article makes an important point but is misses some nuance. It's important to understand the difference between industry public relations and customer public relations. In some cases, it makes sense to start talking to industry reporters/bloggers/analysts before a product is ready for the customer. If there is amazing science behind it or an intriguing vision, for instance, you may want to discuss these elements even though the product is still in development. Trade coverage by respected people can help you build awareness and credibility needed to secure funding, hire key people and develop partnerships. So staying mum until "launch" isn't always the best strategy (although in general, I support it.)