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Why early-stage business PR requires a different way of thinking

In the battle for public attention, there are few more challenging tasks than introducing a new business to the world – and none more gratifying when you get it right.

This is a crucial stage, where organisations can gain a lot of ground by getting known and understood. But it is also when resources for PR are scarcest, and prospects least receptive.

The media favours the big

The odds for earned attention are stacked in favour of big, established businesses. Part of the reason why is down to how people are wired. The human brain values protecting against loss more highly than seeking out gain. We crave familiarity and ascribe greater importance to things that feel closer to us.

Our instinct is therefore to focus on the companies that we are already invested in financially or emotionally, products and services we use every day. That’s why, when it comes to the world of technology – the likes of Amazon, Apple and Google dominate attention.

This attention bias is reflected in search activity and in the world of earned media, which focuses mostly on the activities of large organisations. Even TechCrunch, an outlet that does more than most to highlight early-stage companies, dedicates more than half of its coverage to major players.

Journalists are experts in understanding what will attract and keep the attention of an audience. A firm’s prominence is a major part of that equation.

How to stand out if you are smaller

New, unknown businesses and ideas require effort to understand. At worst, they represent danger, change and a threat to the status quo. Overcoming these challenges is not impossible, but it does require a different way of thinking and campaigning.

Another challenge here is that very few startups employ specialist PR people in-house. At the very earliest stages, the ‘PR’ hat will be one of many worn by one of the founders – most often the CEO. This makes sense, as for the earliest stage technology companies, much of the value in the company – including credibility for news and thought-leadership – comes from the experience or expertise of the leader.

Find the right specialist help

As an early-stage company evolves, it will often recruit a specialist to look after all aspects of marketing, including PR. This is a crucial hire and a role that evolves quickly. At first, perhaps around the Series A funding stage, companies need someone able to understand and bring together various aspects of the marketing mix in harmony.

At this stage, the marketing person will often be ‘doing’ the work themselves too. However, the best hires at this level will be people who are also able to grow into more of a leadership role as the company expands.

They also need to recognise how specialists can help, and be prepared to bring in the right resource at the right time. PR professionals really earn their corn at this stage: starting to build reputations and communities, advising on the most effective routes to reach an audience, and finding creative ways to cut through the noise and overcome the attention bias.

In-house and agency PR expertise

As the company grows, or achieves further funding to scale up, it’ll need to be able to expand its horizons and marketing activities quickly. Some companies may look to recruit an in-house PR professional at this point.

Others will go down the route of specialist agency support to gain a range of skills and experience. More often than not, they will need their PR partner to offer a mixture of strategic consulting and day-to-day ‘doing’, an agency that can help refine their message and get it to the right people and the right level of media. They will be able to create and execute campaigns that work across earned, owned and social media.

The extreme time pressures that people working in early-stage businesses are under mean the agency needs to be comfortable working at pace, and also with several different members of the client team. An agile, responsive way of working is essential.

With that support, even a small company can start to generate a big share of voice. And that means more credibility and more prospects – which are exactly what turn a new business into an established one.

Written by James Taylor, founder and managing director of agency Roaring Mouse Public Relations

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