How your startup can get great results from PR

This article focuses on how I thought about PR and why the companies I worked for consistently achieved far better results than bigger better funded competitors.

I never thought about PR is simply increasing awareness. I thought about PR as a strategy to:

    • Further the customer journey by increasing conversions.
    • Contribute to lead generation.
    • Generate effective SEO.
    • Increase awareness, primarily measured by share of voice.

In my experience, most companies struggle with generating news because they focus mainly on traditional PR. Things like, product announcements, big customer wins, new execs, funding…boring…

However, effective PR for startups doesn’t happen by chance. It’s no accident that the hottest startups right now are all over the media. That’s the power of PR machinery at work. Behind every great startup story, you see in the media is a sound/creative PR strategy. With the right approach, you can turn your business into press-worthy news. Here are a few ideas for how you achieve similar results.

Publish 2-3 major research reports a year based on proprietary research.

Let’s look at a couple of real examples so you can think about how this might apply to your unique situation.

Example 1: The Security Awareness Index: Free online assessment, keynote speaking backed by regional events with groundbreaking annual report

I worked for PentaSafe, a leading enterprise security policy and management software developer. PentaSafe enabled companies to safely grow their businesses by providing security infrastructure solutions for people, policy and technology. What made PentaSafe unique was that we had a niche product that helped educate people in an organization to comply with their information security policies and this product could be integrated with other products in our portfolio so that each policy was enforced across an organization’s IT infrastructure. I quickly realized that key to our success would be producing a way that IT security professionals could factually make a business case for how vulnerable the business was.

This led us to develop the Security Awareness Index (SAI) Report based on results from a free online survey that helps organizations measure their security awareness. After some initial promotion, we analyzed responses from 583 companies and 1,350 individual employees worldwide, the SAI Report indicated that 23 percent of security officers consider their organization´s security awareness as “dangerously inadequate” while an additional 44 percent consider their security awareness inadequate. Nearly 6 out of 10 employees who have taken the survey score, on average, only a “D” or unsatisfactory grade when it comes to appropriate security awareness and behavior. The survey results reveal a serious failure on the part of most companies to adequately educate and train their employees in proper security awareness and workplace habits. It suggested that management had to dramatically improve its efforts to educate employees on the best ways to protect their companies against cyber terrorism and other threats, or risk very costly consequences.

This report was groundbreaking, and we got a lot of buzz. The online assessment generated a huge number of qualified sales leads as well. Did you notice the one thing I haven’t mentioned so far? We never mentioned our products in any of this. That would have been too self-serving. Because we weren’t hawking our products, we were able to get our annual report co-sponsored by Computerworld magazine in North America, and Computing magazine in Europe. This led to even more awareness. The survey was available free of charge online and participants were assured results are kept strictly confidential according to the site´s privacy policy. At the end of the survey, we always asked if respondents wanted to hear from sponsors who offer solutions to the security policy awareness challenges they have. This opt-in meant we could pass the leads to sales –Most everyone opted in.

In fact, the aggregate results from all respondents to the survey have been compiled and analyzed in a 70-page Security Awareness Index Report that we made available for purchase online for $195.00. But of course, we gave it for free to prospective customers. The security awareness Index was so successful, that we were able to create an independent Human Firewall Council that had notable members from business, government, and universities. This council gave several keynote speeches at the biggest tradeshows. And a small team at PentaSafe took the results of the survey and spoke at numerous regional events around the globe. The Security Awareness Index helped PentaSafe grow from a small company into a leader fast. Buyers soon knew who we were and valued the unique insights and solutions we offered. PentaSafe went on to experience incredible growth leading to another highly successful exit.

Example 2: Privileged Password Vulnerability Benchmark: Free online assessment and groundbreaking annual report

I worked for a company called Thycotic (which grew super-fast and exited for $1.4B) where we sold privileged password security. For background, privileged passwords exist on nearly every device in an organizations infrastructure (operating systems, data bases, applications, networks, act) and they need to be secured. The problem was that our target buyers often didn’t know how vulnerable they were and if their company was at risk. And, if they didn’t believe they were at risk, the odds of them buying a product from us – or one of our competitors was low.

We decided to create a free online comparative assessment tool called the Privileged Password Vulnerability Benchmark that demonstrates how companies compare to other, similarly sized organizations, in meeting privileged password management best practices and security guidelines. The Privileged Password Vulnerability Benchmark also provided organizations with a blueprint illustrating where and how they can improve IT privileged password management. Developed with input from the PAM industry’s leading experts, the free Privileged Password Vulnerability Benchmark gives organizations an unprecedented opportunity to see how their privileged password practices compare to those of their peers.

This online assessment was available on our web site. Visitors would answer a few questions – which typically took 10-minutes. They would input information just like any sales lead. We got a ton of net new leads because we offered those visitors enormous value by providing:

Immediate feedback: Participants receive an immediate grade (A thru F) based on how well their privileged password security practices match up against PAM best practices.

Current assessment: Participants quickly understand how and where to focus their time, money, and resources in order to improve privileged account defenses.

Because we captured all the information from those that took the assessment, we used the collective information and published a State of Privileged Password Management Annual Report The report highlights the survey findings and gives recommendations to improve PAM and protection. Selected findings from the annual report fed our PR program with a constant stream of relevant news which increased visibility and that helped us generate more leads.

Publish research reports based on studies at major trade shows.

This is just like the reports previously covered – just smaller in nature. An example would be what RSA or Black Hat attendees thought about a particular topic. To make your research newsworthy, you must produce studies that consider 3 things:

    • Timeliness: News is “new” information. Think about ways you can contribute to cutting-edge discussions.
    • Relevance: Keep a pulse on the most recent articles by journalists in your industry. Do a quick analysis of popular posts and see how you can tie them to your own story.
    • Novelty: Consider how your angle or argument is unique.

In quarterly planning, ask key execs what they believe is potentially press release worthy…

For example, there often is an angle with partners that might not only be newsworthy, but it can also help you recruit/retain others. Partner success, partner program milestones, partner awards…that kind of thing…

Ask your PR firm to come up with one big idea every quarter….

Occasionally, they would have a good idea and we’d act on it.

Publish one press release per quarter that was as if you were a public company

It would get picked up, employees/partners loved it, and competitors were always wondering what the heck is going on over there. I’d get these to every analyst in our industry the day before and reinforced that they were getting this info before it went live as a courtesy. They always would send me back emails thanking me.

Meet with the best and brightest in your company and regularly brainstorm ideas.

    • Create a mind map of ideas for the most newsworthy elements of your product or how you’re impacting the industry. Get input from every single member of your team—this is not a “marketing only” exercise. Each department should have valuable insight into how to address your customers’ needs.
    • Establish emerging themes: Consider emerging themes from your brainstorming session and articulate how and why they engage your target audience. Again, apply a journalistic lens: What makes a journalist want to bite?
    • Map themes onto your calendar: Map out your themes onto a 12-month calendar. Consider one campaign every four to six weeks.
    • Develop relevant campaigns: Consider how content and social outreach can aid your PR outreach. Ask yourself what content suits each campaign. Then create content accordingly. Aim for the content likely to have the greatest impact and remember that less is more. Consider partnering with brands boasting larger networks to create joint content and keep it consistent with your overarching PR themes.

I’ve found that these programs work best when they are combined with two other forms of PR.

    1. Rapid response PR: As you can tell by the programs described above, I rarely outsourced idea generation to my PR firm. I always viewed it was my job to produce the best ideas. What I primarily required from my PR firm was that they were on top of every relevant publication, blog, and event and conference speaking sessions. If they stayed on top of what these people were writing about and alerted our organization with the opportunity to offer commentary in relevant articles or speak about areas in which we could offer value, then we would constantly be in the news and be visible to prospective buyers. You literally couldn’t miss us. The key to success is that you have a person on staff who is a domain expert. They don’t have to be a known expert. But they do have to have excellent writing and speaking skills and most importantly, be willing to express an opinion. They must be capable of speaking in soundbites. No one wants to read or hear “War and Peace”. And they must be willing to respond fast. If your PR agency tells you about an opportunity, you must respond fast because the writers typically have short deadlines, “first to respond – first to get in” often applies. One last tip. Give your domain expert a big title. No matter how interesting the expert is, titles matter. At Thycotic, we gave our expert, Joe Carson the title of Chief Security Scientist. This title was “C-level” – even though he wasn’t on the management team. And we coined the term “security scientist” because it sounded sexy – even though most people didn’t know what a security scientist does.
    2. Overwhelming validation builds credibility: I had a rule of thumb. If there was a relevant award, we could win to validate our company, people, support, services, or products, I wanted to go for it. I held my PR firm accountable for being on top of finding every one of them. Some people think that only a few of the big award’s matter. Not me. I wanted a to win a constant stream of them. Customer wins and success stories and validation with analysts too. Additionally, if we were achieving success in important parts of the company, I quickly evaluated the potential for publicizing that too. For example, growth and success in our partner channel program, growth of our cloud products or success in a vertical industry. The idea was – I wanted to communicate good news and success momentum and associate them with our brand.

Taken together, all the reports, speaking engagements, press releases, blogs, and articles we landed helped us create the perception that something special was going at our company. Employees took notice and were proud to be working at a winner. Partners wanted to sign on with us. Potential customers knew who we were and felt safe by selecting our products – even though we weren’t the biggest player in our market. And competitors feared us and spent wasted time wondering why their company didn’t have the success momentum we did. Overwhelming validation does build credibility – go for it!