Founders' Corner

Let’s Tell a Story: What Should I Know About Working With PR and Comms?

by Tony Wan, Head of Investor Content at Reach Capital

Every startup starts with a story. And how those stories are shaped and shared are essential to attracting customers, partners, investors and talent as businesses grow.

But stories are only effective if they reach an audience. And breaking through the noise in a media landscape swirling with content can be tough, especially when you’re a small startup. When do you bring in outside help to tell your stories? How do you know if it’s worth it?

Last month, we welcomed Nairi Hourdajian (VP of Communications at Figma) and Sheila Tran (VP of Communications at Opendoor) to share lessons learned from their experiences leading communications at many companies throughout their careers, from AOL to Uber and Yahoo! This session was part of our Reach Capital AMA, a weekly workshop for portfolio founders to get tips and insights for scaling their businesses.

Below are selected highlights from the conversation, condensed and edited for clarity.

Before asking “what’s the story?” ask: What’s the goal? Who is the audience?

Tran: When people reach out asking for communications support, my guidance is to have them hone down and think about who they really want to target. I’ve heard from companies who say they want PR but haven’t nailed down what their goals or go-to-market strategies are. I’ll ask, “Who’s your audience?” to which they’ll say, “Everyone!”

Often I find myself working backwards with founders and CEOs in terms of thinking through: What are your goals? Who are you trying to reach? How is a story going to help accomplish those goals? The tactics and strategies will be different depending on the answers.

For early-stage companies, recruiting is a priority. Highlighting mission and momentum can help.

Hourdajian: For many early-stage companies where recruiting is a priority, telling a story is important. What tends to be effective is a combination of two things: 1) highlight the mission, because the stories can shape the kinds of candidates you attract; and 2) show momentum, since that traction can make people feel energized, like ‘this is something I want to get behind quickly.’

This is not simple at the early stage, especially if you’re hoping for big mainstream press coverage. But you can find ways to show up in other places like trade publications that your target audience and candidates may be reading.

Tran: It’s important to note that traditional PR and media outlets are not the only places where you can share stories for recruiting goals. People are also getting their message out on their own social channels like LinkedIn, where you can get employees to share their personal stories. Creating that flywheel of content that gets shared with their networks can also be effective for hiring.

Freelancers and individual PR specialists can be helpful early on.

Hourdajian: Not every company is ready for a full-time comms hire early on. But as soon as you feel like earned media is going to be core to achieving your business goals, then I would bring someone in-house. There are also broader ways to define the role, such as creating content or thought leadership pieces that you share via your own channels and which don’t involve working with media.

One of the things that I’ve seen from some freelancers that I like is to align incentives so that there are some upfront costs to the relationship retainer agreement, and some of the costs due upon delivery of press. Freelancers are a great option to work as individuals who are PR experts and can kind of parachute into your company. They are more nimble and flexible. If you’re a bigger organization and you need the full suite of support, then you can go the agency route.

Hiring an agency is worth it — but only if you also invest time.

Hourdajian: Unless you have someone internally who is dedicating mind share to the strategy behind your communications approach, it’s pretty hard to make an agency relationship work effectively. Think about an agency as an extension of your team, but not a strategic replacement. If you’re looking for a strategic replacement, I think those engagements are really hard to make work well, and they’re going to be very expensive.

Tran: Even if you have all the goals and deliverables outlined, agencies and PR consultants are only as successful as the amount of time that you take to integrate them with your teams and ensure they understand your story and your business. Often I hear from founders who spend thousands of dollars to hire an agency for two months and felt they didn’t get anything from the investment. I would ask: “How much time did you spend with them?” and some would respond “We’re paying them so they should do the work.”

A lot of founders think that just because they hire someone, magic will happen automatically. But agencies and consultants are only as good as the amount of time you spend working with them to understand your story and what you’re trying to do.

How should I think about my KPIs around PR and marketing?

Hourdajian: If PR and media placement are important, it is important to set an expectation that it is a ramp-building process that takes time. You can’t expect anyone to reach out to a reporter and have them cover you overnight. There is a relationship-building process, there is a story-honing process, and that takes dedicated time and engagement from the executive team.

If you were pursuing an acquisition by a large company, would you reach out to them only when you’re ready? No — you need to build that relationship ahead of time. PR engagements usually don’t deliver outcomes immediately; rather, they are about relationship building. You can create great KPIs around this, like setting out to do five media briefings this quarter, outlining their objectives and explaining why you’re targeting certain outlets.

I like to use a combination of quantitative and qualitative metrics to describe impact. I don’t believe in numbers for numbers’ sake. Traffic and views are great, but you also want to see engagement with your content from the people you care about. You want to hear feedback from recruits, customers, partners or investors, saying “Hey I saw this piece, and it really resonated.” This type of qualitative feedback is just as important.

Tony’s take: Approach media — as with anyone else you build relationships with in the course of growing a business — with a long-game mentality. Don’t only reach out when you have a story to pitch. Good reporters do extensive research for their stories, and if you have something to teach and share regardless of whether you have a story to tell, that can go a long way to building trust.

How do I engage with reporters?

Tran: Reporters get hundreds of email pitches a day. You need to do your homework to really target the reporters and publications that you care about, and which cares about the work you’re doing.

Figure out how you can be useful. Don’t just introduce yourself and your company, but see what trends are happening out there. Do you have any data to support any of the trends out there that can help them? Do you have any thoughts around a piece that they just did, that you have unique insights into? As you build the relationship, you want to see where you can add value so that your reaching out feels more helpful and less transactional.

Tony’s take: Depending on your target outlet, consider letting your users be the star of the story. Many education-specific media outlets (versus tech and business ones) tend to prioritize stories that center on your users (students, teachers, parents) and how you’ve impacted their lives, and less about yourselves.

For insights into the priorities and challenges for education journalists, how they approach their work, and ideas for how to best engage with them, check out the Education Writers Association’s “State of the Education Beat 2021” report.

Are there other ways aside from traditional media and PR where companies have been effective in getting the word out?

Hourdajian: Working in the design software space (at Figma), there’s a very active design community on Twitter and Clubhouse. For us, what I’ve seen is that it’s really hard for brands to break through just from their own handles on social media channels. It’s much more about driving community evangelism and finding the right way to unlock your power users — teachers, students, thought leaders — and giving them the tools and motivation. Make them feel part of the journey so that they feel like they want to be out there talking about you.

It can happen organically. We haven’t done a lot on Clubhouse beyond having our CEO go on some shows. But there’s a #FigmaandChill room and other gatherings where thousands of people gather to talk about what they’re doing in Figma. On these channels the engagement is driven primarily by your user community, then followed by your executives who can be authentic thought leaders on these platforms.

Tony’s take: There are plenty of teacher communities that regularly gather on Twitter (here’s a list of weekly Twitter chats.) Some companies that have been successful in engaging in these communities — ClassDojo and Nearpod are just two of many examples — regularly host online gatherings to celebrate their users. (More details on Nearpod’s successful efforts here.) Many Facebook educator groups are also active. Reporters do take to social media and will notice if there’s a loyal following.