A PR framework for startups

Doing PR for startups is a special challenge — and a challenge very close to my heart.

Their enthusiasm and naiveté are both mesmerising and contagious and there’s something very special about spending time with people who are taking huge risks to fulfil their dreams.

But working with startups is also risky business for the advisor, which makes it difficult for me to take on more than one or two at the time. Most startups go under and many struggles financially. Many startups are also inexperienced when it comes to working with advisors and agencies.

In short, there’s no way for me to help as many startups as I would like to. And that’s why I decided to write this post, to help startups to get their PR strategy sorted out — despite being bootstrapped and fighting the odds.

Here we go:

The PR Framework

The key to this strategy is to focus on one objective at the time. This one-focus-at-the-time business philosophy borrows a lot of its logic from the growth hacking community. In my experience having helped various types of startups from obscurity to established brands, I recommend startups to go through four basic stages, Preparation Work, Milestone Work, Baseline Work and Campaign Work.

All four stages are all about work because putting in the work is key for any type of PR success. Each stage consists of tactical implementations suitable for all types of startups in need of digital success.

Stage 1: Preparation Work

It’s said that one hour of preparation saves three hours of execution. This is extremely true when it comes to PR work. So before you can expect any great results, make sure to prepare your startup for what’s to come. In Stage 1 we will concentrate on the Surround Effect and the Viral Loop.

Stage 2: Milestone Work

Most startups are impatient — and rightly so. They want to go for quick wins, low-hanging fruit — and big results. Because who knows if the startup even will be around a few months from now? In Stage 2 we will concentrate on the Milestone Focus.

Stage 3: Baseline Work

Once you decide it’s time to move from Stage 2 to Stage 3, you’ll need to start thinking long-term about PR. After all, it’s what you do every day that will determine your PR success, not aggressive marketing activities every once in a while. In Stage 3 we will concentrate on Content Themes and Set And Forget.

Stage Four: Campaign Work

When your baseline activities are running smoothly in the background, it’s time for the next big phase of growth. Now it’s time to make your splashes even bigger! In Stage 4 we will concentrate on Quant-Based PR.

Here I’ll walk you through the four stages step-by-step on how to get your startup PR strategy in order:

Stage 1: Preparation Work

Workshop: The Surround Effect

Here are two things to consider:

1. Since startups evolve so quickly, your startup can be a completely different type of operation in a year or less. And then you have to start all over again. To develop a full PR strategy complete with a detailed PR plan can be costly — if you have to do it all over in 6-12 months from now. Few startups could afford this and even if you could afford this, I doubt you’d like the idea of duplicating your PR costs?

2. Your prospects are already suffering from a bad case of information overload1. When they think about your startup, how many core messages do you think they can keep in their heads about your company? You only get to convey one core message, one core feeling to represent your brand. So why are you sending out so many different types of messages?

Since every hour and every penny counts, you need your PR efforts to work. So you need to be about one thing and one thing only. Wherever and whenever prospects are exposed to your brand, you need to reinforce a single message or a single emotion2. By being focused on one thing on your website, in your social channels, in your selling, in everything you do or sell, you can create a “surround effect” simply by only talking about one thing!

So, what’s a “one thing”?

Well, a “thing” could be anything. Red Bull, for example, their one thing is that they’re almost obsessed about people flying through the air, whether it’s airplanes, snowmobiles, skateboards, stratosphere balloons or bicycles. So people flying through the air is sort of Red Bull’s one thing. The connection between energy drinks and extreme sports isn’t exactly obvious, which goes to show that your one thing can be almost anything.

So put your team in a room with a whiteboard, set aside a couple of hours and play around with ideas for what should be your one thing. Come up with what should be the one thing for your brand — this will be your bootstrap PR-strategy-in-a-box!

Bonus: Download a presentation that you can use for a 1-2 hour Surround Effect workshop with your startup team.

Testing: Fixing the Viral Loop

A viral loop is all about social engineering. When someone is exposed to your business and that someone actively exposes your business to another person in their network — that is a viral loop of yours. We used to call this word-of-mouth, but with social sharing and ramping up social graphs, viral loops come in many different shapes and forms today.

Examples of viral loops:

Youtube: When you see a funny video, you share it with your friends and some of their friends share it with their friends and so on. If Youtube instead focused on making people upload their own videos and then share them, the “time to infect” would be much, much longer. 

Tesla Motors: Geeks, car enthusiasts and environmentally conscious consumers argue with their friends that electric cars can be cool, look awesome and can compete with fossil-driven cars in terms of performance. If Tesla relied on having people see other Teslas on the streets, the “time to infect” would be much, much longer — since there are so few Teslas on the streets still.

Doctor Spin: Blog visitors read, subscribe and share free articles and free email courses with friends and colleagues in the PR- and marketing industry. If Doctor Spin (yep, that’s me!) where to rely on word-of-mouth from former clients, the “time-to-infect” would be much, much longer.

You can get all fancy about socially engineering a great variety of viral loops, but as a startup, you need to focus on one. If you have an app, how do you get people who use it to tell their friends about it? If you have a website, how do you get visitors to tell their friends about it? If you have a product, how do you get users to tell their friends about it? And so on.

Without a Primary Viral Loop (PVL) that is rock solid, your startup will continuously be “leaking” time and money!

When you’ve chosen a PVL (and I can’t stress the importance of focusing on just one viral loop enough), then you need to optimise it:

  1. Test your PVL — is it “leaking” somewhere?
  2. Experiment with different solutions for your loop.
  3. Figure out who your audience is for a specific loop.

When you’ve decided on a Surround Effect and you’ve tested and optimised your Primary Viral Loop (PVL) to be all it can be, then you’re ready for Stage Two: Milestone Work.

Stage 2: Milestone Work

Focus: Decide on Your Next PR Milestone

After a few months of preparation work, you’re probably getting really eager to start producing a tangible result from your PR efforts. Most PR work is long-term and most results come from long-term strategies, so this is a challenging situation to be in. To succeed as you reach this stage, there’s only one key secret (and it’s really simple):

Focus on one major PR milestone at the time.

With limited resources you can’t afford to spread yourself too thin, so make sure to focus your startup on the next big PR win and the next big PR win only. So what could be examples of such big PR wins?

  • Great coverage (publicity) in a key medium.
  • Key influencer endorsement for your product or service.
  • A successful launch event both online- and offline.
  • Landing a contract with a powerful brand ambassador.
  • Running an online activation to collect email addresses.
  • Attracting traffic through content marketing.

And so on3.

Important note: Don’t choose a milestone that requires too much effort; choose a milestone you can hit within six weeks. This will allow you two big PR wins every quarter. Make sure that your chosen milestone is aligned with your Surround Effect-message!

Stage 3: Baseline Work

Calendar: Epic Content Themes

Your long-term PR success will depend on what you do every day. So it’s crucial that you start focusing on everyday PR actions. However, this can easily overwhelm a busy team startup team. Yes, you guessed it — you need to focus on one thing at the time.

Side-Story: A Content Marketing Experiment

A couple of years ago I decided to do a little experiment on the Doctor Spin blog. My “secret” Surround Effect-message is Sharing is caring, meaning that I want to convey this notion that I have lots of valuable knowledge about PR- and digital marketing — and I’m eager to share it whenever and wherever I can. But within the over-arching message of Sharing is caring, I can focus on different aspects of PR- and digital marketing at the time.

I decided to focus on talking only about Influencer Outreach for a period of time. Nothing else, just blog posts, seminars and interviews about Influencer Outreach and nothing else. The results amazed me; potential clients quickly started to relate to me as the go-to guy for anything influencer-related. I wrote about the whole experiment here.

Therefore, you need to decide on a Content Theme. A Content Theme is a strategically chosen topic that you actively talk about across channels for a period of time. Most brands, once they reach a certain size, sets up a Conversation Calendar to schedule and keep track of general social media updates and specific content to promote.

When I suggest using Content Themes, a common question I get is, “but won’t it get boring for the publics to hear us go on and on about just one topic in every channel?” The somewhat surprising answer is, “no”. But here’s where your team’s day-to-day creativity comes in. Let’s say that you decide to talk only about Brand Journalism as a Content Theme:

  • Blog posts: A post on what Brand Journalism is. Two posts with two case studies. A post on how to get started. That’s four blog posts!
  • Podcasts: Round up the leading experts on Brand Journalism and do a podcast interview with each and every one of them.
  • Video: Produce an animated explainer video and a couple of video case studies.
  • Outreach: Collaborate with blogger and influencers on their platforms, either if your startup does some guest-posting or if you can engage them in putting the spotlight on Brand Journalism.
  • Lead magnet: Create an ebook on everything related to Brand Journalism for professionals who would appreciate downloading an easy-to-use handbook.
  • Education: Launch a mini-course with video tutorials and useful notes and drip it out via email over the course of a few weeks.
  • Infographics: Create some easy-to-glance infographics with useful statistics on Brand Journalism.
  • Landing pages: Make sure you set up a few Resource Pages for Brand Journalism.

And so on!

With just a little bit of creativity, you can create lots and lots of content on the same subject without being boring. If you want to, you could stretch out your content theme across a whole year for most subjects4. A cool side-effect of using Content Themes is that this tactic tends to do well in search engines as well, especially if you cross-link all your resources.

Automation: Set and Forget

This is a simple and indeed also a very fast part of the journey. Now that you’ve started to have a baseline of content for your various channels, it makes sense to start to automate and capture, automate and capture.

Setting it and forgetting it is especially important for two reasons:

1. Most startups soon learn that the biggest challenge isn’t to get people to discover you. The difficult aspect is to get people in the habit of coming back to you, again and again. For this purpose, email harvesting is one of the most potent tools in any startups arsenal of PR- and digital marketing tools.

2. Marketing automation does a lot of heavy-lifting while you sleep (or whatever you do when you’re not actually working). Most businesses must scale sooner or later, so whatever can be automated should, at least, be considered.

Now, marketing automation techniques can be a bit shady. In general, people tend to dislike being talked at through machines. So practice common sense!

Here are few useful tools to start with:

Email automation: Mailchimp
Social media publishing: Buffer, CoSchedule, Edgar
Triggers: IFTTT, Zapier
Landing pages: Leadpages
Lead capturing (WordPress): Sumo.me

Stage 4: Campaign Work

Method: Quant-Based PR

Back in 2010, Noah Kagan wrote the short (but epic!) blog post, The Secret to Effective Marketing – Quant Based Marketing.

The idea is to map out OPA (Other People’s Audiences) that you want to reach and then work towards securing publicity with them. By estimating reach and conversion rates, you can work backwards from the actual results you need in a simple spreadsheet like this (available for download over at Noah Kagan’s blog):

In this example, you ensure 104,225 users5! The trick is, of course, to work hard towards ensuring confirmation of publicity before the fact (which isn’t easy).

However, if you’re serious about making a massive PR splash for your startup launch or for some other very special occasion, then this will be a preferred approach. I would recommend not doing these types of campaigns too often — they require lots of resources and if you don’t have a very strong pitch, it will be super difficult no matter how many resources you pour into it.

But quant-based PR for startups in a campaign-type format like described here are a powerful addition to your baseline Content Themes activities, maybe once- or twice a year, depending what your startup has the pipeline.

Did you find this article useful? Please support my work by sharing this article with your network. Your support matters!

Photo by Startaê Team on Unsplash.


  1. Clay Shirky famously said, “there’s no information overload, only filter failure.” Even though I agree with his sentiment, it makes sense for any startup to do some of the filterings for the prospects.
  2. Think of Coca Cola’s Enjoy, McDonald’s I’m loving it or Nike’s Just do it. These brands have made their surround message into a slogan (which you don’t have to), but the important thing here is that they too try to be consistent around their one thing.
  3. I’d love to outline step-by-step instructions on how to carry out common types of PR milestone activities, but this blog post would simply be way too long. But yes, there will be a book — just sign up for my email list to be amongst the first to get access once released.
  4. Another common question I get is, “how many Content Themes should we focus on over the course of a year? My standard recommendation is four per year (one Content Theme per quarter). This will give your prospects enough time to discover and dive deeper into your content.
  5. I don’t agree with the approximated conversion rates in the example. Could a TechCrunch article ever result in 7,500 users of any sort? I find that very unlikely. However, we should focus on the method, not the example figures which are made up some five years ago.


Avatar of Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwerhttps://doctorspin.org/
Jerry Silfwer, aka Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Communication Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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