Frameworks for DIY PR, for startups from small ecosystems

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in Startup Stories

This is a guest post by Mauro Battellini, co-founder of Black Unicorn PR. Battellini has spent the last 12 years working in sales, marketing and PR. Since 2018, he is co-founder of Black Unicorn PR, a startup-focused PR agency, where he works closely alongside startup founders to help them tell their stories and that of their companies. He has worked with startups and scaleups backed by some of the world’s most important VC funds and seen a number of clients go from early-stage to exit.

Did you ever think that being in a smaller country, with a relatively unknown startup ecosystem means it’s useless to try to do international PR? Then you’re wrong. It is possible. Startups can do international PR from even the tiniest of ecosystems. In fact, small ecosystems should target international markets early on, something that Estonian startups have understood a long time ago.

The world might not be as flat yet as Thomas Friedman thinks, and VC money might be more easily attained in countries where that capital resides. But, with the right story and the right know-how, startup PR is one area where you can expect a more level playing field.

Credibility rather than reach

First things first. We need to understand how this game works. PR is a trust game and its biggest impact is in the ‘middle of the funnel’. In other words, you use it to gain credibility and social proof with people who are already aware of you and potentially considering your value proposition. Applied consistently, you can also achieve good awareness with key audiences. But for pure reach, go with performance marketing.

PR is not performance marketing

PR is not like the rest of marketing. It’s hard to measure and quantify. More activity doesn’t necessarily mean more results, if it’s not targeted and executed correctly. As Jason Feifer of Entrepreneur Magazine says, “it’s not a numbers game, it’s a relationships game”. In PR, you’d rather not send that extra email to that extra journalist, if you know they will likely not be interested in the story. You’d be spamming them. A net negative for your brand.

In PR, the purpose is not to sell, at least not directly. You can’t be salesy or use a call to action like in advertising. Exaggerated, emotional language does not belong in PR. You need to be able to tell the story while remaining factual. Cate Lawrence at advises, “show, don’t tell”.

Journalists don’t owe you a thing

Finally on the basics, understand that journalists are not working for you. They have their own objectives, their own agenda. Your goal is to find a win-win scenario for them and you. In other words, newsworthy stories. Satisfying the newsworthiness criteria is the only thing that really matters.

Familiarity with a journalist is no reason to pitch something you know isn’t a good story. Most journalists hate what Dan Taylor of calls “slinging shit”. 

Finally, you should see journalists as long term partners, not short-term opportunities. They are humans to treat well, relationships to nourish. They are not means to a commercial end for your startup.

 Mauro Battellini

Objectives, stakeholders, messaging

Now that the basics are out of the way, we can focus on PR for your startup. Start by thinking about your most important objectives. Typically these include, but are not limited to: raising the next round of funding, closing clients, hiring a particular role, or something as specific as obtaining a specific banking licence.

Think about what you would want to say to the relevant audiences. Those groups might read different publications and live in different places. But they will all have one thing in common – they will definitely google you.  

With startups, a lot of messaging is about future ambition, and the reasons why you are the right team with the right technology for the job. With your startup and stakeholders in mind, think of the right messages for each channel you pursue.

Three “activity tracks” to pursue

Time to pursue your objectives. For early stage startups I recommend understanding your capability to pursue the following three categories of activity: news/announcements, brand profiling and thought leadership.


Announcements come when you have newsworthy news. This includes fundraising announcements – likely the most newsworthy piece of news as an early stage startup. But other items count, such as product launches, partnerships, key hires, and acquisitions. The list goes on and on. And the bigger you are, the more things about you become newsworthy. 

But if you are small, chances are your first real newsworthy announcement will be a pre-seed or seed fundraise announcement. Study your target media and only PR what really gets covered. There’s social media and blogs for everything else. 

For the fundraise announcement, do consider strategies like exclusives and embargoes. Time your outreach intelligently, and you’ll be able to obtain broad as well as deep results. 

Interviews, profiles and more

Brand profiling and thought leadership are types of activities that have the advantage of being more ‘atemporal’. Interviews, Q&As, profile pieces, podcast talks, contributed content, event speaking opportunities are all out there. You could, in theory, pursue them at any time without having any news. But you do need to demonstrate that you deserve those opportunities.  Quite often in the startup world, the requirements are being in a certain funding stage – the bigger the media outlet, the more mature startups they look at. In other cases, the cutoff is revenue. Some opportunities are only for companies with an important global footprint. It is harder to get attention as a bootstrapped startup unless there is significant business traction.

Thought leadership

When it comes to thought leadership-related activities, more depends on the individual: their education, work experience, whether they exited another well-known startup or other achievements. An interesting personal background can win you opportunities, even if the startup hasn’t achieved that much traction yet. Boiling it down, the most important thing is to show the expertise and experience of the person, and the value-add of their opinions, advice or insights. 

Thought leadership can include contributed content (writing contributed articles for publications) as well as a range of person-based activities like podcasts and events. At the beginning, it’s advisable to focus on one person, ideally a founder. As the startup grows, more people can be brought into the fold.

 Mauro Battellini

“Measuring” newsworthiness

You think you’re ready to rock, but how do you know whether it’s going to work out?

Before pitching, understand your newsworthiness by studying your target media. What things are journalists finding newsworthy and covering? What is the benchmark for things that make it and things that don’t?

To further understand the thinking behind what journalists cover, you have to understand the concept of newsworthiness. Journalists look at something and think: is this newsworthy? Here are the factors they are considering:

  • Timeliness: is it something that’s happening right now? For instance, right now AI and climate tech are hot topics. In previous years it was crypto, web3 and virtual reality. But psst… it doesn’t mean other topics won’t be covered!
  • Impact: How impactful is the news? Or, how impactful is this startup with its current traction? Think not just about the potential of a new product or idea, but: How much money is involved in this story? For example, for fundraise news Sifted prefers not to cover deals under $10 million (but might make exceptions for other reasons). Other titles have a lower threshold. How many people are affected? Is a big European startup expanding to the US? What is the impact on the life of each individual affected? The bigger the order of magnitude of the answers, the more newsworthy the story.
  • Geography: Where are you based, and who cares more about startups from your country? In terms of the region, I would think about startup publications that are SEE-focused like IT Logs and The Recursive. And covering Eastern Europe more widely there are also media outlets like Emerging Europe or AIN Capital. Pan-European you will find Sifted and Also consider: what geographic footprint does your news or story have? Being based in North Macedonia doesn’t mean you can’t get coverage in Germany, France or the UK, if you have significant impact in those geographies. And not just startup media: trade media, business media and their local media are also potential targets.
  • Celebrity: Anything a celebrity touches is suddenly more newsworthy. Sounds weird but it’s that way. For a startup, this would most likely mean having a celebrity as an investor. You can find a few articles on Sifted covering celebrity investors as a topic, too. There are a lot of athletes, including the best of all time, Messi, who are investing in startups or who are LPs at VC funds.
  • Conflict: Journalists love tension, conflict, a good fight. Usually it won’t be in a startup’s interest to go for this. But it can work: Transferwise played with tension quite a bit in the early days when it called out banks for their hidden, unfair fees in currency exchanges.

The second thing you should do is make sure your PR hygiene is on point. In the ‘journalist journey’, you need to make sure your website has straightforward language, information about the founders and startup story. 

LinkedIn profiles should be polished, with professional photography and clearly labelled titles for the founders. There are lots of articles out there talking about what else founders and startups can do to get better at LinkedIn.

Especially for us in Europe, Twitter seems to have taken a weird turn, but there are still benefits. There are lots of VCs, journalists and interesting B2B stakeholders. If you’re a consumer-facing brand, and operate in large markets like the US, Twitter can also be beneficial. For PR, the most interesting aspect is the additional touchpoint for journalists. They can find you there easily, see what you are up to, get linked to your website. Also, outlets publishing your articles will tend to tag you, helping users discover you.

Finally, get decent startup photography. I’m not talking about headshots. Try to make your photos fun and interesting. This is something that will actually help you stand out more in your pitch and also have repercussions once the article is published, as was the case with our client Klaus, now acquired by Zendesk (not saying it was because of the picture).

Congratulations you are now ready to start. Begin training your PR muscles with local and trade media. These are the first arenas where you will find out whether your news and other pitches will first have newsworthiness. Local media especially will be keen to hear about your story. However, it doesn’t mean you can PR an empty shell. Even local media will want to see trust points, such as some investor backing or a minimum impact in terms of revenue, employees or clients.

When it comes to trade media, they will look more at industry-related stories. These can include partnerships, product launches and hires – stories of little interest to local media. 

In both, you will be able to find atemporal opportunities, such as interviews, and a space to share your opinions and advice through contributed content – often called ”op-eds”.

If you think you are ready, scope out opportunities for regional and international as well. But remember, PR is not marketing. Don’t pitch the unpitchable as you’ll just run into a wall and dent your long term credibility. So what are you waiting for? Get PRing! Together, you’re also bound to elevate the image of the entire ecosystem!

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