PR for Startups : Interview with PR Expert Julija Jegorova

Julija (JJ) Jegorova is the Founder of London-based PR agency – Black Unicorn PR. Julija has a decade of experience working with a wide range of companies worldwide, helping them to expand abroad and establish their businesses as leaders within that space.

1. Why and how have you chosen PR as your career?

If I am entirely honest with you, I never thought that I’d end up working in PR simply because 10 years ago this concept didn’t seem to exist in its current shape or make much sense to me. My biggest dream was to become an international journalist, one that makes a difference, meaning strong ethics and investigative background. Lithuania seemed to be a little too small for these huge dreams of mine, so I went on to study Journalism and International Relations in the UK. I was planning to become a war correspondent, as was my role model and inspiration Anna Politkovskaya, but when the time came and I was invited to join a group of journalists from a very reputable broadcasting team to go to Palestine in 2010, when I was still at university, unfortunately, I had to reconsider my life choices.

Funny enough, a few weeks later – absolutely devastated and not knowing what to do next – I was attending a talk by investigative journalist Nick Davies (who uncovered the phone hacking scandal of 2011 related to Rupert Murdoch and who has been one of my favourite media idols ever). I had a chance to have dinner with him and a group of PRs, and it was actually him who advised me to join a PR firm as my skill set seemed to be a perfect match. Since then, I’ve been on a PR mission!

2. Why did you develop your PR agency in London? Tell us more about your team.

I’ve been working in Public Relations across the world for just over a decade, having had experience both on agency and in-house sides. My journey started working with well-known brands such as VISA and TomTom, and since 2014 I started gradually moving to the world of startups and scaleups.

Working in-house for known brands is somewhat easier as the messaging and legend are already there (half the job is done!). Also, you are known to the media, meaning the public interest in the story is more obvious and placing a story takes less time. Moreover, big brands have a fantastic infrastructure in place and you are working in-sync with other teams (marketing, production, sales), meaning that your campaigns are always amplified. Even though still a lot of strategic planning is involved, PR spins around media placement and throwing events.

Working in-house for startups is often ‘a one man job’ as you do everything: from general comms strategy to media placements and everything in between (social media, product descriptions, attending / organising events, etc.). Often startups have very limited funds, so they cannot afford to boost their campaigns with marketing or advertising. Being featured in desired publications is not easy, as you have to work for your name and it is rarely an ‘overnight success’. Journalists have standards, so you can’t simply buy space for your stories.

In my opinion, the biggest downside to working in-house, whether it is a big brand or a startup, is that the messaging remains the same: the tech can evolve and it may have new features, yet the story around it tends to remain the same. This can be somewhat one-dimensional over the long term.

This was one of the main reasons I started working as a freelancer for different PR agencies in London. It came to me as a surprise that their main ‘selling’ point was only media placement. Obviously, it is the end goal for any PR campaign, however, having spent most of my career working in-house, PR is so much more than just getting in front of the journalists: there are events, speaking opportunities, creating your general strategy and vision, etc. Hence, Black Unicorn PR was created as a hybrid between agency and in-house PR for our clients: they get the best of both worlds. Moreover, my team consists of people who have experience in other areas of business – market research, ecommerce, marketing and sales, which gives us an advantage as we bring a lot to the (business) table.

3. Why PR is important for B2B companies?

PR focuses on a company’s overall image and its main role is to make sure that your company is trusted and perceived as credible. Doing PR means looking after your reputation and perception – ‘cultivating’ your image. Unlike, let’s say, advertising, media placements are earned rather than paid for, meaning that a journalist validates your story or product. In the long term, the sum of stories, features and mentions will create your public perception. It takes time to kick in, and it is fragile. One negative article can have deep repercussions. Hence, PR should become an essential part of your integrated marketing strategy.

Zooming out, PR is one of various areas that can improve your customer journey. It can create awareness, adding to the beginning of your sales funnel, but the real power of PR is creating and maintaining a level of credibility and a positive image that will eliminate any trust issues the prospect might have. For lead generation, digital marketing in the form of exclusive content can be a very effective tool, a blog can attract traffic by ranking high in Google and generate trust in itself from providing good content – and, of course, there is advertising.  

4. How PR is different to marketing and advertising?

I think that majority of people don’t really see much difference between Public Relations, Marketing and Advertising. Even though these are fit under the same umbrella, they are rather different in their approach as well as what you can expect in return.

  1. PR is all about storytelling and reputation building, which – in turn – generates trust among your audiences, clients as well as business partners. Also, it is non-commercial, so you cannot really expect results right away: it takes time to nourish your legend
  2. Advertising has very strong calls to action and it is appealing to our emotional side. Also, it is often biased. The ad can be whatever one wants (although there are some consumer protection laws regarding this). When audiences see or hear ads, they know it’s not been vetted by a third party.
  3. Marketing encompasses all the outreach that is done to audiences as opposed to individuals (that would be sales). In some cases, PR is considered separate from marketing, but usually it sits within the marketing department. All marketing communications, paid or unpaid, online or offline, should be aligned to maximise results.

It is important to understand that not everyone needs PR. Nor does everyone need advertising. Many companies in B2B are sales-led, and marketing plays a secondary role. You have to determine what your goals are and the best ways to achieve them.

5. Usually startups have either zero or a very low budget. Which tools should these startups use for effective PR?

The main thing is to have someone who understands the basics of marketing and PR. Like with any startups, at the beginning you will need a strong team including committed generalists. What we are seeing is that often there are companies with 2 co-founders, a CEO and a CTO, and marketing is often left behind. As a result, when startups gain traction, they often miss out on marketing exposure because they lack the expertise. At the very least, have a basic company description in writing and high definition professional photographs (not just headshots) available on your website in the press area and available for distribution. Networking with journalists in your industry could provide a huge advantage.

6. What are PR peculiarities for SaaS companies?

Software as a Service (SaaS) is probably one of the trickiest ‘sells’ when it comes to PR as, first of all, it is something that you cannot ‘touch and feel’ and, secondly, it is always aimed at a very specific (and sometimes needy!) audience.

The biggest challenge for SaaS companies is to extract the interesting information and prove that it is needed for your potential client as well as it will be instrumental in their growth (compared to others). Moreover, you still need to give some sort of personality to your product.

7. How to create a PR strategy and set a budget for it?

First and foremost, before jumping to PR to become ‘famous’, young companies should spend their budget making sure that the product works. As Reid Hoffman says, “if you’re not embarrassed when you launch, you launched too late”. But, at the same time, you need to make sure journalists will be able to see value in the product. There is that much that PR can do and help, but it is your company that is at the core of everything.

Once that is done, I would advise startups to ask themselves “why?”. Why have they started this company – will it change anyone’s life, will it simplify something that is very complex, did the idea come from a personal struggle, etc. Nowadays people don’t care much about the technology, however, they care about the impact it will have on their lives or businesses.

After that is determined, they need to work on their infrastructure, which includes:

  • the company’s tone of voice and grand vision
  • press kit (itself consisting of biographies and a concise background of the company)
  • newsworthy stories (which should be tailored and adapted to different media outlets)
  • photography (which plays an important role when pitching the media)

Once that is set up, you can start compiling a database of journalists.

It is important to try and stay somehow impartial when it comes to ‘news’. For you – as a business owner – the news might seem fantastic, but for the media it will be just ‘ordinary’. Also, don’t forget that what gets published is often determined by the news agenda. When pitching a journalist you should make sure that he or she is relevant to your story. Once you have everything in place – you can try your luck and get in touch with the media.

If you have some sort of budget – I’d recommend hiring someone in-house. A downside is that this might be a rather junior person. Another alternative is getting a consultancy on board as they will have the experience to advise you on the most pressing matters, but it will be slightly more costly.

8. What are some of the best examples of how PR in B2B companies helped them to boost their brand awareness / sales.

PR works similar in both B2B and B2C. Both have a customer journey, or viewed from a B2B sales perspective, your prospect goes through a sales funnel. Within that sales funnel, before progressing to the purchase stage, they will undoubtedly look for third-party validation, be it from colleagues, peers in the industry or journalists in the media. Journalists are a trusted third party because they have a reputation they need to protect, meaning they will write about news adhering to certain standards. In comparison to friends and colleagues, media outlets have a much wider reach, and online articles will stay pretty much forever indexed in Google. Nobody buys anything new without googling everything about the company.

Having said that, the channels will be somewhat different – trade publications and thought leadership will be more important. Because we are not selling mass consumption products, the message needs to be more technical, more accurate. B2B buyers are a smaller, key audience, who will perform even more due diligence before spending, as their reputation at work could be on the line.

9. Why in today’s world ‘personal branding’ is important? What are your recommendations for startup CEOs with regards to the development of their own brand?

The answer to this is pretty simple: “People buy people”. In a world where every other person is an entrepreneur, Founder or CEO, it is incredibly important to do something beyond ‘just because’. People want to make sure that a product or company has a ‘face’ and that whoever is behind it has not only a story to tell, but also a great vision of where it is headed and how it is changing or challenging the current situation.

Perhaps the easiest way to bring your personal brand to life is via written thought-leadership pieces (which should be shared in your website as well as across social media) as well as attending and speaking at the events, which are relevant to your industry. In the end, what you want to do is position yourself as one of the professionals being at the forefront of the industry you are operating in.

10. What type of ‘news’ might interest startups? How is it possible to end up in well-known media outlets, such as Bloomberg, BBC, The Guardian and others?

Before approaching journalists, it is crucial to determine your audience: not everyone needs to end up in Bloomberg or the BBC, regardless how fancy that seems. Often people say they want to be featured in those publications, simply because they are widely known. However, and this is especially important with B2B services, more niche, trade, publications are the ones you should be paying more attention to (unless you can create a more ‘national’ angle to your business).

There are certain types of ‘news’ that actually make it to the media. For example:

  1. Competition: it seems that the media bites news when a startups becomes, let’s say, an ‘Uber of X’. A lot of times this catches their eye. Alternatively, if you become a competitor of a well-known brand and you’ve identified their biggest flaws, which you are improving and doing it better – that will make it to the news, too (e.g. when Uber lost their license in London, Lyft said they’ll enter the market)
  2. Success: usually any investment over 250k makes it to the news as it validates that your business is successful and is in need for further development (UK Tech News is a great source for that)
  3. Celebrity: if you manage to get anyone famous on board – that will make the news. However, be very careful with who you work as they need to have a great reputation not to damage your brand (e.g. Andy Murray invested in Revolut was featured in CNBC)
  4. Insight: if you can leverage research of interest to the greater public and showcase the benefits of your business – it can make it to the news when packaged nicely (e.g. wireless charging provider CHARGit created a report on battery anxiety and how the company can help were featured on BBC radio)

In the end, it all depends on what audience are you trying to reach and the best channels for it.

11. Should companies use ‘bad’ news to their advantage?

Personally, I am a strong believer that it is almost impossible to pull of a ‘bad PR’ stunt and to get positive results from it, especially if it is a young company that is just starting out. Reputation management is a full-time job itself and you want to be very careful when it comes to the way people perceive you.

Big brands and B2C companies stand some better chances at pulling this off and using ‘bad PR’ to their advantage, but a lot of strategy and planning needs to go behind it.

12. What are the most common PR mistakes and how to avoid these?

There are a few major mistakes that startups and scaleups make when working on their PR strategy:

  1. Neglecting traditional (print) media. Even though we live in a very digital world, we should not ignore the power of print publications, which are still widely read by a lot of influential (C-level) execs
  2. Not doing your research. Having worked with a number of journalists, I know how many press releases they are getting per day (we are talking in hundreds) and most of these are irrelevant. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to send out your press release to everyone, without even double-checking whether that journalists has anything to do with your topic (you may end up sending your tech briefing to a beauty blogger – not a great start). Prior to sharing your news – you must always do your homework
  3. Expecting miracles. 70% of my job as a PR professional is to manage my clients’ expectations and educate them on what PR is and is not. Most of the time, after pitching, you will expect immediate results. When nothing happens you start pestering journalists with numerous emails and calls, who can easily put your on their ‘blacklist’. So it is important to remember that strategy and timing are of the essence (e.g. pitch your journalists under embargo if ‘news’ is to be out in the evening, don’t send pitches over the weekend, etc.)
  4. Over-complicating the messaging / using jargon. This is, perhaps, the biggest faux-paus I’ve seen in the past years as companies tend to make their products sound ‘smart’ and ‘complicated’, however, this often backfires as your audience is not necessarily familiar with jargon you are using (same goes to the journalists, event those are trade journos – their audience is who they care about). When studying journalism I’ve learned a few tricks: if you are reading your sentence out loud and you run out of 1 breath before even finishing the sentence – you should rewrite it (so 1 breath – 1 sentence) and always remember a simple rule ‘KISS’ – “Keep it simple, stupid”

 

Do you have more questions for Julija or want to get advice from her professional team free of charge? Feel free to drop her an email on [email protected] or visit the Black Unicorn PR website. Alternatively, you can connect with Julija via LinkedIn.

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Chris Gulbinovic

Chris is a marketer and a growth hacker here at Teamgate. He writes everything about sales management, online marketing, awards and the best new features coming out.

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