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The first steps to engaging press in your story

Nic Forster

Head of PR & Communications @ Forward Partners

Over the past 10 years of my career, I’ve been fortunate to work with some of the world’s most engaging brands, businesses and entrepreneurs.

Whilst I’m not here to extol the virtues of PR nor the power (or value) of good press (I’m clearly biased), I do truly believe that a tactical PR approach which speaks to your business’ core passion point can be the hardest working, efficient and brand boosting tool at a startups’ disposal.

In this post I’ll explain how a startup can utilise PR to begin to tell your story to core stakeholders and why that story, however mundane it seems to you, should form the cornerstone of your communications.

Key takeaways

  • Focusing on building a compelling, fixed story for yourself as an entrepreneur and for your business at the earliest opportunity is key;
  • Key messages which will grow and evolve with your brand are a helpful guide to keep communications on track;
  • Familiarity with journalists and publications which resonate with your customer should be at the heart of your outreach;
  • Relevancy and resilience is paramount.

Misconceptions and why it all starts with a story

Public Relations is an industry and tool which it’s fair to say, has been fairly misunderstood over the years.

I’ve been frequently frustrated and bemused by clients and businesses I’ve worked with who think the role of a PR is somewhere between spin doctor -cum- party planner -cum- crisis manager. Or that PR merely stands for a one-way ‘press release’ that can be farmed out to media. The world has moved on and so to I hope, have a lot of the misconceptions.

For me, good, impactful PR in today’s market is all about crafting and delivering an effective message which is both true to brand but relevant and compelling to press and their readers. It’s also about working alongside press, as part of a two way dialogue to communicate brand essence and promote not just brand awareness but also understanding.

Communication should be spoken in one leading voice. The smartest, most media savvy brands I’ve worked for, have aspired from their earliest incarnations to speak to press, investors and customers in a unified voice – telling the same compelling story to each, but obviously tailoring accordingly.

Once a compelling story is distilled and communicated in a well rounded manner to relevant audiences, the effects can be pretty incredible. We’ve seen this time and time again in recent years and in some of the most successful businesses throughout history.

Facebook is a case in point. Ask anyone what they know about the early days of the business and they will most likely reference Mark Zuckerberg’s days as a programming whizz kid on the fringes at Harvard… we all know the Facebook story.

And with many of the most successful brands we see the same, be it at the extremes with behemoths like Apple, Nike and Virgin Atlantic or with innovative disruptors like Ella’s Kitchen and Jamie Oliver Group.

We know these stories to the point that they’re almost modern day folklore. And whilst not every business has a story which starts out in the dorm rooms of Harvard or with a Naked Chef plucked from an Essex pub kitchen, I’d be hard pressed to recount an entrepreneur I’ve worked with who doesn’t have a story to tell.

Distilling your story

The fact that you’re an entrepreneur is a story, as is the fact that you’ve chosen to do something on your own, to solve a problem or make life better for your consumer. Work hard to distill your story in the earliest days of your business and it will pay dividends down the line.

It may be obvious, but it’s crucial that the story you tell is firstly factual, clear and representative of your business and the journey you’re on. But it needn’t be complicated – start writing your story as you would a pitch deck to investors.

Focus on finding the golden threads of information that you’re passionate about and what you want your business to achieve/ address. A watchout here is to step outside your business and your own biases and consider the elements that you truly believe will interest outsiders.

I’d recommend that the following are two key areas which you may wish to draw on:

  • Your journey as an entrepreneur
    • Your history and experience
    • Your passion for what you’re doing and why
    • What inspired you to found your business
    • Why what you’re doing is different/ why it matters
  • The genesis of your idea/ business
    • How and where it started out
    • Your team
    • Your mission – what problem you’re solving
    • Your ambitions

I find that when entrepreneurs start considering these points, that their unique story  and the personality of their brand begins to flow.

Defining your key messages

In the very fluid early stages of your business it can be difficult to define your key messages but if you have your business story defined (this shouldn’t change) it is possible to anchor your business to a fundamental set of messages which your brand and story speaks to. These messages will evolve as the business grows but will be helpful way pointers helping you to ensure that you stay close to your core communications pathway.

When defining your earliest key messaging document, try to focus on the following sections:

  • ‘Who we are’ (You and your business in 100 words)
  • ‘Our operating philosophy’ (what’s your style and what’s the overarching mission/ problem you’re solving)
  • ‘How we got here’ (where did the business start, what have you as an entrepreneur achieved to date)
  • ‘What we do’ (what does the business look like, what has the business accomplished to date).
  • ‘Our role in society’ – are you tackling any bigger societal issues/ consumer problems?


Defining & engaging a core group of journalists

Once you are happy that you’ve crafted a story which captures why what you’re doing as both an entrepreneur and a business matters, get reading.

Pick the titles which you know your consumer is reading (ask friends & family who fit your customer profile to tell you about the websites, blogs newspapers and magazines which resonate). Start to read these titles regularly so that you can familiarise yourself with their tone, style and the issues they speak to. You can then start compiling a database of pages or ‘tear sheets’ featuring  stories written by journalists who are commentating on your market, competitors or lifestyle/ societal trends which your business speaks to.

Once you have a list of 10 – 15 core journalists that you wish to contact, start crafting your pitch. Just as you may when approaching an investor, think robustly about the relevancy of your story to a particular journalist and their area of focus (e.g you may wish to reference a past story they’ve written or issue they have tackled).

It’s always helpful at this point to also begin thinking about summarising your story in a launch press release which can be sent to journalists in addition to your pitch. Tips on authoring compelling press releases can be found here.

Research email addresses and publication contact numbers online using publication websites and database tools such as Gorkana or Cision. Start to get in touch (a call or an email are both appropriate ways to engage) whichever you choose, know the point you want to make, the result you want to achieve and be concise – now more than ever before the press are time poor so appreciate it when you get to the point fast.

Know the competition and be resilient

PR is extremely competitive and column inches in the daily/ monthly press are limited. Bear in mind that many journalists receive tens of calls per day and hundreds of emails, all pitching a purportedly relevant story.  Let this be your motivation to put the time in crafting a database of journalists truly interested in your space and working on your media pitch to ensure it is strong, it stands out and it’s concise.

Resilience is key. If you don’t hear back immediately or get the result you want, it’s important to continue and tweak the pitch accordingly along the way. If a contact is not interested, try and get feedback as to why so that you can counter this and strengthen your approach in your next pitches. Capture all of your contacts and their relevant feedback in a master media list which you can refer to and build upon each time you have a new story to tell.

Final word

PR and press engagement is not the quickest, simplest or easiest to measure communication channel. However, it’s incredibly cost effective and effective in telling your story to build a deeper understanding of your business. If you dedicate time and effort to crafting a compelling story and appeal to a community of core press, you can achieve much greater customer affinity and understanding in the long term.

Useful links

Nic Forster

Head of PR & Communications @ Forward Partners

Nic is Head of PR & communications at Forward Partners. Over the course of a 10 year career in communications, he has worked with global brands including Orange, Warner Bros., BBC, and Amazon. Nic also headed up the PR team at one of the UK's fastest growing e-commerce businesses, He now leads communication strategy on behalf of Forward Partners whilst also working with our startups, helping them to conceptualise and tell their brand and business stories to both press and the target consumer.

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