The seven deadly PR sins committed by start-ups

Former Fleet Street journalist Alex Singleton reveals what not to do when it comes to creating a start-up PR campaign

You know the score. People tell you that public relations is a vital tool for start-ups. But you also have your doubts about it. Perhaps you know of other businesses which haven’t had much success with PR. Or perhaps you don’t know where to start. Well, as a former Fleet Street journalist, I’ve seen all manner of PR approaches, good and bad. And, to help you get started, here is my guide to avoiding the seven deadly sins.

Deadly Sin One: Seeing PR as ‘free publicity’

Public relations may cost less than other forms of marketing, but it is not free. That’s true even if you manage your PR campaigns yourself. It will cost you time, and the creation of research that will hook the media requires financial investment. For example, some PR campaigns use opinion poll data. A survey of visitors to your website won’t be plausible – newspapers won’t touch it. You have to use a major polling agency such as ComRes or Survation. This costs money – although most polling agencies will help you do it inexpensively by asking your questions along with those of other clients. The real merit in public relations is not that it is cheap, but it is that it delivers third-party endorsements. Potential customers find these more convincing than advertising. It also allows you to mention on your website that you have been featured on, say, the BBC and in The Times – something that will boost confidence in your company.

Deadly Sin Two:  Believing that the existence of a business is newsworthy

If you have invented the cure for bone cancer, then your business is inherently interesting. Most businesses are not. It requires skill and creativity to turn what your company is doing into newsworthy stories. Those who send out press releases announcing the minutiae of a small business’s dealings will just irritate journalists. For something to be genuinely newsworthy, it has to be out of the ordinary.

Deadly Sin Three: Trying to be a small business expert

Thousands of start-up entrepreneurs think they will get national coverage by marketing themselves as the small business expert. But let’s face it: the panellists on Dragon’s Den, the authors of business books, and sites like have sewn up the market. And they have considerable credibility as experts. Until you’ve built up a reputation, online or otherwise, for knowing your stuff, this approach won’t work. Similarly, because many start-ups rely on internet marketing, their founders decide to promote themselves as SEO or internet marketing experts. Yaawwn. The market for such experts is saturated already. That’s not saying you won’t be considered an expert eventually, providing you genuinely do know your stuff, but it’s certainly not something you can market yourself as when you’re a brand new start-up.

Deadly Sin Four: Using a press release newswire

Press release newswires cost you money and may get your press release onto Google News, but they almost never cause your story to be used by proper publications. Decent journalists don’t read pay-for newswires, because these are packed with press releases that are spam. Save your cash, and send your press releases directly to a hand-selected group of journalists. There are databases of media contacts you can buy – I like one called Precise Connect. But you can easily cheapskate. Just use the search facility on newspaper websites to find out which reporters write about each topic. You ought to be able to guess a journalist’s email address. For radio and television programmes, you may find that ringing the broadcaster’s switchboard and asking to be put through to the producer on the relevant programme works.

Deadly Sin Five: Ignoring content marketing

Media coverage is only one part of public relations – albeit an important one. Investing time into writing a blog on your company’s website will bring potential clients to your site. Remember, an article written today will continue to bring traffic to your site in two years’ time. Just make sure you don’t outsource the writing abroad. You need the articles to sell and therefore the quality needs to be high. If you want to write more convincingly, there’s a book that will help. It’s called Essential English by Sir Harold Evans, the former editor of The Sunday Times. By the way, a blog may also get you media enquiries. I’ve lost count of the number of times the BBC has called me because they’ve found things I’ve written online.

Deadly Sin Six: A half-hearted social media programme

If you regularly update your social media, several good things will happen. Firstly, your customers who follow you will keep thinking about you – providing you with repeat business. Secondly, search engines will recognise that your website is being talked about on social media and have greater confidence in putting your site towards the top of search results. And thirdly, by sharing other people’s content, you’ll tend to read more about your industry, which will help you be a thought leader in the sector. In other words, you’ll be a genuine source of useful information about your industry. This will make you more valuable to the mainstream media.

Building a website for your business idea is easier than you might think. Our online tool ranks the top website builders that offer free trials.

Deadly Sin Seven: Hiring a local PR agency on retainer

Start-ups don’t have much money – but they know that public relations can expand their business. Because they have a limited budget, they hire a cheap, inexperienced agency on retainer. The agency promises to ‘explode’ their business across the pages of all the major newspapers every month, and get them on the BBC every week. Three or four months later, the client falls out with the agency, after getting almost nothing for their investment. Savvier start-ups are more realistic about the likely coverage. They buy public relations advice like they would buy other professional advice and hire a PR counsel for an hour or two. They ask what the best approaches and stories would be, and then do the work themselves. They get the top advice, and save money in the process. Alex Singleton is a former Fleet Street journalist who is now a public relations consultant. His website is at


(will not be published)