Spray and pray: 5 main mistakes to avoid when starting international PR — guest column

Drawing on experience from working with dozens of European startups at various stages and verticals, Nataliia Natalina, Senior PR Consultant at Black Unicorn PR, in a guest article for AIN, shares some of the most common mistakes to avoid when taking your first steps in international PR.

“We have received interest from a major venture fund, several messages from angel investors, and prospects of a very interesting partnership,” shared the founder of an early-stage startup in the defense tech sector. Our PR agency helped him announce a relatively small funding round to international (English-speaking) media.

The vibrant startup ecosystem across Central and Eastern Europe is emerging as a hotbed for innovation and economic growth. Early-stage startup founders are eyeing European expansion, while also considering the US and the UK as promising target markets. Inspired by these ambitious goals, founders face corresponding challenges in new markets, such as finding consumers and partners, building relationships with regulators, and overcoming obstacles in attracting investments for expansion. As they enter international markets, reputation and trust become incredibly important, with many founders finding themselves building these from scratch.

The goal of this article is not to prove that investing time and resources in public relations (PR) and media relations is important. You might ignore them, for example, if you are Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg. However, if you are a founder of an early-stage startup, a well-planned and executed international PR campaign can elevate your brand to the forefront of key investors, potential partners and customers, and create a ‘safety net’ of reputation in case of crises.

Conversely, chaotic and inappropriate PR activities can be significantly damaging. Of course, for startups in early stage it’s hard to ‘f**k up’ their reputation. However, it can definitely result in wasting a lot of time/money/resources without getting any results.

Drawing on experience from working with dozens of European startups at various stages and verticals, below are some of the most common mistakes to avoid when taking your first steps in international PR.

Mistake 1: “I want TechCrunch to write about my startup.”

“Can you get our startup featured in TechCrunch?” is arguably the most common (and most naive) question from startup representatives during initial contact with a PR agency. This list often includes other top tier media such as Business Insider and Financial Times. Top tier term typically refers to the most influential and reputable media outlets in the industry. These are media platforms that have a broad audience, high levels of trust among readers or viewers, and a strong influence on public opinion or the industry.

If a PR agency or professional immediately responds with “Yes,” you should confidently end the conversation. No PR rep can offer a 100% guaranteed placement in international media unless it involves paid placements (advertorials) or sponsorship, with the content appropriately marked. The cost of such advertising can range from a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars, euros, or pounds. Instances where promotional content is published under the guise of editorial content do occur. But they were widely discussed and condemned in the industry, as was the case with this British agency. Engaging in such shady schemes is more likely to harm your reputation than enhance it. At worst, you could end up dealing with PR and media scammers, of which there are plenty.

Advertorials are an option, they are not necessarily to be avoided at all costs. However, PR professionals work mostly with “earned” media, not paid placements. To earn this media interest, it is first necessary to assess the newsworthiness of the startup. That means understanding the story of your business, finding interesting narratives within it, and matching them to the current context to engage journalists. You pay only for the professional expertise, but never for placement in specific media.

The most valuable news hooks for journalists that can be generated by startups include:

  • Securing significant funding rounds (the size necessary for coverage depends on the publication and industry trends);
  • Notable partnerships with other companies;
  • Expansion into new countries;
  • Launch of innovative products or services;
  • Hiring key executives or acquiring significant clients.

Keep in mind: each industry vertical is different. Some sectors have industry-specific media that cover all the aforementioned topics, while others do not. Carefully analyze the publications you are interested in and determine which news they cover. For example, to catch the interest of journalists at TechCrunch (a publication increasingly focused on the US market), a startup needs not only to secure a large funding round (typically starting from $10M) but also to offer a truly innovative product and have an interesting founder’s story. Certain verticals (e.g. femtech) and diversity founders that are underrepresented tend to have more chances even if they don’t raise double digits. 

Mistake 2: The “Spray and Pray” tactic

The international PR market offers numerous press release distribution services (newswires). For a substantial subscription fee, clients are promised distribution of their news across a specific list of publications, with guaranteed placements in some. Media brands such as Yahoo Finance or The Wall Street Journal might indeed seem tempting. However, it is important to note: most PR professionals are highly skeptical of these services.

Firstly, the contact lists offered are often very random, including generic editorial inboxes or even advertising departments. The likelihood that an email with your press release will be opened and reach the right journalist is extremely low. This is essentially a cold mailing approach based on the “spray and pray” principle. How often do you open similar emails in your own inbox?

According to the State of Journalism 2024 report by MuckRack, nearly three-quarters of journalists (73%) reject pitches because they do not match their beat. Even if you send 3-5 personalized pitches to journalists from publications that specifically cover your industry, it will be more effective than mass mailing through distribution services.

Secondly, regarding the guaranteed placements through newswires. Your brand indeed has the chance to appear on Yahoo Finance and about a hundred other websites. However, your news will likely be placed in a section titled “Press Releases” (or something similar) that does not appear on the main page of these outlets and is rarely visited by readers. Such distribution is also dubious from an SEO perspective. Out of curiosity, you can search for such a news item distributed via a newswire on Google. Most of them do seem to be ignored by search engines. 

Such newswires are predominantly used by public companies that are required to disclose information about their operations, financial results, etc. For them, it makes sense. However, for others, the main benefit of such wire distribution is often just a LinkedIn post where the founder can ‘fake it’ to appear as though they have made it to Yahoo Finance or so.

As a PR agency, we often recommend not spending money on PR unless there is confidence that it will bring tangible benefits. Today, most founders understand that the benefits of being published in a respected outlet are multifaceted: third-party validation, trust, prestige, differentiation. No one does it just for the traffic.

Mistake 3: PR = Press Release

A press release containing significant news or announcements about a company’s activities is indeed one of the main formats in PR for startups. Despite some skepticism, particularly from a “small but loud” sample, the press release in general, and especially fundraising announcements, remain an important tool in media relations for startups.

However, startups at seed or series A stages rarely have news that can truly interest top tier outlets, unless it involves a major scandal. In my practice, there are startups that haven’t produced significant news for a year or more. But this doesn’t mean they have nothing of value to say to this world.

In such cases, the thought leadership of the startup founders and C-level executives comes to the forefront. Do you have an original idea or want to express your stance on the biggest challenges in your industry? Are you convinced that your experience is unique and that other founders should hear about it? Do you see trends that others are overlooking? Most publications, from top tier to niche industry outlets, welcome high-quality contributed content. Just remember, this is not at all the place for self-promotion. Save that for the marketing blog on your website. Instead, share your industry pain points, personal experiences, and valuable lessons from your business story. This involves not just written articles (op-ed), but also participating in podcasts, speaking at conferences. Owned media tactics can further boost thought leadership, such as posting on LinkedIn.

Journalists often seek expert comments and stories for their articles. According to the aforementioned State of Journalism report by MuckRack, the most reliable sources for their stories are industry experts (82%), researchers (77%), and company CEOs (46%). Journalists requests for comments can be found through specific services like HERO or Qwoted, or directly on social media under the hashtag #journorequest. Take the time to prepare thoughts that are interesting and useful for the journalist. Even if they don’t make it into the final article, your quality contribution will be valued and foster further relationships.

Many publications are interested in startup profiles, interviews with founders, and insightful how-to advice. As initial steps in English-language PR for a startup, consider contributing to columns like Startup of The Day for AIN or niche media in your industry.

Mistake 4: Neglecting basic PR hygiene

Before launching any international PR campaign, the first thing we recommend to our startups is to conduct an internal PR hygiene check. Journalists, like potential investors, will investigate what information about your business is already publicly available before agreeing to share your startup’s story with their audience. Like a customer journey, journalists follow a specific path that includes:

  • Company and founders LinkedIn and X (Twitter) profiles. Your startup might interact with its B2C audience via Telegram, TikTok, Facebook, or Instagram. However, when pitching a story to a journalist or filling out a speaker application for an international conference, you will definitely be asked about your LinkedIn and X profiles for the company and founders. Despite discussions about the decline of X, it remains a dominant social platform for 36% of journalists (according to this year’s MuckRack survey), followed by Facebook (22%) and LinkedIn (17%). The role of LinkedIn is growing, with 44% of journalists planning to spend more time there this year. It’s crucial to ensure that your company’s profiles on these platforms are regularly updated and that founders and employees frequently post relevant content.
  • Public databases (CrunchBase, PitchBook, Dealroom). These sources are used by journalists and market analysts both for preliminary checks on startups and for compiling various public lists (listicles) of the most promising startups, industry overviews, and briefings. Make sure your company is on them and the information is up to date.
  • The “About Us” section on your company’s website. This is often the most neglected part of startup websites. Typically, the entire functionality of it is focused on the customer journey—to engage and attract potential clients. In 6 out of 10 cases, there will be no “About Us” section on a startup’s website. Even rarer is the presence of a “For Media” page with a press kit, downloadable photos, and contact information. This is precisely the place where a journalist will first look for information about your startup: how you describe your business, who the key team members are, what funding has been secured, and where the headquarters are located. Pay attention to this detail, and your time will certainly not be wasted.

Mistake 5: Expecting PR to immediately increase sales

Startup founders, like most business leaders, think in terms of KPIs and OKRs, profit growth, increased ROI, the dynamics of MQLs and SQLs, and other crucial indicators. It’s common for the PR function to be subordinate to (or completely absorbed by) the marketing department or specialist.

Attempting to “digitize” PR results similarly to marketing may seem utopian. How many sales will this article in TechCrunch generate? It might not result in any. PR’s role is not to drive sales, but to build brand recognition and trust, and to change attitudes and behaviors towards your product or service. It’s a long-term game, and its effects can be synergistic with other business development strategies.

However, the effectiveness of international PR can and should be measured—both through specific operational KPIs and by achieving business objectives. For example, the PR industry has long abandoned outdated metrics such as AVE (Advertising Value Equivalency). There is also skepticism regarding Share of Voice, especially for startups at various stages compared to large corporate competitors. Yet, it is possible and necessary to measure realistic metrics such as:

  • Website traffic from stories about your company in the media, your contributed content, interviews, etc.
  • Branded search terms which can help you understand if people are searching for your organization or not (Google Trends).
  • Growth in social media followers, engagement, and shares.

Time and resources invested in PR will not increase your sales here and now. However, by increasing brand recognition and trust, these efforts can help shorten sales cycles, attract new partners and potential investors, and create an attractive employer brand for hiring qualified talent. For this to occur, any PR activity must be strategic, meaning it should correlate with your organization’s goals.

Author: Nataliia Natalina, Senior PR Consultant at Black Unicorn PR