4 Scary PR Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Nobody wants a message to go viral for the wrong reasons. Right?

Published on Oct. 17, 2023
 4 Scary PR Mistakes and How to Avoid Them
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This past week I had a new business call and asked the founder why they wanted to initiate my PR services. The response I got— something along the lines of wanting stories in a major business newspaper and in that paper only — was downright terrifying, but ultimately saved me from making the mistake of working with a nightmare client.

What Makes a PR Mistake Scary?

A PR mistake is scary when it results in the opposite of what was intended: A negative article, not a positive one; an interview that goes viral for all the wrong reasons; an off-the-cuff comment that finds its way into print; or total loss of consumers’ trust.

What’s even more frightening is that this happens so many times.

So few startups understand what PR is and the long-lasting value it brings. They fail to approach it with a plan and generally feel it’s not a necessary requirement for the business year-round. As a result, startups continue experiencing one scary PR disaster after another. I mean, just look at your social media timeline and you’ll see what I’m talking about. 

It’s no wonder many startups have a ghost-like online presence and barely have any buzz to their brand beyond a funding announcement (yawn). Below are four strategies to keep your PR efforts from turning into a horror story. 

More From Brennan Nevada JohnsonGhosted by a Journalist? No Need to Be Scared.


Read the Room

Take a look at the year that’s almost over. Countless startups have posted content and messaging that is utterly obtuse or highly offensive, for instance the CEO who uploaded a video of himself crying after laying off his staff during the biggest layoff binge the tech industry has ever seen. If this person had asked their PR team before posting the video, this cringey incident might not have happened. 

Being able to read the temperature of the room and what’s happening at the cultural moment is so important when initiating PR and getting your message out there. It’s critical that startups do not use communications during turmoil as a way to promote their product or services. You can usually spot startups that are guilty of this; they lack purpose or intent and very rarely have a CTA. These missteps tends to happen around monumental holidays like Black History and Pride months or around headline-making global events.


Get Your Product Ready First

Startups sometimes try to use PR as a way to mask a bad product or business strategy. Sometimes they try to engage PR before being ready. Ready can mean many things, but in this case it means having a product that actually works and can be demonstrated, reviewed or analyzed by a journalist or consumer. 

Many startups have a bad product with a poor NPS (net promoter score) and expect PR to solve that problem with juicy headlines. I usually try to secure a product or app review for my clients when we first start working together so I can see what a journalist thinks of their mission. Here’s why: When a founder explains something to you, it’s like it’s the best thing ever and it will change the world. A journalist, though, will give a product a more down-to-earth assessment. 

And let’s be honest. As a PR expert, I know it’s nearly impossible to secure impactful and positive press coverage when you’re trying to push something with little market fit or that the media won’t write about. Pitching bad products or boring insights can ruin your reputation, but don’t expect me or any other reputable PR person to help you. 


Trust Your PR Team

Trust is earned in PR — with the client and the journalist and the PR professional. You have to have trust your PR team for your PR to be successful. So, when you work with a team on an interview or a live event and then choose to ignore every single talking point they’ve crafted, you’re telling your team you don’t trust them. 

All I can say is expect constant turmoil if this is the case. Rogue interviews have to be one of the most haunting and stressful situations that your PR professional will have to deal with. It’s PR, not the ER. I’ve witnessed interviews completely go off the rails because of a careless client. or an off-the-cuff statement made on the record that eventually got published and destroyed a brand.

This is why I am on every single media interview with my client, listening in, ready to jump in and get the situation under control if it goes left. Or my clients who know better will reference me on the call to check if they can answer the reporter’s question. 

Finally, you might be that client who can’t be put in front of a journalist. If your PR person tells you that, trust them.

More PR Advice for StartupsIs Your Startup Ready for PR? 3 Factors to Consider.


Have a PR Team 

Startups that don’t have a PR team, whether in house or an agency, are making a grave mistake. It’s no secret that the most successful and profitable startups with memorable brands have PR teams and budgets allocated to them. 

A PR team helps startup leaders create their messages and react and engage in real time. That’s invaluable. So many startups only rely on social media or a blog that no one follows to share their POV. And putting too much emphasis on advertising will never be enough to build credibility and awareness because it’s painfully obvious that you paid for that article. 

My last piece of advice? View PR as a long-term investment and include it in any plans or decisions that involve your company’s growth and plans to scale efficiently.

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