How To Do AI Startup & Tech PR, Featuring AI Survey Insights

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Now, in an emerging market, is the time for AI startups to INVEST IN COMMUNICATIONS & build aN AI-PR program

From mainstream media to trade press and corporate blogs, artificial intelligence (AI) and generative AI (genAI), in particular, seems to be everywhere. In fact, it is. We found coverage on the topic was up nearly 3,000% in H1 2023 versus the previous period.

With red hot interest and hype cycle in full effect, it is a critical business moment for AI startups.

To help inform companies' AI PR efforts, we analyzed how the meteoric rise in news coverage translated to people's views and understanding of AI. We conducted a consumer survey and what we found was a big awareness gap and clear opportunities in PR for AI startups and companies.

The AI PR landscape

In December 2022, interest around generative AI exploded alongside ChatGPT's release and quick adoption. Here's what happened next:

  • Media boosted coverage, mostly around ChatGPT itself but also how the technology works, the risks, the influx of VC funding and more.
  • AI became a PR push for many companies (with an AI tech product and not).
  • Within six months "Corporate & Product News" jumped from 3rd to 1st on the list of top AI news topics by volume. Coverage shifted from ChatGPT and general business education to real-world application and impact.
  • Reporters were inundated with pitches offering AI experts and "news" and became more selective in what and who they wrote about.

Today, the requirements for AI PR success are steep. Sure, many people in the business world are aware of what big tech is doing (like Microsoft, who many say is winning the race). But many AI startups are still unknown entities and contending with new competitors emerging all the time.

The AI startups awareness gap

For those of us in the tech industry who have become well-acquainted with genAI, it’s tempting to assume the average American has followed its emergence just as closely and that awareness for other AI companies has followed OpenAI's ChatGPT.

While many AI startups are getting "big" (there are already 13 genAI unicorns, and they're getting to $1B+ valuations fast), brand awareness is lacking. Awareness in tech circles isn’t translating to the broader business world and certainly not to the general population.

Here is what our survey of 1,000 employed U.S. adults showed:

AI PR & marketing opportunities

Brand storytelling is one of the most powerful tools a business has. As Silicon Valley VC investor Ben Horowitz famously said, "The story is the strategy.... You can have a great product, but a compelling story puts the company into motion.

This is very true in the genAI and broader AI markets right now. It is a critical business moment as the AI hype cycle heats up.

It's no secret that companies with a really good PR presence tend to have more business velocity. But really good PR isn't easy, especially if a company waits to start in a more mature market where competition is all saying and offering something similar.

It's far easier to carve out awareness — and that coveted spot as market leader and media darling — early on, which gives a big leg up in attracting customers, talent and investors. Building a successful AI PR program to achieve this requires:

  • A unique narrative and ownable "white space"
  • Ongoing creation of high-value PR "assets" to share that narrative frequently (data, human interest stories, corporate news pipeline, etc.)
  • Audience-specific storytelling
  • The ability to work that story into news and market context

Here are the immediate PR opportunities for AI startups our survey uncovered:

Corporate communications & storytelling

Early-to-mid hype cycle is when market leaders and laggers are often made. The corporate leadership opportunity right now is big.

By creating a corporate storytelling engine — fueled by a pipeline of momentum news, thought leadership, newsjacking and greater purpose stories — and validation tactics (i.e., awards, analyst reports) AI startups can inch out ahead of competitors not yet embarking on PR. This opportunity diminishes as the space crowds, competitor stories are told, and the market matures.

Vertical education and demand

Our data showed that press are interested in real-world use cases. There's a big opportunity to do this for specific audiences by executing a vertical PR strategy. Companies should build out storylines and assets to demonstrate value and relevancy for key use cases per industry. This can take shape as original research, proprietary data, thought leadership around issues/challenges/events, etc. Customer stories, while hard to come by, are insanely valuable early on. We've used them to secure high-impact coverage, from trade outlet features to articles like this in The Wall Street Journal.

Trust building

Our survey showed a good amount of fear around AI, from privacy to job displacement. With industry regulation still in talks, the responsibility — and opportunity — lies with the AI companies themselves. Corporate/product PR and messaging needs to address and alleviate concerns (of buyers and end users). Steps to self-regulation can be an avenue to show good faith efforts as the industry continues to discuss how to establish governance standards. It can also be a PR play, pitched proactively if substantial enough or inserted into timely conversations via newsjacking.

Financial communications & IR

In our survey, of the 50% of respondents who invested in the stock market, 13% were already investing in AI company stocks. Another 43% were considering it. For AI companies whose goal is fundraising or IPO or ones who are already publicly traded, investment-focused PR can help create buzz, specifically, in investor audiences. The set of target publications is unique. So is the storytelling, which should focus on a growth and category transformation (or creation) narrative. We like to include these elements, as outlined by PWC: addressable market, growth drivers, company strategy, financial projects and deep talent bench.

We're still early-to-mid hype cycle, which means reporters are still interested in covering AI as a topic. However, their requirements for writing a story are already becoming greater. Angles and supporting PR assets need to be unique and build on coverage that already exists.

Now is the time for AI startups and companies to focus on corporate awareness and storytelling. Doing so now, as the market is still taking shape, not only positions a company as the market leader. The social proof and exposure help manifest actual market leadership by gaining reach and consideration ahead of competition.

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