There are two kinds of PR. Why do most startups only do one (the worse one)?


When I say that there are two kinds of PR, there are no doubt more than two kinds. It’s just that I tend to divide PR into two kinds, as follows:

1.  Traditional PR – The sort that everyone does

2.  Non-traditional PR – The sort almost no-one does but which can be a secret weapon

Queen's Corgis - Spoonflower

But first some context:

Startups today need to be constantly in front of people. One flash of attention when they launch is not enough. They need rolling thunder – a never-ending launch, or the marketing equivalent of Mao’s “perpetual revolution”.

What I call “traditional PR” can work well for a traditional, one-off launch or when there’s something genuinely new and different to announce. Indeed, it’s often the best approach in both circumstances.

Once the launch is over, however, “non-traditional PR” is the best way of staying constantly in front of people, with idea after idea.

While traditional PR takes a more direct, on-the-nose, hard-sell approach, non-traditional PR takes a more indirect, oblique, under the radar approach.

Calm, Lulu, Badoo and others are among Think Inc clients that I’ve seen win huge competitive advantage by first understanding this distinction and then acting on it by commissioning non-traditional PR – alias quirky, creative PR; viral marketing/PR or guerrilla marketing/PR, among other jargon terms – when all their rivals were still just playing it straight and only doing the old-school, traditional, conventional PR.

Knowing how to do non-traditional PR well can therefore amount to a form of secret weapon. Indeed, one Think Inc client who understood this better than most once turned to me and declared just that: “We consider you our secret weapon”.

Yet few startups – or, indeed, other brands – even attempt it, let alone do it well.


Before I answer that, let me first describe a few more key differences between the two kinds of PR – starting with the following table, offering a quick summary; and then, below, some further explanation and examples.

1. Conventional/Traditional PR – The sort everyone does

This normally involves taking a more straightforward and direct “product-led” approach.

In other words, it starts with the product or service or brand, or whatever it is you’re selling, and then tells anyone who will listen how new and different and wonderful it is.

The accompanying pitch or press release will typically boast a headline starting something like “Brand X today announces … the launch of Y”.

This kind of PR is certainly worth doing – as part of things, at least – and, in the right circumstances, can be highly effective and, indeed, by far the best approach.

It works best, for example, when you’ve got something genuinely new and different to announce – a new product or service, a celebrity partnership, a funding announcement or some hard business news.

Once the launch announcement is over, however, and you’ve got nothing fresh to add, traditional PR has several drawbacks:

• It gives you less competitive advantage, since it’s also what everyone else is doing – and, what’s more, in more or less the same way, even if some brands may be doing it maybe a bit better than others.

• It can often involve chasing the story, hoping or pleading for a mention – as opposed to creating the story and therefore driving it.

• Even if it works when you launch something new, it makes it hard to KEEP making news and KEEP winning coverage, since it leaves you unable to answer questions such as:

• Yes, the launch went well – but what do you do for an encore?

• How do you avoid becoming last week’s news?

You’ve shot your bolt. You’ve had your say. And the media have moved on, in search of THIS week’s news, not last’s.

On a good day, when traditional PR yields a big, juicy piece of coverage entirely about what you’re selling – something that feels like an unpaid commercial, only better, since more credible – then it’s hard to beat.

On a bad day, however, it feels not just “traditional” but downright old-fashioned.

And the reason it does is that it dates from – was designed for – another age; a different, slower, quieter, more innocent, less sceptical age, when we all had fewer claims on our attention and much of marketing consisted of boasting that “Our washing powder washes whiter” or “Our car accelerates faster”.

Traditional PR is pretty much what PR folks were doing and how they were doing it decades ago … pre-Internet, pre-social media, pre- most things that have transformed the landscape, left us all battling a constant blizzard of information and created our modern “attention economy”.


2.  Non-traditional PR – The sort almost no-one does
… but which, done well, can therefore be a secret weapon

This is the kind that can also be called various other names, including the following:

• Creative PR
• Viral marketing
• Guerrilla marketing
• Guerrilla PR
• Buzz marketing
• Media neutral ideas
• Gonzo marketing
• Stunts
• “PR Jim, but not as we know it”
• Guerrilla content marketing

One of the ways that describe it is as … quirky, creative PR that spreads virally, delivering buzz, traffic, links, users and growth. I also like the term “Guerrilla content marketing”, which I coined, but it’s not yet one that others know.

Whatever term you use, the overall approach of this second type of “PR”/marketing, differs from that of traditional PR in at least two main ways:

First, it takes a more oblique, indirect, under-the-radar approach than traditional PR, which is more direct, straightforward and on the nose.

Second, it takes what’s known in the jargon as a “consumer-led” approach rather – rather than the “product-led” approach of traditional PR.

In other words, it starts with the target consumer or audience – rather than with the product or brand – and asks questions like:

• What is it that interests them?
• In an age of sceptical consumers, information overload and a constant tidal wave of information, when attention is   the scarcest economic resource, how can we hope to win our audience’s attention?
• Once we’ve won their attention, how can we then insinuate our brand into the story, so that our target users go from not thinking – or not even knowing – about us to doing both.

With non-traditional PR, the headline of the pitch or press release probably does not start with the name of the brand and may not mention it all. The brand, however, is baked into the story, in a way that makes it both integral and inescapable.

So, when my agency Think Inc commissioned the world’s first testicle cookbook, on behalf of the digital publishing platform,, the accompanying press release didn’t even mention Yudu until the fourth or fifth paragraph.

Yudu, however, was the only place on the entire web to read or check out the book – and got so much traffic as a result of the attention the book won that it promptly crashed from the volume of it.

Before talking more theory, let me first give some more examples of what I’m discussing:

• Baa Baa Land, an 8-hr, slow-mo movie about sheep standing in a field, doing nothing. Billed as “the ultimate insomnia cure”, it was one of many ideas that helped Calm grow from relative obscurity to become Apple’s App of the Year, the world’s top-grossing health app and first mental health unicorn.

• The Lost Grimm Fairy Tale – the first bedtime story generated by AI and the first new Brothers Grimm story in 200 years, which won Calm another shed-load of global coverage.

• The world’s first job ad for an “Emoji Translator” – that sparked a global media frenzy.

• The Blooker Prize, for books based on blogs [‘blooks’] – one of many ideas that helped the self-publishing site Lulu grow 7X in 18 months.

The above examples all illustrate the point that non-traditional PR is not just consumer-led but also idea-driven. The idea is the magic ingredient, the X factor, the secret sauce. Their success relies on quality of the idea, not the quality of the PR’s personal contacts, or who they’ve taken to lunch lately to “schmooze and booze”.

They are also all examples of what Seth Godin, the marketing guru and author, calls “purple cows” – things or products or, in this cases, pieces of content, that are inherently remarkable enough that people want to talk and write and post about them – as opposed to being harassed or bludgeoned into doing so.

Non-traditional PR is in the business of creating purple cows, whereas traditional PR is often in the business of taking unremarkable things and trying to interest others in them by trying somehow to sprinkle magic PR dust on them.

In non-traditional PR, in short, the media and broader interest is baked in, whereas in traditional PR, it is sprinkled on; or, at least, that’s the hope, since sometimes magic PR dust proves to be in short supply.

Traditional PR is serious; non-traditional PR has a twinkle in its eye

Traditional PR tends to be serious, if not earnest and/or self-important. Non-traditional PR is often irreverent – more likely to have a smile on its face. It wants to surprise and delight. On a good day, it can boast a kind of charm.

My aim in doing non-traditional PR is often to make others smile or laugh. One client described what I do as “Silly PR”. I took it as a compliment and now use the term myself.

This may be why market leaders and corporate behemoths tend to prefer traditional PR, whereas the best challenger and upstart brands are more likely to get the appeal of a non-traditional approach.


Non-traditional PR has various advantages over the traditional kind, including that:

• It gives you what every marketeer wants – more for less; or, in this case, more buzz for your PR buck.
• Instead of winning just one piece of coverage at a time, it can win a dozen or 50
or 100 or several 100 or more.
• It wins you more than your share of attention and helps you punch above your weight or budget.
• Helps you KEEP getting coverage, month after month, instead of just when you have something new to announce.                                                                                                                                                               It’s memorable. Successful examples of non-traditional PR lodge in the memory and get fondly recalled years later, whereas traditional PR rarely does (unless it goes disastrously wrong). 
• It can act like a kind of magic or alchemy – which reverses the force of gravity and turns the relationship between PR and journalist upside down. Instead of the PR chasing the journalist, suddenly it becomes the other way round.
• It gives you the biggest edge over your competitors, either most or all of which are unlikely to be doing this kind of PR.

While traditional PR can feel not just traditional but positively old-fashioned, designed for a bygone age, non-traditional PR feels more suited to the modern world.

One reason is that the Internet is, of course, a viral medium and non-traditional PR is designed to harness and leverage this.

Secondly, non-traditional PR is … sort of PR but it’s sort of other things too. It blurs the boundaries between marketing disciplines – and straddles at least three: PR, social media and content marketing (plus viral marketing, guerrilla marketing and stunt marketing).

So, a top PR exec at Yahoo, to whom I showed examples of Think Inc’s work, responded by exclaiming: “This is the Holy Grail: what everyone’s looking for; the sort of ideas that drive traffic and spread around the web.”

If everyone’s looking for ideas that go viral, another thing they are said to be looking for is “media neutral ideas” – ideas designed BOTH for pitching to traditional media AND to for sharing on social media … as well as in other ways, including old-fashioned word of mouth.


If one kind of PR is so much better than the other then why doesn’t everyone do it?

Good questions. There are various answers/reasons:

• It doesn’t occur to them to do; it’s not something they ever learnt or know or think about. They don’t know it’s a thing.

• It does occur to them to do but it doesn’t appeal – since, if the story’s not entirely about … them, them, them – putting their brand front and centre – then they can’t see the point or value. They just don’t get it.

• It does occur to them and they do see the point and value but they’re scared to do it – since it looks sort of risky, feels kind of scary.

• It does occur to them and they do see the value and they’re NOT scared and they wouldn’t mind doing it … but well, they don’t know how.

• It does occur to them and they do see the value and they also DO know how … maybe, sort of … every once in a long while, or year or two … when they have a great idea in the bath or the shower or when they’re walking the dog …

… but they then don’t know how to do it again … let alone again and again, month after month.


In Conclusion

There is undoubtedly a role for BOTH kinds of PR – both traditional and non-traditional kinds. In the right context, both are valuable.

If, however, you had to pick just one, or want the biggest buzz for your PR buck and the best ROI on your marketing budget, then non-traditional PR should surely be your choice.