How to use PR Firms at Startups

Posted on Jan 23, 2011 | 101 comments


One of the most frequent questions entrepreneurs ask about when they raise a little bit of money or are getting close to launching their first product is whether they should hire a PR firm.

There is obviously no black-or-white answer, but I’ve tried everything from working a large international agency, to hiring in-house people to doing it myself.  This post is a short guide to what I’ve learned:

1. PR is a process, not an event - For starters let me say that you shouldn’t do PR around milestones.  It’s a continual process.  You need to take months & years to build relationships with journalists.  You help them on stories, act as a source, develop real relationships, read their stories and eventually when you have news they’re more willing to have a conversation. They get pitched by so many blowhards that more genuine people who aren’t in it for just a story stand out from the crowd.  I wrote about how to build relationships with journalists in this post.

2. PR isn’t something that can be delegated – The other thing that tech execs often want to do is to delegate the PR to their marketing person. Obviously you should have somebody that helps you research journalists, gets you meetings, pitches stories, helps prep you for interviews & helps make sure your writing is cogent.  But some CEOs then try to have more junior people in the company take the interview.  In a startup this is a mistake.  Heck, even in a big, successful company like Salesforce.com the CEO, Marc Benioff, still takes many of the interviews himself.

The reality is that a journalist who’s writing a story about you – a relatively unknown entity – wants to hear directly from the founders and/or the CEO.  You have to learn how to interact with journalists, understand how to do interviews, understand how to frame a story and get comfortable with the fact that if you want PR coverage you’re going to have to dedicate a non-trivial amount of time to it.

I was talking a month ago with a founding team who was lamenting the fact that their competitors got way better coverage than they did when they felt that their traffic numbers were > 2x the competition.  I pointed out the fact that they only ever talked to the press when the had an announcement and that it was a continual process.  They seemed to understand what I was saying but not be interested in putting in the effort.  Their competitors took it seriously.  And as a result their competitors were able to raise a considerable VC round from well-known firms.

3. PR on a limited budget – So, should you use an external firm?  Let’s say you’ve raised only a modest sum of money (sub $2 million) yet you still want to get coverage.  In this instance I typically recommend that startups NOT hire a big, well-known PR firm.  My rationale is that you won’t have enough budget to be able to get enough of the senior team’s focus.

All too often I’ve seen senior PR people from big firms come in and pitch for new business to startups while having 22 year-olds who do all the work once it’s won.  And even then this newly minted college graduate will be working on multiple clients at the same time.  They don’t have enough billable hours to be able to really understand what you do or effectively pitch it.  Plus, with so many other clients they will likely be pitching a journalist several stories.

If you feel you need outside help I recommend either going with a small firm local to you or an individual who is working as their own agency.  You need somebody for whom your business is important enough for them to care about the results (and they’re obviously hoping you’ll grow and become more successful).  Actually, this is usually the same advice I give people about recruiters, accountants, lawyers and similar trade professionals.

There is one carve out.  There are some excellent PR firms that will occasionally take a “strategic view” on you as a startup.  Maybe they think you have a terrific background & solid investors so they’re betting you’ll become a big deal and they want to get in early.  I’ve seen this model work really successfully for others.  But generally I think it’s best to go small until you become larger and have larger budgets for PR.

One successful model has been to find the uber-connected people who led the shift in PR from traditional to social media – people like Brian Solis or Shel Israel - and work with them to drive extraordinary results relative to costs.  There are a few people out there with these skills but they’re in great demand.  And I know that Brian has a much broader practice now covering research, business strategy & change management.

4. PR in house – Equally I often recommend that teams hire somebody in-house.  You can do this by hiring somebody who has multiple functions of which one is PR, hiring an intern who has PR experience, hiring a consultant 2 days / week or hiring somebody full time.  Obviously this is dependent upon available budgets.

But as I often tell teams, working with an agency (in whatever capacity) is mostly a waste if you don’t have somebody on the inside of your company who is working closely with the outside firm.  You need somebody who is helping push out information on what is up-and-coming in the company.  You need somebody who can react quickly to inbound journalist questions.  You need somebody who is thinking laterally about how to creatively get extra attention at conferences or trade-shows.  You need somebody who REALLY understands your company, its customers and its competitors. And you need somebody who is committed to keeping up your presence in blogs, social media and other online forums.

At almost every portfolio company I work with I encourage them to think hard about hiring internal PR staff.  In my opinion it’s worth its weight in gold.   Whether we like to admit it or not, PR drives behavior with customers, investors, employees and competition.  What is said about you publicly matters.  And one of my favorite sayings about PR is, “if you don’t define the story about you, somebody else will.”  I believe in a good offense.

5. PR with a major firm – Once your business is scaling and you have the money to pay for a major agency I personally can’t think of any marketing budget that is more effective.  A great PR firm coupled with a business that is doing meaningful things is golden.  It’s the best marketing ROI in my opinion.  The ability to get inches in major journals (NY Times, WSJ, The Economist) as well as your industry trade journals and tech blogs in invaluable.  I can’t overstate how important it is in shaping influencers.  The number of stories that I have in my career about a senior executive who read about a company in a magazine on a flight, clipped the article and then followed up directly are numerous.

And when you work with an external PR firm you can’t keep them on a short leash, trying to measure their immediate impact one whether they got you X number of articles or Y numbers of inches.  It will take them time to know your company, socialize your story with the right journalists, wait until those journalists are gearing up to write relevant stories, etc.  You need to have a longer-term view on PR results.

Some final thoughts on PR

1. Be authentic – Nobody likes being spun.  Nobody likes talking to a robotron who spews out corporate BS again & again like a politician on a Sunday morning talk show avoiding the questions.  Talk like a human.  Give real answers.  Show a sense of humor and humility.  I notice, for example, that some CEO’s on Twitter never do anything but parrot their companies news.  I find this so inauthentic.  And then others will send out company info but occasionally show a human side.  Always more appealing.  That’s why keeping a personal blog is so great.

2. Have a point-of-view – Too many senior executives are risk averse when it comes to talking with the press so they tend to either be milquetoast in their responses or sit on the fence.  That’s fine if you’re a senior exec at Apple – you’ll get inches anyways.  But for you as a startup you need to have a point-of-view on topics.  You need to be wiling to take risks and be out-on-a-limb with your views.  I’m not talking about being aggressive against companies, disparaging people or saying inappropriate things to get covered.  I see too many people who do that.  But be willing to have an informed view about – GroupOn, Google doing social networking, whether apps is a better metaphor than browsers, whether Quora is really a transformational product – whatever!  In doesn’t have to be these cliched topics – you just have to have & express opinions.

3. Don’t cry wolf - There are companies who send press releases every time they launch anything – practically putting out press releases announcing they fixed a bunch of bugs.  And then when they have substantive news they’re surprised that nobody takes it seriously.  Make sure you’re not spewing out meaningless reams of press releases.  It’s OK to push out extra ones on your website or blog.  It’s OK to produce a lot and then selectively push them out via different news sources.  Just don’t spam people.  Or when you send the good stuff it will get lost in the sauce.

4. Get media training - One of the most useful exercises I did with a major agency was “media training” where they taught me how to do interviews & how to handle TV.  It was invaluable and has shaped my press interviews ever since.

I’m the kind of person who likes to answer every question in detail.  I feel it’s my duty to respond to every question and make sure the person asking understands my answer.  The problem with this in interviews is that you can take an interview totally off course of the journalists asks questions that aren’t relevant to your story.  Media training helped me figure out how to keep interviews on track and focused on the story I’m trying to communicate.  They taught me to keep things simple and repeat the key points to make sure that they come across.

Thank you to Nathan Lustig who reminded me to included this by writing his excellent commentary here in the comments section, the key points of which are:

“We hired a PR firm to help us for about 2 months around our launch. They helped us get some good stories, but their biggest value add to me was that they gave my cofounder and me media training and actionable feedback.

They gave us a few mock interviews, helped us distill our 8-10 big points into the three most important that would interest journalists most and then listened to us giving our for 5-6 interviews. Then we did “after action reports” where the person who listened in told us what we did well and where we sucked.”

This is some of the most valuable knowledge you will acquire the first time you work with a PR firm.

*** Appendix (just an aside, no need to read):
Wait a second.  How can you advise on PR?  You? The guy who has typo’s in every blog post?

Once / month I get comments on my blog about how horrified some reader was because I spelled your as “you’re” or some similar mistake.  Yes, I went to school.  And I actually got pretty decent grades in English and writing overall.  And yes I learned that you can’t start a sentence with “and.”

When I write I’m looking for human tone rather than perfect sentences.  I write on my blog how I think in my head.  When I write business letters I use perfect sentence structure.  And complete sentences.  And no irony.  I optimize for output of thoughts over spelling perfection.  If I worried about that latter I’d write half as much.  Which I know would greatly please those who are so annoyed by typos ;-)

  • http://twitter.com/kateschackai Kate Schackai

    Karina,

    Direct relationships are part of the story, but reputation and experience are probably more important. You might get a super-eager intern who wouldn't know to find out which reporters like to be contacted on Twitter, and which think it's unpardonable. But you could go the other way and get a big firm that (amazingly) doesn't participate well in social media. The mix that works for us is something of a reverse mentorship; partnering an experienced PR vet with, well, me. (I come from the world of web development, SEO, and blogging.) A boutique firm with that kind of structure and experience in your industry is probably your best bet. Good luck!

    Kate