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://10pens.com sikakkar

    Mark – this is really helpful! As someone who has struggled with getting PR exposure on an extremely limited budget (and continue to struggle with it), the most useful tactic I have used is to use people I meet in real life. This means going to events which are very socially oriented and following up with people. People are so much more likely to respond to your emails/calls if they've talked with you before.

  • http://twitter.com/bryanjroy Bryan Roy

    Incredibly spot-on. As someone who has grown up with journalism experience and is now venturing into the startup world, this is exactly the mindset any journalist has. They're looking for great stories to tell, and if you've got a unique angle that is an easy pitch, odds are they'll want to tell it.

    After all, today's journalists are measured by page views and traffic (unfortunate, but let's save that for another time). Even if the angle is obvious to you, think about the stories you read and why they're covered.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    that's for sure.

  • http://www.ryanborn.net ryanborn

    Great post and love the 1,2,3,4,5 format. I might add a extra point under final thoughts about using PR for links. It's an integral item for a well rounded SEO strategy. If you're a business that's reliant on search, then press without link backs containing good anchor text is a missed opportunity for some easy SEO juice.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    That's for sure. And that's one I personally struggle with. I never bug people to give me better link anchor text so often the link is “Mark Suster” or “blog post” – both of which are wasted SEO opportunities.

  • http://ralphhaygood.org/ Ralph Haygood

    All this strikes me as very sensible. I'm curious about something, though. You said, “You need somebody for whom your business is important enough for them to care about the results…Actually, this is usually the same advice I give people about recruiters, accountants, lawyers and similar trade professionals.” Lawyers too? Meaning you don't advise entrepreneurs to go with marquee firms like Gunderson Dettmer, Wilson Sonsini, etc.? These firms have so many clients, many of them big, that one little startup presumably doesn't matter much to them. I'd welcome your opinion about this.

  • http://www.marketingprvisie.com Remco Janssen

    I work as a freelance PR-consultant out of Amsterdam, and one of my most valued clients is a (former) European tech startup who has been hiring me for a couple of days a week. This works like a charm. 'Cause I've been doing this gig for quite some time now, I know all the ins and outs of the company and thus I am perfectly capable of acting as a spokes person for the company in the local market. Even when only visiting the office every 2 or 3 months. I have never even spoken to out US PR agent in person!

    I love working like this so much – home office and the occasional travelling – that I'm focussing my business more around tech startups. No, that's not an open invite to contact me for consulting. I'm just pointing out that from both sides of the 'job' this formula is really successfull. Although I might have to add that this company has a real good vibe, people wise ;-).

    Great post, btw! It would be very useful to show future clients and to make a PR roadmap in terms of further growth. Usually techies think they just build the new twitter/facebook, even those companies need good PR folks! Some – Facebook – more desperate then others!

  • Martin Campbell

    As a seasoned PR and lobbying consultant with the grey hair to match, thought it worth saying that this is the most sensible advice I have ever read – for both start ups AND for successful medium sized businesses. Ironically, I think one of the reasons the little guys can out manoeuvre the really big boys is that they are not slowed/watered down by the “We must use a major agency” curse. I cut my PR teeth client-side at Virgin Direct (now Virgin Money) when it set up and wish I had read this advice back then – but have learned it all since through real life experience, especially with start ups. My own work with Zopa.com who tried using other, big agencies, but found me and the model you espouse to be vastly more effective, makes a great case study to support your case. The bottomline proof is here – the coverage I have helped them enjoy as their business continues to boom http://bit.ly/4B6uyJ.

    And loved your comments re typos etc – bang on!!

    MC

  • http://tonepedia.com/blog Danny Strelitz

    And I like it (after the appendix I had to start with an and).
    Some of the final points on PR are also excellent for social presence, in some ways, talking to the press and maintaining a social presence as a start up founder / employer are the same. You have to be aware that your social image and your startup image interact to almost one. People will be more likely to like your product more if they like the person behind it., and keep a conversation flowing.

  • http://mikeschinkel.com MikeSchinkel

    Thanks for another great post. I'm forwarding to one of my friends who does what I'd called “Fractional PR” for startups.

    Oh, and don't worry about the pedants. The value you are producing is likely 2 orders of magnitude compared to that which is likely produced by someone who agonizes over the fact that you included and didn't not include an apostrophe. Let them get a life.

  • http://twitter.com/davidsmuts David Smuts

    PR is usually so-under-rated by Entrepreneurs and so often bundled in or confused with Marketing as you pointed out. From my personal experiences I have also learned that:

    1) If you're in Tech and taking on a PR agency make sure they are tech-savvy. I've had some big name PR firms who claim to be digital focused yet remarkably are still very much old school PR. I often find some of the younger PR entrants much more tech savvy. It seems to be a generational thing.

    2) I hate paying retainers, but if I do, I make sure it's on the lower end as I am much more eager to apply PBR (Payment By Results). I also find younger PR firms seem to be more flexible on this.

    3) Don't assume your PR agency can do all things! a) they are NOT Marketing agents for you and b) they usually have a strength in one area but may need help in other arenas of PR (for example Investor Relations). In other words, select the right PR firm for the right job, this may mean having more than one agency, or at least supervising that your sole agency is reaching out to their PR peers for gap-filling.

    Sorry for the words full!

    PS- loved your appendix at the end- Fook the spelling and concentrate on writing your blog- it's highly valued!

  • http://twitter.com/davidsmuts David Smuts

    Oh one more tid bit I learned-

    Don't sign up to paying your PR agency a fee for sending you links to your coverage. I paid £1+VAT for each link they gave me which doesn't sound too bad until you have about 500 mentions which I was equally able to locate myself on Google. In fact, there were more links that they had missed, so they could have charged me more! They should send the links as part of the service and not charge disbursements for this in my view and the effort involved does not justify the cost. It took me an hour to discover over 500 links via Google (the most important ones of course came up in the first few pages). Have your in-house guy do this for half an hour every week/fortnight instead.

  • http://twitter.com/Sirachm Sirach Mendes

    Mark, very different article than your usual post

    I belive PR in-house is the best option from my past experience with a start up i worked in- only drawback is the cost of permannent employee. Again PR takes time and its always good to hire a PR person revelant to your industry or who gets it – otherwise it causes more damage than usual

    I have noticed that some PR execs dont really know how to use social media – either use it too passively or aggressively.
    Future PR will be having good relationships with bloggers and social media sites rather than traditional media.

  • http://analytikainc.com/blog/ John R. Sedivy

    Hi Mark – Thanks for blogging about this topic – I found it useful and you covered all the bases. Definitely timely and relevant to our business and worth considering for any company, especially a start-up. I appreciate your authenticity in your blog posts and willingness to share your experiences.

  • http://www.nathanlustig.com Nathan Lustig

    Mark, good tips. 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.

    I don't know if this is the norm for PR firms since I've only hired one so far, but if it's not, I'd suggest asking the firms you're talking to if they provide similar training. It was the most useful part of our PR spend and has helped us get quoted in 100s of places, even after our time with the firm was over. I wrote about what our experience taught me on my blog:http://ow.ly/3J1k7

  • http://twitter.com/CoopersPick CoopersPick

    Mark,

    Perhaps this post could ignite an idea for PR firms to go that extra length for their clients by implementing new strategies where (if applicable) the individual(s) assigned to the project should go and work in house at least once a week to get a better vibe for the company, how the inner workings flow, what progress they are making, new ideas, etc…. Do you think this would be a more efficient manner for PR firms to show that they are serious about them being immersed in their culture to truly understand and properly pitch the media

  • http://twitter.com/Vausey Jacki Vause

    Excellent, excellent blog. I couldn't agree more with you. Brilliant advice for start ups.

  • janetaronica

    I agree with 99% of this, especially the idea of hiring someone in-house. Honestly you can probably get an in-house marketing person (you'll need a “ninja” who can handle a lot of tasks) who could coordinate PR, marketing, social media & community stuff for the price (probably a lot less actually) than you'd pay in PR firm retainer fees if you're in the $2million or less funding range. And I've heard from some journalists that they are more receptive to in-house pitches, but then again it's all about the relationships you build as you as the PR person – in-house or agency regardless. This is the situation at my startup at least, I coordinate our incoming queries + all marketing related stuff. It's a lot of work, but I think that because I came in w/ previous agency experience I was able to save us cash on hiring an agency and make it work. I wouldn't say that hiring an intern with PR experience is the same equivalent though. You need someone with a few years under his or her belt. Intern to me implies an undergrad, and typically for this much responsibility you need someone who is ready for more independence that is only honed by the confidence that comes from professional experience. Just my take.

  • jshirley

    Thanks again, Mark.

    For the last few months, every time I'm struggling with some point you pop up with a blog post that goes a long way towards helping me figure it out and understand it.

    This post, the “How to talk about competitors” and the VC pitch/deck posts have been priceless as I work through this.

    I have no idea how the previous generation of entrepreneurs made it without the wealth of information and blog posts :) Y'all are hardcore.

  • http://twitter.com/kluoma Kristian Luoma

    Thanks! Being in a start-up and being bombarded with PR offers, this is a good read!

  • http://twitter.com/kullar pardeep kullar

    A very timely post lol. I've just been wracking my brains on this subject and these are exactly the things I was struggling on!.

    The internal PR person is an interesting option although I keep thinking mmm student? No experience but would learn fast, social media marketing pro? Not necessarily the same thing as PR but has a different angle. Actual PR professional? Possibly the best option although only if we have the funds.

    Currently doing a decent job of it myself as I know the product so well so bringing someone up to speed is painful time spent – i guess the answer may be to find someone who would bite our legs off for the opportunity and has the talent!

  • http://mikecollado.wordpress.com/ mikecollado

    Great post! Having worked in marcom at multiple startup and small technology firms, I too believe that PR is a critical marketing strategy but it often misses the mark. Because these businesses are often driven by technologists with little marketing experience, there tends to be a false belief that agencies or marketers can turn on a PR spigot and coverage flows. Frustrations ensue, blame gets assigned and confidence in the value of marketing diminishes…

    As you point out, PR is a process and it takes time to get results: companies need to engage and nurture relationships with journalists and bloggers – just like AEs do with buyers.

    Also, CEOs need to embrace the role of spokesperson in the same way they go on sales calls. In PR, passion triumphs over polish.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes, that's exactly what I meant. I had some big name law firms that pitched me, I selected them and then I got the junior staff. And here's the kicker – even the junior staff told me that they weren't allowed to work on our account before 10pm!

    The reality is that when your lawyer works for HP, Google, Microsoft or any other big multi-million billing company and you – guess who's going to get the attention?

    There ARE some big firms – DLA Piper is one, Fenwick & West is another – who have “venture practices” where some of the partners specifically focus on venture.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks, Remco. Yes, the relationships are valuable for both tech startup and small consultancy. The reason it works so well is that you're important to them and vice versa. And even better if you form a long-term relationship that is working. That is where the startup really gets great value for money.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I remember Zopa from the UK. I think Julie Meyers was always pushing me to talk to them. I'm glad to hear they're still around. Thanks for writing.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    LOL. re: social media – agreed. I didn't make that point clearly enough but tried to. When I was talking about CEO's who are inauthentic on Twitter I find myself unfollowing them. Then there are others who really engage and you feel like you know them even when you've never met. Huge difference.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Fractional PR. I like that. As startups we often encourage fractional CFOs. I'm usually OK with apostrophe's – it's those damn semi-colon's rules I can never remember! ;-)

  • http://twitter.com/AgentMagnetic Jason!

    This is a great post Mark. I've discovered some new and useful ideas from your post. The “cry-wolf” section certainly resonates with me. In fact, all your points above will be added to my own PR Manifesto. Thanks for putting this together.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks, David. Nice to hear from you again! Happy new year.

    re: your suggestions – I agree with most of them. The only one I sometimes caution people on is number 2 – pay by results. Now, in theory I love PBR for almost everything. But in PR this can often be harder to define AND it takes a while to measure results in inches. I see many startup CEO's who get frustrated too early in working with the PR firm. And/or the CEO doesn't put in the effort and they are partially to blame for the lack of results.

    But your points (including below) are well taken.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yeah, there are modern people like Brian Solis who really get social media. Some old-school PR firms don't.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    100%. I'm adding your comment to my original post. Thanks for mentioning.

  • Drew

    Mark,

    I was wondering what your feeling were as to having the CEO/founder do the PR. Would this be stretching them too thin and diverting them from more important tasks, or is it better that they become the face of the company?

    And yes, I'm just putting a company together, so the hypothetical CEO is yours truly. Cheers and thanks in advance!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Funny you should say so. We always required it! We asked the junior staff to work out of our for a few weeks – even when they were working on other client work. We wanted them to become an embedded part of our team.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    No, I was thinking an “intern” who had real work experience. We increasingly see some interns who have real work experience – even people who aren't undergrads. They might be getting a master's degree or might have worked but just want some extra experience. And I wasn't thinking the intern would lead your PR initiatives – just somebody to help coordinate activities.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks, Jay. re: previous generation – we just made a lot more mistakes and had to figure it out as we were going along!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    CEO has to do MUCH of the PR but you want leverage, which is why you need somebody else who's helping with all of the hours of prep it takes so you can focus on your other important activities.

  • http://www.prudentcloud.com Subraya Mallya

    I could not emphasize the point enough on the build relationships and be authentic. I write a blog and get pitched every day by yet another “Cloud Computing” vendor. I routinely reject companies that offer to have their Sales or Marketing guys talk to me. Especially in a startup, the vision is driven mostly by CEO or CTO or a Founder in different role. Having someone in Sales do the interviews makes no sense at all. In terms of having PR – companies also using the “Spray and Pray” model to attain the traffic numbers but when they pivot don't bother to circle back and give an update. Goes back to your build long term relationships post.

  • http://mikecollado.wordpress.com/ Mike Collado

    Agree with your recommendation on handling PR in-house. For the $10k/mo. in retainers for an agency whose AM splits time between multiple accounts, I'd rather hire someone who is focused 100% on my business. I simply don't buy the agency argument that only they know how to talk to journalists or that they can influence whether a journalist writes about your company. A good story is a good story.

    WRT social media… True, some PR execs don't get it, but the same is true on the corporate side. A pet peeve of mine is the belief that retweeting every article about your industry constitutes social media.

  • http://www.inmedialog.com Francis Moran

    I hear so much bad counsel about PR come from senior people in the technology sector that I have an entire presentation subtitled, “Everything I know that's wrong about PR I learned from technology company executives.”

    I'd have a hard time adding even one word to that presentation based on this post, which makes for a pleasant and refreshing change. It's nice to see there are folks out there who have experienced effective PR and who understand where and how it can value to even the youngest startup.

    Thanks for that, Mark.

  • Drew

    Thanks for the reply, Mark. I wonder if your, or any VC firms, looks down on startups that include a full-time PR guy in the initial business plan, or do they expect that there will be at least one addendum to the business plan to accommodate increased PR as the company grows? Again, thanks for the reply.

  • http://twitter.com/MikePmalai Mike Pmalai

    “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. …Their competitors took [PR] seriously. And as a result their competitors were able to raise a considerable VC round from well-known firms.”

    I found this really interesting. How much does “good PR” affect fund raising? Especially in the early stages when valuations seem temperamental and can really sway to things like “social proof”, does good PR actually generate enough “demand liquidity” to influence pre/post money valuations?

  • http://twitter.com/mariawv Maria Wich-Vila

    Couldn't agree more — the mock interviews, etc. are things that truly great agencies do and (having worked with both Very Big Name firms and smaller ones) is the sort of help that a big agency will never give you unless you're paying them beaucoup $$$. So in the early days, I'd go scrappy and small agency any day for that level of personalized attention.

    In terms of picking a smaller firm, some things I'd also ask are:

    1) Point me to actual interviews and stories you've gotten for other clients. I learned the hard way that anyone can *claim* to be BFFs with important reporters in your industry's trades…but that claim can be the agency equivalence of vaporware :) Ask for proof via actual coverage for other clients, and for the chance to talk to existing clients if possible. If they don't offer up other clients, track down current/previous clients yourself (hint: lots of smaller firms will keep the logos of long-gone clients up on their websites in an effort to look larger than they actually are…)

    2) After the initial meeting with a potential firm (could be immediately after the initial mtg. or a few days later), ask them to pretend that *you* are a reporter and have them quickly pitch you your own business. This is a VERY quick and easy way to gauge if they “Get It” or not (you're not looking for them to get it 100% perfect, but at least to “get” the key points of what your main hooks are, what makes you different, etc.) [sad story below]

    3) In addition to Nathan's great points in his blog post, one more thing I'd try to ask after an interview with a blogger (not the bigger, professional reporters) is for a chance to quickly look over the story (especially your quotes) before it goes to print for *factual* review… NOT to airbrush out any negative comments, but rather to make sure they quoted you properly and got the facts straight. Can be cringe-inducing to finally get an interview and then realize once it's in print that they spelled your company's name wrong, or made an honest mistake and said you have a feature you don't have, etc. If your agency has a good relationship with the blogger, they can ask this in a friendly way (or can guide you if it's cool to ask this particular blogger or not).

    *Sad-but-true story: we once hired a so-called “expert” small firm in our field who allegedly “specialized” in our industry….they not only dramatically exaggerated reporter relationships (which became clear when our stories got zero coverage), but they did NOT understand our product AT ALL. We would get press release drafts from these folks that had fabricated hooks based on flat-out lies about what our product did…and then they got our CEO a coveted speaking engagement at a prestigious conference…BUT it was to speak about a segment of our industry that had absolutely nothing to do with us. Not even close. So: worthless. In fact it was so off-base we had to *withdraw* him as a speaker (which was a little embarrassing) …this firm ended up doing more *damage* than anything else! (thankfully we later found a WONDERFUL small agency that was a dream come true…but it was a long, error-filled road to get there!)

  • Myrawaiman

    thank you very much for a well thought out and presented summary of the pluses and minuses of using , winning and losing pr .
    i will definitely pass this on to the start-ups that i work with.

  • http://www.patternbuilders.com Mary

    Great post on the value of PR. I'll add one thing that I've found invaluable whether you go with a big firm, small one, or consultant: make sure that the folks you're working with understand your story, the value you bring to the market, and are excited about it. The PR team–inhouse or out–should be looked on as a part of your company. This means that you should look on this almost as a part of recruting–you are looking for a great fit and if it's not there, don't engage.

    I once worked with a PR firm in SF where I did not like the co-heads of the agency at all. However, the two account managers assigned to us were the “best” I've ever worked with–the coverage we got after engaging them went up 250% within 6 months. I selected the agency (and those managers) after extensive interviews with many account teams–the team I went with “got us,” could quickly articulate our value, and were excited about what we brought to the table. The lesson I learned was that it is not so much about the agency but the people from that agency who work with you on a daily basis.

  • Josh Webb

    A helpful, but mostly just hilarious, reminder on semicolon usage: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/s

  • Josh Webb

    All PR aside, I think that a lot (probably the vast majority) of people could take a lot out of this “media training”. This is essentially pitch coaching, interview training, and speaking tips all in one.

    Like Mark, I have a tendency to want to “fully” answer a question. This carries with it the chance to send the conversation down a deep rabbit hole from which escape is almost impossible. I am quite certain that this training is worth its weight in a variety of precious metals.

  • http://www.facebook.com/meshugineh Joel Wishkovsky

    A great and helpful primer on PR.

    Your “*** Appendix” is what really clinched me on sharing it though…human tone is so often lost in today's BS PR cycle.

  • Roger

    Mark–as they say in talk radio, long time listener, first time caller. I spent 30 years in the PR agency business in CA working for startups and larger companies. Your post is absolutely spot on. I would make one slight modification, however. It seems as if you suggest migrating up to a large firm once the business has scaled. That might be the way to go but I wouldnt cast aside the smaller, independent firm too hastily. It all comes down to the team working on your business. A program with vast needs and a substantial budget would still only warrant an agency team of maybe 5-6 people, working part time on your business. It's just finding the right team, with the complementary skill set to execute the right program. That team may be found within the largest, global PR firm or it may be an expanded team within the agency that helped get you to this point.

  • http://markharai.com Mark Harai

    This post hits the nail on the head Mark. You are obviously very knowledgeable about PR and value proposition it offers startups. If done properly (as you've point out), it can do more for your startup than budget spent anywhere else in your marketing efforts.

    Cheers to you for the insight!

  • http://twitter.com/rkillgo Russell Killgo

    Typos make it real. And can be used to start a sentence according to the movie Finding Forester when you are inferring inflection. And, as I have said before, I am still new to this. But I am a quick learner and I'm figuring stuff out on the fly. That being said… Mark, I am fascinated by the depth in which you discuss the VC process. I have learned to surround myself with smarter people than me on certain things. Would you be willing to be a consultant to me on my new start-up website which I am CEO of. I am not sure if this is a highly unusual request or not. But I was thinking of a 1% equity stake for you. If the site gets bigtime, then it's found money for you. Please let me know what you think. — Russell