Is hiring a PR Agency the secret to startup success — or the road to failure?
Here’s how to think about this important decision.
The discussion board at one of the nation’s most prestigious startup accelerators lit up recently when a founder asked whether he should hire a PR firm to announce his recent funding round. I followed the passionate discussion that ensued as founders described what they saw is the best way to get good press for their startups. As a mentor at the accelerator, I followed the discussion for a few days before posting my reply. This article is an extended version of that post.
Good PR is hard. So let’s start with several key truths and ideas that frame the discussion:
- PR is a means to an end, not the end itself. The end is a specific company goal: more customers, a successful investment round, better hires. Make sure the PR you seek is achieving more than simply impressing your mom.
- Breaking through the noise is difficult, no matter if someone is working on your behalf or if you’re doing it yourself. The media landscape is noisy and crowded.
- PR is unpredictable. Sometimes you’ll score a major hit with little or no effort, and other times months of work come to nothing.
- PR is a long-term commitment. It is not a transactional undertaking. Impact is cumulative, sometimes easy to see yet often hard to measure.
- PR is worth it — but not always, and not always visibly. It can have an enormous impact and change the trajectory of the company by generating the right sales, investments, or hires. You can also end up with a bunch of feel-good PR that does little to advance your company goals.
- No one cares more about your company than you do. Which makes you the best person to manage and lead press outreach. On the other hand, you’re already way too busy, and it’s hard to stay focused on a task that yields sporadic payoffs when you have a million other pressing deadlines.
- There is no silver bullet. Working with an agency, retaining a consultant, hiring staff, or doing it yourself all have trade-offs.
Like almost everything else in a startup, you’re almost always better off learning as much as you can about an area of expertise before handing it off a professional (whether internal or external). No one cares about the company’s success more than you do, and if you have a good feel for the complexities, you’ll be a much more sophisticated customer for whoever you work with later. Perhaps most importantly, good messaging for your company is not an afterthought to running a successful company. Positioning your company effectively is a core aspect of strategy and success.
So I recommend the following steps:
- Identify the goals you want to reach, and the audiences you’ll need to address in order to do so. This is often pretty straightforward: more customers, more investors, better hires, happier employees, and/or impress industry peers. Customers often split into multiple broad categories, for example if you’re running a 2-sided marketplace.
- Clarify what message each of those audiences needs to hear. What problem does your product solve? What benefits does your product provide? What objections do you have to overcome? Related to that, what misconceptions, outdated framing, or competitor messaging do you need to address?
- Upgrade your website with that new messaging. For most businesses, and certainly for almost all B2B businesses, the website is a key destination for almost every audience you’re trying to reach. And there’s no point in generating visibility and traffic only to point them to a leaky conversion bucket. Think through the following: a) Which of the audiences you identified in step 1 will come to the website? b) What state of knowledge will they be in when they reach your site? c) What action do you want your visitors to take after visiting your site? Be realistic on how far down the funnel you can get them after their initial visit. Give multiple call-to-action options if necessary.
- Create other supporting documents. Case studies, thought leadership articles, and white papers are typical examples.
- Figure out where to reach those audiences. Often the answer is way more niche than you think — great potential employees probably spend more time on a niche industry-specific job board than reading the New York Times. Many B2B businesses would similarly be better off targeting industry publications than general interest ones.
Step 5 is what people typically think of when they think “I need PR!” Don’t go to step 5 unless you’ve done the first 4. To get going on step 5, think through WHY anyone wants to write about your company. Here are some typical reasons:
- Company milestones. These include funding rounds, key hires, and new products. Unless your announcement is truly newsworthy — be honest with yourself here — these often aren’t going to get you a lot of coverage beyond perhaps industry newsletters. A press release may still be a good idea, but be realistic about how much enthusiasm it will generate. As you grow, and if you manage press carefully, you can leverage company milestones to great effect.
- Trends. What trends does your company illustrate? If your company provides research services that level the field between Main Street investors and Wall Street, you’ve got a lot of journalists writing about that. Identify other companies working on aspects of this larger trend, find the journalists writing about those companies, and get yourself covered as part of this larger issue.
- Big themes. Climate change, equality issues, China/US competition — there are a lot of large issues already being written about. Insert yourself into that conversation.
NOW, FINALLY, you can think about reaching out to press. You have four categories of options. Pros and cons of each:
Pros: No one cares about your business as much as you do. You understand your business better than most. You’re the person journalists want to talk with and quote.
Cons: You’ve got a ton of other things on your plate, and like all areas of human endeavor, there’s a learning curve.
Pros: A (good) employee is the person who cares almost as much about your business as you do. They’ll spend all of their time understanding your business and promoting it. It’s the closest option to DIY that you can do without it swallowing up your time.
Cons: Good hiring takes time. You might not be able to afford/justify a full-time employee at your stage.
Pros: A bit like an employee but more flexible in terms of time & money.
Cons: Depending on their workload and experience, you might not get value out. Definitely make sure they have industry-relevant experiences and contacts — if you sell a beauty product, find someone who has successfully earned beauty product coverage in your target market.
Pros: Once you get to a certain size, you’ll probably end up retaining an agency, even if you also have an in-house communications staff. Agencies often have a wide range of resources and contacts across their employees, and can handle larger PR initiatives. There can be an extraordinary amount of skill & experience at agencies. If you’re a sophisticated customer, clearly communicate what you want, and carefully manage outcomes, you can achieve excellent results.
Cons: Here are some potential pitfalls with agencies that don’t apply in all cases, so let’s call them potential cons: Agencies look to lock you into long-term monthly contracts, and then do just enough to keep you as a customer. They charge a lot of overhead. They are incentivized to put the lowest-cost employees on your account once you’re locked in. Related to that, agencies can be quite passive; they ask what announcements you have coming up and then work with those, instead of proactively inserting you into the national conversation. And unless you’re a huge account, you’re just another account.
Do things in the right order. Get your messaging straight, and your goals clearly defined, before you go out to seek PR. Every company will have a different answer to what avenue is the right one for getting the word out — and it will also likely change over time — but if your message and goals aren’t clear in advance, getting productive press coverage will simply be a matter of luck. And let’s face it, enough of your company’s success already lies beyond your control. So lock this one in!