Should You Hire a PR Agency?

Aug. 17, 2021
Otto Pohl

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.

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:

  1. 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.

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:

  1. 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.

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!