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.
1. PR is a process, not an event – For starters 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.
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.
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 a big, well-known PR firm might not be cost efficient. You won’t have enough budget to be able to get enough of the senior team’s focus.
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
4. PR in house – Equally we 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 we 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.
5. PR with a major firm – Once your business is scaling and you have the money to pay for a major agency there isn’t 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. We can’t overstate how important it is in shaping influencers.
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.