Early-stage founders often mistakenly view public relations as a magic bullet. The thinking goes like this:If only we had some press, we’d have all the [users, investors, business partners, acquisition offers…] that we need.
This is almost always nonsense. For the vast majority of early-stage companies, press should constitute only a small component of a sensible marketing plan. This means that for the vast majority of early-stage companies, hiring a traditional PR firm is a waste of resources. (To put a rough number on “traditional PR firm,” let’s say anything over $4,000 per month.)
This is not to say that startups couldn’t use professional help from time to time. But the traditional model, while fine for more mature organizations, generally doesn’t make sense for early-stage companies.
I spend about 75% of new business calls, for instance, explaining to startups why they shouldn’t hire a public relations firm—i.e., why they shouldn’t give me money. This might reasonably strike you as stupid, or at the very least, bad capitalism. But if you look at it from my perspective, hopefully you’ll get a sense for the mismatch that startups face when confronted with the traditional PR model.
(I’d like to emphasize traditional PR model
here. I’ll get to other, perhaps more appropriate, PR options for startups in another post.)
Here’s what I often think when I speak with early-stage founders looking for PR help:1.) You don’t have a story.
This is the biggest issue.
PR doesn’t work like paid marketing. You can plug some money into AdWords or Facebook and reasonably expect a decent return on your investment.
But to reach people through the press, you have to have a story or insight in which reporters are actually interested. For many early-stage startups, this is too much to ask.
By definition, startups have no operating history, no large, dynamic pool of data, and no legitimacy relative to the hundreds of other young companies sprouting up out of the Ivy League.
There are a few exceptions.
An insane genesis story, for example, can do the trick. I often cite the kid who lived at AOL’s Palo Alto campus for two months. Incredible technology
also helps, along with an unusual approach
to a well-understood problem.
But even if one of those options is available, there still likely isn’t enough material to fuel the kind of sustained, durable communications strategy that would justify the cost of a traditional PR firm.
Meaning, you’re likely going to milk your material after one or two press hits, then leave everyone scratching their head about what the press might be interested in next.
That’s fine if you’re tackling PR yourself. Not fine if you’re on the hook for another $10,000 in retainer fees.2.) You don’t have the organization or the bandwidth.
One reason that founders might reasonably opt for a PR firm is to save themselves the time and energy of running press on their own. That’s fine, but you’re making a mistake if you think that your time commitment ends once the contract is signed.
For a PR firm to effectively get reporters interested in your startup, they need constant access to internal resources and feedback. In jargon-speak, they need “buy-in.”
Here’s why: when it comes down to it, publicists are brokers. It’s their job to find interesting stories within your organization and match those stories with reporters whose audiences will benefit.
As a founder, you’re the one in the trenches of your company and industry. You’re the one with the insights, data, and anecdotes. Even the best publicists can’t do their job without pulling that information out of you. That takes time and responsiveness on your part.
The issue for many early-stage companies is that they don’t have a dedicated internal team member who can consistently engage with a firm. Instead, there’s maybe a marketing manager doing 20 other things, or a CEO with their head about to spin off.
This translates into missed opportunities, emails that take a week answer, and general frustration on both sides.
If you can’t thoroughly answer a firm’s emails within a couple of hours, regularly get them all of the internal information they ask for, or make time to meet with reporters at short notice, then you should save yourself the money and move on to other priorities.3.) You don’t have stability.
Almost every early-stage company we’ve worked with has asked to pause their contract at some point, either due to personnel changes, cash flow issues, or the infamous “pivot.” Often, this pause goes on indefinitely.
For that reason, we don’t work with early-stage startups anymore. (Or only very rarely.)
Since we’re nice, and I have an undying empathy for startups, we’ve generally acquiesced to these requests. Most firms will not prove so understanding and, at some level, I don’t blame them.
I’ve found that even post-Series A companies still display a level of instability that makes them difficult for a firm to effectively engage with. Positions, priorities, and products are still constantly shifting. For a firm trying to do their job, it’s like trying establish a foundation in quicksand.
PR firms are businesses with their own bottom lines, that require at least token stability from their clients. Will the person managing PR within your company be there in three months? Will you be able to comfortably pay the bill, even if the unexpected pops up? Because in startups, it always does.
Remember, I’m giving you the firm’s point of view because frustration on their side is contagious, and will more likely than not lead to sub-par results and a waste of time and money.4.) You should do it yourself.
I’m generally a believer that founders should gain at least cursory experience in almost every aspect of their businesses. This often makes the most sense during the early-stages, when manpower is in short supply and the issues facing each department tend to be more straightforward.
Dealing with the press is something that at least one founder at every company should get a feel for. One of you will need to serve as the face of your organization. That means learning to develop a natural rapport with reporters, while getting a sense for the incentives and structures that drive them. That learning process is best done at the beginning, when they’ll still take pity on you as a naive founder.
Plus, if you never gain a firsthand idea of how the press works, you’ll always be at the mercy of the next PR charlatan that comes along. And trust me, there are plenty of them.This post originally appeared on Forbes.