PR Firms: What's the Value? And How to Use Them

PR Firms: What's the Value? And How to Use Them

While any PR firm could recite and opine about the value they bring to early stage companies and start-ups, how credible would that be?  Who better to listen to than an entrepreneur and now VC?  Mark Suster, an entrepreneur turned VC and General Partner at GRP Partners wrote the following, which was featured on Business Insider

"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."

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