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Startup entrepreneurs take on one of the biggest missions you can think of: trying to make something out of nothing. To succeed, they have to turn ideas into products, skeptics into investors, prospects into ambassadors… you get the idea. This is a super difficult journey in which founders need all the help they can get.
Having great PR proof points is good for business, no doubt
We all agree that good PR (as seen in news and media outlets) is an important advantage that almost any founder would want at their side. It builds credibility that gets both employees and investors on board, educates the target market, raises awareness and helps gain the consumers’ trust.
Many startup founders believe that in order to achieve all of this goodness, they need a PR agency on retainer at their side. They will also tell you that this kind of investment is a must right from the start, meaning, as soon as you complete your seed round.
Right? Well, for most startups I have met with over the years, this is not necessarily the case.
And there’s the question of timing…
If you ask me, many founders engage with a PR agency on an ongoing retainer basis too early in the game. They then find a bubble, a bubble that burst right in their faces. I have decided to list a couple of assumptions that many startup entrepreneurs make, and may cause them to make wrong decisions. Here goes:
The fact of the matter is, ‘having the right relationships’ in place is one of the main selling points for many traditional PR agencies I have met with over the years. They say they are the only gateway to the reporters that are relevant to your industry. They say you must engage with reporters on an ongoing basis, and that you must use their networks for that, so you better hurry up.
But wait, is it really? It’s crucial to understand that Tier-1 publications (-the Techcrunches of the world), and probably Tier-2 as well, will only cover major news and only tend to cover an (unknown) company once every few months at best. Now, gun to your head – how many times do you (or any other young B2B startup that you can think of) have major news that will interest Tier-1 publications? Fundraising, strategic partnership, or the like… Maybe once or twice a year. Maybe.
That leaves us with niche publications that are highly specialized in your specific domain, and that your actual target market reads and appreciates. Now, show me the PR agency that can maintain thousands of relationship with reporters in niche publications and blogs in VR, AR, medical devices, artificial intelligence, green tech, biotech… You get the idea, right?
Even within Tier-1 publications, there are so many different reporters and editors, each likes to cover different industries and news.
And when you stop to think about it for a minute, if there’s no money (or any other form of) exchange between the reporter and the PR agency, then the only thing that really matters is the story, right? You give me a good story, I will give you nice coverage – and this is the gist of it all for young B2B startups that don’t have the power of big brands.
Tech reporters and editors are so anxious to bring valuable stories to the table, that the only thing that really matters, is the story. If you have a great story that interests Tier-1 publications, and you know the basics of running PR research, identifying relevant target journalists and writing a clear and to the point pitch email, you probably have a good chance of getting someone to pick up and cover your story, even if the email comes from you and not a PR agency.
Of course, reporters prefer working with professional agencies, as they make their lives easier. They know how to put together a decent pitch email, how to gather all the materials under one friendly press minisite and how to respect embargo or exclusive agreements.
But, in reality, you no longer need to lean on personal connections to make headlines.
You do need (and always will, if you ask me) a newsworthy story.
We secured coverage on amazing outlets for our startups many times. It was always the story that mattered. Don’t get me wrong, it was hard work. Of course it was. But my relationships with the reporters served me in capturing their attention, and that’s about it. From there I needed a strong story to get me coverage.
If you already talked to PR agencies, you must know by now that most of them will not work on a performance basis. They will not commit to getting you coverage. The reason is because they know as well as I do that relationships with journalists will only take them so far.
Assumption #2: Only PR agencies will build great stories for me
PR agencies are supposed to be the experts, right? Storytellers. True, many of them are, but they aren’t magicians.
Well, you will often realize that the people working on your account are juniors, who know how to draft a decent pitch email and send cold emails to reporters but struggle to work in a void when there’s no solid PR strategy coming from the company itself. Many times, this is the exact case for young startups, when no one on the internal team is there to support and direct them.
A deep understanding of the product and technology, as well as the challenges and pains of the target audience, is not something that a PR agency can usually deal with effectively without ongoing help and support from the inside team.
Even when there’s a story to tell, you may find yourself sitting down to write announcements and other press materials yourself, after getting ‘less than sharp’ writing from the other side.
And since you are a young startup with very few PR worthy stories to tell, you may find yourself sooner rather than later trying to answer the question: why do I pay a monthly retainer to a PR agency? Is it cost effective in my case?
Assumption #3: PR agencies will keep me covered frequently over time
You are a young startup. We already talked a little bit about it above. How many times a year do you really have something newsworthy to say? Are you Dell, HP, Cisco? They can easily justify engaging with one or several PR agencies. They own many business units, departments and product groups. Do you? Can you really generate news at the pace that justifies the cost and overhead of having a PR agency on board? Do you even have the team to support such extensive PR activities and ensure that the money isn’t going to waste?
Many of the startups I started working with tell me about disappointing PR experiences. It’s not that they engaged with bad PR agencies, it’s just that wasn’t ready for them yet.
You may also be disappointed to learn that the agency’s ability to secure coverage on your behalf (which is completely dependent on your ability to generate news), is very very limited. And hey, you have a startup to run! But the retainer-meter continues to run each and every month…
And speaking of retainers, PR agencies can be quite EXPENSIVE
If you are planning to hire an agency, be prepared to pay, and then pay some more. It’s not because PR agencies are gold diggers, it’s because they pay high salaries and are relatively limited in their scaling capabilities.
The trick is to pay for a service that is cost effective. It’s not expensive as long as it’s worth it, or as long as it’s the most affordable alternative.
In other words, when you get the value your company needs, it’s worth every penny. But most startups gasp at the $6-9K a month spend just on PR services, as that’s only one aspect of their marketing needs, because they need so much more. And it’s not surprising, if you ask me, as traditional PR agencies working on a retainer do not have the right business model that works for young startups.
So, what is the best way for a young startup to handle PR?
In order to answer this question effectively, I believe you first have to read this article discussing why startup founders set themselves up for failure by not running a 360 degree marketing operation.
In any case, here are a few pointers to get you started thinking about working on PR as part of the overall startup marketing mix:
- Keep your expectations real – I know you are completely in love with your startup idea, but still, try to play the devil’s advocate and ask yourself why anyone other than you would be interested in what you have to say. Do that each and every time you think of doing PR, and try to honestly evaluate the news potential of your story. Think about it on two levels – Tier-1 publications (the answer in 90% of the times should be ‘not newsworthy enough’), and specialized Tier-2 publications that cover your industry.
- Understand why you are doing it – Many times I can’t get an answer when I ask founders “why do you want this PR?” Running PR activities takes time and effort, and should be done FOR A REASON. Don’t try to get your story out there just for the sake of it. Know why you need it (like adding trust building elements to your website, raising awareness among prospects trying to buy them, capture the attention of potential investors, etc.). Think about the story and try to evaluate in advance if the story can support your goals. You may learn that some stories are just not worth the effort of trying to push them to a Tier-1 publication, as they will probably show no significant impact. Oh, and don’t do PR just because “everybody does it.”
- Find the right angle – If you wish to increase your chances of getting successful coverage, find exciting numbers and statements to support your case and look for unique angels to include in your startup’s pitch to the press. One of the key journeys for entrepreneurs is polishing their pitch and acquiring the deepest level of understanding of their value proposition, audience, and prominent value points. So this is an important process for you to take, regardless of PR.
- Research ahead of time: When it comes to startup mode PR, the research phase cannot be underestimated. Make sure you do the necessary research to map out the editors and reporters who normally cover these types of stories or industries. Find their contact info or reach out to them using various channels of communication. Really invest time in understanding these professionals (for example, look at what they wrote about before, what interests them) as it will help you perfect your pitch and give them exactly what they’re interested in. Once you are covered, diligently document every piece of coverage you get and make sure to approach these reporters in the future, mentioning that they already know you and the company. It will not make them necessarily cover your news again (that depends on the newsworthiness), but it will give you a few more seconds of consideration before they delete your email. I know that this sounds like a lot of work and you might think, “wait, but that’s a good reason to hire a PR agency, I have no time for this…” But 1) They won’t share their lists with you and 2) Go ahead and hire one if you think an ongoing retainer is worth it when this research process is really needed no more than once every 6 months or so. If you can hire a PR agency on a one-time project basis, that could be a great, cost effective solution.
- Take a deep breath: Chances are that even if you did a great job, getting press coverage takes time.I sometimes wait months until I manage to get exclusive Tier-1 coverage for a great story. Many times the wait is well worth it.
- Match your PR strategy to the stage of your startup’s lifecycle: Like I already said, when your startup is young, you probably shouldn’t engage with a dedicated PR agency on a retainer basis, due to all of the aforementioned reasons. But as your company matures and you already have a marketing DNA in place, an internal team who can support PR activities, and the ability to generate enough interesting stories, that may be the time to reassess and consider hiring a PR agency.
Entrepreneurs who have taken on the impossible mission of founding a startup aren’t easily scared, right? So read up, think good and hard about whether it’s the right time to get a PR agency on board, and don’t be scared to do some trial and error on your own or ask your existing marketing resources to do just that (although they probably already engage in million other activities – that’s startup life, right?).