An Open Letter to Startups on PR

Every so often we find articles warning startups against working with PR agencies. For example, TechCrunch published this contributed article alleging that “PR agencies are like great white sharks when it comes to freshly founded startups.” Here’s why we don’t agree.

Dear Startup,

Congratulations! You have begun your journey of entrepreneurship. What was once an idea is now a business. Not only are you excited about your company – other people are too, like potential employees, customers, and investors. You’re ready for the world to hear about you, and PR is a great way to do that.

At this point, we may come on to your radar to talk about how you can start with kicking-off your PR efforts. This is where we will tell you to stop before you get ahead of yourself. In layman’s terms – don’t put the cart before the horse.

First, and the most likely situation after a fact-finding conversation, we will most likely tell you that you’re not quite ready for PR from an agency. Now we know, Startup, that saying that may seem counter-intuitive. What kind of service company would turn down potential business? The thing is, we don’t think you should sign up for a PR agency until you’re ready. What does being ready even mean?

Being PR-ready means that you have something to talk about that the public may be interested in. Did you receive a significant amount of funding? Notable hire? Explosive user/customer growth? These are only a few of the storylines that might be of interest to journalists and to your desired audience, particularly in technology. There may be similar questions for your industry. Another important question for you – are you even allowed to talk about any of the above? What may seem as exciting progress for you and your company may not always be newsworthy. Ask yourself, do you have stories to tell?

Being PR-ready also means having the capital to allocate to PR efforts and recognizing how best to use them. What works best for your startup: bringing in an in-house professional, doing it all yourself, or hiring a PR agency? You need to ask yourself these questions and answer them honestly. Do you have the time to onboard a new member, and the capital to keep them on your team? Do you have the capacity to take on all the PR efforts yourself, or is your time better spent working on other aspects of the business?

And if you’re looking at PR agencies, do you know who would work best with your budget and your goals? This is where reaching out to your advisors, investors, and fellow startups is valuable. They are great resources and they can give you advice and recommendations to vet your options and hire an agency that works best for you. If you bring in an agency, are you also able to give them the time, attention, and information that may be required for them to do their job well? If you hire them on a retainer basis, they need information and details from you on a regular basis to ensure your PR dollars are well spent.

Do your research when vetting potential PR agencies. Find agencies that work in your space. Check out their track record. Meet with these agencies. Ask them for samples of their past work and for references, and then ask your network about them. Take the time to assess your options before committing to one.

And finally, Startup, are you truly ready for the realities of PR? There is no such thing as a slam dunk in the media. There is no such thing as a guaranteed number of coverage pieces per month. (And if you have anyone telling you otherwise, walk away from them.) PR is a long game, and you will not see demand for your startup explode overnight. You may not get coverage in the Wall Street Journal, or New York Times, or other mainstream media, but if they’re not your target audience, then you do not need to. You might be better off in the niche publications that your potential customers read. It’s not glamorous, but it works. Your name will not always be in the brightest lights, Startup, but if your PR efforts are going well, your name might be in the lights that matter.

The right PR – whether they are in-house, or an agency – will work with you to understand all of the above and have your best interests in mind. Perhaps you might be ready for a short-term project, but not a long-term retainer. They can help you with that too. A good agency won’t force you into signing long-term contracts with the lure of outrageous promises.

In the past, we have spoken with companies that weren’t ready for PR. And you know what, Startup? We told them so. We did advise them on their needs at the time, and let them know that we would jump on board when they were truly ready. If you’re not sure, you’re more than welcome to meet with us and chat.

Good luck out there, Startup.


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