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. Trier and Company has worked with technology startups for years and this is always the driving conversation –“How can we get business value from PR”?
There is obviously no black-or-white answer. Lots of outside elements figure into this conversation. Yet – this post is a short guide to what we’ve learned over the years and we hope that it will answer some questions for the technology startups looking to hire a PR firm.
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. The key is to allow your PR firm to help you build executive buddy programs to engage in relationship-building with journalists.
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.
Trier and Company 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. We 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 we were 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, we typically recommend that technology startups NOT hire a big, well-known PR firm. Our rationale is that you won’t have enough budget to be able to get enough of the senior team’s focus.
All too often, more often than we want to really recount, we’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. we recommend either going with a small firm local 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 we give people about recruiters, accountants, lawyers and similar trade professionals.
There is one carve out. There are some excellent PR firms that will occasionally take a “strategic view” on you as a technology 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. We’ve seen this model work really successfully for others. But generally we think it’s best to go small until you become larger and have larger budgets for PR.
One successful model has been to find the super-connected people who led the shift in PR from traditional to social media – and work with them to drive extraordinary results relative to costs. There are a few people out there with these skills but they’re in great demand.
4. PR with a major firm – Once your business is scaling and you have the money to pay for a major agency, we can’t think of 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.
Delivering solid PR today – what with all the scores of social media channels of communications, is a tough job — either for the agency or the in-house PR team. Yet, with an executable plan in place and a sense of proactive deliverables all driving towards business value — technology startups can begin to shape and mold a PR program that can be sustainable.
Want to see how Trier & Company can create a long term PR campaign for real results? Get a free Tech Startup PR Consultation from the Technology PR experts at Trier & Company.