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Startups: Don't Hire a PR Agency

I hope my PR friends won’t hate me after this post, but the point needs to be repeated:  Startups should not hire PR agencies.  It seems not a week goes by without hearing about young companies blowing huge wads of cash on “marketing” they’re not ready for.  Some entrepreneurs get in this fix because they fail to distinguish between PR and other marketing tactics.  They know intuitively or are told they ‘need marketing,’ but the first thing they think of is PR.  As I’ve mentioned before, PR <> Advertising <> Word of Mouth <> Social Media, etc.
Before you hire a PR agency or even consider PR, the first thing you need to understand is what you are trying to accomplish, what is your objective.  Second, you should consider whether that objective is right for the stage of your business.  If you are an early startup, pre Product-Market fit, or even pre “Sales and Marketing Roadmap,” you should not hire a PR firm.
Hiring an agency is wrong, because, generally:

  • You do not need press releases
  • You do not need a campaign blitz of articles and press mentions
  • Your PR firm does not know how to do your customer messaging or positioning for you
  • Your PR firm should be no where near your social media
  • Most PR firms will tell you need all of the above, that they are the experts and you aren’t, and will try to charge you a retainer of at least 5K/month

You do not need press releases.

Do your customers read press releases?  Does anyone?   Press releases were originally intended to notify media of a newsworthy story.  In the high-tech world, releases have been so abused by businesses blasting trivial events on the one side and by media outlets writing “stories” that repeat the content without critique or judgment that the credibility of releases has diminished significantly.  And it’s getting worse.  Online releases are used not to provide notice to interested parties, but rather to generate external links in  order to boost PageRank.  If your objective is the latter, there are several online PR services that will accomplish your goal for a lot less money.

You do not need a campaign blitz of articles and press mentions.

An agency orchestrated analyst and media tour and blogger outreach program is called “awareness” marketing, is intended to create “buzz” about your product and company, and can indirectly lead to increased visits to your web site by prospective customers.  Hiring an agency to lead this effort is still the best way to go, because a good firm not only has a great rolodex of media contacts, but the principals have relationships with the media that mean increased credibility and better press.  The problem is that startups are not ready for the buzz.  You can only launch once and if you blow it, it’s blown.   If your selling process isn’t tuned to your customer’s buying process, if your target market segment isn’t finely tuned, if you product doesn’t provide enough value to retain users and you need to pivot, you’ve likely wasted your one chance at not blowing the Techcrunch bump.
Further, as you grow and learn more about the market, you want to cultivate your own relationships with key figures in your industry.  Since reporters and analysts participate in social media, access to them through your network without the assistance of a PR agency is pretty easy.
PR firms do not know how to do your customer messaging or positioning
I find this one particularly irksome, because PR firms often tout their ability to develop messaging and positioning.   And they can do a good job when targeting the media and analysts. PR firms do not know your products, customers, or competitors.  You do, so it’s your responsibility to learn what messaging and positioning works in your market.   The key verb here is learning. You should be testing your positioning through Customer Development interviews and A/B testing.  There’s a large pool of talented and creative people (including PR professionals) who can help you brainstorm concepts and wordsmith phrases, but outsourcing the effort to an agency is a recipe for bland, undifferentiated marketing-speak.  Further, wrong positioning, like placing you in the wrong market, could ultimately lead to your startup’s demise.
PR firms do not belong any where near your social media
Big companies hire PR agencies to manager their social media streams, because they don’t want to screw up their brand.  It’s spin, baby, spin.  It’s used as a continuation of traditional one-way communication from company to consumer or as a new (mostly) one-way communication from consumer to company black hole.  This is likely not your social media strategy.  Your strategy likely is to belong to a community through active participation (in ways that don’t directly benefit you), and to provide value unique to you and your business.  You might retweet interesting articles that relate to your industry, answer questions unrelated to your business, or even give props to competitors who have done something positive.  Such activity requires intimate knowledge of your products, customers and community and you cannot expect a PR agency to have that level of knowledge.
Most PR firms will tell you need all of the above, that they are the experts and you aren’t, and will try to charge you a retainer of at least 5K/month
PR agencies are in a tough place.  Online PR resources; reporters, analysts and influential bloggers easily accessible to businesses; decreased use of traditional (e.g., print) media; and a legacy of a high-priced retainer fee structure portents poorly for traditional agencies.  Hence the move to make their case as the natural purveyors of social media marketing.  For the reasons given above, however, I beg to differ.
Which isn’t to say, you should never do PR.
At Eric Ries’ Startup Lessons Learned conference last month, I participated on the Customer Development panel and we were asked if PR was ever justified.  While moderator Sean Ellis and fellow-panelist David Binetti rightly pointed you shouldn’t do PR campaigns, as I discuss above, I mentioned that there are ways to use PR activities in “small” ways to help you achieve discrete objectives.  Low-level PR can help build an “expertise reputation” for a Founder without compromising the company.  Low-level PR might help you access specific industry contacts who you feel may be early adopters. The distinction here is that you’re not trying to build “buzz,” but rather are taking discrete steps to achieve a defined objective within the context of the stage of your business.  For these tasks, you can do them yourself or you might hire a PR consultant and pay them by task or by hour.
Finally, some believe that buzz is required to raise capital.  I don’t know, but I have a hard time believing that’s true.  I do know that I’m not sure I would want money from someone who could not see through the ruse of manufactured buzz.
Comments welcome!