At the risk of alienating all of my remaining friends in the public relations industry, I thought I might share some of my running commentary during today’s For Immediate Release broadcast on Blog Talk Radio. The subject was startup PR and the jumping off point was Jason Calacanis’ blog post from a few months ago in which he argued essentially that the startup CEO should head PR, not an outside agency.
1. The Startup CEO Should Be an Evangelist. This goes well beyond public relations and media. The startup CEO needs to be an ambassador and advocate with disparate audiences, including investors, clients, prospects, employees, journalists, commentators, potential business partners and more.
2. You Cannot Outsource Evangelism. A tech startup needs an evangelist, preferably the CEO. Other employees may also fill that role (business development and marketing people often come to mind here), but it is not wise or effective to pass that role off to a consultant or agency. To be an effective evangelist, one must be identified with a company as a founder or employee. Hired guns don’t have the credibility, nor can they craft the requisite personal brand to be successful. It is hard to evangelize for more than one company at a time — precisely what outsiders must do to be successful in their own right.
3. Startup Public Relations is First and Foremost Networking. Most people (including many agency types) view public relations as media relations. Whether or not that’s accurate, it isn’t what most startups need when defined that narrowly. Hits in newspapers or on TV may be great, but not likely what a startup needs most. Instead, it is vital to get out and get in front of the people that the company needs relationships with. That means lots of networking at conferences, dinners, one-on-one meetings, and more. And very little of that should be with members of the working press.
4. Not Every Startup CEO Should Be a Startup CEO. The old mantra of “lead, follow, or get out of the way” applies quite clearly to startup founders. Many are not suited to leading a company. Just because you started the company with your own sweat and tears doesn’t mean you should be CEO. If you would rather stare at code than talk to strangers, step aside. Find a partner to serve as your co-founder. If all else fails, hire a CEO. But don’t put yourself at the top of the org chart just because you started the place.
5. Companies Can Get PR Too Early. It is tired but true to say that “you only get one chance to make a first impression.” Many startups grow too quickly for their own good and get crushed by their own inertia. If you are not ready for media attention, then pulling in all sorts of users or prospects may be a mistake. Your systems need to be ready to handle the influx — everything from keeping servers up and running to having enough people to deliver quality customer care.
6. A Startup Needs a PR Agency When It Can’t Meet Goals on Its Own. There’s no cut-and-dried formula for when a startup should engage public relations counsel. A company ought to set its goals and attempt to meet them internally. At some point, this may no longer be possible. That’s when it is time to find an outside firm to help.
7. Everything in a Startup is a Trade-Off. Startups have finite resources in terms of money, time, and employees. When weighing the “PR Decision,” a startup must evaluate its needs in all areas and determine if dollars spent on PR make more sense than directing those resources to an additional customer service representative, engineer, or salesperson. That may mean that there are fewer dollars to spend on a PR solution, leading to a cheaper outside firm, fewer hours contracted, or passing on PR duties part-time to an individual within the company. These can all be rational outcomes.
8. You Must Measure PR ROI. Don’t be snookered into thinking that all media is good media. As someone said on the FIR broadcast, you may get a great mention in the Wall Street Journal, but if none of your customers read it, it may as well have not happened. You need to work with whoever handles your PR — internally or externally — to establish clear measures of success that are individual to your business.
9. Not All Companies Need PR Agencies. I’ll probably get kicked out of the Public Relations Society of America for saying this, but there are some startups that will do just fine without professional PR help. Some startups seek to interface with just a handful of business partners rather than with large numbers of customers. If a company is focused on behind-the-scenes white label arrangements or has technology that they are grooming for use by a small but lucrative market, they may not need PR. In some cases even if they need to appeal to a larger audience, there may not be many — if any — attractive media targets to reach out to. In those cases, direct mail, salespeople, or other non-public approaches may serve best.
10. Many Agencies Tell You They Do More Than Media, But Few Really Do. Really good agencies do more for you than simply get media hits for your company. They can help you with internal communications, presentation training, perfecting your elevator pitch, improving investor relations, and more. Many claim this, but few do it well. And, of course, you get what you pay for. The more that a PR agency becomes a “strategic partner,” the more it will likely cost. With everyone from your lawyer to your accountant wanting to be strategic partners also, it is important for startups to avoid getting bogged down with too much professional advice and remain nimble and responsive.
I’m not by any means arguing against startups employing public relations firms. They can provide truly useful service for many, but it is vital that every startup evaluate the question individually and with a critical view to ensure that the right firm is being hired for the right reasons.