Public Relations for Startups 101

For many fast-growing startups, one of the biggest challenges is knowing if and when to jump on the public relations bandwagon.

PR is an enticing proposition because, in theory, it provides a way to attract much-desired media coverage. This explains why startups are often enamored with the idea of using a PR agency, even though they may have little knowledge about how the process works.

Here are the facts of PR:

  • It costs money to do a PR campaign, which is an obvious consideration. As well, many PR agencies want long-term commitments because it drives the economics of the business.
  • While PR agencies offer strategic, tactical and creative services, their real value is relationships with the media and bloggers. As much as a strong pitch can be developed, a lot of coverage happens because a PR person has a personal connection with a reporter.
  • PR is a combination of art, science and luck. Often, it is a matter of being in the right place the right time with the right story. There is no secret formula for success, which is why no PR agency claims to offer guaranteed coverage.

Given these realities, startup needs to decide whether it should embrace a do-it-yourself approach or hire a PR agency.

I would suggest DIY is a better approach for early-stage startups. With limited resources, it makes sense for a startup to build their own relationships with the media and bloggers.

This is a time-consuming exercise but it can deliver benefits if there is a plan of attack. It means knowing who is important, and then figuring out different ways to make connections. It could be email, coffee meetings, conferences or social media. It is organic but cost-effective.

Startups such as Tiny Hearts and Swayy are excellent examples of how DIY PR and media outreach can generate significant coverage.

At some point, a startup has enough momentum, traction and money to explore the idea of hiring a PR agency.

A startup has arrived at a place where it makes sense strategically and tactically to embrace the services and reach that a PR agency can deliver. In simple terms, a startup needs more firepower to drive awareness with target audiences – media, consumers, partners, investors, etc.

For these startups, the selection of PR agency hinges on finding the right partner. They need a PR agency that knows their marketplace and, as important, has relationships with the leading reporters and bloggers. This is how a startup gets bang for the buck.

How does startup discover if the key ingredients are in place? They can ask the PR agency for references, and talks to clients. This will provide the insight to know if there is a good fit.

Another key consideration is the terms of engagement. There are a couple of ways to approach a partnership. It can start with a two- to three-month campaign that lets both parties see how things work out. It is the classic date before marriage approach. Based on pre-determined metrics or benchmarks, both parties can decide how/if to move forward.

The second way is entering into a long-term, retainer-based arrangement. This provides a startup with a committed partner that will be “on call” whenever needed. This could involve campaigns or short-term opportunities that require their expertise.

There is a time and place for PR. How a startup moves forward depends on its goals, need and financial strength. There are clear benefits but it is important to be pragmatic about how to leverage PR.

Mark Evans is a marketing consultant who helps startups and fast-growing companies tell better stories. To learn more about startup marketing and the power of storytelling, check out his new book, Storytelling for Startups.