When tech companies–especially less-sexy ones selling to businesses, not consumers–first get started, there’s usually little appetite for spending money on corporate communications and public relations.
“We need to make some sales first,” CEOs say. Or: “I can’t figure out the ROI on PR! So, I’m not spending money on it.” Others want to go it alone because they’re convinced that only they have the passion and deep knowledge to sell the company to reporters. Plus, everything “DIY” seems cool today. Why not DIY PR?
But in today’s increasingly fragmented media landscape, it’s getting more difficult for entrepreneurs to manage their own communications programs. My view is that most B2B startups undervalue PR and content and wait too long to invest in it. The good news, though, is that tapping professional resources (or spending money on an internal hire) to create a modern, targeted startup communications program may cost less than you think–and help you prosper.
It’s counter-intuitive, but here are five reasons not to do your own PR—at least once you’re out of the early startup phase.
1. PR is more complicated today–and relationships matter more than ever.
“The declining number of newsroom jobs means there are fewer journalists covering your industry, and they’re busier than ever,” says Stephanie Gnibus, president and founder of GMK Communications. “They can only afford to work with sources they trust.” From 2008 to 2018, the number of overall newsroom jobs plunged 25%, according to the Pew Research Center.
The journalists who are still working are also increasingly judged by the number of clicks their stories generate. This means, unfortunately for you, that they may be more interested in online fashion and financial scandals (or presidential tweets) than in the latest hybrid-cloud computing service.
The result is that startups simply have to spend more time today developing core reporter relationships and wooing the decreasing number of journalists who matter to them. Reporters and editors also expect potential sources to know what stories they’ve written already; stay abreast of other coverage on related topics; appreciate what’s newsworthy to an external audience (versus news that is just important for you); and master their publication’s editorial standards, understanding what qualifies as a real “story”. They are also getting scores of PR “pitches” a day, most of which aren’t even relevant to them. “Keeping up is a full-time job,” GMK’s Gnibus says.
2. PR is a long game.
Ongoing, sustainable communications programs often achieve the greatest success. “Some companies make an investment in launching a business or a product and expect that upfront PR work to carry them through for the next few months or years,” says Kathy Wilson, a co-founder and managing partner of Tier One Partners. “But the most successful companies and entrepreneurs understand that PR continues to build business momentum over time.” Ongoing programs also help more with a company’s SEO, as they create a regular cadence of searchable content online.
An ongoing program allows you to build relationships with key reporters who will come to see you as a trusted source. A coffee you had six months or even two years ago could still pay dividends, if you’re keeping in touch with the reporter over time. You, the CEO or founder, are still the source journalists most want to talk to. But to facilitate this access, it is usually helpful to have someone to set up all these interactions for you, strategize beforehand about how to handle them, and fit them into a larger PR program that meets your business goals.
3. “PR” encompasses a lot more than just media placements.
You might be focused on traditional PR. But what’s now known as “earned media”–stories you “earn” by enticing a real journalist to write about you–is only a subsegment of a modern, well-rounded communications program. And for many companies, it’s less and less important.
Other aspects of communications are often more relevant these days, from content marketing to events/meetups to social media. While these are areas that CEOs of very small startups can handle by themselves for a while, these activities usually become more sophisticated as your company grows—and require more attention as they become increasingly linked to product marketing, sales and overall company strategy.
Indeed, the lines between PR, marketing and sales are now blurring – resulting in many, many more communications channels for your message. A single idea might start as a blog post; morph into a live event; get recorded as an online video or a podcast (or both); and so on. Content marketers can extend the usefulness of a great topic even further by syndicating a post through sites like Outbrain or Taboola or expanding it into a whitepaper for sales or lead-generation purposes.
Good PR firms can help with this. They might also train your senior executives to tweak their messaging for different audiences, or research relevant events and conferences you should be speaking at. They might suggest turning some ideas into syndicated blog posts instead of media pitches, depending on how they fit into the ongoing news cycle. In short, the PR expert functions as your timely eyes-and-ears in the market, helping you connect your message to ongoing industry and public conversations.
4. Professional help is more affordable than you think.
As a small private company, you don’t have to hire a big agency and pay them tens of thousands of dollars a month. A boutique PR agency can put a team of two or three staffers on your account for an average of $8,000 – $10,000 a month. You could also pay an individual consultant by the hour – allowing you the flexibility to “go dark” when you need to and ramp up when you have news to pitch, at least when you’re a very small company. You can also hire content-only consultants to write blog posts and whitepapers for you.
“I believe certain early-stage companies should consider doing PR only when then have news versus ongoing programs,” says Lisa Tarter, founder of TidalWave PR. “Cash-conscious startups have a hard time paying for ongoing PR and then their expectations are out of whack.”
Of course, some firms offering low prices deliver sub-par results. Usually, for B2B companies, this means a drumbeat of press releases and stories in obscure industry trade publications, which may not help much with your ultimate business goals. Spend a lot of time hiring the right PR firm and make sure the firm’s expertise matches with your program goals.
5. When a crisis hits, you need a PR team ready to go.
In today’s landscape, you will need to respond to a data breach or similar PR crisis within hours. The last thing you want is to be scrambling to find outside help and then waste time getting them up to speed–all while news of your crisis is spreading on Twitter in real time. If you’ve already got a relationship with a PR firm or consultant, this won’t happen. In fact, a PR pro with crisis experience can help you create a proactive crisis-management plan that establishes communications guardrails to help protect your company’s reputation.
The need for PR varies by startup–and it may not make sense for very small companies at the seed or Series-A stage. But most companies more mature than that can benefit from a diversified communications program–and one run, or at least advised by, a professional who is paid to stay abreast of current media and content-marketing trends. Believe me, you don’t want to try this at home.
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