When a Startup Doesn’t Need PR

As a PR consultant, I speak with founders almost daily about their PR needs. While the topics of these conversations vary, people are often surprised to hear me say: “You don’t need PR.”

Kinda counterintuitive given I’m in the business of selling my PR services, right? Ultimately, I want to ensure that any company I speak with is set up for success — whether we actually work together or not — and helping founders think through their options and understand where their money or focus might be better spent is one of the ways I do that.

This doesn’t mean that the companies I speak with won’t eventually need PR; I’ve had founders come back months later and say: “We’re ready!” It also doesn’t mean I’m always right; there have absolutely been clients that I wish I had taken on and didn’t! But with that being said, I thought I would share the 3 questions that consistently come up in my conversations with founders when they are considering an investment in PR.

  1. Are you ready for the spotlight? The majority of founders that I speak with are getting ready to debut their company or product to market — which is very often the right time to engage PR services. However, just because you’ve raised capital or created an app, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ready for primetime. Two good questions to consider:
  • Is your product defensible? (ie: are you prepared for a customer — or even worse, a reporter — to pick it apart?)

Take, for instance, this excerpt from Fast Company on what a review could look like if your product isn’t quite ready:

Excerpt from Fast Company’s “This $1,500 Toaster Oven Is Everything That’s Wrong With Silicon Valley Design
  • Can you handle hundreds or thousands (or if your story and PR is that good, hundreds of thousands) of downloads or visitors?

In this example, Recode details what not to do if you aren’t prepared for significant demand:

Excerpt from Recode’s I Tried Out Magic, the New Text Message Concierge, and It Was Far From Magical

I know that startups are always a work in progress and oftentimes, people like myself can help you finesse the rough edges ;) but if the very first touchpoint that a reporter or customer has with your product is subpar — or they can’t even download or access it — what’s going to make them come back a second time? I strongly believe in the old adage, “You only have one chance to make a first impression.” If you or others have identified potential red flags and there isn’t a clear reason why you need to go-to-market immediately, then take the time to address it first.

2. What are your marketing goals? Before making an investment in marketing (or anything, really!), sit down and think about what your goals are and why: is it to get ahead of competition? Customer acquisition? Recruiting? Fundraising? Clearly defined goals not only help your marketing partner devise a strategy to reach the right audiences, but it also gives you something to measure success against at the end of your engagement together. And depending on the goals you identify, PR might not be the right vehicle to achieve it — for example, while PR can help give your brand a lift, especially during a launch, direct marketing may be your most effective and efficient channel when it comes to customer acquisition.

3. How are you going to make your marketing partner successful? Many of the founders that I speak to have engaged and subsequently fired a big name PR firm — and there is always a consistent theme: they’re frustrated over the lack of results. Here’s how the conversation usually goes:

Me: “Who managed the firm?”

Founder: “I did.”

Me: “How often did you have check-ins or regular conversations with your agency?”

Founder: “Um…”

While I have pretty big opinions on large PR agencies being the right partner for early stage startups (short answer: they typically aren’t, but that’s another post), hiring one does not equate to flipping a switch and instantaneously getting results. While a good PR partner should be prepared to anticipate the unpredictability and busy schedules that comprise startup life, they also need your help in order to be successful — PR firms even more so. This includes regular meetings and check-ins, goal setting with corresponding timelines and clear expectation setting (I can’t emphasize this one enough: you and your PR partner both need to ensure that you’re on the same page when it comes to expected results). This relationship is a two way street and if you or someone senior on your team doesn’t have the time to invest in or manage a PR firm, it’s probably because it’s not a top priority and your attention is needed elsewhere.

While this certainly isn’t a cut and dry checklist, these 3 questions have repeatedly been ones that I’ve discussed with founders when determining the right time to invest in PR. In my next post, I’ll cover some best practices for how to approach and engage the right partner when you are ready for PR.

What pieces of PR advice have you given as a marketing professional or received as a founder? I’d love to hear them!