Start-up PR: When do I hire PR?
I’m writing a series of posts answering the age old start-up questions related to PR: when do I hire a PR person? Or should I hire an agency? How do I work with an agency? How do I set up all these PR people—in house or outside consultants—for success? How do I even measure PR efforts?
In my role at Spark Capital I spend a lot of my time helping our founders and their teams think about PR. Lots of questions about PR come up all the time but the biggest question has to do with the team itself: when do you need a team? how do you get the most out of a team? how do you measure efforts?
So I’m gonna write about what I tend to tell folks. Today let’s start with the decision to add PR to your team—in-house, or bring on an agency or a consultant. Below are some common questions I get from founders and the answers I typically give.
Q: When does my start-up need PR?
My answer always: this is entirely dependent on your goals and priorities. Some PR people will give you a slightly different version of this answer which is more along the lines of “when your product is ready, when you actually have a story to tell, etc.” But I think a better way into this question is reviewing your near-term priorities and figuring out if PR can actually support those goals and help move the needle.
A really easy way to get to the bottom of how helpful PR might be is to ask the team in charge of those goals what they think. For example, if your main goal over the next six months is to sign up a bunch of new enterprise customers ask your sales team if press coverage in the outlets that these decision makers read have much influence over them. In some cases trades are hugely influential, in other cases they have no impact on the sales pipeline whatsoever. Your in-house experts will know that.
For consumer apps and products, really try to understand what is going to motivate someone to sign up for your service or buy your product. Is your target customer moved by word of mouth and recommendations from friends? If so, focusing on content marketing and building online communities might be a higher order priority than media relations. If you are selling beauty products and your customers are looking to beauty bloggers and editors for their top recommendations than you may actually need to bake in PR experts who know how to reach those writers from day one. Same thing for consumer products and gadgets—holiday season gift guides, gadget review sites are pretty important to the early adopter set so you are probably going to need to invest in a team that can get your product in front of that group of writers, editors and bloggers.
Down the road, as your company grows, the easiest way to know when you need PR is to recognize when there is enough interest in your company and product that you need to tell your own story before others tell it for you. Example: let’s say a reporter from a niche site writes in asking you tough questions about your product or your policies that you don’t feel like you have great answers to. The absolute wrong way to think about that is: “Well this is a small site that doesn’t have a huge audience so we have time to sort these issues out.” No. You do not have time. That is basically an early warning system that you are, if anything, behind. Media begets media and the folks who are paying close attention to you in the early days have a lot of influence over the future of your narrative. You want to get these things right early. So if this happens take it as a sign it’s time to break glass and get your house in order and hire people who can manage this because your time to shine has arrived.
Other general tips for thinking about the role of PR in your company to help you understand if you need it or not:
- PR is by and large an awareness tool. It is not an acquistion tool. I’ll write a post about measuring PR but in general if your goal it to quickly acquire customers or sales leads, PR can be helpful but hard to measure direct impact on these types of metrics.
- PR is helpful for third-party validation. When a respected reporter in a respected news outlet or blog that is important to your audience writes positively about your product, that’s generally just as powerful—if not more powerful—than paid ads you develop yourself. And it’s also content you can “remarket” via Facebook, Twitter, etc. Also if you have a lot of recruiting to do, candidates are going to look you up and when they see that you’ve been written up in the outlets they read it is very validating so investing in PR to support recruiting efforts is definitely worth considering.
- PR isn’t always just about promoting your product right out of the gate. PR in the early days can be very helpful in creating the context around which your company will eventually be placed in in order to mitigate crisis in the future. So if you are doing something kind of new that pushes people beyond comfort zones that mainstream audiences might view skeptically at first, PR can be an important long-term tool to educate the public with. So rather than just promote your specific offering, this is where a good PR team can develop a long-term foundational program that includes content, reporter outreach and eductation and trend pitching, etc.
Q: OK I think I need PR, but what kind of PR support do I need?
Asking what kind of support you need once you decide you need PR is a better question than “should I hire?” IMHO. Here are the different types of PR support you can consider and how to think about each:
Bring someone in-house: I think in general if you’ve decided you need PR to support your most pressing priorities and you want to get rolling fast, this is your best option. The best PR outcomes result from PR people being fully embedded in your team and culture. If it’s early, you probably don’t need a heavy hitting vice president type. You need someone who is passionate about what you’re building, has a solid track record of creating and executing on programs and above all has decent relationships with the journalists and editors your program will be targeting. This is a great role for someone who has been buried in an agency or large company org and wants to get in the ring and feel that what they do is directly contributing to the company’s goals. The best PR hire is going to be motivated by that kind of thing more than title and size of org they will lead, etc.
On-board an agency: Here’s something I feel pretty strongly about—agencies only work if you view them as true partners. They cannot get one big download from you and then be expected to point and shoot and deliver forever more. PR just doesn’t work that way. The more time and energy and effort you invest in them, the better the outcomes will be. Given that, this is a really hard relationshp to pull off without having someone in-house dedicated to managing this relationship. If you have in-house marketing folks then they probably have experience managing some form of agency relationship so that could be a good match. But ideally a PR person should manage a PR agency for the absolute best outcomes. When choosing an agency, think about the following:
- Relationships, relationships, relationships: Do they know the reporters you want to get in front of? Like, legit have worked with those reporters before and better yet work with those reporters frequently on behalf of their other clients. This is huge. So if you are targeting lifestyle editors you probably need a firm in NYC who is constantly in contact with those folks, not an agency who would have to build up those relationships from scratch. If you’re trying to build buzz in the Silicon Valley echo-chamber you obviously need an agency who is in the mix with tech reporters based in SF, etc. But PR is basically biz dev—it’s heavily driven by relationships.
- Do you like them and do you feel like they understand what you’re all about? I’ve helped several of our companies run searches for an agency and the agency that always works out really well is the one where the cultures of the teams are a match. So if you’re talking to agency and you’re like “everyone says they are awesome and they’re well connected but like, I totally don’t love talking to them and don’t feel like they get me” then you should probably not work with them, that is OK! Not every talented agency is everyone’s jam. You need to find your people.
- What kind of team are they giving you? Do you like the account lead? Will the account lead be the one on the weekly calls and the one going with you to meet reporters? Or no? You should ask them that. Actually is the more junior team pretty awesome and scrappy and hard working? Check that out too. In addition to strategy and media relations, what other talents are on the team? For example: do they seem like good writers? You’re gonna need good writers. Do they get social? Do they seem plugged into the media trends that you are too busy to pay attention to?
Final agency rule: hire slow, fire fast. Take your time finding the right fit. The time and effort it takes to get an agency on-boarded is not insignificant. So make sure you are going to do that with the right team. If in that on-boarding process it’s just not feeling right, better to part ways asap then to hope and pray it gets better.
Part-time consultants: This is a great option! More early stage folks should consider this! Freelancers can do a lot of things and be super flexible. They can swoop in last minute and help you through a short-term project like a funding announcement. They can embed part time over time and act as an in-house resource. They can sit at the table with your exec team to help folks understand the PR consequences of given decisions. They can do some easy tactical things like intro you to key reporters, set you up for coffee with them, do some writing. They can actually help you run a search to find a full time PR person for you. When you are looking at your goals and thinking about what you need, understand if the upfront investment of hiring a fulltime PR employee or bringiing on an agency out weighs the actual tactics you’re looking for in the near term. And then ask your VC firm for great consultants they’d recommend :)
OK that’s it for now, I’ll follow-up with posts about how to get the best outcomes from your PR teams and also how to measure PR soon!