Startups, you are paying too much for public relations. It might be weird to hear that from someone who has done startup PR as a living for over 10 years, but it’s true.
Don’t get me wrong — good publicity can bring startups many benefits, from recognition among investors and partners to building the brand’s public image. But many early-stage companies spend tons of resources on PR every month just to satisfy a craving to be featured in top-tier media.
Even if they achieve that goal, it will remain a pure vanity milestone for the majority of startups. An overly-expensive milestone, I should say, as agencies can charge upwards of $5-10k just for one project. The money could have been better spent on product development, R&D or elsewhere, especially in the early days of a company.
So what does a good PR strategy for early-stage startups that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg look like?
Don’t underestimate doing PR in-house in the early days
A lot of PR can be done in-house in the early days — for free. Yes, you heard me. For free. For a company in its earliest stages, the best PR comes from founders themselves. Living and communicating company values, joining meaningful conversations on social media, starting a personal blog and industry networking can be more meaningful for getting your company known than fruitlessly trying to pitch the BBC, Le Monde or Handelsblatt.
With a bit more budget and time, you can set up SEO and email newsletters; apply for Forbes Council and write some columns; or sponsor a conference to get a main stage speaking slot. Some non-PR activities that also help raise your company’s profile can also be done in-house, such as keeping up with corporate social media or creating profiles on Dealroom or AngelList — and keeping them updated.
When to pay for PR support
If much PR can be done in-house, why pay a PR professional at all?
Well, because they have great networks of journalists. They know who to pitch to and what to pitch and the idiosyncrasies of each publication. Coverage in the best publications cannot be bought — you need to know what and how to contribute to a specific media to be featured. Most top journalists do not even open ‘cold’ pitches from new startups.
Another reason to outsource? In every startup’s life there comes a point when the founder’s time becomes more precious than a PR budget.
Some examples of times to bring on a PR consultant at an early-stage startup include:
- Product launches
- Expansion into new markets
- Venture funding rounds
- Accelerating recruitment
- Participating in major industry events and competitions
An experienced PR consultant can not only advise how to handle press at those times, but also do the valuable introductions, help to prepare and coordinate publications — and much more.
Determine your PR budget
If you’ve done what you can do in-house and are at the stage where you want to hire some outside support, first figure out exactly how much you can spend on PR. The answer to this question lies in your company’s specific business goals. Whether it’s €100, €50k or €1m, PR budget needs to be:
- Dependent on the stage of growth. Raised a Series A? Don’t hurry and spend it all in one place, especially if this place is PR. Focus on your product and getting it to market. Planning an IPO? Now it’s the time to supercharge your PR to get more potential investors to know you. Most people think that you can’t do PR in the run-up to an IPO as regulators can interpret increased PR close to a listing as a move to influence valuation. But if you already have a good drumbeat of coverage, that won’t be a problem.
- Tied into specific objectives and KPIs. Just launched your website and need to build some links and mentions? Go for an easier and less expensive option by targeting second tier media. Launching in a new market? Get support from PR professionals working with the region to get coverage in local press and recognition from local users. Local press can be interested in market launch stories, especially if you’re hiring locally or working with local companies.
- Balanced with the other company needs. If you’re thinking of shifting some of the product development budget into PR, think twice. For most startups, the company equals their product. You need a good product before you publicise it.
Once you’ve defined how much you can actually spend without sacrificing the core business objectives, set a meeting with a PR pro. Agency, individual or potential in-house hire — your choice. Discuss how it’s best to spend the budget on the goals you have — and don’t be shy to set up KPIs. Reputable PR professionals get paid for results, not for the number of pitches they do or reports they produce.
Talk to other people in the industry and get several estimates. Don’t be afraid to negotiate, and don’t feel like you need to put anyone on a retainer right at once. It’s okay to work on a project basis until you’re sure it’s a fit.
Agency or in-house?
Is it better to hire a PR person or get support from the outside? This is an evergreen debate in the industry.
Again, it depends on the three points I mentioned before — growth stage, KPIs and other company needs. For example, a pre-IPO startup definitely needs a head of PR, someone who knows the business in and out, is a single go-to contact for all press, can do consumer, investor and HR PR, and is personally invested in the company’s success.
PR for PR’s sake does not a unicorn make. PR works best when it’s done at the right time and with the right amount of effort. And often good PR is not correlated with the price. So stop obsessing about doing brilliant PR, start obsessing about bringing a brilliant product to the market — and only bring in PR when you really need it.