When should a startup hire a PR agency?

My friends at TechInAsia recently asked me to participate in an online discussion about that topic. Now, (a la PR Pint) I’m distilling the information into easy, shot-sized doses.

You might think that a guy who’s spent nearly his entire career at PR and marketing firms would immediately and unabashedly say, “yes, absolutely, hire me now!” The reality, as usual, is more complex.

So, here are 10 Startup PR Shots in handy FAQ format:

[ut_alert color=”themecolor”]When should my startup hire a PR firm?[/ut_alert]

Generally, you should consider hiring an agency only after you’ve validated your MVP and are working to grow your customer base.

Think of getting publicity for your company as an opportunity to make 50,000 good first impressions or 50,000 bad impressions. Is your product ready for that kind of attention? A good PR company should be able to tell you if you’re speaking to them too early, but a.) we make mistakes, b.) not everyone is entirely honest, and c.) a PR firm that doesn’t specialise in startups might genuinely not know.

There are some specific reasons to hire a PR company before your MVP is ready:

  • You need help getting the messages right on your website or in your marketing materials. (Note that this is a project, not a full-scale retainer contract.)
  • One of your founders is a celebrity (or former politician, or hugely successful businessperson, or cult leader…) and you need to manage media attention, expectations or enquiries.
  • You’ve raised a large seed round on a product that will take a long time to develop, and you need to increase your valuation ahead of your bridge or Series A.
  • Somehow, you managed to create a crisis and need help staying out of jail.

Keep in mind that some agencies are strictly media focused, while others like G3 Partners offer services beyond media outreach, so what they can actually do for you will vary.

[ut_alert color=”themecolor”]What’s the absolute most important thing to remember when working with a PR firm?[/ut_alert]

Make sure that your PR agency knows about (and actually understands and cares about) your business goals. If they don’t, the strategy they come up with will be way off the mark… or they’ll fly blind.

I used to work on the agency side for big electronics companies. There, you’re looking to help achieve several different business goals, depending on where customers are in the buying process. (See McKinsey’s Consumer Decision Journey.) For instance, when a product launches, you want to raise awareness so that people are more likely to add that product (let’s say a smartphone) to their initial consideration set.

consumer decision journey

But you don’t stop after the launch press release and press conference. You keep going with tech reviews, YouTube influencer outreach and hands-on experiences, because when people start researching a particular smartphone, they want to see third-party validation that it works. Thanks to the almighty internet, people do copious research before they buy high-involvement products.

So, to get back to my original point: Make sure your PR agency or internal person understands how to align your PR strategy with your larger marketing strategy and with business goals. Ideally, that person (or agency) should also have a good understanding of consumer behaviour in your specific market.

If you want to get an idea of our process at G3 Partners, you can have a look at our Startup PR that Actually Works video and also download the handouts for free.

[ut_alert color=”themecolor”]What can PR firms do for startups?[/ut_alert]

Media relations is certainly the best-known thing that PR firms do. Many people are confused as to whether PR stands for Public Relations or Press Release.

In any case, the services PR firms offer can differ from company-to-company, but here are some of the common services:

  • PR Strategy: Rather than just randomly trying things to see what works, a PR firm can help you dream up and validate the most effective ways to use PR in order to achieve your specific business goals.
  • Press Kit: This is a package of documents that you can send to reporters (or investors!) to explain your company’s value proposition. Most PR firms are experts at writing and designing these.
  • Media Outreach: Once you have a strategy and messages, a firm can find the best reporters to help you tell your story, and reach out to them with appropriate messages.
  • Influencer Outreach: Similar to media outreach, PR firms can help you find online influencers to help spread the word about your product.
  • Events: Whether it’s a press conference to announce your new product or a customer appreciation event, PR agencies can help… or at least point you in the right direction.
  • Trade Shows: Here’s our full guide to preparing for a trade show. A PR firm can help you find relevant reporters to talk to, prepare your brochure, plan out your booth, and more.
  • Content Marketing: Content on your own blog should be just as well-written as an article in a leading publication, so sometimes it makes sense to hire a professional writer.
  • Social Media: Some PR firms specialise in digital marketing as well, and can help with both strategy and execution for social media.
  • Copywriting and Design: Your website, brochure, or monthly newsletter, all need to be well-written, on message and resonate with your target audience. A PR firm that also offers copywriting services can help.
  • Market Entry: This is another specialty service that some PR firms can help with and others cannot.
  • Media Monitoring: This is basically sending you a report on recent articles about your company. Most startups don’t need this, and would do just fine putting an intern on the task. The exception is if you need help finding and translating articles about your company that are in a different language.

At G3 Partners we offer a few less common services based on our specialty with startups, including pitch coaching, crowdfunding prep, video production, investor deck prep and marketing automation planning.

[ut_alert color=”themecolor”]Can PR firms do more than just Press Releases?[/ut_alert]

Yep. Refer back to the answer to the question, above: “What can PR firms do for startups?”

At G3 Partners, we seldom recommend press releases as a primary form of outreach for startups. Posting it on a newswire service will seldom give you any meaningful results. Sending it to a reporter will typically annoy them. Unless you’re already a household name or publicly traded, skip the press release entirely, or at least recognise that it’s one of many outreach tactics you can use.

[ut_alert color=”themecolor”]How much should I pay for a PR firm?
[/ut_alert]

Before you pay them anything, ask yourself:

  • How much value am I getting from what they offer?
  • How much would it cost me to hire a full-time person or team to do the same work?

If an agency can consistently deliver good media opportunities for you, and this is directly leading to an increase in web traffic, conversions, or another metric that’s important to your business, invest accordingly.

Many of our clients at G3 Partners don’t need our services on a permanent retainer basis and just hire us for projects. Essentially, they’re buying services on demand. For instance, if you need someone to help you with an overall marketing strategy, write the copy for your website, and help you make a brochure, you don’t need to hire a full-time CMO, copywriter and graphics designer.

[ut_alert color=”themecolor”]What shouldn’t I let a PR firm do?[/ut_alert]

Beware of any PR company that promises to take over your PR entirely or “let you outsource PR” to them. That’ll never work. Reporters and customers want to hear directly from startup founders, especially at the early stages.

A good PR company can help you with a strategy and messaging to make your outreach more effective, but if they’re doing 100% of the outreach themselves, you won’t like the results.

[ut_alert color=”themecolor”]What questions should I ask to evaluate a PR firm?[/ut_alert]

First, listen to the questions they ask you. Do they start by asking you about specific media placements you’d like to see, or do they ask you first about your business goals? PR companies that start planning your strategy before they know what you want and need are best avoided.

  • Ask the firm to talk about their successes in the past.
  • Ask them about their failures too, what they learned, and how they made things right for the client.
  • Make sure they can talk about client successes in terms of helping to achieve business results, not just getting high-profile placements.
  • Ask them about the process of working together.
  • Ask them what they can help you achieve at different budget levels.
  • Ask them why they recommend a specific promotional tactic or media outlet.

[ut_alert color=”themecolor”]Do I have to hire a PR firm on retainer?[/ut_alert]

Not usually. Most PR firms are also happy to take on project work. In fact, project work is often more appropriate for the types of promotional help that startups need. If you need help hosting a single event, there’s no reason to hire a PR agency for six or 12 months.

The most common reason to hire an agency on retainer is to help you with media relations on an ongoing basis. If you’re a growth stage startup this can make a lot of sense. Prices for retainer work are often lower than prices for the same work on a project basis, as a retainer is guaranteed long-term cash flow for an agency, and they can spread out the cost of some of the up-front work like researching your company and setting a PR strategy.

[ut_alert color=”themecolor”]What are the pros and cons of hiring an internal PR person, rather than an agency?[/ut_alert]

It really depends on your needs as a company. You should never try to outsource 100% of your PR. It’s not a “set in and forget it” task.

Internal PR person:

  • Knows your company very well
  • Is fully dedicated to your company’s PR at all times
  • Can do other tasks for you, aside from PR
  • Has limited bandwidth (amount of work that can be done in a day)
  • Has limited press and influencer network
  • Has limited skills and experience

PR agency:

  • Knows less about your company
  • Not fully dedicated to your company 100% of the time
  • May or may not be able to do tasks beyond PR
  • Can expand bandwidth by adding more people to a project or task as needed
  • Combines the press and influencer networks of several people
  • Can leverage the skills and experience of multiple PR professionals

In terms of costs, hiring just an internal person may be cheaper than hiring an agency on retainer, but it’s certainly cheaper to hire an agency for shorter-term tasks than to hire full-time people for each short-term task.

[ut_alert color=”themecolor”]Do I need an agency to handle a PR crisis?[/ut_alert]

It certainly helps, but not always.

The best thing to do for a crisis is to be prepared. Big companies spend lots of time and money making crisis manuals, in the hopes that they’ll never have to use them. It’s a useful (and often fun) exercise for small companies to also sit down and think about what could go wrong and how to handle those scenarios in advance. You can do it as a one-day off-site with people who represent each product and business function. It’s important to think beyond the worst case scenarios. Think of the most likely scenarios, too.

When things do go wrong, communicate quickly, clearly and often. In the absence of information, rumours and assumptions spread:

  • Communicate what happened
  • Apologise if appropriate (and don’t point fingers!)
  • Lay out your plan to fix things / prevent the problem from happening again (include a schedule for fixing things)
  • Tell people (especially the media and customers) when you’ll update them again and stick to that schedule, even if you fall behind on your “fix things” schedule.

Seasoned PR professionals will have lots of experience working on crises, and can help you avoid some obvious pitfalls. Just be prepared to pay a 50% premium for crisis PR services.


Do you have more questions about PR? Drop them in the comments below, or get in touch using our contact form.