11.30.2012 | Renee Gastineau
Recently, I was invited to be a guest panelist for a grad school class at the University of Washington focused on entrepreneurial marketing. One of the students asked, “When should a start-up hire a PR firm?” There were three of us on the panel and the students heard three different answers that day.
John Cook, founder and reporter for GeekWire and a fellow panelist that day, believes start-ups under 15 people should not really have a PR consultant. As a reporter he wants to talk to the CEO and founders directly, understand their technology and discuss the ideas and see the passion behind their business first-hand. What he doesn’t want is PR spin that sanitizes the sometimes messy details of launching a business, which help tell the story of founder’s passion and their next big idea, and makes people want to read more. When it comes to brand-new businesses, the founder is the only person who can deliver that level of passion and detail, and really the person who should be telling that story.
I think John is right about that. PR professionals are not stunt-doubles. If you hire a PR person who tries to stand in for you to talk about your passion, the interview will fall flat and you will waste a lot of money. (For another perspective, read Mark Cuban’s blog post.)
Also on the panel was Margo Meyers, a former TV journalist turned PR consultant and communications coach. Margo advised how a good PR person can be a benefit to a start-up company. A professional communicator can help a start-up craft their story, find a compelling angle or trend, and coach the founders on how to deliver that message effectively. She can also manage all the elements that go into a good news story like customer testimonials, case studies and impactful images that will enhance a reporter’s interview and help the story come to life. Margo made some great points as well. The process she described can add value and set up a founder for success, which in turn could be a good investment of scare resources in the early days of a start-up.
So who is right? Well, like most things in life and business, it depends.
When you hire a PR consultant in the evolution of your company depends on a lot of variables. Are you comfortable being interviewed or do you need practice? Can you craft a compelling story about your idea? How large a net do you want to cast in order to garner attention? Do you have people around you who can manage the details of a media relations campaign? Do you have a marketing plan and dedicated budget for PR? Should you hire an internal PR director, or a larger PR firm? And consider this: What is the long-term cost and risk of bad press or missed publicity opportunities when you are just getting to launch your product or service?
Without the answers to all those questions, I’ll offer a third alternative, as I did that day on the panel. Have a PR or communications professional as part of your advisory team in the first months of your start-up. In the same way that you seek out financial, legal and human resources advisors, a public relations professional brings a unique set of skills that adds value to any size business. (Read more about the link between PR and organizational success in a prior blog post “PR: A Critical Success Factor for Business Leaders”)
The upsides of having a business advisor experienced in PR include having an outside perspective about your message, how it will be perceived externally, how competitors’ messages are being interpreted in the media, and perhaps, when it is better to say nothing at all. We can also advise you about milestones in your business growth that are going to attract media attention to your company whether you want it or not, like SEC filings that alert reporters to otherwise “stealth” companies. And we can offer help answering all those questions listed above that will lead you to a decision about when it is time to hire a PR manager or an outside PR firm for your business.
Many public relations professionals are happy to offer advice to start-ups on an ad-hoc basis or as part of a more structured advisory team. The point is to ask for advice, be bold in your questions, and be open to having your beliefs about “spin” versus strategic communication altered.