Public relations is an abstract concept to a lot of entrepreneurs. An engineer once told me PR seemed like “black magic” to him. And while that’s not the case—it’s a process not a miraculous supernatural event—his statement perfectly captures how many entrepreneurs look at PR: you know it’s good for you but how to actually do it is another thing.
It’s no surprise then that many startups completely mismanage PR, specifically around how to staff the role. Do you hire an agency? Do it yourself? Something else?
If you’re not careful, it’s easy to waste thousands—if not hundreds of thousands—of dollars. Choosing the right path is important.
With this in mind, I thought it would be beneficial to lay out the primary paths startups can take to implement and maintain PR programs. The commitment guide below offers high-level pros and cons for each, but read on for more pro tips to evaluate whether you’re ready to say ‘I do’ to a PR agency or if you are better off keeping it casual with a consultant.
Commitment Guide: 6 Options for Startup PR
The PR Agency
It used to be that once a startup got funding, hiring an agency was “just the thing you did.” However, with the movement to lean methodologies and the rise of small funding rounds, this is no longer the case or even doable for many startups.
Still, a great agency can work wonders. They offer valuable third-party perspective to help refine your story and messaging, and drive brand awareness and market leadership. But if brought in during the wrong stage of the business or if not properly managed (it’s best to have someone internal dedicated to the role), they can be a liability.
Case in point: A successful startup CEO told me not long ago he had serious buyer’s remorse about hiring a PR agency. He ended up firing them a few months in, but only after he invested tens of thousands of dollars.
Consultants offer less of a commitment than agencies, with all the benefits of an expert communications professional. They are best for startups that would like to maintain a reasonably small, ongoing PR program or would like occasional support with specific projects.
However, just like an agency, someone on your team will need to work side-by-side with the consultant and manage him/her. Good consultants can also be hard to come by, with the best only working with “hot” startups.
The PR/Marketing Manager
A PR manager on payroll means greater authenticity in your communications and eliminates the burden of having to supervise a third party. Many journalists even prefer to work with someone internal.
On the downside, if the PR manager is responsible for other areas of marketing PR results will take a hit. With internal managers you also lose valuable outsider perspective that an agency or consultant provides; it can be hard for that person to take a step back to tell creative stories around your business when they’ve been sipping the company Kool-Aid.
At smaller startups, CEOs are often the perfect person to do PR. They are the ones closest to the brand. They have the vision and their fingers on the company’s pulse.
However, it’s often hard for them to find time to prioritize PR amidst the barrage of pressing responsibilities, like hiring and fundraising. And even when they have bandwidth, many CEOs don’t have the knowledge or patience to manage the details, like spending hours updating a media list. (Full disclosure: My company Pasta offers a training product for startup executives looking to “hack their own PR” and manage it internally.)
All those details you didn’t think a CEO couldn’t handle— the intern can do them, right? Probably not. While interns can help with some administrative tasks and update spreadsheets, PR is an executive-level role and should be driven by someone with managerial experience. And even if the intern is just assisting, with little practical business experience be prepared for some hand-holding.
If you’re in stealth mode or haven’t nailed product/market fit, PR can be a distraction and even hurt you. In this case, your best option for PR may be to go “invisible” and not do PR in favor of product and customer development. With that said, a lot of post-product/market fit companies choose not to do PR simply because they “don’t have time”, which can be a mistake. While it’s easy to get tunnel vision around product, if people don’t know about what you’re creating what good does it do?
The Right Path for Your Business
PR can be a powerful tool for any startup. Aside from the hard costs of hiring someone, a good PR program only costs the time you put into it.
By choosing a commitment level that fits your startup’s stage and resource level, you’ll set yourself up for success.
To any startups out there: How have you approached staffing PR? Any words of advice to other entrepreneurs?
Amy Ziari is the co-founder of Pasta, which creates public relations management solutions for PR professionals and startups. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit http://www.pastasystems.com for more information.
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