Pointing Fingers Won't Help. When and How to Hire Your PR Agency
Reading time: 6 minutes. It's worth your time.
This is the sixth article in the series, Tales From a Startup Marketer, by Billy Cina, featured in CIO Magazine.
Startups are always eager to hire PR agencies, because every CEO believes that the public is awaiting her invention with baited breath. But publicity campaigns don't always deliver the results you expect. Here's how to avoid disappointment.
“A complete waste of $60,000 and 6 months of our time gone down the drain. They should really pay us for missing this great opportunity”.
The question of when to hire a PR agency always arises in startup marketing budget discussions. Understandably, every CEO believes that the industry is eagerly waiting her invention with baited breath, so why wouldn’t the journalists and analysts be lining up to speak with her? The answer is quite simple: As magnificent as your product may be, nobody cares. When do they care? When you can prove repeatedly that it is truly a masterpiece that can benefit many people or companies.
The PR agency vs. startup story
- You have a product that is about to launch.
- You need press coverage.
- You hire a PR agency a month or two before the launch on a 12-month retainer.
- You get the ball rolling with prep calls.
- The press release is finally approved after 11 rounds of iteration.
- Your agency manages to secure a handful of interviews with journalists and analysts, a couple of them are Tier 1. (High five! Wow!)
- Launch day arrives, and luckily all journalists who interviewed you covered the launch with quite good reviews.
- Your website traffic increased by 50% for launch week.
- You got 10 new followers on LinkedIn.
- You are moderately happy but expected more.
- Month 3 of retainer: one month after launch, no coverage.
- Month 4 after launch: no coverage and “we are disappointed” discussions kick off with your PR agency.
- You decide to give them another month to improve.
- Month 5: PR agency secures a couple of additional articles in Tier 2 publications.
- You are now mad and down $50,000.
- You give the PR agency its 30-day advance notice of termination.
Sound familiar? Well, while you may have selected a lousy PR agency, consider your role in this.
Failing points of a solid PR campaign
There are plenty more, but these two are the golden favorites that keep repeating themselves:
1. Newsworthiness and setting expectations: You hired an agency for 12 months when you only had enough news to interest the journalists at the time of the launch. Journalists are bombarded with over 200 pitches per day. Your product really needs to be an interesting story to get attention. By this I mean, giving journalists access to data that they are thirsty for, such as industry trends and numbers, customer interviews, a behind-the-scenes look at the technology, great images and infographics, etc.
Chances are that you couldn't provide any of that because your customers (if any) did not want to be identified, your data is difficult to mine and you don’t have the resources to dedicate to that, and your technology is too precious to reveal to the world!
"Oh and there’s another thing. Your product might simply not be that interesting to the press! That doesn’t mean it won’t succeed in the market, but it does mean that it may never be in the headlights."
2. Inappropriate spokesperson: This is a tricky one, but it’s important. Often the wrong person is "elected" to speak with the press and analysts. Companies often insist that a certain person speak for political reasons -- because he or she is the CEO or the founder, for example. It's really important to put egos aside and put the most articulate person in front of the press. This is a show, and the best performer needs to take center stage.
And don't forget that your spokesperson actually needs to set aside time to speak with journalists. Getting press attention is tough, so if your PR agency has managed to score an interview, limiting them to three random time slots over the next two weeks simply won’t cut it.
When should you be rightfully mad at your agency
1. If they did not set realistic expectations regarding what they can deliver with the material you have provided. While all agencies, good and bad, want to overachieve, they should be giving you a realistic idea of what to expect.
"You’ve delivered the goods -- an interesting story, data, customers and a well-versed spokesperson -- but the coverage is still insufficient? Yep, you can be mad about that."
2. If they let inexperienced junior associates handle your account. Many agencies fall into the massive and tempting trap of letting junior team members take over accounts too quickly. Senior employees close new accounts and pamper the big-name customers. Your startup is less… appealing. This is not acceptable.
3. If the agency offered no ideas or creativity. Many agencies rely on their clients to feed them ideas for coverage when it really should be the other way around. Demand their creativity and nothing less.
You get what you pay for
By and large, in North America, tech PR agencies' retainers range from $5,000 to $15,000 per month. There are exceptions in each direction, but that range applies to 90% of them.
"You can’t be fooled into thinking that the services provided by an agency charging $5,000 a month will really equal the services of an agency charging $15,000."
While some $15,000 agencies are overpriced, I have never been pleasantly surprised by an agency that charges only $5,000 (or less). Again, set your expectations. If you can only afford the lower end of the scale, the output will be lower. Getting disappointed for $15,000 a month is also really understandable, so make sure you see examples of work done for comparable clients and ask the team what it really took to get them there.
When you should really hire a PR agency
Quite simply, when you aren't the only one who believes that there is a good story to tell. A decent PR agency will (or should) let you know if you have that.
If you need an agency for a four-month launch period, don’t seek a 12-month retainer; that only feeds disappointment. There are plenty of agencies willing to work hard for you for four months.