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PR Guide for Startups: Outsourcing vs. In-house

May 4, 2017

Reading Time: 7-8 mins (totally worth your time)

4-5 years ago, within the startup scene, PR was struggling because everybody was turning to social media to raise their company's’ profile. Social media seemed to be fast, effective and most significantly, a cheap PR solution. With Twitter, it seemed like everyone was able to reach anyone. Bloggers and websites focusing on the tech and startup scenes were hungry for information. Life seemed straight forward for startups who wanted to tell the world about their idea. Who needed an expensive agency when self-generated social media activity could do an effective job for you?

I think this approach is a mistake. Applying a robust social media strategy and deploying good content have proved to be solid means of generating attention, but not instead of PR. Certainly, some super talented, creative or lucky startups enjoyed great “do-it-yourself” PR success but they’re arguably the exceptions proving the rule. Just like video didn’t kill the radio star; social media, content and the internet didn’t kill the need for good PR support. In fact it has increased the necessity of strong PR. But why?

PR’s resurrection and the pitfalls of social media

So the number of startups continues to rise. Every one of them is shouting to be heard and is fighting for a share of voice in this increasingly cluttered market. Simultaneously, media outlets are more streamlined than ever because editorial staff numbers are lower than ever. This means that editors require their journalists to cover more stories faster than ever before and as a result, they are overwhelmed with information, press releases and the like.
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Therefore, even with all our technology, it’s getting increasingly difficult to grab journalists’ attention. This particular factor alone is a compelling reason why you need professionals to do PR for you. Your PR is less likely to cut through if you treat it as an added task for somebody who’s already busy. It’s a street-fight out there, so you need to hire the PR muscle to win the tussle.
You can no longer assume that what previously worked will continue to do so. You need experts to understand the media and reach out to them effectively. A PR agency, or dedicated in-house support, will have spent years developing solid contacts and honing their media relations skills. They will know who to reach out to and how to best approach them. This knowledge and experience is irreplaceable, and can’t be superseded by social media. So, if your CEO or co-founder does not have excellent media contacts from a previous cycle, you’ll need an agency or dedicated professionals to open doors for you.
PR service providers worldwide have spent the last decade or more changing with the times, embracing new technologies, means of communication and targeting audiences, and this includes social media. These days, PR means so much more than “getting a good article in the newspaper / trade magazine.” It includes digital communication strategy and implementation, core messaging and branding solutions, awareness of the ever-shifting media landscape and wise counsel about how to best handle and harness all of these elements.
In short, it’s more than just a “bolt-on” activity that startups can do alongside their “day-job”. It’s a full-time job of its own, and to get the most out of PR, resources should be dedicated to it.

So when should you start with PR activities?

Golden rule: When you have enough to say and it is news-worthy.

PR, both offline and online, works best when you have enough news to share and stories to tell. And this must be great quality content that external audiences want to read and will care about. Be brutally honest with yourself. Is your “news” really “new” in the marketplace?

Will it really benefit / interest / excite anyone other than your own company, or is it just “me-too” information? Imagine that you’re one of those journalists under pressure to find a great story and inundated with information that you don’t really have time to read properly. What you need is content that really makes you stop and take notice. And there must be enough of it to consistently remind you that this is a company with a story to tell. Good PR requires big customer stories, new industry data, interesting new hires etc.

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Your PR choices

1. In-house or agency PR support?

In-house PR is totally focused on your startup, with no distractions from other clients. But you’ll have to pay a full salary for this. And in-house PRs may not have the same resources as agencies. You may need to buy them separately (subscriptions to media databases, or media monitoring and analysis services, for example). Importantly, you need to be generating a mountain of newsworthy content and stories in order to justify an in-house position. If you decide to go in-house, check out these awesome tips by Mike Fishbein before you start.

A good agency should already be familiar with your target media and your competitive landscape. Consequently, they’ll have a sense of how best to position you. Always check their credentials and case studies carefully.  

There’s also a lot of frustration directed at PR agencies, when truly, it’s all about understanding how and when to work with them. These are two golden favorites that keep repeating themselves:

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.

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. 

2. Local or international?

Are you starting-up in one country, or do you want an international campaign? Nothing beats local knowledge, but the choice is between a cheaper local PR agency or a more expensive agency that has international experience and reach.

3. Boutique specialist agency or large generalist agency?

If you’re a B2B startup, or you’re targeting a niche market, you might prefer to use a specialist agency. If you want to break out of your niche, then you need the diversity of an agency covering numerous disciplines. Either way, you should always aim to work with an agency that has a reputation and track record in your vertical and who can prove to you that they understand your target audience.

Also, remember that small might be beautiful, because you will be a more prominent client, and you’ll get closer attention. In a big agency, big name, big budget clients get most attention. But small agencies may not have such large the influence or reach.

4. Chemistry

Do you like your agency team? Do you feel they understand your startup? Are they passionate about it? If the answer is yes, then you’re a good match for each other.

And finally, how to get the best from your PR people?

It’s simple. Be a great client.

Treat your PR guys with the respect you expect to get from them. Brief them accurately and in good time for them to prepare their campaigns. Be easily available to them. Be open to their ideas and advice. After all, they are the experts in their field.

You’ll get the most from your PR guys if you make them a genuine extension of your marketing team. Involve them in your strategic considerations and decision-making. If they’ve been part of these processes, they will believe more strongly in the direction you’re taking, and I’m certain you’ll get more energy from them in their efforts to help you succeed. So include them in meetings, give them definitive goals, be flexible with your time. Agree on what success looks like for a launch, after three months, after six months and beyond.

Work together well and you’ll have the makings of a winning partnership.

We have a great event coming up dedicated to how to helping startups work with PR agencies, join us May 18th

About the Author

Billy Cina

I've been around the B2B tech and start up marketing scene long enough to claim veteran status. Nostalgia aside, I've become pretty good at what I do, which is why in 2014 I Co-founded Israel's leading tech marketing agency, Marketing Envy.

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