“Are you ready to prioritize public relations?” comes up often in my conversations with startup founders. Having worked in PR for startups and tech companies of all kinds for over a decade doing everything from product launches, to funding rounds and IPOs, I can say that yes, there is a “right” time for when your company might be ready to start engaging in PR.
The questions that startups need to be asking themselves before engaging in PR services and key hires are “What are our overarching goals as a company?” and “What do you hope to achieve with PR?” Without knowing the answers to these questions or having the right foundation in place, moving forward with outsourcing a PR consultant like myself or tech PR firm is very risky, and often detrimental. Getting the wrong idea about PR at the start can poison the well and keep founders from recognizing — and leveraging — its value in the future. Worse than that, it’s a waste of money when the purse strings are at their tightest.
To help startups avoid that, below are three factors to consider before making the mistake of initiating PR before you’re ready.
3 Factors to Consider Before Pursuing PR for Your Startup
- PR is focused on awareness, not revenue or lead generation.
- PR is a long-term investment of time and money .
- PR is for more than a funding round or app launch.
1. PR Is Focused on Awareness, Not Revenue or Lead Generation
Most PR people can tell you that they’ve spent their entire careers explaining the complexities of PR and their day-to-day tasks. And I’m one of them. Whether to clients, family, or close friends, there is so much confusion, myths, and stigmas that exist around PR — especially for startups, who need it most. A startup, by its very nature, doesn’t have any brand presence yet, and has to build their reputation and public persona from the ground up.
Some founders have this idea that a publicist or comms representative is a magician or a fictional character like Samantha Jones from Sex and The City. But PR is the farthest thing from “...and just like that.” PR is essentially storytelling, and for it to work best you need to invest time, funds, and resourcing to create the most compelling narrative for your business.
So what is PR exactly? There are many interpretations, but according to PRSA, “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” In simpler terms, public relations has everything to do with building and generating awareness and visibility through credible third parties. It’s earned media, which means that it’s attention you have to organically generate. PR can build positive brand awareness and trust that showcases your value prop to potential customers, investors, and industry stakeholders. It can also help you increase your voice in the market amongst competitors through press coverage, op-eds, speaking at events, and winning awards.
Now, here’s what PR isn’t. It’s not sales, and it’s not advertising, which is paid, meaning it was bought and there was investment specifically made to increase conversions, visitors, and customers. (And some would even argue that PR is separate from marketing entirely, best off as its own department). In the startup tech world I’ve experienced a lot of confusion from founders, managers, and colleagues on the ROI of PR, and having to explain constantly that it’s in no way responsible for revenue or lead gen. Now, that doesn’t mean PR can’t drive new customers, because it absolutely can, and has. Yet, not being able to differentiate between the two oftentimes puts PR professionals at a disadvantage before a partnership or contract has even kicked off. If a startup founder approaches you expecting PR to immediately result in lead-gen — run for the hills, that’s a major red flag and they would most likely be a nightmare client.
2. PR Is a Long-Term Investment of Time and Money
A majority of startup founders have viewed PR as short term or a one-off project. PR should be viewed as a long-term investment that will take some trial and error as messaging is tested externally to see what resonates and what doesn’t. As a result, I personally don’t work with clients who only want short stints. PR is a marathon, not a sprint. No business owner wants to hear that it’s going to take time, but that’s the case with PR. This is especially true for startups and tech companies who tend to operate on this rapid, urgent, always-on 24/7 cycle. I tell my clients all the time that it’s PR, not ER. Don’t treat everything like it’s an emergency — because chances are, to a journalist, it’s not. Much of PR revolves around press coverage. You can’t achieve the media coverage needed to become a household name overnight. Laying the foundation in the press and other credible third parties takes time.
The next important question I ask is “What’s your budget?” I’m not going to lie or sugar coat this. PR is expensive, especially if done right. I get that all companies, especially startups, look to cut costs and be lean in their operations, but in order to make the media and public care about your brand you need to invest financially. This can include anything from working with an independent contractor like myself, growing your in-house team, or signing a tech PR agency — all of these services require resourcing in order to do the job well. I also try to gauge if prospective clients have internal spokespeople who are invested in the media. Or if they have customers, testimonials, or data that points to a larger trend beyond the company.
3. PR Is About More Than a Funding Round or App Launch
Earlier I was saying that PR shouldn’t be rushed and that results aren’t always immediate, and that’s generally the case. I tell my clients all the time that the media don’t work for us, we work for the media. And as such we need to be a resource for them first before promoting our products. However, there are ways to make your brand and POV both relevant and timely, like latching onto breaking news or another time-pegged hook that hasn’t been discussed or featured before. The news moves extremely quickly, and last week’s breaking news is already gathering dust, but PR can help keep your brand image current. Unfortunately, a lot of startups tend to think of PR in such a limited scope, and really only get press coverage or “buzz” around a funding round, which truthfully isn’t as sexy as it once was now that every startup has funding. When I worked in corporate America I noticed that most companies were only invested in PR if it surrounded a launch or other company announcement, versus hustling to have year-over-year storytelling and PR opportunities that tap into cultural moments. PR should be exciting and fun! Startups need to adapt beyond the usual cookie-cutter PR that they always go to market with.
PR is all about persuasion, which means that there is no guarantee that all the convincing will land or resonate externally. With PR comes risk, as does anything in business. But playing it safe and doing the same thing you’ve always done won’t drive growth or awareness either. Eventually, every startup will need PR. But do you need PR right now? If any of the above factors don’t align with your views on PR, chances are you should wait.