Startups and PR: The Chicken or the Egg?

For startups, success is about money and timing, and PR can be a heady investment. Every expense needs to be strategic, but startups also need to acquire customers and get brand recognition. In today’s crowded landscape, it can be incredibly difficult to be heard, which gives rise to a chicken and egg situation — do you need an established business to invest in PR, or do you need to invest in PR to grow your business? It’s not an easy answer: Hire too soon and you blow through cash that could have been spent building your product and hiring engineers. Hire too late and you miss your marketing window. 

I recently spoke on a panel at the AWS Loft in Soho titled “Generating PR for your Startup,” along with Fast Company editor Lara Sorokanich and Ryan Wells, managing director of corporate communications at NASDAQ. Amanda Sibley, marketing director at Hubspot, moderated. The room was packed with more than 160 entrepreneurs looking for answers to this question. While Bateman Group tends to work with later-stage companies — Series A and beyond — it was wonderful to see how many view communications as a top priority for their business, particularly in today’s attention economy. Most agreed that while PR can be hugely impactful, the chicken business must come first.

Is PR for you?

I believe that communications can fundamentally change the course of a business, a culture and an industry, but PR is not the answer for everyone. I hit this message like a broken record — good communications is about finding the unique and inspiring stories, people and innovations in your company, and packaging them up in ways (and channels) that will engage your audience. Relationships with journalists are key, but without assets to share with media, our jobs are really hard. 

Here are some key questions to ask yourself before investing in PR:

  • Is our messaging clear, concise and differentiated? 
  • Are we solving a problem that many people have? Are we doing it in a different way?
  • Do we have proof that we are making an impact? 
  • Do we have recognizable customers (B2B) or strong adoption numbers (B2C)? 
  • Do we have momentum that we can prove?
  • Is our business in a space that is relevant and timely? Is the industry frequently covered in the news?
  • Do we have people at the company that can speak to the media, and have something to say?
  • Do we have someone on our team who can work with an agency to get them what they need?

When to invest

If you answered no to many of these questions, the better use of money is to build up your business and your assets.

We talk to companies all the time that want to use PR to acquire customers. While PR undoubtedly impacts customer or user acquisition, it should not be your primary strategy. If acquisition is your sole goal, you should invest your dollars into growth marketing.

If you have some assets but don’t have the team in place, I would reconsider your investment. It takes a LOT of work to support a strong communications program; without in-house marketing or communications infrastructure, you are either going to spend a lot of time getting your agency the assets they need to be successful, or not getting the value out of your spend.

If you have the business momentum, the internal staff and the assets to support a robust communications program, then you might be ready. The final step is to be crystal clear about what you are hoping to get out of your PR investment. PR can provide business impact in the following ways:

  • Brand awareness: building interest in your brand to get customers into your funnel or consideration from your users. This can be done through editorial storytelling, keynote addresses, contributed content, integrated digital and social campaigns, and awards.
  • Interest: bringing customers or users deeper into your funnel. Branded events, research and insights, employee/brand stories and educational content can further engage your audiences.
  • Establishing credibility: showing your audience that your startup is real. This is achieved through executive thought leadership, data storytelling and influencer engagement.
  • Repositioning: changing your audience or shifting the reputation or perception of your brand. Influencer and third-party validation, executive comms, user testimonials and digital content strategies can help achieve this. 
  • Acquisition: converting interest to adoption. PR is not the most cost-effective strategy for straight-up consumer acquisition, but product reviews, analyst/influencer validation, social campaigns and customer programs can be very effective in both B2C and B2B environments.
  • Loyalty and advocacy: building relationships with your users and getting them to evangelize your brand. This can be achieved through social campaigns, endorsements and user events. 

If this list aligns with your business objectives, then you might be ready.

How to find the right chicken

There are a lot of frogs in the world of PR; while the reputation is shifting, you want to be very careful in how you select your communications partner. Start by making a list of the companies whose PR you admire, and ask them who they work with. Ask your peers for recommendations. There is an in-house PR Group on Facebook where you can seek and post recommendations.

Once you get a list, look at each agency’s website — do you see clients that you admire and that are in similar positions as your startup? Does it seem like the firm invests in their people? Do they align with your core values? 

When you’ve narrowed your list, set up intro calls to gauge chemistry, intellectual alignment and perspective on your communications goals. A good PR firm should ask you questions to determine if you have the assets they will need for a successful communications program and to understand what success looks like. Listen to their questions to see how they approach their work. Engage them around their client and talent retention, their approach with similar sized clients, what they see as the biggest opportunity and challenge for your business, and what they view as a recipe for a great relationship. 

Pro tip: Do not evaluate 10 agencies; that is a huge time suck, and many great agencies will drop out if they view your request for proposals (RFP) as a “cattle call.” I would recommend having a shortlist of five or six agencies and narrowing it down to two or three for comparison.

While it’s tempting to just download a giant RFP from an online source, really think about what you need to know to make a decision. Offer a real-world situation or opportunity and ask for their thoughts on how to handle it. For example, “Tell me how you would have launched our last product differently?” or “We are getting overshadowed by our competitor. How would you build a program that would help us stand out?” These types of questions will give you more insight into how they would be as a working partner, whereas a giant RFP will get you boilerplate answers.

Three best practices 

The topic of when to invest in PR dominated much of the conversation during the panel, but we also covered some best practices for running an effective communications program. Here are a few:

  • Stand out to media: Journalists get hundreds or thousands of pitches a day. The average person’s attention span has fallen from 12 seconds to 8 seconds in the last 15 years. To stand out and be heard, startups need a hook — something unexpected that will get attention. Readers don’t care about a product, but they do care about the story behind it — how it can inspire, transform work, impact their lives. Tell a story that makes it clear why readers should care. 
  • Know your audience: Just like product managers need to know their customer, startup comms teams need to understand their media and user audience and be targeted when reaching out to them. “Spray and pray” is the fastest way to alienate your audience. 
  • Save the guerilla marketing for later: While it seems like a fun, quick fix, guerilla marketing is REALLY tough to nail. There are certainly some brands that have gotten it right, but in this social media amplification climate, if you don’t nail it, you will feel it. Better to save the stunts for when you have more credibility in your brand. As Ryan Wells of NASDAQ said during the panel, “Everyone is a critic. If something goes wrong, it will spread like wildfire and will take a lot of work to fix it.”

We covered a lot of ground at the AWS panel but didn’t get to all the questions. I would love to hear your thoughts on other considerations for companies considering an investment in PR. You can reach me at @tylerlp on Twitter or on LinkedIn.

Photo by Artem Beliaikin from Pexels.