PR 101 for Startups: When, why, and how to hire a PR firm

September 3, 2014

6:00 am


“Can you get me some media attention?”  As the owner of a public relations and public affairs firm, I should be thrilled to hear these words from a potential client.  In reality, it’s a terrible place to start the conversation.  Too many times startups decide, for a cadre of reasons, that they want some attention.  So they look for someone who can get it. Welcome to PR 101 for Startups: When, why, and how to hire a PR firm.

Startups should take a completely different approach when looking for a PR firm.  You should actually start looking before you need one.  It is more important to find a good fit and a good partner so that you will have the right firm to hire when you need them.  Go to lunch, have a drink, get to know them.  Ask them questions.  Let them get to know your business model.  Test them and see if they really understand it.

Another important part of the selection process is asking around.  Ask other founders who they have worked with and the all-important question – would you hire them again?  Referrals are a terrific way to identify good talent, whether it’s a software engineer or a PR firm.

So once you have some potential firms in the pipeline, when is the right time to hire?  This should be a function of your business model, not your budget.  If one is prioritized the next should follow naturally.  Is there a strategic business reason to engage a PR firm?  Can they drive engagement or profile in a way that will yield success?  Do you, for example, have a website that needs traffic – can they reach your target audience in a way that will drive the right traffic?  Are you about to start looking for funding and potential investors want to see a seasoned pro leading the business – and can a firm help you showcase that seasoned pro? <Unclear>

Once you understand how PR is essential to your business, then you prioritize that within your budget.  And just because your budget is small, doesn’t mean you can’t hire a firm.  There are three ways to approach the budget – each have pros and cons.

First – many people these days are working on a pay for performance basis.  You will pay a set price based on where your PR firm can get an article to run.  Higher profile media outlets yield higher fees for them.  At first glance, this makes imminent sense to those in the tech and startup space because it is similar to many of the products they themselves create and sell.  However, in the world of media it has been met with a serious backlash, most notably from TechCrunch who has publicly stated they will not work with PR firms who are working under this kind of pay-for-placement arrangement.  They raise ethical questions about this payment method and rightly question its one-size-fits-all approach.  Additionally, the pay-for-placement structure does not give incentive to nurture press relationships that startups so vitally need to nurture in order to maintain brand recognition. So, while this might be an appealing way to go knowing you only pay for certain results, you should balance that with the huge downside of eliminating certain new sites from your list of opportunities.

Second – a one-off project.  You need to announce a hire, a funding round, a product development and that is all.  You can engage a firm to do a one-time project for you.  If you are young and cash-strapped this is a really smart way to go.  You can try a firm out before hiring them in a long-term contract and you can get what you need without a monthly retainer for the firm.  And you will quickly figure out which firms are willing to invest a little in you to get your business long-term.

Lastly – you have a healthy budget and know your needs are not just for one project.  Do your due diligence and identify the right firm to engage with.  Six months is a great start.  We find at our firm the three month mark is where we usually start seeing great return and movement.  These engagements also tend to be more productive for both parties as we have time to really immerse ourselves in their business and messaging.  We have the time to make needed adjustments and the time to cultivate the relationships we need to leverage for the client.  These scenarios also allow you enough time to put specific milestones in place to measure performance against.  On the flipside they are also more expensive.  But, don’t be afraid to get creative with the budget.  You might suggest a lower retainer to start and then a bump after a few months of meeting specific milestones.  After six months you know whether or not you can live without the firm and you want to keep going.  Then you know why it makes sense to invest valuable dollars.

The bottom line is – find the right firm, make sure they understand and can advance your business model and then engage them in a way that makes sense for you.  Ideally you should end up with a new partner in your business who cares as much about your success as you do.

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Mindy Tucker Fletcher is a respected communications strategist, with more than two decades of experience at the national, state and local levels. Before starting Crux Partners with Jen Maxson, Mindy helped West Health rebrand into four organizations working to lower the cost of health care and managed the announcements around spinning out their first two start-up health care technology companies. Mindy brings a wealth of political, corporate and non-profit strategic communications experience to the table for her clients. She spent 5 years as Senior Vice President at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, working with their California and Washington, D.C. offices. In the political arena, Mindy is best known for her work with President George W. Bush, serving as the press secretary for his campaign in 2000 and then in 2001 becoming the first woman to be appointed Director of Public Affairs at the United States Department of Justice and she was in that post on September 11, 2001. During her 8 years in Washington, D.C. she held positions on Capitol Hill at the National Republican Congressional Committee and was Communications Director for the Republican National Committee. Mindy also served as Deputy Chief of Staff to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and then Deputy Campaign Manager to his 2006 re-election campaign. Mindy resides in San Diego with her husband Nathan and their two sons, Zach and Caleb. Even though she doesn’t have much free time, she operates on the principle that a good baseball game can always fit into your schedule.

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