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Do Startups Really Need A PR Firm?

Brant Cooper’s indictment of PR firms for start-up businesses (Hey, Startups: Don’t Hire A PR Agency) has triggered another flurry of discussion about what should be expected from a professional public relations firm. I don’t agree with Cooper’s conclusions, but he makes some valid points. His argument is more well-reasoned than journalists’ complaints, and more relevant than the 2008 Jason Calcanis post calling for startups to fire their PR reps.

Here’s why. Over the years, I’ve worked with many startups with a wide range of needs, from brand positioning and messaging to business-building publicity. Most have been successful relationships. Yet, more than other clients, startups are prone to unrealistic expectations.

Expectations management is more important than results. When I hear, “We’re really counting on PR to drive demand, so we’re putting everything into our PR budget,” it doesn’t make me happy. It’s a red flag. Even the most brilliant PR program isn’t a replacement for a salesforce, marketing plan, or ad budget.

Startups are supposed to have lofty goals. All the more reason why it’s essential to define – and manage – them at the outset. Of course, this is true of any client-agency engagement, but startups are more passionate because they have to be. It’s their job. Which means that it’s our job is to make them see that PR is a better tool for brand visibility and positioning than demand generation. Those who expect to launch a consumer business fueled purely by publicity are often disappointed.

The founder is not the brand. This is where I think Calcanis and others get it wrong. An evangelistic founder is a huge asset, and he or she is usually the most credible media and analyst spokesperson. But, the founder’s vision is only the beginning. And, not every entrepreneur is the best person to sell his story. I’ve worked with those who are either too close or too emotionally invested to connect with media and understand their point of view. A press tour is not a road show.

PR doesn’t stand for press release. A newsstream should flow from the overall business and communications strategy, but the document itself is a commodity. If they’re hiring a PR team for press releases, it’s a waste of money.

Some startups should handle PR internally. It’s not possible  to generalize, but there are many companies – particularly early-stage ones, for whom PR is basically networking and fundraising. For them, a DIY approach can work well.

Finally, PR can’t overcome a mediocre product or flawed business plan.  If it could,  Webvan,, and would be household brands today instead of symbols of vaporized cash – and dreams.

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