Ten Lessons Of A PR Entrepreneur

Last weekend I had the honor of being part of an entrepreneurship panel at the annual Student Career Conference hosted by the New York Women in Communications Foundation. Some 300 students of media, PR, and communications gathered to network, learn, and be inspired by women who’ve made careers in the field. My panel featured an amazing lineup – life stylist and author Harriette Cole, beauty and style expert Jenn Falik, and Techlicious founder Suzanne Kantra. It was a terrific discussion and a good time.

The conference also forced me to think about what I’ve learned in 15 years running my own firms, both with a partner, and, most recently as a sole owner. Here’s my list:

Know your business before you start it. Particularly in a creative service like PR, experience really counts. It pays to put in time at similar firms to gain experience and build contacts before starting your own. And why not learn on someone else’s dime?

All you really need is a client. I’ve talked to aspiring business-builders in PR and media who are very hung up on their own branding and marketing. Those things are important, and they’re fun. But in the beginning, you’re selling yourself. Just concentrate on getting one client to start.

Learn the business of business. As in, how companies make a profit. How products get to market, how a website is monetized, and, for PR, how brands are built and marketed. Just because you’re creative doesn’t mean you don’t have to understand your clients’ business. In fact, it’s all the more reason.

Ask for what you’re worth. It doesn’t pay to be shy about fees, or shrink from conversations around budget matters. Ironically, it’s often easier to stick to your fee levels when it’s not your own business, since the decision is out of your hands. But it’s even more important when building your own business.

Hire up. Never be afraid of hiring people smarter, better, or more talented than you. This is one thing I learned when at Edelman, which is today the largest independent PR firm. At times, it felt like they hired some individuals based purely on talent, then figured out later what to do with them. The point is not to be overly impulsive in hiring, but to look at talent as a long-term investment.

Take the long view. And not just when hiring. I used to gnash my teeth about losing a big pitch. But I can’t tell you how often a client who didn’t hire us has called back within the year to say things hadn’t worked out as they expected, and could we talk about working together? Try to learn something from every setback, and, above all, never burn bridges.

Manage your own reputation like you do your clients’. In the agency business we often become aligned with our clients. That’s why a sketchy company, or one who truly doesn’t understand your services, is nearly always a bad bet.

Ask for help. When I founded my second firm, I realized just how willing people are to help. The trick is in being specific about your needs (“could I ask for an introduction at X company?”) , and in doing so with the spirit of reciprocity.

Do it wrong (maybe), but do it quicklyMike Moran‘s famous call to action (Do It Wrong Quickly) is about experimentation and risk-taking. But, it’s become a mantra for me on prompt and proactive decision-making. Generally, it’s better to commit to something and regret it later than to never try something new, or worse, let key issues drift. And, after sharing responsibility with someone who had a painfully deliberate style on high-priority matters, I learned that a non-decision is a decision in itself. Usually a poor one.

“Fake it ’til you make it.” This was uttered by Jenn Falik and reiterated by nearly every panel member at the NYWICI Student Conference. The point is not that new business owners should be false or  misleading. It’s that when an opportunity comes, we should grab it, especially if it can push us to a new level of skill, challenge, and visibility. If the prospect scares you a little, maybe that’s a good sign.

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, Kozmo.com, and Pets.com would be household brands today instead of symbols of vaporized cash – and dreams.