PR Rules For Startups

Mark Cuban’s “12 Rules for Start-Ups” has the PR industry in a lather. In addition to offering insights like “never buy branded polo shirts” (#10), and “know how your business will make money” (#4), Cuban has a strong opinion about PR. Rule #11 on his list states, “Never hire a PR firm.” He goes on to describe PR professionals in unflattering terms.

Cuban has since clarified his position on using PR consultants after much online commentary. But basically, his premise seems to be that journalists and bloggers would much rather hear from a company founder directly, rather than through an intermediary.

Fair enough. But calling Mark Cuban a spokesman for start-ups is a bit like describing Kim Kardashian as Kris Humphries’ ex-wife. It may be beside the point.

Cuban is right about at least one thing, though, which is that a PR start-up program is often very different from one on behalf of a legacy business. There are different rules. Here’s my take on the most effective way to approach PR strategy and media relations for an emerging business.

Define your needs. If fundraising is the overriding goal, your business may be better off dedicating the first year to networking in venture circles, with more highly specialized help.

Bulletproof your business. Sure, many early-stage companies will grow and evolve, but your business offering needs to be as complete as as possible, and the messaging must be fully coherent before you approach media.

Prioritize. Similarly, spend your time on targets who can support business goals. Many startups hire a PR firm or consultant to build an online community in advance of a launch, set up an influencer group, or expand product distribution, which may necessitate a laserlike focus on trade or niche media and blogs.

Assess the founder’s strengths. Be ruthless. Mark Cuban may be a skilled communicator, but that’s not true of all founders. Media training can only go so far. Some of the most passionate entrepreneurs I’ve known have been mediocre, or worse, when it comes to evangelizing with journalists. And, remember, the founder is not the brand.

Look at the ROI for time spent. One of the most brilliant CEOs I ever worked with told me that he could do a better job on industry PR than anyone on his staff or at my firm. And he may have been right; he had grown up in the business, knew all the key players and was a true visionary. But, apart from a few carefully cultivated media and analyst relationships, he never did wade very deeply into the PR program. Why? Because he had another job, of course. And a little charisma can go a long way.

Be realistic. PR is best looked at at a long-term tool for building a business or a brand. For every “snowball effect” publicity hit, there are a hundred slow-and-steady programs that create visibility and reputation over time.