Are You Ready For A PR Agency? 5 Questions For Startups

Bringing on a public relations agency can help an organization engage a far larger audience than they’re able to do on their own. But in the competitive world of startups, the go-to-market formula can change, and timing is key. It isn’t as simple as ‘get your brand in the news’ as much as it is about identifying and focusing on key differentiators. So before a startup decides to bring on a PR agency, they should be asking themselves these five questions.

Do you have a real story?

Many startups, especially those in tech, generate early buzz making VC deals that allow for rapid growth, and a funding announcement can be a great starting point. Yet a fat financing round and torrid expansion numbers aren’t enough, and they can even overshadow more important assets. As time goes on, business growth normalizes, and a startup needs a more differentiated story. What is the company’s reason for being? What problem does it solve? Why should anyone care? A bulletproof business model and compelling story will reinforce the company’s legitimacy and offer a foundation for long-term PR planning.

What are your goals?

Not enough companies ask this question, and it’s an important one. Of course the goal is to get the company in the news so that it will be more visible and better known, but for what? Does the company want to be recognized as an industry disruptor? Is it aiming to attract business partners? Sales leads? Understanding the mission is essential for the PR agency to properly plan, position and execute a campaign on behalf of the client. We urge our clients to differentiate between deliverables (earned media coverage, bylined articles, speaking opportunities secures) and outcomes (sales growth, perception changes). Both are important but one should lead to the other.

Is the founder engaging?

While the startup itself can be interesting, the founder is ideally just as engaging, if not more so. People love a good founder story. It can generate great coverage tied back to the company and allow opportunities for thought leadership. However, if the founder isn’t able to offer more than factual information on the company or doesn’t have the charisma or salesmanship of other startup leaders, they may be at a disadvantage. Of course, many agencies offer media coaching to help executives be more comfortable in media interviews and more compelling in how they tells their story, but it helps when it comes from the heart. If not, the startup may want to look at other top executives as the face of the brand, or it can use a PR agency to work around the in-person meetings with branded content.

Does the startup have internal support for the PR agency?

This may be obvious, but it’s an important factor to consider. PR agencies usually work as an auxiliary to the company’s internal marketing team, and if it’s still in the early stages, the internal resources may not be there to manage an external team. Without that support the PR agency can have trouble producing results and the PR investment may not be worth the spend.

Are you ready to make a long-term commitment?

“Long term” can mean different things to different companies, but a startup that’s expecting instant results in the form of splashy earned media articles or tech trade headlines is likely to be disappointed. The most successful startup PR programs set tangible goals for deliverables and metrics for the PR agency on a quarterly basis. A startup who wants to reap the benefits of a PR firm’s work should ideally be prepared to commit for twelve months.

PR For Startups: Why It’s Different

Over the years, my firm has worked as PR agency for many startup businesses with a wide range of needs. Most have been successful relationships. Yet, more than other client programs, startups need focused attention on business-building strategies and tactics. At the same time, the typical startup, — being entrepreneurial, ambitious, and very driven – is likely to begin a relationship with outsized expectations. What’s more, it typically doesn’t have a lot of time to manage an agency partner. The combination can be a recipe for failure. Here are some things to keep in mind when evaluating a startup opportunity.

Expectations management is key. If they say, “We’re really counting on PR to drive demand, so we’re putting everything into our PR budget,” it’s a red flag. Even the most well-crafted PR program isn’t a replacement for a full marketing plan.

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 may be disappointed.

The founder is not the brand. This is where I think Jason 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.