Public relations (PR) agencies exist to help clients develop and execute their strategic communication plan. A PR agency will probably be the first professional-services firm an early-stage startup hires, and choosing the right one is important.

There are two reasons why startups benefit from hiring an external PR firm rather than managing it in-house (which is the natural inclination of many entrepreneurs):

Reason 1: PR is a highly specialized field

Most often, entrepreneurs do not have a background in creative writing, media relations and issuing press releases. Consequently, any entrepreneur who decides to assume the PR role on their own will more likely end up spending more time than the PR agency would―and achieve poorer results.

Reason 2: PR agencies have established relationships with key influencers

The right PR agency will have contacts in very different circles than most entrepreneurs. Remember, the function of a PR agency is to influence the marketplace: it is their job to know the media and the people who have the power to influence.

How to select a PR agency

When choosing an agency, make sure to interview the team that would be working with you, not just their business development representative or partner. In his book, The Four Steps to the Epiphany, author Steven Blank suggests startups consider the following when evaluating PR agencies:

  • What is their work approach? Is their main focus to get clients “unpaid media coverage,” or do they collaborate with clients on positioning, launch and media strategy? Is strategy a key area for them?
  • How well do they know your market? Have they worked with clients in similar markets? Do they know your target customers? Have they done research before on your target market? Do they possess customer insights that you do not?
  • Do they agree with your assessment about market type?
  • Can they show you examples of work that demonstrate creativity and insight? What do these teach you about their work?
  • How do they measure results? If armed with your objectives, could they propose metrics that would provide reliable feedback on your success or lack thereof?

Once you have identified the right agency, draw up an agreement that sets out typical costs, standard work processes, timelines and core team members.

When should a startup begin PR activities?

It can be a complex process to determine when to begin PR activities.  Here are a couple of considerations to keep in mind:

  1. What is your objective? Are you trying to attract investors or customers?
    • If you are in a capital-intensive industry, working with a PR agency will help you get noticed by the right investors.
    • If you are trying to attract customers, keep in mind that marketing and sales activities do not always yield immediate sales results. In business-to-business markets, do not expect significant customer revenue until 18 months after entering the market.
  2. How unique is your intellectual property (IP)? Do you have a well-protected solution (that is, one with a strong patent and difficult to copy)? Or could an existing player build a competing product quickly and inexpensively?
    • If you have unique IP, start PR activities as soon as you have defined your value proposition, with the aim to earn recognition from thought leaders and influencers for the uniqueness of your IP/technology.
    • If you have IP that may be copied easily (which is often the case with web-based startups and social enterprises), you can still undertake PR activities, but use a more careful approach. When you near the launch phase, focus your PR on demonstrating and achieving acceptance for why existing solutions are suboptimal―without necessarily pitching your own solution early on.

References

Blank, S.G. (2005). The Four Steps to the Epiphany. Self-published: Cafepress.com.