This article was originally published in O’Dwyer’s.
Public Relations is typically the last item on a startup’s bucket list. In those heady, early days, it’s all about most viable product and customer acquisition; the operations, HR and sales departments start hiring the moment seed money or Series A funding rolls in. While founders fight competing companies for programmers, marketers and sales personnel, they often leave communications hires to the later stages. I believe this is a move that places unknown companies at a dangerous disadvantage.
So, why is this talent class so universally undervalued? I think it’s because there’s no direct line between customer sales and PR. Many startups rely heavily on good old funnel marketing. Every lead, online ad buy and follow-up is measured for sales outcomes.
I once worked with a startup founder that said a VICE-published video highlighting his company wasn’t worth the $5,000 he paid to produce and place it. He felt that he’d missed out on sales leads during the time spent on camera. The truth is brand building through PR is mostly intangible, and it rarely leads to direct sales. That’s why it’s hard for new CEOs to measure its worth. And it’s even tougher for PR executives, staff and consultants to show value when CEOs focus squarely on sales.
The old canard “a good story is key to building a business” is a tired story. Instead, here are some unexpected upsides to investing early money in communications and PR talent.
Many startups use a BandAid approach to communications: they attempt to recycle their website and investor pitches in other marketing assets. It doesn’t work. Interacting with journalists forces companies to sharpen their messaging to play to a wider audience. I love pitching journalists with my clients in tow so they can immediately see how PR-shaped messaging can resonate outside their own professional bubble. Fresh perspective on how people view founders, startups and products gained from media circuit exposure also forces founders to improve their own presentation. It’s the best feedback loop. Unfettered from internal feedback, published stories in the media may prove to be a communications goldmine for a company.
When we hire writers for our in-house magazines, we’ll frequently re-use descriptors and taglines and apply them to subsequent media pitches. For example, a story on Winterlight Labs that ran in our Future of AI magazine has since been incorporated into our pitch deck for the press. The journalist was able to describe the difficult topic of using AI to determine cognitive health better than our internal PR team. We embraced it. And we continue to benefit from the journalist’s clarity in our current work.
In choosing companies to highlight or articles to publish, media firms validate ideas and indirectly endorse brands. If you aren’t in the news, and your competitors are, then your ranking among customers may take a hit. SEO is important, but marketing-driven SEO isn’t enough. Investors and customers want to see your company or founder quoted in the mainstream press. A founder doesn’t have to — and frankly, shouldn’t — insist on profiles or stories that only feature their technology to successfully raise brand awareness through media.
A good communications strategy is one that includes your company in large features about industry trends. A quote on how AI will impact the retail industry or how technology is helping farmers survive in a major outlet brings huge cache to a venture. A good media hit can also deliver a timely boost over the competition.
A good brand can’t survive on self-promotion alone. It’s the fundamental concept behind the funnel theory of marketing. Other credible sources need to tell, or even sell, your story to make you credible, and a published article in a widely-read publication has incredible power. The main purpose of media coverage isn’t about direct sales, it’s about direct brand messaging and awareness. That said, many of our startup clients, including zoom.ai and CarbonCure, have reported that stories in mainstream papers have led to a few customer inquiries and increased interest from top talent. The real gold is simple brand-building: archived media stories and videos on your website provide great testimonials. When a customer comes along to kick your tires, their due diligence may also include a media search. An impressive press page on your website that features objective validation of your offering could inspire customers to move in your direction.
I engage with more than 1,000 ventures ranging from cleantech to agriculture to healthcare. Our startup founders are smart and their innovations exceptional, but a common Achilles heel resides in their failure to nail market-facing messaging from the beginning. The key to standing out in a competitive landscape is a strong story combined with a good PR strategy. You need both to bring exceptional products and brilliant leaders to the general public in a meaningful, profitable way.
Unfortunately, many founders simply can’t afford to pay for good PR. That’s why I’d argue that the innovation community must subsidize its startups’ communications efforts. In Silicon Valley, a handful of large venture capital firms support their portfolio of companies with value-add contributions that go above and beyond providing startups with capital. In addition to recruiting and IT advice, firms like Battery Ventures provide PR resources for their firms. These offerings include including vetting outside PR films and marketing consultants, liaising with industry conference organizers, assisting with funding announcements and doing direct outreach to journalists. I believe more investors should step up to the plate. The reason: under-investing in brand building in the early days of startups may directly cost companies sales outcomes in the long-run.