I was recently invited to join “FounderDating,” a site that matches the entrepreneurial-minded to start new companies based on complementary skills, similar backgrounds and expertise. It’s an interesting concept, especially in the gig economy, where the web provides people with passion projects a medium, audience and even willing collaborators to explore those ideas.
FounderDating’s forums are entertaining and sometimes educational. Reading people’s stories about getting ideas out of their heads and off to market often gives me a new, stark perspective on what I do every day.
Back in April, a founder (I’m omitting names here but anyone can search the site to surface the thread) who was advising another company that had just raised $10 million asked, “When is the right time/stage to hire a PR firm?” The entrepreneur went on to describe how he didn’t believe PR firms “….[added] value and especially so early on.” He continued, “What stage were you in and what worked well?”
The question struck a chord for obvious reasons and did so with many others, too. There were more than 30 replies within a short time. They came from all types: PR practitioners, PR firm principals, CEOs, CMOs, analysts, first-time entrepreneurs, serial entrepreneurs and Chief Digital Marketers. Everyone had an opinion as to what stage is appropriate for a company to engage with a PR firm.
Only rarely did people agree with one another. If there was any consensus, it was around not placing the hiring of a PR firm on any measured timeline, such as “early” in a company’s development, after a funding round or a similar milestone event. Instead, it was about when an entrepreneur had a well-built story to tell, although exactly when that happened was up for debate, as was the role the PR firm played once a company felt it had a story.
Some replies were cringe-worthy, at least from an agency guy’s perspective. A founder with a startup that hadn’t raised any money hired a firm because he was sure of his product-market fit, so he wanted to get the word out. He noted that his engagement was for a three month project, that he was in the third month and just saw his first coverage. To no one’s surprise he mused, “Now I’m at a point where I’m debating to continue monthly or not, (it’s not cheap!)”
Shortly after that comment the CEO of a PR firm answered that his firm tells clients that the three month mark is when “things start to pop,” although they make other things happen sooner. He didn’t elaborate on what the sooner things were and was quickly challenged by the MD of a competing firm.
“Stories where PR agencies take 3 months to get first piece of coverage – that is not great service,” said the MD. “Good PRs can turn results around in a few weeks or days, not months…” To which the agency CEO clarified: “There’s publicity and then there’s positioning. Publicity is entry level work. It’s table stakes for any agency. Positioning takes time and the right footwork with the right laddering and influential influencers.”
There’s a lot to unpack here but we can do that in the comments below, if you like.
From there the FounderDating comments went as most Internet comments do, with some notable exceptions. Some were funny because they’re true: “If you can’t measure the benefit, then the ugly truth, which the industry generally seeks to obscure and obfuscate, is that there isn’t any. This is not necessarily the fault of your PR agency, because in truth they can’t always make chicken soup out of chicken sh–.”
Others came back to the timing of when the story really comes together: “Every agency will tell you that you should be investing in PR as early as possible, but you have to first have a story that you are ready to tell. If you haven’t nailed down your story, understand your positioning and market fit, and have settled on your brand message and presentation, PR will not be terribly effective.”
The founder of another company felt talking to good PR professionals had the same value as talking to veteran lawyers and accountants. For him, they all provide a way to discover more to consider than a founder may have thought of when getting his or her business off the ground.
“A communications professional who operates with integrity will point out the needs and risks at different stages of the startup’s development; and will be quick to acknowledge when PR would be unnecessary or premature,” he said. “I’d recommend finding a PR pro with plenty of experiences beyond marketing and product PR for this initial conversation, someone who has dealt with regulatory and political issues, as well as with various crises.”
Those of us in the agency world would all probably agree here. And many of us know people with these skills, although rarely would just one person command so many different skill-sets. Certainly these people do exist, but they’re not just laying around like cordwood.
I couldn’t keep myself from jumping into the conversation. And, I don’t think it’d be fair to raise the other responses in this post and not have mine open for critique as well.
So with that as a disclaimer, my two cents: If you’re going to invest in PR, do it right and look at the PR investment as a longer term investment in the business. That’s not suggesting it takes a long time to generate results, it means you need to create a presence, develop relationships with key influencers and maintain those relationships so they continue to pay dividends down the line. As for the timing, ask yourself if you’re in a place now where that investment will take root?
PR is a strategic partner in growing and maintaining a business’ brand and reputation. PR can’t magically promote a product and business and sustain interest without an up-front deep dive into messaging, vision, company direction, culture and voice—especially in the social media reality. News cycles are fast so you have to look at PR in a similar light as advertising: repetition matters. The advantage PR affords over advertising is authority. But it still has to be repeated, and consistent. A flimsy approach to all that will result in flimsy results.
If you’ve hired a firm recently, how’d it go? What stage was your company in when it hired its first outside communications consultants?