One of the common questions that startups ask is whether or not they should bother with hiring a PR agency. PR agencies are fairly expensive for small businesses to work with, often thousands per month on a retainer basis. The most common complaint I hear is that they’re pricey, and difficult to measure the return on investment. So when does it make sense to hire a PR firm?

How PR Can Help Startups

  • SEO: Getting links from news outlets can significantly help generate inbound links from top-tier publications and help your company move up the search engine rankings.
  • Credibility: Many startups get initial coverage from news outlets and having articles in search results helps establish credibility to potential consumers. Many small companies also use the logos linking to the articles on their website for the “As seen on” sell.
  • Business Development: If you can get coverage from a targeted outlet, this can be a great source for business development from readers that see a good fit with your business.
  • User Acquisition: If your business requires network effects or is solving a relevant and compelling consumer need, PR can in some cases be a great avenue for user acquisition through targeted media outlets. Mint.com or BillShrink trying to get news coverage during an economic recession are great examples of relevant news for journalists to write about. The key is to ensure that the media outlets that you seek out target your actual user base. Unfortunately many startups end up targeting the tech press, which in many cases is not your target customer or doesn’t expand your reach beyond the audience which you already likely have strong penetration.
  • Investment: If you’re an early-stage startup seeking funding, getting coverage in one of the mainstream tech blog can be a great starting point for meeting investors and regular news posts can be a proof point to establish credibility.

Four Questions To Ask Yourself Before Hiring a PR Firm

How do you decide whether or not you can go down that path? Here are some considerations to think through.

Do you have the resources?

PR firms cannot be effective without significant level of executive sponsorship within the company. I’ve met PR firms that are unwilling to work with startups unless they have an executive as a day-to-day contact. Without visibility into product roadmap, deal pipeline, shifts in company priority and goals, your PR firm is operating blind and cannot be effective as a strategic partner. If you treat them like an outsourced vendor, they’ll perform that way. Also, PR teams often require significant rampup to understand your product, your customers and your space especially in many of the fuzzy developing markets that startups operate in. If you don’t have someone at your company who is committed and capable of managing this relationship, it can be very hard to make it effective.

Do you have a story to tell?

PR is a way to establish your brand and credibility to the external community and centered around outbound communication with the rest of the world. Make sure you have a story worth telling to the rest of the world, and do not expect magic. If you don’t have relevant, interesting news or a willingness to share data that people want to hear about, no one will write about you no matter how hard your PR firm pitches.

Do your goals match with the channel?

You can basically consider PR as another channel for your marketing team to use, focused on outbound brand building activities. It’s a long lead cycle, and pays off by market awareness, business development inquiries and your general “perception” in the space. If the primary focus and expectation is on transactions, generating revenue and other channels, it may not necessarily be the right fit (although there are exceptions to this). Consider carefully what you’re hoping to get and make sure that matches to the channel.

Do you have the right agency?

Agencies typically specialize in certain company sizes and industries. Many agencies have specialized rolodexes where they focus on a specific industry and have close relationships with journalists in those trades. It may be a difficult fit if you’re outside of their standard range, since they’ll be establishing relationships for the first time as opposed to existing relationships. It may also increase the cost of ramping them up to your product. The easiest way to assess this is whether they have related (but not competitive) companies within their portfolio, and then looking at what press they’ve secured for them. Size can also be a consideration — the larger agencies might be focused on their large accounts, so your small business might not be the most important to them.