Startups and PR: a Mutual Distrust Club That Doesn’t Need To Exist

Distrust yo

Today we bring you a guest post from Paul WilkeWilke is CEO of Upright Position Communications, the leading IPO public relations firm in Silicon Valley.

This post is presented by AirPR, a technology platform to increase PR performance. The San Francisco-based technology company is passionate about using data to show the true impact and value of PR.

Startups are leery of PR people. PR people are leery of startups. How did it get to be this way? W.C. Fields’ famously said that actors should “never work with animals or children”. If you ask your average PR professional, they’d probably switch out “children” and “animals” with “startups” and “lawyers.”

I run a startup and I work with startups, so I understand where both sides come from and I’m here to say that these two camps don’t need to circle each other warily. The secret to both sides co-existing, co-mingling and thriving is for both to understand where each is coming from, where they’re going and what they want to achieve.

After the jump: Five areas where there appears to be the greatest misunderstanding–and some easy lessons to learn.

1. Sometimes putting the cart before the horse isn’t a bad thing 

Particularly in the tech world, there’s an inclination among startups to want to use PR to solely when there is a product launch. From a PR perspective, while we’d never want to stifle product enthusiasm, it’s often better to focus more on providing value than self-promotion.

You know who does a good job at this? Amazon. This year they began promoting the most highlighted passages among Kindle readers. While your average startup isn’t nearly as big as Amazon, there is a takeaway for startups to utilize: by using its product data, Amazon is providing information that’s of interest and value to journalists and the general public without screaming how great their product is or what new features they’re offering. Amazon is simply using the data they have to position themselves as a leader in eReaders. Not a bad way to start and drive a dialog.

2. The Snowflake Factor

Many startups begin with an innovation: a new product that will change, disrupt or revolutionize whatever space they’re in. In an ideal world, that startup’s innovation or vision is one-of-a-kind. In all likelihood, either it isn’t or it’s very similar to something already out there.

How many times have we heard a startup described as “the Uber of X” or “the Etsy of Y”? Startups, particularly in the early stages, need to embrace that they are not a lone, individual snowflake. A good PR professional knows when to call a snowflake a snowflake and when to compare it to similar snowflakes already out there. Additionally, a good PR professional should be able to provide useful counsel to startups in terms of managing expectations. Farhad Manjoo and Walt Mossberg aren’t interested in every app coming out of Silicon Valley. Reaching that level of journalist takes time and hard work, so don’t blame your PR person if those two aren’t on your media list right off the bat.

3. DIY PR 

Here’s where a lot of PR people differ on opinions. If you ask startups and PR professionals whether a company should do their own PR rather than hire a PR pro, you’ll get a variety of answers.

As someone who works with startups, I can confidently say that there are occasions when it makes sense for a company to go it alone. There are some very strong caveats behind that, though. PR can be an expensive and time consuming undertaking. Making sure you have the right messaging, a good story to tell, proper media targets and a product that rises above the noise takes a lot of coordination. But, if you don’t have the budget for the level of PR strategy needed, it doesn’t sense to half ask it and hire a PR resource that underwhelms and under delivers.

A small startup with some strong relationships, particularly with journalists, will go a long way. Good PR is as much about relationships as a good story. If you can foster solid relationships early on, it will lay groundwork for a solid PR regimen down the road.

4. Utilize your network

If your startup isn’t quite ready to rollout the big PR guns, there’s nothing wrong with utilizing your network. Often journalists attend the same functions that you do, whether it’s trade conferences, meetups, or cocktail parties. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself and tell them your story. Your conversation might spark an idea in the journalist.

Also, consider bringing on a PR professional to your company’s advisory board or board of directors. While you might not be able to allocate the budget needed to hire a PR firm, there are some good PR pros out there willing to provide solid PR counsel in an advisory role.

5. Go with your gut

This is a point for startups and PR folk alike. There are many PR firms that have an absolute “no startups” policy, which is a shame because there are some great new companies out there. Likewise, there are startups that would prefer to steer clear of PR firms. Also a shame because in many cases, the companies that shun PR are the ones that tend to need it. For both parties, it’s important to see the shared value of working together.

Go with your gut and pair up with a company that shares your common vision and way of thinking. Nothing beats a startup and PR pro whose business passions align.

PW crop low resPaul can be reached via email at

He has advised and worked on IPOs including those of VisaSplunk and Tableau Software. For more information about Paul, follow him on Twitter at @pwilke or his agency @UprightComms.