Why ‘Do Startups Need PR?’ Is the Wrong Question to Ask

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It’s an oft-repeated question in the PR and tech industries: how much do startups really need outside PR firms? Last July, an Uber GM hinted at feelings shared by some in the “overvalued rental company” industry by proclaiming such services to be “a waste of money.

As most who work in communications know, that’s a severe oversimplification. But even Sarah Rose Public Relations founder Sarah Rose Attman argued, in an August op-ed, that not all startups need PR services — especially not in their earliest stages.

We recently spoke to Mark Nardone, EVP at Boston-based PAN Communications, for another take on the topic.

What did you think of the Uber manager’s comment?

I think there’s significant value to PR working with early stage startups for one reason: content.

In the past, agencies struggled with early stage PR for startups because it wasn’t about the right process, but our industry is evolving into a consumer engagement model for clients who need content/program creation, advocacy, and referral services. Many of these companies need to be more active earlier in order to make sure that potential customers can develop opinions about their products.

When we talk to prospects launching products, much of what they need is early stage demand generation in the form of sign-ups, data collection, etc. It varies from client to client, and you have to listen to the founders and adjust your approach based on their early-stage objectives.

So how does a new company determine whether it needs to hire an outside firm?

They need to ask themselves whether they have the right team in place — a team that understands positioning and messaging. What’s the behavior of their target customers? Can they take those insights from the chalkboard and put them in the right format to get their key messages across? Do they understand all media channels? Do they have established relationships with trade publications and the larger business press? Even if they answer “yes” to all those questions, do they know how the story will resonate via a content campaign? And what about measurement?

After answering all these questions, they need to decide whether to hire an internal PR manager or a director of early-stage marketing with a PR skill set. THEN, as they begin to scale, they can think about bringing in a third-party agency.

Do you personally say no to any prospective startup clients?

Yes. In 2014, I told a couple of companies that they were better off hiring an internal consultant and then scaling or building out the internal comms department.

I’ve seen startups fail due to outsized expectations, and you don’t want to guide a client down a path where they don’t get the returns they think they need.

Do you agree that a quite few firms accept clients like these anyway?

Yes. When you talk to unsuccessful startups about why they failed, the most common answer is “it was too early” or “we weren’t ready.”

Founders need to understand that they are not necessarily the experts when it comes to messaging. Both parties (client and agency) often come out of the gate with too much at stake, and PR’s goal should be sharing knowledge and developing trust.

What about budget concerns?

We get that question often, and we respond: “Are your goals attainable with budget structure you have in place?” Our aim is to help them understand what they can do with their existing budgets.

PR needs to do a better job educating CMOs and founders about the relevance of an integrated communications strategy that goes beyond media relations. For some of our startup clients, we handle their social strategies and related content, because we’ve identified via research that their goals are primarily driven through these channels. We tell them, “Let’s launch social first because it’s your nerve center. THEN we can secure placements.”

What sorts of content are you referring to?

One size does not fit all, and it could mean case studies, op-eds, infographics, etc. The goal is to map your audience and establish the clients as subject matter experts.

The fact is that 70 percent of consumers are buying products based on content vs. 30 percent who are buying based on advertising — and we provide the content engine.

How do you prove that a client needs your services? 

Any agency should be able to show 20/30 case studies of clients operating at the startup stage, then take references from those studies. If you’re not talking about a scaled business model, you shouldn’t be talking to startups at all, because you can’t do everything soup to nuts with a monthly retainer.

How should PR work on a larger scale to assert its value?

If you don’t understand how growth is about winning/closing sales/generating leads then you become a commodity. You have to be able to back up the claim that, if the business is driven by CIOs and proven channels, you can tee up campaigns that will influence that demographic. Your power is in influencing how people discover the “brand”: trades, owned properties, fellow CIOs, etc.

If you can’t get into a conversation with CEOs about what will make their business succeed, then what are you doing?