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


Today we bring you a guest post from Andrew Graham, founding partner of Clear.

Common sense should say that making rigid, inflexible declarations about large groups of companies isn’t an awfully good idea. Apparently it does not.

I met last week’s Fast Company post by Stephen Robert Morse with an eye roll. Grandiose screeds surface from time to time about how useless the writer thinks PR agencies are, and they usually follow the same predictable formula. But this one was uniquely bad because Morse’s experiences prove the exception, not the rule.

See, Morse is a former news columnist, so — ostensibly — he knows a bit about what’s newsworthy and how to exploit news values to advance his business interests. This is an unusual asset for a startup founder, to say the least.

Without this distinct background, the opportunity cost borne from a founder trying to develop, maintain, and execute his or her own PR, single-handedly, can become prohibitive — especially if he or she doesn’t know how to do it efficiently, is uninterested in the process, or fails to scale the company effectively. In a best-case scenario, the founder wastes time. In a worst-case scenario, inept press management destroys the business. An example of this principle in action happened just two days ago.

Morse argues that his approach to achieving good press is a one-size-fits-all solution when he has different skills than virtually all other startup founders out there. Readers of this site don’t need to be reminded that PR firms do more than just mindlessly pitch stuff to reporters.

I’m not saying that all startups should hire a PR firm, nor am I saying all startups should not hire a PR firm. I’m saying that startup founders, like all other sensible people, should have a reason to retain a firm before they do so. Eventually, optimizing assets and seizing opportunities become priorities for most startups. These are two things that well-informed communications professionals know how to do well.

And just as the needs of startups differ from one company to the next, the capabilities of agencies vary greatly. At Clear, we have a campaign-style mindset, which can be a good fit for new companies that want to disrupt an established order. We believe that every stakeholder group reacts best to material that is clear, consistent, and memorable, which can be a good fit for companies that make or do complicated things and can scale quickly.

Other agencies have a different philosophy about how companies should communicate, and consequently are a better agency partner for organizations that have different needs.

However, to determine whether or not to take Morse’s advice, all anyone needs to read is the part where he states: “[A]s a mild control freak, I rest more easily knowing that the job of pitching and managing media relations is done by me. I don’t have to worry that the PR person I’ve hired has mangled the story or forgot to include some of the most important details.”

I’ll buy lunch at Balthazar for the first PRNewser reader who wants to talk about how they just really, really love working for control freaks. (You can email me or Tweet me.)

The client-agency relationship, like the source-journalist relationship, has to be a collaboration, not a competition to see who can acquire the most power. A founder who’s going to micromanage almost as a reflex and who is uncomfortable with nuance shouldn’t be looking for an agency partner.

I’ll agree with him on that much.