PR Is A Many Splendored Thing

Mark Suster hit it out of the park yesterday in his post entitled How to use PR Firms at Startups. It’s a must-read for entrepreneurs and marketers. Two points really stood out to me:

PR is a process, not an event – For starters let me say that you shouldn’t do PR around milestones.  It’s a continual process.  You need to take months & years to build relationships with journalists.  You help them on stories, act as a source, develop real relationships, read their stories and eventually when you have news they’re more willing to have a conversation. They get pitched by so many blowhards that more genuine people who aren’t in it for just a story stand out from the crowd.  I wrote about how to build relationships with journalists in this post.

My take: Too many startup and small technology business CEOs think that all they have to do is hire a PR firm, open the spigot and coverage starts to flow. PR takes time to get results because you need to engage and nurture relationships with journalists and bloggers. The process is similar to what account executives do with buyers: seek to understand, gain trust, then offer solutions. Or, for PR: read stories published by the journalist or blogger, offer comments and feedback, then share your perspective.

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PR in house – Equally I often recommend that teams hire somebody in-house.  You can do this by hiring somebody who has multiple functions of which one is PR, hiring an intern who has PR experience, hiring a consultant 2 days / week or hiring somebody full time.  Obviously this is dependent upon available budgets.

But as I often tell teams, working with an agency (in whatever capacity) is mostly a waste if you don’t have somebody on the inside of your company who is working closely with the outside firm.  You need somebody who is helping push out information on what is up-and-coming in the company.  You need somebody who can react quickly to inbound journalist questions.  You need somebody who is thinking laterally about how to creatively get extra attention at conferences or trade-shows.  You need somebody who REALLY understands your company, its customers and its competitors. And you need somebody who is committed to keeping up your presence in blogs, social media and other online forums.

At almost every portfolio company I work with I encourage them to think hard about hiring internal PR staff.  In my opinion it’s worth its weight in gold.   Whether we like to admit it or not, PR drives behavior with customers, investors, employees and competition.  What is said about you publicly matters.  And one of my favorite sayings about PR is, “if you don’t define the story about you, somebody else will.”  I believe in a good offense.

My take: I’m a proponent of in-house PR because the focus is 100% on your company (agency account managers split time between several client accounts). Plus, compared to a $10k/mo. retainer, hiring a marcom generalist can be more cost effective because she’ll also handle a broad range of marketing projects. The main selling point for me is that insiders have a better pulse on interesting things happening within the company, are able to speak in greater depth and detail about the company, and can respond in real-time to journalists and bloggers.

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Critical Success Factor

In my opinion, the key to a successful PR program – whether handled by an agency or in-house – is the CEO’s willingness to accept the starring role.

I’m not saying the CEO needs to do all the PR mechanics like conceiving, authoring and pitching stories. An agency, consultant or internal marcom person can do that. Same with identifying opportunities. But the CEO is the voice that journalists and bloggers want to and, for that matter, need to hear from. Think about it… key clients, partners and VCs want to hear from the CEO. It’s no different for influential media.

Admittedly, these CEOs are often from a technical background – they’re not salesman or marketers. Perhaps they’re even a bit introverted. That’s okay. No one is expecting Don Draper. Passion is more important than polish. The key is to engage, be enthusiastic and share insight.

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Tell me your thoughts – what are your opinions of hiring PR firms versus handling in-house? What are your tips for best-practices?

(Image: doktorspinn)

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