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January 12, 2015

Anna Ruth Williams

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Partner

This article originally appeared in the Hypepotamus.

Your product is baked, you’re talking to investors and your team is ready to tell the world why your technology rocks. However, you’ve heard that PR is expensive and requires significant time – two things you don’t have a lot of right now. Should you really make the investment?

Or, maybe you’ve worked with a PR firm before and had a bad experience. You got zero press coverage, a bad product review or were charged a lot of ambiguous “project management” fees. Why risk working with a new firm?

Two-time entrepreneur turned venture capitalist Mark Suster says, “PR is an insanely valuable activity in early-stage companies” with numerous silent benefits ranging from employee recruitment to staff morale.

But before you take the PR plunge, it’s important to consider all your options and select the right PR firm that can be your long-term partner in both brand awareness and lead generation efforts.

Before you read all the way to the end of this article – here are the three indicators that your startup is NOT ready for PR:

  1. Your intellectual property isn’t secured. You must be the first to file – not the first to market – for your invention to be legally protected. Call your friendly attorney before engaging a PR rep.

  2. You don’t have a product roadmap. Marketers need to know where your technology is today…and where it’s going in order to strategically position your brand.

  3. You can’t afford it. There’s nothing worse than starting external communications and then abruptly ceasing them due to limited cash flow. It can hurt your industry credibility and signal business distress.

If you passed that three-part test, then keep reading. This article is for you!

Benefits of Holy Agency Matrimony

A PR agency can (and should) be an extension of your team, while serving as a strategic and value-add partner. Unlike an in-house marketing generalist, with a PR agency, you’ll have two, three, or maybe even four people supporting your brand each week – bringing different perspectives, strengths and skill sets to your account. Simply put, when a company hires a PR firm, they don’t just get one marcom professional — they get what I like to call the “Uncommon Crew.”

In today’s digital and highly specialized marketing environment, it’s nearly impossible for a small business to find an in-house staffer who understands media relations, SEO, social media, content marketing and branding. But a PR firm can bring that depth of experience and knowledge for a comparable price. If you’re looking for ready-made media connections, keep in mind that an external firm can offer their Rolodex of journalist relationships, too.

An agency also brings experience having worked with a plethora of other brands. For example, my firm represents more than a dozen early stage and high growth technology companies at any one time. When one of our entrepreneurs is faced with a challenge, we can draw on experience from our other clients to truly educate, counsel and advise.

Knowing when to “Swipe Right”

Choosing a PR agency shouldn’t be taken lightly. There are more PR reps than there are journalists today, giving you plenty of options to choose from. From global monolithic agencies to boutique shops to independent contractors – there’s lots of talent out there.

The first step in culling through your options is geography. If your company is headquartered in Atlanta and your pilot programs will be in the South – you should probably focus on Southern agencies that have strong local media relationships. Second, hourly rates for PR firms range widely from $125 to $450. If you have $1 million in seed funding to last you 12 months, you will be sticker shocked to receive a proposal from a global agency – if they will even send you one at all.

Third (and most importantly), it’s wise to find a PR firm that truly understands your industry. For example, a new vodka company should look for a firm that specializes in food and beverage, lifestyle and entertainment industries; meanwhile, a software company should seek a technology PR firm that knows what “SaaS,” “ERM” and “QA” stand for. Many firms claim to be an expert in multiple industries – from consumer goods to sports to healthcare to technology. Find an agency that has deep experience in your sector – that firm will be a better long-term partner and have less of a learning curve as it on boards your account.

Fourth, find a vendor that offers the types of services you need. If you’re a B2B high-tech company, you’ll need lots of case studies, analyst relations and white papers. In contrast, if you’ve built a consumer app, then you’re much more likely to need a firm that has experience in social media and national media relations. Older PR firms will not be as socially savvy as younger firms (although many try), and despite the modern media landscape, some firms still only offer media relations.

Finally, look for an agency that has experience in your subject matter, but doesn’t represent your competitors. I’m always shocked to hear when a PR firm doesn’t adhere to the PRSA Code of Ethics. Simply put – if Mashable asks a PR firm for a consumer electronics device, you want the firm to immediately offer your gadget – not debate on which gizmo they should submit.

Divorce is Expensive

After three months working with your new PR firm, if you haven’t graced the homepage of TechCrunch – fear not. Public relations is a long term investment. Be sure you’re giving your PR firm timely feedback, quality direction and insights to ensure the relationship moves swimmingly. Breaking up with an agency not only means you have to conduct a new vendor search, but the new firm will have to ramp up to learn your business. Sometimes you need a fresh relationship or have a damaging situation, but always try to work through your concerns with the agency before jumping ship.