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March 20, 2017

This article originally appeared in the Hypepotamus.

If you asked 10 startups to define public relations, I guarantee that you’d receive at least eight different answers. While there may be some commonalities in the responses — a reference to media relations or general “press” — I’d comfortably bet my house that not a single founder would answer the question completely accurately and without hesitation.

Despite the absence of clarity surrounding what PR truly is — and what it is not — an abundance of poor experiences, high-turnover, and ambiguous expectations have fostered criticism, distrust, and even disparagement of a profession that turns 120 years old this year.

And as a career-long PR pro, I’m the first to admit that this field is difficult to define. To this day, PR pros and agencies struggle to quantify exactly how a headline becomes a million-dollar sale or how strategic content converts awareness into customers.

Unfortunately, this misunderstanding has translated into fewer resources being dedicated to PR: agency operating profits have consistently fallen since 2011, dropping from 18.6 percent to 15.3 percent; the average client-agency relationship has shrunk from 7.2 to 2.8 years. Increasingly, there is a ballooning preference of startups to delineate important PR responsibilities to a transient junior employee, which fails to create a strategy that sustains impactful PR over time.

So, what exactly is PR — and why does a startup need to address it as its own entity?

What is PR, anyway?

Merriam Webster defines Public Relations as “the business of inducing the public to have understanding for and goodwill toward a person, firm or institution.” But that definition is archaic, and to be honest, it’s part of the industry’s perception problem. The “true” definition of PR is something that I have pondered myself for a long time.

Previously, I’d argue that PR’s inherent value is that it is the only communication medium powerful and diverse enough to combine the objectivity and neutrality of marketing with the subjectivity and emotional engagement of advertising. For companies of all ages, including startups, the ability to integrate key messages through a combination of emotional triggers, rationale, and logic is often necessary to meeting sales goals.

While I still believe the above is true, PR today is even more powerful thanks to the advent of new technologies that enable practitioners to demonstrate the path — and thus the value — from headline to sale. In fact, PR can now be the catalyst of holistic relationships between headlines and lead generation, content marketing and relationship building.

Why startups should rethink PR

We see startups make a case against investing resources in PR time and time again, despite numerous reputable VC’s like Mark Suster proclaiming, “PR is an insanely valuable activity in early-stage companies.” From the need to prioritize sales and product development, to a simple lack of time or talent, there’s no shortage of reasons that startups swipe left on public relations. While these justifications may have had some merit with PR of yesteryear, the future of PR is invaluable — and accessible —  to any startup on a mission to scale. Here are 3 reasons why:

  1. Aids customer discovery — We all know how important customer acquisition is to startups. While traditional PR struggled to connect the dots between media and revenue, new technology empowers us with the ability to track consumers from a media placement to the first visit on your website. Visibility into these first touch points allows PR pros and startups to join forces to nurture leads and build relationships  — effectively converting leads to sales.

  2. Easier to justify spend — Traditional PR struggled to measure and prove its impact, and this ambiguity was a major disincentive for budget-conscious startups to invest. However, with a new arsenal of technologies in our toolkit, PR practitioners can now measure ROI. Even the subjective outcomes of PR initiatives, such as sentiment, awareness and perception, can now be analyzed with accuracy.

  3. Unifies sales & marketing — From recruiting, business development, and fundraising, to building staff morale, creating brand perception and lead generation, there is virtually no priority of a startup that today’s public relations is not well suited to support. And what startup couldn’t use to land a headline in a major media outlet; enjoy content syndication through social and digital platforms; experience website visit gains; win their industry’s top awards; and ensure their ads and emails drive clicks, conversions and sales?

The old days in which PR for startups was high on promises and low on results are at an end. After 120 years, PR is finally experiencing its moment of transformation. What we know for sure is that the future of PR is integrated. It’s holistic. It’s fun. It’s quantifiable and trackable. It’s collaborative. It’s lucrative. And it’s really, really impactful.