Gini Dietrich

To Hire a PR Firm or Not to Hire a PR Firm

By: Gini Dietrich | April 13, 2015 | 

To Hire a PR Firm or Not to Hire a PR FirmBy Gini Dietrich

Neil Patel, whom I respect a great deal, wrote a blog post in July of last year called, “Why You Shouldn’t Hire a Marketing Consultant.”

Because of how much I like him, I decided not to just pass it off as another start-up guy who had a bad experience and now thinks he knows how every consultant or PR firm works (though there are plenty who give the rest of us a bad name).

Here are the points he makes:

  • Consultants aren’t miracle workers;
  • You can’t build a skyscraper without laying the foundation; and
  • You need to walk before you run.

And here’s what you might not expect: I agree with him.

Don’t Hire a PR Firm Until You are Ready

No, I’m not trying to work us out of a job, but there is a certain stage in a start-ups life that a consultant or PR firm won’t work.

His points are not—contrary to his headline—that you shouldn’t hire external help.

His point is that you should not do it before you are ready.

Case in point: We have a former client whom we all adored. We loved his business. We loved working with him and his team. But he couldn’t make time—not even an hour a week—to address some of the issues we saw with us. And, when he did show up for our weekly meeting, he’d brush off some of the operational issues as just our opinion.

I finally flew out to California to meet with him, with the intent of firing him, and he told me they were about to file for bankruptcy. He didn’t have a product that was ready for primetime so all of the work we were doing was just making it worse (which is exactly what I was going to say when I gently told him we could no longer work with him).

Today he works for a big bank…he went back to what he knew and he blames marketing for the failure.

Of course, there are always three sides to a story: His side, our side, and the truth, but it was not marketing that was the failure. Though people wanted to buy his product, there were issues internally that made it impossible to do so.

Imagine if you found something you really, really wanted, but the shopping cart kept timing out after you entered your credit card. People, on average, tried six (!!!) times before giving up. This is how badly they wanted what he sold.

Alas. They couldn’t get the ecommerce fixed and it was that that caused the failure of the business (which, to this day, makes me want to cry because the technology is so easy to obtain).

Entrepreneurs and PR Pros May Not Get Along

They weren’t ready for us and we had no idea this was a problem until about 90 days into the relationship. Then it took us another 90 days to try to convince him to fix it.

It had nothing to do with marketing or communications, yet I’m fairly certain he still, to this day, blames us.

Jason Keller wrote a nice rebuttal piece to Patel’s post called, “Why Don’t Marketers and Entrepreneurs Get Along?

In it, he argues a different angle.

He says:

  • Engineers are not great communicators (which many start-up entrepreneurs tend to be);
  • Entrepreneurs tend to be type A and want things done they way they want them done; and
  • Timing can be off (particularly for those who think you can work miracles with only two weeks’ notice).

He, also, is right.

Now it’s Time to Hire a PR Firm

Here is where I net out.

If you are a start-up entrepreneur, do not hire external help until:

  • Your product is viable and the work the consultant or PR firm does will help you sell, not cause more headaches.
  • All of your operations are set: If you sell online, people can get through the shopping cart and actually give you money, you have customer service who is trained and ready to treat every person like they are your only customer, and you have a plan for scale.
  • You have a process and people know what is expected of them.
  • Your strategy is not we’ll figure it out when we get there (lots and lots of entrepreneurs behave this way—myself included—because your main goal is to sell), rather you know how to add 10 or 20 or 100 jobs at once because you’re growing so quickly.

Think of it this way: If it were 10 years ago and you were to have your product featured on Oprah, would that kind of awareness hurt or help you?

What I mean is, will it crash your website or will you run out of product…or are you ready?

If it’s the former, you’re not ready to hire external help.

For a PR Firm

If you are a consultant or work for a PR firm, do not work with a start-up entrepreneur until:

  • They are willing to commit showing up for a weekly meeting and answering your questions with thought and honesty.
  • They give you access to all of their back-end data (analytics, marketing automation, project management, customer relationship management software) and to their business plan (that should be updated quarterly).
  • They are honest with you about their challenges and shortcomings.
  • They are willing to fix any issues you uncover while doing your job.
  • They treat you as a partner, not just some vendor there to do their bidding.

Of course, even with everything as perfect as it can be, there are still going to be relationships that just don’t work. Who owns that failure is probably on both sides. But that’s a story for another day.

P.S. If you haven’t had a chance to take our survey yet, I’d really appreciate your input. It’s two questions, plus a quick multiple choice so it should take only a minute or two. Thank you!

photo credit: Shutterstock

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • I would imagine one of the challenges also is that the entrepreneur has to have the humility to accept the feedback from you (or whoever they hire) when they see the product through consumers’ eyes (i.e., people who see its pros and cons). // Great piece!

  • biggreenpen Yes, very good point! We all need to hear constructive criticism. All of us. It’s hard to learn how to take it.

  • Out here in “non-startup” land where mom and pops are still the ruling faction… this too applies but for very different reasons… groupon helped with that…

  • Thanks for the shout out Gini! I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Sarah Brown’s excellent post that inspired me to write my piece: 

    She actually interviewed Neil to explore this topic even further! (I wish I has thought of that!)

  • Todd Lyden Yeah…everyone thought Groupon was going to be the magic bullet.

  • ginidietrich Todd Lyden it WAS a bullet to plenty of small businesses that were not READY for it…

  • Todd Lyden I remember talking to a friend who owned the restaurant in our building and he said the same thing. He also said it brought in people who would never return so it was hard to plan for and move beyond.

  • Harkens me to the hide-and-seek game where some hide way too long and timely interest is lost while others are found way to early and out of the long game quickly. No matter which side, it should never be ‘ready or not here I come’ 😉

  • annelizhannan Ha! I LOVE this analogy. I am going to use it. I’ll credit you.

  • ginidietrich Todd Lyden Yep, I’ve heard the same story from many small businesses. Along with the fact that often the Groupon customers were the hardest to please and always found something to complain about. I know many great businesses that had their online reputations tarnished by horrible reviews left by unhappy Grouponers.

    Great in theory, but a lot of unqualified leads and spam (to put it in digital context)

  • danielschiller

    LauraPetrolino ginidietrich Todd Lyden Anecdotally, I always got the impression the GO sales teams were never exactly clear about the implications. Other than to sow FUD and FOMO. I once lived near a yoga studio that sent an email to their existing loyal customers inviting them to buy their upcoming GroupOn offer. Needless to say that SMB didn’t last.

  • danielschiller

    A cautionary tale indeed. The “no show” action speaks louder than words.

  • danielschiller I like seeing you here every day!

  • ginidietrich I am going to take a contrarian point of view with this post. I think the title of the post should be “To Hire Arment Dietrich or Not to Hire Arment Dietrich.”

    Your criteria sound like an excellent statement for Arment Dietrich’s ideal customer. You clearly articulate who Arment Dietrich serves, and who it does not serve. Which in itself is fantastic. You have a clear line in the sand of where you firm delivers the most impact.

    That said, I don’t think it’s fair to say startups should not engage external marketing agencies (even immature ones). Two reasons:

    1. If a company wants to buy a service they are going to buy a service. I am sure your failed client would have hired another firm if you weren’t around.
    2. There may be other firms that possess expertise to handle these early stage entrepreneurs better. This may be something a freelancer does best, because they can get inside the business and take on a more tactical role to lay the ground work for future marketing/PR endeavors.

  • ginidietrich

    howiegoldfarb Clearly just a keg party

  • howiegoldfarb

    ginidietrich I saw your ad for that copytweeter position audition so bdorman264 helped me write it

  • danielschiller

    ginidietrich danielschiller – Thanks! It’s always a good read!

  • I have client failures on the mind, too, Gini!! 

    I fired a new client on Friday evening – not because he wasn’t ready, but feeding into Jason Keller’s position that entrepreneurs are Type A personalities – he dismissed issues, then vomited anger all over me in a very unprofessional way when those barriers prevented the results he wanted. He also didn’t give enough time for the tactics to work, and assumed they weren’t working at all when they were actually starting to create some fantastic results. (SEO and LinkedIn related tactics.) 

    Many entrepreneurs are so confident in their own expertise and/or product – earned or not – and wanting their own way, that they dismiss advice of those they hire. They consistently wait for a chance to speak rather than actually listening, and consistently fail to address concerns. 

    Then, like you, it ends up being the PR firm that’s blamed when that honestly had little to do with it. 
    Sometimes I think clients hear issues as excuses, and dismiss them – instead of realizing they are very real problems that must be fixed before success can happen.

    Harumphh. Poop on them. <grin> Here’s for a better week for both of us!! <clink wine glasses>

    My post about Friday’s experience, if you are interested…

  • @annelizhannan Or maybe Red Rover  – forcing their way on over! LOL

  • ginidietrich biggreenpen I think they are often so passionately involved that they simply can’t take constructive feedback. They are too close to it, instead of focusing heavily on the business end of doing more of what works and letting go of what doesn’t work.

  • Well Groupon is a magic bullet just like social media is. Let’s not mince words here . I read Mashable I know these things.

  • StickyBranding Although, for argument’s sake, we have a start-up client who fits none of this criteria, but we believe in her business and (more importantly) we believe in her. So we’re taking a risk to help her build her business and she’s willing to handle constructive criticism and use us as partners in her business…not just a team who does her bidding.

  • Great post Gini. I hope start-up owners, business owners, PR firms and PR consultants/freelancers read this over and over again!

    And hopefully once for all people realize it´s more than just making a buck. You have to be prepared, you have to understand each other, you have to fit together.

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  • ginidietrich

    sukimulberg 🙂

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