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Gini Dietrich

The PR Firm Debate: Should Startups Hire One or Not?

By: Gini Dietrich | December 9, 2013 | 
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The PR Firm Debate- Should Startups Hire One or Not?By Gini Dietrich

Dear Mark Cuban,

I respect the heck out of you. I normally agree with most things you say and do. But this time? This time, you’re wrong.

Much love,

Gini

Never Hire a PR Firm

He recently wrote, “Mark Cuban’s 12 Rules for Startups” for Entrepreneur, and I agree with nearly everything he said.

Things such as, “Keep your organizational chart flat,” “sales cure all, “no offices,” and “hire people who will love working there.”

Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

But his 11th rule is, “Never hire a PR firm.”

This is what he says.

A public relations firm will call or email people in the publications you already read, on the shows you already watch and at the websites you already surf. Those people publish their emails. Whenever you consume any information related to your field, get the email of the person publishing it and send them a message introducing yourself and the company. Their job is to find new stuff. They will welcome hearing from the founder instead of some PR flack. Once you establish communication with that person, make yourself available to answer their questions about the industry and be a source for them. If you are smart, they will use you.

I’m actually a believer in the chief executive holding the relationships with the journalists that can add credibility to his or her business…so I don’t totally disagree with what this statement.

And I agree it’s fairly easy for you to call, email, or tweet the journalists and bloggers you’re already reading, surfing, and watching. You should contact them.

But, let’s say – hypothetically speaking, of course – you have 10 media outlets that are interested in covering your organization. And they all want an interview, additional information, photos, bios, and more within the next 48 hours.

Your time suddenly went from growing an organization, being the chief sales person, creating the process and structure for scalability, and coaching and mentoring your team…to being a “PR flack.”

Where an Entrepreneur Should Spend Time

When I first started Arment Dietrich, I did everything. Literally.

Bills would come in and I entered them into QuickBooks. I guessed at how to categorize them (which wasn’t always right). I paid bills and manually cut payroll.

Sure, I can do all of those things and the place won’t burn down, but I learned very quickly it wasn’t the best use of my time and it was far less expensive to pay someone who had that expertise to do it.

I wanted to be able to spend my time with clients and new business prospects so I could grow the agency. I didn’t want to spend my time entering bills and cutting checks, answering the phones, or buying office supplies.

Likewise, you can do your own media relations. It’s not hard. It’s certainly not rocket science. No one will die if you screw it up. It’s all about building relationships and, if you’re growing an organization, it’s likely you’re pretty darn good at it.

But is that where you want to spend your time?

Always Hire a PR Firm

Look at it this way: A PR firm will not only help you manage the relationships, he or she will also help you determine what is newsworthy – and what is not, build a multi-media kit, do the follow-ups, make sure the story runs (and get a copy of it), talk to the journalist if anything is wrong – and get a retraction printed, provide additional information as the story is being created, and track the individual pieces’ effectiveness to your overall business goals.

And, if you’ve hired a firm that has capability beyond media relations, they will also know how to help you create content, motivate people to comment and share it, help you build community, generate qualified leads, and design the metrics for tracking to results.

So, you tell me, would you rather spend your time growing your business and getting a return for your investors…or manage the media relationships that are likely to come as you begin to succeed?

(Thanks to Sean McGinnis for the article find.)

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.

78 comments
erinbrooks22
erinbrooks22

I completely agree with your post here. PR firms are not just useful for media relations. Maybe it should be changed to "Put Research into Choosing the Right PR Firm." Like a snowflake, not all PR firms are the same. Some may be better at media relations or brand development, but either way it is going to take some time to find the right fit for your particular company.

Companies don't realize just how long PR tasks take to do them well. If a company does not have the appropriate in-house resources, it is essentially going to be a waste of time. Growing your business and managing relationships should expand simultaneously to get the best results for your business.

corinamanea
corinamanea

Excellent post Gini! Yes is the answer in my opinion, and for the simple reason you pointed out in the end: "...would you rather spend your time growing your business and getting a return for your investors…or manage the media relationships that are likely to come as you begin to succeed?"

Something like that said Ronn Torossian in his book "For Immediate Release": "You wouldn´t do accounting by your own, nor you would represent yourself in the legal system. What makes you think you can do PR by yourself?"   

So, the message is simple: do what you do best like grow your business and hire professionals to do the rest!

AmyMccTobin
AmyMccTobin

I think you're far more than a PR firm.  I have to say that hiring a silo-ed PR firm is something I would recommend against when a start up is strapped for cash. Hiring a Marketing/Social/PR Firm, totally different.

SuziC
SuziC

I can think of another reason to have an agency in your corner: Good public relations council prevents people from making mistakes they can't undo. They keep you from proverbially crying wolf, looking silly, reducing your credibility, and ultimately being ignored by the folks you need to impress. 


ElissaFreeman
ElissaFreeman

I couldn't help but read this and snicker...at Mark Cuban.  Everybody thinks they can do their own PR...then they grow up. I can't tell you how many times I've been called in at the 11th hour to help out those who thought PR was the science of the painfully obvious. Also, a good PR pro will help their client think 'beyond' the quick media hit and what their short term/long term objectives should be.


I'm also willing to bet Mark Cuban doesn't make a move without his own PR person....!

Steve Birkett
Steve Birkett

I find a lot of this sentiment from independent musicians, who all too often pay a lot and get very little from those they pay for PR. Of course, that rarely takes into account the good work that goes on every day... as we know, folks are far more likely to complain about a negative experience than praise a good one.

In the end it comes down to your closing point, where do you want to spend the time? As with wider marketing and online media, the vast majority of activities can be learned, but that takes time (and potentially costly failure). Given the amount of work to be done, be it by a small business owner or an independent musician, I'd suggest that most would prefer to focus on developing their core and let others take care of support functions. Sorry 'Cubes', I'll also take the opposite view on this one! 

Jesse Aaron
Jesse Aaron

Mark's statement belittles PR to "pushing emails." That statement in itself shows just how little he understands or cares for a massive industry. Also, most of his "rules" are just general statements...like fortune cookies. PR encapsulates marketing, advertising, and arguably engineering & programming. If there's one thing I remember from capstone, it's the structure of a PR campaign. A business goal is determined, fueled by communication objectives based on primary and secondary research, fueled by multi-layered strategies and tactics. Short and long-term gameplans are set in motion, with monitoring and tracking to gauge performance and pivot for a better shot in the next campaign.


Developing an app to change brand disposition, setting up a promo tent at a music festival, or even creating a themed video-series to increase social reach can all fall under the umbrella of PR.


If we see the excerpt at the bottom of "Mark's" article, we might even consider the article itself to be a mini-PR stunt. 


People who think PR is just shmoozing people into features and name drops will obviously align with Mark's statement. Those people probably think PR stands for press release. 

bigteethvideo
bigteethvideo

@ginidietrich's point is pretty valid across competencies. We find the same situation often in our world of video content creation. Of course people can do things themselves but the amount of time it takes someone to shoot shaky iphone footage with terrible sound and edit it into a far too long final video that is outputted into the wrong format, they could hire someone competent and (hopefully) creative to do it right.


Like anything there are situations where DIY works and there are others where your time is valuable and it should be spent doing what you think provides value.


And, @belllindsay of course nails it that it's always easy to do get attention when you are already super famous.

JRHalloran
JRHalloran

Very good thoughts, Gini!

I guess Mark Cuban was insinuating that PR was an "unnecessary" expense for a start-up? Obviously PR people know their own value to every kind of business whether it be a start-up or a Fortune 500 company. 

The ultimate thing we buy such companies is TIME. That time, as you mentioned, helps them cement solid relationships with the right business partners at a very vulnerable state of infancy. 

We also keep such start-ups from looking like morons when they attempt to pitch something entirely unimportant and insignificant to the rest of the world at large.

matthixson
matthixson

I have had a ton of experience with this over the past year.  We have spent quite a bit of money on PR with mixed results.  We have been in the WSJ multiple times, Bloomberg, TC, Venture Beat, etc.  Great.  We got some exposure but very few of them generated leads.  When I looked back at the last year of our coverage about 50% came from my efforts not the people we were paying from PR. 


It may make sense for a startup to have a PR team but there is one critical milestone they should reach before doing that - customers that will speak publicly.  We now have no PR and it is money I believe that we should have put into engineering.  

JoeSloanSays
JoeSloanSays

Thank you very much for writing such a concise statement demonstrating the value of PR professionals to a growing organization. While yes, it is possible for someone to do their own PR and media relations, it is not probable that they would then have time to do much of anything else.

As a young man I sold real estate for several years and when nervous about an upcoming meeting with a potential client who was a well established physician I consulted a seasoned agent in my office for guidance.

"Herb, I've got an appointment coming up with a doctor. Doctors are so intimidatingly smart, why would they choose to work with little ol' me?"

"Joe, when a real estate agent gets sick who do they go to?" He asked.

"A doctor." I replied.

"And when a doctor wants to buy a house who do they go to?"

"A REALTOR." I replied, confidently enlightened.

We all have our specialties.

Neicolec
Neicolec

My question isn't about PR, it's why does everyone think Mark Cuban is so great? I don't dislike him, but I certainly don't think he's a god. Is it just because he owns a sports team on top of being a successful entrepreneur?

sydcon_mktg
sydcon_mktg

Ah the choices start-ups have to make. What to spend their limited cash or precious time on and what to hire someone else to do for them?  I agree with Mark Cuban on many things just like you do.  


In my tech world we see a similar issue as this.  We see people advising startups to do their own websites or tech, programming etc. They are advised that WordPress is the answer to all your problems and anyone can learn to do it, and no developer is needed.  Many developers/programmers we know say well if the PR/marketing people can be developers and designers why cant we do our own marketing/PR?


You mentioned above what happens when 10 media outlets want you, etc.  Same with tech. What happens when you have been hacked or a e-commerce security issue? I have seen it on Twitter thousands of times.  A small PR or marketing firm in a panic because their site is down or has been hacked and they are pleading with someone to help them.  Many times because they chose to forego using a developer and do it themselves.  


It's a fine line for startups to navigate. How to determine what is the best use of their resources, from PR, marketing, technology, etc. 

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@erinbrooks22 Yes, yes, and yes! I was just telling a client this story yesterday: A few years ago when Groupon was a big deal and every new business had a daily deal site, we had a client who wanted to be in the space. They hired us before they had launched their website or had done any research into the target market. They didn't even have a sales team yet. Two weeks after they hired us, the Chicago Tribune did a story of all of the Chicago companies that were in the daily deal space. This client wasn't included. The CEO drove to our offices in our Ferrari and spoke to me like I've never been spoken to before and fired us on the spot.


Two weeks after we'd been hired.

belllindsay
belllindsay

@bigteethvideo @ginidietrich OH MY GOD everyone's videos are wayyyy to long (except yours, of course, BTV! LOL) It drives me nuts. I sometimes say that my years in TV production ruined me - I can't watch TV without yelling at it most nights - but, if it did one thing it taught me this GREAT measuring stick: "How long should it be?" "As long as it's GOOD!" And no longer. I get such pleasure out of cutting the fat out of videos. :) 

JoeCardillo
JoeCardillo

@bigteethvideo @ginidietrich @belllindsay This is right on. Personally, I've made a decent but amateur presentation that did ok, and then shipped it off to a talented designer and the increased clicks, shares, conversations started. etc... don't lie. 

matthixson
matthixson

I was going to leave this be but I feel I should clarify a few things because I do respect the people I worked with around PR but I have learned things as an entrepreneur I would do differently next time.  We had some great coverage.  Some of the best was brought to us by our PR agencies.  Some of it was not.  


As a startup if you don't do the right things at the right time you run out of cash and die.  We had some great coverage but the resulting buzz or web traffic that resulted was something we weren't able to capitalize on fully at the time because we had more work to do on the product.  The $$ tradeoff of PR for us was about equal to an engineer. With the product and customers in place I believe I would have been able to leverage PR in a much more effective way.  


My point here is that when cash is oxygen like it is in a startup I would have approached my spend and the timing of that spend differently.  My agencies were good but if the company is not in the right place  it is a bad use of the company's $$.

danielghebert
danielghebert

@matthixson We've had a very similar experience as you Matt, only in Canada. We got coverage from some of the larger tech and new related publications, but not enough to actually spread awareness within the country or generate any leads.


The lead-gen and awareness we've actually managed to get since we launched are from our own efforts, through community management, building relationships, and content marketing. We've had industry influencers write about us, promote us, etc., but those were relationships that we built, and proved to spread much more awareness and sales than our results with our PR firm.

I think @JoeCardillo makes a good point. It's not "if" we need PR, but "when." We were too early, not enough of a story to tell, etc. Now we have case studies, client testimonials, some pretty big plans in the works, etc., so sometime next year (probably when we get our next round of funding), it might be time to re-invest in a PR firm, because we'll have a better idea of who we are, what we need, and what we're trying to accomplish.


Daniel Hebert

Inbound and Community Manager

InNetwork Inc.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@matthixson It's disappointing to hear half of the coverage came from your efforts. Of course, no one will care about the business like you do...or tell the story as well. I also think expectations around media relations are off for a lot of entrepreneurs. We all hear the stories of Oprah making a company successful by airing a segment on their product. But those success stories are few and far between. Media relations isn't meant to generate leads. It's meant to build awareness, create credibility, and drive thought leadership. It also helps build the credibility you need to get a second (or third or fourth) round of financing. 

ElissaFreeman
ElissaFreeman

@matthixson Hey Matt...I think you need to have better defined your objectives and messages before embarking on a media relations strategy. Being in all those pubs is fabulous - but what was your message? Was it consumer oriented? Did you have the foundational key messages to help drive your point home? And was media relations the best strategy for you in the first place??

JoeCardillo
JoeCardillo

@matthixson Really the answer isn't if it's when. There is definitely a when, but if a startup jumps the gun on it the value is lessened. A parallel is growth hacking v. marketing. At some point you have to transition, and that point is when you start establishing an overall strategy that your testing (hacking) has to fit into. 

fontbandit
fontbandit

@matthixson "We have been in the WSJ multiple times, Bloomberg, TC, Venture Beat" -- and you're calling that "mixed results?" I feel very sorry for your firm.

danielghebert
danielghebert

@Neicolec I think it might be the "guru" effect of him being on Shark Tank. Similar to how people take some industry gurus too seriously, because they're more popular (wider blog reach, hundreds of thousands twitter followers, etc.) than the actual industry expert that knows stuff. :)

JoeCardillo
JoeCardillo

@Neicolec He's pretty smart, he gathers information well + moves quickly in business, and is generally a decent person. But of course, to your point he's also wrong sometimes too and I'd argue this is one of them = )

JoeCardillo
JoeCardillo

@sydcon_mktg There's definitely a level of growth after which DIY isn't smart. Unfortunately there's a wide knowledge gap between marketing/growth/PR for early phase and when you actually get big enough to hire outside (which I find immensely valuable). Lot of stuff falls through the cracks in that space. 

AmyMccTobin
AmyMccTobin

@ginidietrich @AmyMccTobin @matthixson EXACTLY - I didn't read your zillions of comments this time:), but I spoke to Matt back when they hired that PR Firm - it's like a sales person who is great at warming up, but not closing.  

The reality is, in the beginning you need REVENUE, which means doing the hard work of Sales.  That's where we're at at ArCompany - still selling the old fashioned way, which is relationship building and procuring the clients one painful, personalized process at a time.  Now, as we are building, we can start to look for PR and the rest of it, but you have to pay the bills first.

Steve Birkett
Steve Birkett

@ginidietrich Management theory has embraced both sides at one point or another, from the benefit of having all functions under one's own roof (and, supposedly, control) to the 'outsource everything' crowd. Each could apply but it depends largely on size and resources. The main issue with Cuban's statement is that it's a sweeping generalization to readers across the business spectrum... luckily, he has you folks to keep him honest!

JoeSloanSays
JoeSloanSays

@matthixson this reminds me of a recent class discussion surrounding a company's ability (or lack thereof) to meet the potential increased demand for their product\service that good PR may generate. If internally they're not ready for that growth, things can get a bit messy. If a potential client isn't ready to use PR then it's our job as ethical professionals to inform them of that and give them the guidance and direction they may need to get ready. Then when the time comes, they just might choose to go with the person who has already been shown to have their best interests at heart.

Not sure how related this is, but it popped into my head and I had to mention it (:

AmyMccTobin
AmyMccTobin

@matthixson I say it over and over again at ArCompany, once you've built your 'product,' it's all about SALES.   When I was managing a sales team and brought in a new person I would tell them to ignore everything other than finding the right leads and building the relationships. Ignore the numbers you're pulling in; ignore most of the admin crap - just get out there and sell.  Meet the right people.  Earn their trust......

THEN the numbers will come.  Once you get the sales then you have more money to build on the 'extras,' and when you have NO revenue, everything is EXTRA.

JoeSloanSays
JoeSloanSays

@belllindsay Thanks! Feel free to blow it up and toss it on the wall :) I'm glad you see the value in it. I'll never forget that conversation, I use the insight I gained in that short moment all the time.

sydcon_mktg
sydcon_mktg

@ginidietrichYes, you "Can" have a website, and it might take a 100 hours vs 20 hours,  but chances are not be of professional quality, just like doing your own PR. You "Can" but should you and will it be the same?


I guess my point goes right back to your question : "So, you tell me, would you rather spend your time growing your business and getting a return for your investors..." or would you rather spend a 100 hours building a website that may have problems or security vulnerabilities?

SuziC
SuziC

@JoeSloanSays @matthixson 

My mentor says, "Nothing takes down a bad product like good marketing."

I took this to heart. When I sit down with folks asking for marketing support, I caution them. I ask, "Are you ready to market your business? Because, once we start, we can't undo it. Any challenges you're having now, will be more widely known." 

Sadly, I had a client say, "I'm ready to go! Let's start!" So I told her about how long it would take given her budget and audience, her impressive record (long listed for the Olympic Games), etc.

What wasn't clear during our discovery phase was 
she was a functional alcoholic. Not only didn't she fix the challenges I identified for her, but she didn't seek help for a drinking problem.  About 6 months in, it became clear we needed to address this.  It snowballed, and she torpedoed herself with unprofessional behavior.  We had to dial back -- way back. She's no longer current. It's sad.  


We marketing communicators really do have a lot of power. We need to wield it wisely.