8 things every startup should know about PR before hiring an agency

Agency

Investing in PR may prove the best marketing decision you make, but get to grips with what it can do and might not do first. An expert panel at the Europas unpacked the myths, realities and how to get bang for your buck

img
Ian Wallis
Head of FieldHouse BaseCamp
@IanWallis

Startups could be forgiven for wondering about the value of PR. Even the most established businesses grapple with issues of budgeting, measurement, and what they hope to achieve when they initiate conversations with agencies.

Many know they need it and can see their competitors doing it – especially when they keep spotting them in the press. But in a world where pay-per-click marketing means the impact of every pound can be measured, PR can appear to be a form of witchcraft.

There’s a fear that sinking large sums of money into a monthly retainer will leave them out of pocket and unable to tell whether their investment has had a direct impact on revenue, fundraising, or brand awareness. 

During a Europas workshop this year, TechCrunch’s European Editor-in-Chief Mike Butcher sought to interrogate these issues, dispel some of the myths, and unpack what communications can and cannot do for startups. 

Speaking to FieldHouse Associates’ founder and managing director Cordelia Meacher, as well as Fluidly CEO Caroline Plumb OBE, former Google EMEA Head of Marketing Strategy and now xSellco CMO David Keene, and Partner at early-stage VC firm MMC Ventures Simon Menashy, Butcher got the answers he sought. 

So before any startup founder embarks on the process of hiring a PR agency, read this…

1. PR is not right for every startup

Most startups will announce their launch, to greater or lesser fanfare. But in those formative stages, early stage companies should consider whether full-service PR is actually worth the outlay. FieldHouse Associates’ Cordelia Meacher suggests startups should focus on people, product development and brand first – and seek cost-effective ways to start building media profile. It’s why she created PR-by-subscription service FieldHouse BaseCamp. 

Simon Menashy, Partner at early-stage venture capital firm MMC Ventures, often discusses PR timing with portfolio companies and agrees. “I don’t think it’s right for startups all the time,” he says. Instead, it depends on the outcome the startup is trying to achieve. For some, enlisting the expertise of a PR agency, might be worthwhile before a media profile raising campaign. “It could be about honing their messaging, defining their audience better, getting help with their tone of voice, and figuring out what the strategy might be later,” he says. Beyond that “it’s about a particular moment in time, which might be a launch or a particular marketing campaign”. 

2. PR is not direct marketing  

Every business wants instant results from marketing spend and quantitative ways to measure the success of any campaign. You put in X and get out Y. For those turning to PR for the first time, this can prove a barrier. PR is not direct marketing. “I think a mistake a lot of founders make is believing that PR is a direct response channel and that as soon as you get an article in something with some reach, you’re going to acquire floods of users,” says Menashy. “That rarely happens. It needs to be seen as something that enhances your positioning. So you need to know what your positioning is first. And you need to know the intersection between your position and the cultural relevance of what you’re doing.”

FieldHouse’s Meacher, explains further: “For PR we’re looking for third party endorsement. If a journalist, publication, or event organiser is willing to endorse your business, this can have more impact than if the endorsement is direct from you to your customer. It’s about trusted source and validation.” The key here is to know where you want to be seen. Which publications do your target customers, prospective employees, or investors read? What awards schemes do they value? And whose word carries most weight in your industry? Work that out and PR will quickly equate to high-impact marketing.

3. PR is not about ‘spray and pray’ – it’s about growth objectives 

Further to the previous point, PR needs to be tactical. But it can embellish every facet of your marketing strategy. “It’s a much broader-brush piece and starts very much at the top of the funnel,” says David Keane, CMO at some of the UK’s leading tech startups, and former EMEA Head of Marketing Strategy & Operations at Google. “PR addresses multiple audiences, whereas other forms of marketing often address a very specific customer segment, where you’re trying to drive demand or build some kind of nurture programme. We would look at PR tackling three big areas:

  1. You still want your customers to know about you and how awesome you are
  2. You want to hire people and make talent want to join you 
  3. You want investors and the industry to be cheering for you.” 

As FieldHouse’s Cordelia Meacher says: “It’s not about column inches or pieces of coverage. It’s about the growth objectives you are trying to achieve. PR shouldn’t be a nice to have. PR should be boosting your bottom line. If you want to sell, great, that should be the objective. If you want to raise funds, great, that should be the objective. If you want to hire, great. But don’t just do it because it’s something you think you ought to do. Be very clear on the objectives and work towards those.”

4. PR is not something you should do overnight 

It might be unfathomable for some to think a PR agency would turn away new business. But sometimes it’s necessary to say ‘you’re not quite ready’, says Meacher. Preparation is critical. “We need to build that case before we go public and live. And when we do go public and live we need to target the right people at the right time.” Leave time to do the essential groundwork, such as being able to answer the following questions:

  • What do you want to say? 
  • Who do you want to say it to?
  • What are your key messages?
  • What are your proof points?

But working with an external agency from the start can help you interrogate the business to answer those questions, says David Keene. “It’s short sighted if you think you can just focus on using paid or organic lead generation to establish your business. You need to start to establish your brand, figure out your identity, tell people who you are, why you’re making a difference and how you’re going to change the world. Even if you have a smaller budget I’d encourage people to bring in some kind of external support in this area – not put every penny they have into paid advertising.”

5. PR is not going to deliver investment ‘tomorrow’ – but it will be a factor

As MMC Ventures’ Simon Menashy says, mentions in the press might get you onto the CRM system of organised VCs, but it won’t secure a first meeting. Where the value or PR becomes most evident, however, is when an already interested VC Googles your company and “up pops a New York Times or BBC article”. That adds contextual reputational weight, he says. 

This, says Meacher, is about creating touchpoints. “If you get a pitch across your desk and you Google that company and you saw them speak at the Europas, you read about them in TechCrunch, and there was an article in Forbes magazine explaining why they have expertise on the subject matter, it’s a more compelling pitch for you.”

Beyond the impact of coverage, PR agencies also play a role in honing the messaging for investors and the general public. “We spend a lot of time working on a company’s pitch decks, helping them with their speech that talks to the pitch deck, and also with direct introductions and warm leads.” 

And if you really want PR to help you catch the eye of an investor, Caroline Plumb OBE, serial entrepreneur and founder of cashflow management app Fluidly, suggests this trick: “I know many startups that have got PR and have then systematically reused and retargeted those articles with Twitter and LinkedIn, so that investors get to see it and they think they are seeing it organically – and then they wait for the phone to ring.” 

6. PR is not just for B2C companies 

“I think B2B companies think about PR way too late,” says MMC Ventures’ Menashy. “It’s not seen as a priority at any point and it doesn’t get done because the focus is on sales.” His reasoning for acting sooner is based on the value of a single sale versus that of a B2C business. “The bigger the ticket you’re selling – the bigger the customers you need. As a B2B company it’s more likely you might find that one great lead from that one article in that one industry journal. So it might actually be worth investing in that quite early on in a way that doesn’t make sense if you’re acquiring customers for a consumer business.” For consumer-facing companies he adds that it’s harder to measure brand impact in the context of the population of potential customers when you invest in PR early on. Instead, he says, PR can “supercharge the advocacy you already have from your customer base”. And through SEO both B2C and B2B it can be measured by the flow of traffic and the impact on the top end of your sales funnel, as well as those who subsequently convert. 

7. PR is not instant – it requires consistency and persistence

PR starts with finely tuned messaging and carefully considered positioning – and builds from there. “The phrase I always use is being consistent and persistent,” says Meacher. “It’s about having your three main messages and saying them again, and again, and again.” 

When Caroline Plumb launched cashflow management app Fluidly, the focus was very much on driving sales alongside the tactics that would build strategic relationships for longer-term organic growth. Her aims were to generate interest, create excitement, and build a clear narrative to attract customers. 

“PR has been an important part of that strategy for us,” she says. “We are very focused on simple messaging and trying to distil that down because I think marketing is all about distillation in the end.” For the first three years of the business the focus was on ‘landing’ the Fluidly name, ‘cashflow’ as a software category, and the company’s use of artificial intelligence technology. “We just went Fluidly, cashflow, AI, Fluidly, cashflow, AI. That was all the message was. I think having that willingness to go over the same message again, and again, and again, is what lands. The key then is to find the narrative each time. Think about the interests of the actual consumer of the media you’re targeting. It’s about their world, not yours. Find a different hook each time to make it interesting, but the overall thread of the messaging has to remain absolutely consistent, down to the language you use.”

8. PR is not an all-or-nothing cost – it’s about the right mix

Calculating the budget and resource to allocate to PR is the “million dollar question”, says David Keene. He advises business owners to look at their turnover and where they are with the development of their business. “Figure out what percentage of turnover should be going into the marketing channel. It’s probably between 4% and 10% of that, including marketing salary and all agencies. Then address how you want to split it within the funnel. Some will scrimp and save and put £1,000 into PR but £100,000 a month into PPC. That makes no sense; it’s about the ratios.”

At the top of the funnel are brand enhancing activities, such as press articles and awards. While at the bottom, you’ll have existing customers and can utilise them to pass the messages about you on. “Some of the best work I’ve seen PR agencies do is around storytelling with customers,” says Keene. The former Google EMEA Head of Marketing Strategy & Operations advocates using a ‘See, Think, Do, Care’ framework to allocate marketing spend:   

  • See – are people seeing you, do they know you exist, do they know you’re a thing?
  • Think – ‘I might want to do something with them at some point in my life’ 
  • Do – ‘I need to do something with you now’ 
  • Care – ‘I’ve done something with you and now I want to tell other people about it’ 

He advises businesses to prioritise the steps in the funnel and put money across each of the four steps accordingly.

Ultimately, PR should be straightforward, says Meacher. “What do you want to say? Who do you want to say it to? And when is the right time to say it? PR should change your business. You will know if it’s working. If it’s not working, change it.”

Picture credit: Oleg Laptev on Unsplash

Back