There has been incessant talk by some myopic practitioners that startups do not need PR (public relations) at all, much less an agency. However, is such a view practical, realistic, or beneficial?

A startup has two routes. Some startups start with own funds, or secure personal loans to start their businesses. These startups usually go lean and agile, and are cash-strapped. Some other startups seek out angel investors or VCs for seed funds, or government subsidies. Such startups seem to get a head start because they are supposedly better funded. However, from the countless startups I encountered, taking money from others make these startups beholden to the investors, and there is no free lunch. Invariably, it becomes cumbersome to even manage your own startups and dreams, and many dropped out along the way.

So, does a startup need PR? The answer is an absolute YES.

Startups are unknown and frail

First, a startup is a small fish in a big ocean, with many predators (competition) in the ocean. If you are a mere inch-long fish, you are a snack to the large competitors, and a meal to the mid-sized ones. For most startups, they are not that original, and their business ideas are most likely already existing in the market. There are very few original ideas today.

So, whether you are self-funded or funded by others, a startup is a frail and nameless fry in the big ecosystem. Why would a prospect buy from you? Why would anyone trust you?

I was in the same position in 1991. I was a startup, doing advertising and design. As an experienced marketer and creative director, I would imagine that my personal reputation and experience would matter. Well, the harsh reality is otherwise. I encountered a prospect then, who told me point blank,

“I have never heard of your company. I do not know if you are as good as you say. Why should I pay you to handle my advertising?”

I managed to persuade this young manager at this computer peripherals company to sign up for our services. It took a lot of convincing, but hey, I seldom give up. I won the account, and went on to win more accounts. But that point blank conversation took a permanent spot in my head, that a startup will always need to do this:

  • get your brand known

That is where PR comes in.

Startups can harness the power of PR

First off, PR is NOT just media relations. If you imagine PR to be just getting media coverage and counting clips, you need to expand your perspective.

PR is not a panacea for everything. It has a distinct function in the greater scheme of marketing and communication. It is one facet of a holistic marketing program. It must be there as a component, but it should not be the only component of any marketing program.

Some companies, including startups, imagine PR to be a “magic pill” where you get a news release distributed, and sales will come in. That will NEVER happen, and certainly not going to happen in today’s crowded marketplace.

PR is about brand-building and reputation management. If you want sales, you need to do actionable and sales-centric programs such as inbound marketing, e-commerce websites, SEO, social selling, mainstream advertising, customer events, and so on.

PR leverages on the voices of mainstream journalists and influencers to do the talking for you. This is very different from advertising, where you are your own voice. A startup will find that only investing in advertising will yield little fruit as it is an unknown. Saying how good you are yourself, will always pale against third parties endorsing you.

PR has many tactical forms, such as pitches, news releases, media events, newsjacking, content contribution, and so on.

There are still news releases, although that is increasingly less effective. A better approach is to do targeted pitching to the media, with a nuanced message for the media segments. Journalists have no time to read the thousands of news releases they receive every day, and so a short paragraph of succinct and compelling pitch is more effective. Think “elevator pitch” rather than “white paper”.

And in a global environment where newspapers are cutting 50% of their headcount worldwide since 2001, followed by magazines and radio, and to some extent, TV, you know that journalists are strapped for time. That is why media events are less frequented by journalists around the globe, especially in Asia. Gone are the days when you can easily gather 30 journalists in a room. Today, you may find 5 to 10 arriving for media events. This is the new normal. A smarter approach is individualized attention, where you communicate with each journalist and serve his/her editorial interests. It is more tedious, but journalists prefer this approach as every journalist hopes for exclusivity.

The big thing today is content contribution. The mainstream media is increasingly more tolerant of contributed content because of the same resource and time constraints. Rather than generate every single editorial themselves, journalists are more likely to accept original content from you, with some editorial and house changes to ensure uniformity with their media.

So, there are many ways you can get your brand known through PR, through pitching, through media interaction or sometimes events, and certainly through content contribution.

Is your startup equipped for PR?

PR is a great way to build a brand for any startup. The question is whether they have in-house expertise or not.

There are some, very few, startups that are equipped to handle in-house PR. Usually, the founder(s) or managers have media experience, and are knowledgeable about the orthodox PR practices of interacting and communicating with the media. These startups can go solo on PR.

I have experienced startups with inexperienced marketers who took over the PR function and could not get media traction. This could be due to several reasons. Some insisted on specific messaging to be communicated and that went against the norms and practices of the media. Some others pounded the journalists incessantly to publish the same stories, which obviously went against editorial practices. It is critical to remember that the media serves the public, and any editorial story must conform to public interest, and not merely reflect the commercial interests of a startup. If a story must reflect commercial interests, there is an advertising vehicle known as “advertorial”, which is basically buying advertising space and then write a custom article to mimic the look-and-feel of true-blue editorial pieces.

In the instance where there are no adequate PR expertise, hire a PR agency. A good PR agency should be able to communicate a useful message about your brand story, your products, your people, to the public, through the media platforms. A good agency can also work on your behalf to communicate with other stakeholders, such as educational institutions, government agencies, and even investors, through stakeholder communications. A holistic agency can even help you develop end-to-end communication materials, from branding guidelines, internal crisis preparedness documents, to good copywriting for your websites and digital marketing programs. Find an agency that can manage integrated communication programs. A good agency partner should be one that you can rely on for field experience, and can lead your communication programs so that you, the startup, can focus on building products and getting sales traction.

Talk to prospects and clinch deals. That is your job running a startup. But unless you are equipped to manage your brand and your communication, hire help. Every startup needs PR – to build a brand, to gain reputation and mindshare, and to gain a community of influencers.