Why Your Startup Shouldn't Hire A PR Firm

Hiring a public relations team doesn't have to be at the top of your startup to-do list. You should be your own best PR pro.

There are millions of PR pros in the world, and I won’t hire any of them. Here’s why.

As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, there are over four public relations professionals for every one journalist in the U.S. As an entrepreneur, it is your job to fight to get your story told by a decreasing supply of writers.

Nobody said this was going to be easy, and unless you’re Jack Dorsey you’ll face a lot of rejection.

If you’ve ever been to a tech party—or any party—chances are you’ve had more than a few public relations "experts" hustle you to give them new business.

Why should you go it alone

Easy: Nobody is better at telling your company’s story than you are. When you contract your storytelling efforts to a third party, your story is immediately diluted. But when you’re telling your own story, you can make it bold, you can make it interesting, and you can even make it sexy.

You will never stand out if a PR flack pitches your story: Your pitch will be buried under the other 400 PR emails that most journalists receive every day. But if you pitch your product or service yourself, you significantly increase your odds of rising to the top of the inbox.

Nobody Can Tell Your Story Better Than You

I tell the SkillBridge story to my family, my friends, random people I meet at bars, dudes sitting next to me on the subway, and every person I meet who may be a potential customer.

I have refined this story to focus on specific plot points for different people. In some instances I focus on the inefficiencies of Bain, McKinsey, and other large consulting firms, and in other versions of my story, I focus on the opportunities for growth that SkillBridge is giving to small businesses that, for the first time, have access to an elite pool of talented consultants.

I work in the business-to-business world, which isn’t nearly as sexy or as cool to the media as the business to consumer world. However, once you realize that you don’t need to be mentioned in every single blog, and that it is far more important to be discussed in niche publications that are relevant to your specific industry, you can create more effective targets to pitch your story to.

Hustle (and Passion) Required

Yes, this requires me to hustle a whole lot more, but hey, isn't that why I got into this startup life anyway? If I wanted to work in the traditional business world I wouldn’t be doing this.

That said, as a mild control freak, I rest more easily knowing that the job of pitching and managing media relations is done by me. I don’t have to worry that the PR person I’ve hired has mangled the story or forgot to include some of the most important details.

I have told my company's story a thousand times. When I tell it, it's genuine, as there are no more firm believers in the freelance work revolution than me. When a PR pro hypothetically pitches this story, there is no way he or she can capture the nuances like I can, and there’s no way he or she can be as passionate as I am about the need to reform the consulting industry. I eat, sleep, and breathe this world.

Making Contacts and Getting the Pitch Right

Yes, PR pros oftentimes have strong contacts, but simply getting a quote from your company's founder in an article isn't necessarily enough. You need to be the story. And oftentimes that means you need to create the narrative, you need to be the narrative.

I may have some strategic advantages: I am based in the media capital of the world, New York City. I frequently run into journalists at social gatherings, media gatherings, and business gatherings. However, using email and social media, there are still plenty of ways to get a hold of journalists when you have a compelling story to tell.

Also, as a former professional journalist myself, I understand the stress and pressures that other journalists face. A little empathy goes a long way, especially when you acknowledge that most journalists are passionate about their jobs, and surely aren’t in it for the money.

I recognize that there are subtle and not to subtle differences in pitching to different audiences. I wouldn't give the same pitch to a local business journalist as I would to a national tech journalist or regional human resources beat reporter.

Follow-through is also very important. There’s little chance that a journalist will respond to you the first time you pitch them. Thus, some effort is required to refine your pitch and always be sharing new and interesting information. My motto is to always keep pitching until the journalist tells me to stop. Also, it makes sense to always have a few stories ready, and always have satisfied customers ready to give quotes. When you make life easier for journalists, they appreciate it.

When to call in the pros

There are times when a PR professional can be of value to you: For example, if you run a small business that is based in a specific city, and you will only be dealing with local and regional press. In that case, there may be a few key reporters and editors who cover your relevant beat. Therefore, hiring a flack with local knowledge and strong local connections could certainly be useful.

As your company and budgets grow, when you can afford to bring in a full-time PR and communications pro, whose job it is to always keep pitching and look for media opportunities, do it. But until then, keep media management within your own realm.

But, until I reach the point where I can hire my own flack, I’ll keep pitching myself.

Stephen Robert Morse Stephen Robert Morse is the Co-Founder and Head of Marketing at Skill Bridge. He previously founded MyTwoCensus.com, worked for Quirky.com, Seamless.com, and Lightbox.com. Follow him on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Elizabeth Albert]

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13 Comments

  • Choudhary Geet

    Unlike marketing which is focused on promotion of the company’s products or service, PR is primarily focused on communication with the public, for example : the potential buyers and the media. By communicating relevant information about the company and of course its products/service, PR specialists also help in the promotion of the business. visit here for Best PR Agencies :www.myhoardings.com

  • info

    I am a Franchisor. I was looking to hire a PR firm last year but still not a good time for for the following reasons:

    1. Budget as a small business owner.
    2. Exactly as Mr/Morse mentioned ( No one will tell your story, your passion like you and you know your business more than anyone else).
    3. I agree when the budget is available you can work with the PR firm to write your story. ( the business owner needs to be involved 100% in the first few stories.
  • info

    I am a Franchisor. I was looking to hire a PR firm last year but still not a good time for for the following reasons:

    1. Budget as a small business owner.
    2. Exactly as Mr/Morse mentioned ( No one will tell your story, your passion like you and you know your business more than anyone else).
    3. I agree when the budget is available you can work with the PR firm to write your story. ( the business owner needs to be involved 100% in the first few stories.
  • As a longtime news journalist and Writer For Hire, I disagree with this article and the angle you are taking. From having worked in the media for a long time, I can tell you that it is never advisable to tell a client to pitch themselves to the media. For one thing, it comes off as self promotional, which reduces their chances of getting a story.

    Secondly, no media person I have ever met likes speaking with someone who has an emotional investment in getting a story told. It's always better to have a media professional approach news editors/news writers to succinctly describe an angle, rather than having someone who is not proficient in pitching possibly make a mistake and take them out of the running. Best to go with someone who knows the ropes!

  • What you say is very true, but also wrong. I too am a former journalist and currently work as a PR for a rehab clinic (www.castlecraig.co.uk/blog) and I am constantly asking my bosses to write more, speak more to the media and generally communicate with the public. The fact is that most people are too busy to do any kind of PR and, when they do actually write an article they tend to be too technical for publication. And when they realise how 99.99% of journalists never reply to emails or calls they (quite rightly) give up.

    What does work really well is when a journalist contacts us and speaks directly to our chairman, who knows more than any of us PR grunts will ever know. And when the media want to speak to you they are incredibly responsive (and charming).

    What I find is the best strategy is to have a kick ass website which gets you to the top of the heap in your sector and then the media come to you. In fact, it's the only strategy that works when it comes to media relations.

  • Edward Smith

    Wow, a breath of fresh air, thanks so much for telling startups to think twice before hiring a PR firm. I coach small businesses how to pitch the media in order to be interviewed and talk about their company or product. Almost all of my clients are small companies with very limited funds. Hiring a PR firm is not even an option for them, due to lack of funds. But this actually forces them to make the right decision when it comes to PR. Because they can't afford someone to even write a press release or even pay for the press release distribution costs they tend to write targeted, focused emails to media outlets they know that have an audience that would be interested in their story. This turns out to be the right answer for most of them and they get coverage at a level much greater than if they had gone the traditional route. OK, thanks again. Edward Smith.

  • From one entrepreneur's perspective, this article is correct. Startups are "true believer" territory; they always represent change, else why bother? As change, they tend to be difficult to explain, to communicate the vision behind the product or service.

    The PR professionals who've commented so far miss the obvious. Before they can relieve the entrepreneur of the time-consuming task of explaining the business, product, or service to others, they need to have the startup explained to them. Not only once, but multiple times, with a new back-and-forth to cover each new question, where by definition every question is new.

    One commenter made much of the fact that time is a constraining limit during the startup phase. No kidding! A manager who can't balance demands and creatively prioritize needs isn't going to hack it. That person probably should hire a PR firm early. While doing so won't add to the upside, it may cushion the almost inevitable result.

  • Bringing on an in-house communications pro with a journalism background is a luxury a funded startup can afford, but it's not necessarily the first hire a bootstrapping entrepreneur would make. For these companies, hiring a boutique or consultant is often the best choice.

    And this is why your piece feels disingenuous to me. You run a consulting firm that offers marketing and branding consultant, and yet you're arguing against bringing in outside help?

    It's easy to say "nobody can tell your story better," but I mentor micro businesses who have the time and inclination to do their own media outreach. After teaching my mentees how to figure out the right section of a magazine to pitch and how to read a masthead, I still get draft pitches addressed to the editor in chief! This may feel second-nature to you, but it takes time and practice to pick up this skill set.

    Businesses should bring in the help they need. Period. It's the "go it alone" mindset that holds far too many back.

  • Hi Stephen. Really interesting piece. I think your crucial comment here for me is 'as a former professional journalist...'

    Many many CEO's/ heads of organisations simply don't have the personality or basic understanding of the media to carry a story or to articulate it in the right way. You obviously are coming from a background well versed in talking to PR’s and will have a broad understanding of how this all works.

    Some CEO’s choose not to engage with marketing generally, they have a team to do so, their role is leading a business plan and executing a vision – completely understandable.

    You're correct, i totally agree on the business owner being able to 'tell' the story in the best way. However ‘telling’ and ‘selling’ isn't the same thing. That's still the key to getting the cut through here and ultimately the coverage. And i think this is where the experience of a PR gives you that.

    Approaching media, creating contacts, pitching stories can be a very daunting thing. Granted it's not on par with starting your own business from scratch, but none the less it's not something that everyone can do.

    Agree – early days into launching a business there isn’t a need to draft a PR pro. Reach out on Twitter, give said journo a call and just act like a normal human being! Goes a long long way nowadays.

    Cheers

  • Stephen, Time is like a pie. The entrepreneur of a start-up slices it up daily to manage operations; court and report to VCs; maintain customer relations; reach out to prospects; hire, fire and train employees; keep informed on industry trends; eat, bathe, work-out, pursue spiritual engagement, communicate with family and friends and maintain the household. Pretty soon the entire day's pie is sliced up.

    Sure, some tasks can be outsourced (or postponed) to make one slice bigger; that also creates a new slice: supervision.

    Now you add Public Relations to the pie. That makes each slice of the pie smaller. Plus, since someone with limited experience will be conducting the PR, let's increase that slice of the pie to allow for the learning curve, mistakes, corrections, etc.

    In this paradigm, there is limited value created and more detracted by having a non-professional handle the Public Relations, particularly since there is only one pie. You cannot grow the pie.

  • Stephen, your post is based on your experience only. While of course it's applicable to you, I always question how you can generalize from the specific to the many. In my experience, having provided PR services to many startups, most are so caught up in what they do that they can't step back and effectively tell their message to their target market. In your case, as a former journalist, you may be more skilled in doing so. A good PR firm will work with a start up to help with messaging, positioning and creating a compelling story. The firm will also set the strategy and implement it. Implementation can include everything from message development, media training and content marketing along with many other initiatives. That is why a lot of VC firms now have hired PR shops to work with their clients. Here are 7 other ways PR firms can help a startup: http://www.fastcompany.com/3012860/dialed/7-ways-to-make-your-startup-stand-out

  • As the owner of a public relations company for entrepreneurs I couldn't agree with you more Stephen. Public relations is about relationships and paying a third-party to build them on your behalf, or manage their media relationships for you until you stop paying the retainer delivers little value.

    I'm trying to educate entrepreneurs that public relations is about more than media relations - it's about building relationships with the people that are critical to growing a sustainable business. Our approach is a combination of strategic guidance, fine-tuning messaging and value proposition and skills coaching that helps our customers solve specific communications challenges in order to help them achieve their next milestone. And, we charge by the hour, with no minimum commitment or retainer.

    Lyndon Founder, http://thinkdifferently.ca