A lot of people think that startups should always do their own PR in-house and never hire an agency.  I used to be one of them.  I’ve changed my mind about that however and now I think that for some startups (not all) hiring an agency can be a very, very good thing.

What I Used to Think: Only Big Companies Hire PR Agencies (the startups that do are suckers)

Early in my career I worked with 2 PR agencies at 2 different startups and both times my company felt they got very little out of the relationship.  On the startup side we went in with the idea that the agency was going to “get our name out there.” and we decided on which agency to use based mainly on what we could afford and the journalist relationships they brought with them.  In both cases we complained that the agency folks were too non-technical to really understand our business and our messaging.  We appreciated the relationships they had with journalists but that list seemed small and didn’t change much.  Once we had met with the journalists once,  we suspected we could pitch a story just as effectively as they could (and probably better given our understanding of the market).  We hated paying the agency a retainer fee because it seemed that if we weren’t pestering them to do something specific, we paid them to “do nothing.”  For years, I believed that startups that hired PR agencies were like startups that spent their marketing budget on tradeshows: suckers.

It Turned Out I Didn’t Know What I Was Doing

Then I found out I had been doing it all wrong.  After working at a couple of large companies and watching the teams there work with outside agencies, it became clear to me that I could have gotten much, much more out of my PR agency relationship had I done a better job of goal setting, planning and management.  Here are some steps I think a startup should take:

1/ Determine if You Really Need Outside Help or Not – There are lots of reasons why you shouldn’t hire an agency.  First of all you need to make sure that you are past the stage of determining what exactly your product is and what market it serves.  Investing in any significant marketing activity before that is pointless.  Once you are past that stage you need to set out your goals and determine whether or not you can accomplish them in-house.  Most startups can easily start by working PR in-house until they either have a significant new goal crop up that they can’t handle, or the PR they are doing in-house isn’t accomplishing a specific goal (see the next point).  In an nutshell, I think most startups should transition to an agency only after they have reached the limits of what they can do themselves.  If you start with an agency without managing it yourself in-house first I can guarantee you that at some point you will start to wonder how much of what you are paying them to do you could be doing much cheaper yourself.  If you start by managing it in-house you will know exactly why you’ve made the jump and what you want out of it.  You will then do a better job of selecting an agency, setting goals and working your plan.

2/ Establish Clear Goals (that make sense) – I’ve seen a lot of startups hire a firm without really knowing what they wanted to accomplish beyond a vague idea that they want to increase the visibility of the company.  There are a lot of ways to do that and PR isn’t always the best one for the stage your company is at, the market you are going after, etc.  On the other hand if you have a clearly defined specific goal it becomes a lot easier to decide if it makes sense to bring in outside help and if you do you’ll be able to clearly describe what you want done.  These goals can be short-term (breaking into a specific new market/geography,  making some noise around a specific product launch, broadening your reach among a new group of influencers, etc.) or longer-term (increasing your credibility or addressing a specific market concern through independent product reviews, product awards, specific  analyst coverage, etc).  Whatever it is, you need to be very clear what you want so that you can build a plan to get it.

3/ Hire the Right Agency – Once you know what you want you can find an agency that is best suited to help you deliver on those goals.  Again “Get our name out there” is something that literally every agency will tell you they can do.  However, if you are trying to expand into Europe and your target market is large financial services firms, you now have some good specific questions you can ask potential agencies to find the best fit.  Agencies have different areas that they specialize in – you’ll want to find one that can deliver on the goals that you’ve laid out.

4/ Lay Out a Tactical Plan – Setting the goals down on paper for what you are trying to accomplish month by month avoids the twin problems of startups feeling like their agency isn’t doing anything for them and agencies feeling like their work isn’t understood or appreciated. Great agencies will really shine in this planning process by pulling out ideas that you wouldn’t have thought of and teaching you things you didn’t know about who wants to write about what and why.   If you don’t go through this process, you will find yourself having regular conference calls with your agency where they complain that you aren’t giving them any “news”, and you’ll be complaining that your agency doesn’t understand what you are trying to do.

5/ Educate the Agency Folk – Chances are you’ve been living and breathing your product offerings for years.  You need to make sure you spend the time to walk the folks at the agency through your positioning and value propositions.  The more they understand about your target markets, your use case scenarios, your key points of value,  the more they can channel their experience, knowledge and creativity into things that will work for your company.

6/ Measure, Adjust and Manage – Like any vendor relationship, you need to check progress and if you aren’t getting what you agreed to, you need to be working with the agency to fix it. This is pretty easy to do if you have a well-defined tactical plan. Even if you don’t, it’s never too late to call your account manager and do a reset.  The more you can communicate the better and in my experience some agencies just work better with demanding clients.  Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want and to complain if you aren’t getting it.

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