A quote from my book, How to Win at the Sport of Business got picked up in multiple stories. In the book I stated effectively that “Startups should never hire a PR firm”. As you would expect, the PR Industry was not over-joyed at the comment. Articles were written about how incredibly valuable a good PR person can be to a startup.
Actually, I have no doubt that a smart PR person can add value to a startup. The problem is that all things considered, it’s not enough value.
The first problem with hiring a PR firm is cost. Cash is always in short supply in startups. Given all the potential places that you need cash in a startup, is the company better served having that cash available to potentially keep the company alive another day, week or month ? Or hiring a PR person ? I would rather have the cash.
The next issue is time.
The thing about PR people is this: while they may have great contacts and they can get articles placed, they are not capable of doing a vulcan mind meld. They don’t automatically know all the elements about your business that you want to convey to media, partners, customers, potential employees and even potential investors. In all likelihood the entrepreneur doesn’t either. Knowing the message you want to communicate is always a work in progress. To have a successful relationship with a PR shop, not only must you have the time to communicate to your PR person what your company is all about, you must have the time to continuously educate him/her about how they should respond to questions from the media people they are contacting. That is a huge time suck . Far too many meetings .
On the other hand, the same amount of time could be spent communicating directly with the media outlets you want to cover you and using that time to develop a direct relationship.
At this point, the PR pro steps in and discusses how many pitches media people get from entrepreneurs like you every day. How there is no way for a small company can break through the clutter to get the attention of media. If you are a startup that incorrectly thinks it needs to get on Letterman or Good Morning America in order to be a successful company, then they are right. But the reality is that for the vast majority of startups, particularly tech related startups, most of the media that is going to benefit you out of the gate is trade related or local media. And these people are ALWAYS looking for stories to write. They want to hear from unique companies.
It’s amazing how often a simple email to a writer for a trade publication or local media will get a response. The key to getting a response is being short, sweet , hyperbole free and to the point. You have to sell your differentiation in a paragraph.
Subject : Tracking Traffic to Reduce Vacancies
Dear Real Estate Industry Writer,
My name is Mark Cuban. I would love to tell you more about our company motionloft.com. We have internally developed a sensor that when placed on the side of a building can track in real time the number of people and cars that pass by. Motionloft is being used by building owners in San Francisco and New York to lease space by showing potential tenants the exact amount of foot traffic in front of a store location. Its being used by tenants to determine the best time to open, close and to offer specific products in services.
In one test case we would love to share with you, a tenant decided to rent a store front and go against the conventional wisdom of the area and open for lunch…with great results. They made this decision based exclusively on the data provided by motionloft.com
If you would like to see more information about motionloft.com and how your readers could benefit, just let me know !
all the best
It’s simple. To the point. Far from perfect, but it will work. Notice we never say we are the “best, biggest, fastest, most ” or add any hyperbole. Doing so will get you a quick delete. The whole point of the email was to get their attention by showing what I believe to be would be of great value to their readership. Help the writer, they will help you.
Just as important, its the first step in developing a direct relationship with a media person who is right in the middle of the industry that I need to be successful in. Media people are not only great outlets for information about your company, but they are great sources of information as well. If you can develop a strong relationship, they will often be happy to compare notes and to ask you what you think about others in the industry and what they are hearing about them. Knowledge is power.
Not everyone is going to respond. But by making yourself available and communicating in a short simple fashion, you are building awareness that will pay off when you see the same people at industry events or when a customer or prospect mentions your company .
You can also ask your customer and any vendor partners if they have any relationships with media and ask for an introduction. They may even have a PR person that they work with that you can glomb off of for free. Like any good sales process, its about asking for referrals and PR is no different. You just have to hustle.
So back to startups hiring a PR firm. Yes, you can get there from here with a PR firm, but im a believer that you accomplish much, much more with direct relationships than by using an intermediary. And that cash you keep in the bank can be the difference between staying alive as a small business, or not.
35 thoughts on “Why Startups Shouldn’t Hire PR Firms”
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A person with a good startup does not necessarily mean they can be a good pr person.
That would be like saying a great basketball player would make a great coach or a great coach would mean they can be a great player.
Comment by bbrown98 -
I think that any good startup will be his own pr expert
Comment by Projektory Multimedialne -
The million dollar (billion dollar???) question for me is not about a PR firm, but how does a startup reach one of the true visionaries in the industry?
I’ve been watching Shark Tank from day one and love the show. You can often see the Sharks’ eyes light up and minds go into overdrive as soon as they see some of the great ideas presented to them.
But, those who make the show are only a very small percentage of us who believe they could bring the same excitement to visionaries, including, but not limited to, the Sharks.
So how do we reach such a visionary without being scammed by the companies who want thousands to “present” our ideas to those who can help?
To me, this dilemma is as more important than worrying about a PR firm at this point in concept/product development.
If there is a person or a group that is truly set up for those of us who need help to reach the next level, please let us know.
If not, surely one (or some) of these innovators/visionaries has the personnel to create a group to look at various projects, identify those what have the potential and forward them to the “big guy or gal”.
A PowerPoint presentation in many cases can be initially as valuable as an in-person presentation and can be reviewed at the convenience of the evaluation group at their leisure.
One great idea out of a hundred could surely justify such a group.
Comment by bbrown98 -
B2c website for the SEO how can achieve more perfect, and a lot of the time they very perplexed don’t know this from where to start, because he is a new b2c website, oneself also is a novice SEO, don’t know who can help to give directions
Comment by wkkgames -
Your letter to the real estate industry writer was a success because it started with “My name is Mark Cuban…”
Comment by 7thwavecreative -
You know what’s amazing, is all the great startup advice I pulled from this blog post and all the comments below. With no cash to burn it’s gotta be all boostrap.
Comment by jstevens2009 -
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I would like to see a blog on how a person can present their idea or product to someone who can take it to the next level.
Shark Tank is an excellent show, but what about the hundreds, if not thousands, who have great ideas that don’t make the cut?
I would love to send a one paragraph explanation of my concept to a large company (including you), but it is virtually impossible to pierce the corporate shield.
Mr. Cuban. You should have a process (committee?) to review those who have concepts, projects or products and determine which are interesting enough for you to personally examine; possibly taking a percentage of the company for your guidance, even if you don’t become directly involved.
Have someone design a web page (along with applicable waivers and agreements for making a submission), limiting the number of words one can use to explain their idea or product.
A page such as this could open up an important source for us entrepreneurs to go to the next level.
There are many more of us out here that aren’t part of Shark Tank and we can see your enthusiasm when you see the potential in new ideas and products. We want to be part of your enthusiasm.
Comment by bbrown98 -
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I’m a little late to the conversation, so I won’t repeat what others have said. I am the owner of a small PR & marketing firm, and we’ve worked with a few startups in our area (Baltimore). Our experience with them is:
a) the CEOs/founders/etc. have a technical background and don’t understand the thought process behind building a PR or marketing strategy or messaging;
b) the CEOs don’t have a good sense of what makes the news–they think the slightest little upgrade of their service deserves to be on the front page of TechCrunch (or any other pub they’re interested in);
c) the CEOs don’t have time to reach out to media.
Sure, they all know our local tech reporters and can reach out to them very easily.
I think there needs to be at least some education with startups about what makes their product or service newsworthy.
Also, to echo some of the comments from PR pros above, PR doesn’t have to be expensive. Startups don’t have to hire a consultant or a firm at a high-priced retainer to get results. We’ve actually PR developed slimmed-down PR packages specifically for startups, just to give them a boost in getting their name out there for whatever reason–to grow their user-base, attract or prime the pump for VC, etc. If a startup can go lean, there’s no reason why a firm can’t offer some lean PR.
I agree that a startups can waste a lot of money on a firm that isn’t meeting their needs. My advice is to look for a partner–either a consultant or a small firm–that knows the startup space and can provide value. Don’t go to big firms, as they’re usually very expensive. Interview them like you would an employee. And only bring them on when you have to!
Comment by Daniel -
Great blog topic. I’m the Marketing Director for a restaurant that’s well established in Dallas, but not in all the other markets where we’re expanding rapidly, so it’s often like promoting a startup. I’ve been wary of buying into the tired PR protest, “You can’t go to the media yourself to promote your new business – they’ll never listen to you.”
Entrepreneurs can – and should – reach out to the local media to develop those relationships. Sure, it’s nice if your name has enough brand equity that interest is piqued if you just write, “Hi, I’m Mark Cuban, perhaps you’ve heard of me,” but it’s about more than that. It’s about building relationships the old-fashioned way, which is something that’s losing attention with all the stress placed on social media and digital marketing.
Although Facebook, Twitter, etc. are great tools, we can’t hide behind our computer screens and then hire people to build relationships for us. A highly talented PR person who truly believes in your brand can be a tremendous asset, but even then, nothing can replace a direct, healthy long-term relationship between the media and a direct employee of the company.
I’ll have to start reading your blog more often – great find!
Comment by marketingmeggie -
Was this blog post prompted by our impromptu lunch at CES? Was it that I asked if you were on a stipend? Ha.
We never take on start-ups at an early stage for two reasons: They couldn’t possibly get any bang from PR (usually because they have no product yet nor any customers) and start-ups just don’t have the bandwidth to pay attention to PR. Inotherwords, they are on a stipend and PR firms need to be patient and respect that.
Getting press is nice, but if it isn’t getting you business (or as we like to say, trucks out the door), what’s the point?
Kitchen Public Relations
Comment by annesteinbergkpr -
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Wow, Keith said what I said earlier on, in a more eloquent way of course.
Keith said…”More importantly, the startup should hire a firm or consultant who will take the time to fully understand the competitive landscape, what distinguishes the startup’s product or service, and most importantly, what keeps the founders up at night. This is where most firms fall down. Only after this essential upfront work is done can the process of creating and syndicating the narrative proceed, which includes media relations.”
In an earlier comment I had stated…”Start ups should probably hire a consultant who will actually save the company more than they will cost, instead of a PR firm. Companies that are gaining traction, have product, and are growing might then want to consider a PR firm since there is now something tangible to P.R.”
Comment by alexlogic -
Mark – As someone who has created and marketed several successful businesses, you clearly have a lot of insight into what makes for powerful brands. And I think you would agree that through all your businesses, PR has played a key role in their success, even at the startup level.
You’re correct in pointing out that reporters appreciate hearing directly from entrepreneurs, especially those who are knowledgeable and passionate about their business and industries. They become terrific sources.
Let’s look at the reality of the situation: Is PR going to help your sales grow by double-digits next quarter? Is it going to turn a bad product into something “magical.” Not likely. That’s not its true value.
But it will help an entrepreneur gain an objective sense of where his or her business stands in the broader consumer and buyer marketplace. It also will prepare them for the inevitable day when their business is no longer the “next big thing;”
From MC> if an entrepreneur doesnt know his market, he/she deserves to go out of business. If he/she lies to himself tot he point that an external source of objective info is required, they are doomed. If he/she depends on a PR firm for competitive information, he still should go out of business.
At the startup level, an entrepreneur could benefit from the insight and objective counsel of another startup – a small PR firm that knows the local or regional market well and has insight into what is moving that market’s media, economic and cultural needs. That is where the perspective and value of public relations can be invaluable.
From MC> if you start a business and these elements are critical to your success and you dont know them before you open, you are an idiot. IF they are nice to haves rather than have to haves, a startup can put the money to better use elsewhere
It’s important to keep in mind that PR firms and PR pros offer far more than just media contacts and the ability to pitch the media. That’s an old-school notion of PR. Modern PR pros are storytellers; they help businesses connect with their stakeholders (media, the public, current/potential customers, etc.) through traditional and social media, building communities and packaging and presenting salient business points.
From MC> for mature businesses, I agree 100pct. At some point PR can be a valuable addition simply because its not worth the time of a CEO/Pres to do that function. For startups, you better connect to your stakeholders whether media/public/customers prospects early and often or you have zero chance
In short, getting media coverage is great, and certainly many entrepreneurs can do just that on their own. But for nuanced insight that will help build a company’s success for the long haul, a PR pro can be an invaluable resource for any business owner, no matter the age of their business.
From MC> IMHO, nuanced insight is way down the list of things a startup needs. Im a big proponent of networking and gaining as much 3rd party information as you can about your business, but thats the beauty of social media and the web. You are being told 24×7 what people think and even more if there is silence. I dont think you can push that off to a 3rd party until you are growing out of the startup stage. But thats me.
Public Relations Society of America
Comment by prsay -
Hi Mark. Personally, I think with all the self-serving ad platforms out there available to us entrepreneurs now (Facebook Ads, Adwords, StumbleUpon, Reddit, etc) you can run a test campaign on a shoestring budget, find out what your customers really want, make adjustments, tweak your product and THEN go for the PR after you have some smiling paying customers coming through the door. I’ll shut up now and buy the book!
Comment by grantmvp -
As a tech PR consultant that has done start-up PR for cyber security start-ups for almost my entire 15+ year career, I can see your point, but…in my niche, I think, most CEO’s find a lot more value in PR then you do.
If you need to choose between PR and keeping the lights on another week then of course, keep the lights on and fire (or don’t hire) the agency. But if you are in that position, then you likely have bigger problems then how to deal with PR, right? And if you question your agency’s ability to put your best foot forward to the media (or anyone else for that matter), then they are for sure the wrong agency.
Lets say you are paying an agency a 5k a month retainer, and your company sells a product or a service with an average deal size of 60k. If your PR person does something that leads to one deal closing, that one deal just paid for PR services for the entire year.
I am sure you are thinking, “never happens.” It may not be par for the course, but it does occur. In the past three months I turned a lead over to a client that came from a direct result of an email promo, (that deal did or will soon close), and another client CEO told me that a story caused a potential investor to pick up the phone and call him. So while ink always matters, good PR is more than good media relations – it can really drive the business forward.
Either way, it doesn’t bode well for the PR industry that a super successful, mega-millionaire (billionaire?) entrepreneur doesn’t find the value in what I do for for a living – especially in what I believe is my target market. I don’t expect to change your mind, but…with a mortgage and a young child to provide for, I hope I continue to the the exception to your rule:-). I also hope the PR industry starts doing a better job at its own their PR…
Looking Glass Public Relations
From MC> there are always exceptions. And i think the value of a PR agency can be everything but PR. But my response to your example is that in a vertical like yours there are a finite number of trade publications and sites and the CEO or some member of management should be on a first name basis. Why? Because reporters/commentators dont only write after being contacted by a PR person, internal or external. However, in my experiences, if they are going to rip you, if they have a direct line of communications and a relationship with you, they will ask for your response before they write it. No direct connection, or if they go through PR and its not quick enough, then disaster. The exact opposite of your example
That said, there are always going to be CEOs who hurt the company every time they correspond with the outside world, a PR company wont solve the problem but they may mitigate it. But i still stick to my premise. Any Startup needs to know their world and have direct communications with it to give themselves the best chance to succeed unless you just cant handle it, you have to do it.
Comment by lizsafran -
I see communication as an essential skill for every entrepreneur. It doesn’t mean that one can articulate oneself perfectly but to be able to communicate ones idea. Everyone is different, some will do it boldly, some with fine nuances, some totally different. At the same time the other side is different too. Even the best can’t communicate with everyone on the same level. PR companies sometimes know the different stuff journalists prefer but many journalists I know prefer to be in touch with the company itself and not a PR company as they know that that PR outlet will shift the messages in a way so they will like it.
There are great mindes you aren’t able to communicate what they think. But for them the journalists will be the least problem as they will already have a hard time to get the people in the startup on the same tracks. If they are able to tell their own people what they think they will also be able to tell journalists.
It never harms to know about marketing and PR. At http://work.io the founder is great at communicating but he didn’t feel to competent in social media and stuff. Therefore he got me into to team at an very early stage. Not as a PR person but as a communication person. I am involved in the development of the product itself, how to integrate some viral tweaks and how to ease communication between users, further I am working on community management, support, how the blog works, which communication things we launch and sometimes I talk to journalists, bloggers and other people. At the same time the CEO blogs sometimes because he wants to say something, sometimes because I ask him to write about a specific topic I find important to have his thoughts about. I learn lots about startups and management, he learns some new stuff about marketing, PR and social media.
In the past I worked for different companies as a consultant some time in a small agency. I gave many presentations, told people how to do what and always emphasized that I can’t communicate for them. Sometimes it worked, often it was exhausting because the companies didn’t put any effort in it. I made it really easy for them but they kept on doing what they did before. Sometimes I stumbles over something where they should react to but all I could do was to shoot them a mail or call to tell them to and not to simply answer stuff directly. Even if I hadn’t that philosophy that companies have to communicate themselves I didn’t have all the information I needed to react. There is always a disconnect if PR is done from outside the company. With the internet thats even more present than before.
Comment by Luca -
Great read and I’ll definitely be sharing it.
“It’s amazing how often a simple email to a writer for a trade publication or local media will get a response.”
This quote reminded me of an evet and article that the Orlando Business Journal @OBJupdate recently put out, both FREE! No, I don’t work for OBJ either, I’m just a loyal subscriber. Seeing a real world tie in actually got me to sign up here for word press. Thanks Mark.
Comment by brunscheen -
Thanks for an interesting post. As a PR consultant I find some of what you say correct, and some not so correct. You are right that developing direct relationships with the media are important, but I have yet to find a CEO who has the time to reach out to and initiate direct contact with the media. Once the intro is made (usually by the PR person) the CEO can and should continue the relationship direclty.
The CEOs job is to run the company. He/she can not effectively run the company wearing multiple hats — it just doesn’t work (effectively anyway). I’m sure the CEO can balance a checkbook but he likely has an accountant on staff to manage the books. The same should be true of PR. He may be able to write a pitch letter to one reporter or editor, but when it’s time to launch a new product can he realistically expect to reach out to all the media covering his space? The solution — hire someone experienced to handle PR-related issues.
The other issue is cost. Yes, some PR firms can charge upwards of tens of thousands of dollars per month for their services. As an independent consultant without all the overhead, I am able to provide my clients with the value they want with the quality service they expect at a fair price.
Comment by aahsomepr -
Three pet peeves with PR firms:
1) They charge you for time and rarely (if not ever) based on results. Show me a PR firm that is willing to do the work and only get paid on performance. It’s like a salesperson with a generous salary, if you’re not hungry, you’re not hunting.
2) You spend too much time briefing the firm itself and you can never get them to really understand your message or goals. You end up diluting it and or dumbing it down to a point that it is really not so revolutionary. Not only that, you will find that more than half of the stuff you’re paying them to do, requires you time and effort anyway.
3) They pat themselves on the back for impressions. Who cares if you got 3 million impressions. What does that even mean? Your PR goals need to be more specific than that. You want conversion and you want to reach a specific audience. Getting your story picked up in the Clearwater Gazette is useless.
Finally, I agree with Mark. I used twitter and LinkedIn to get the names and emails of people at the pubs I really wanted to be in and hit them up with a kick-ass email. Better yet, pick the one pub that you really want to be in and give them a chance to break the story. Queue up an email for the other editors and once it’s out, it’s free game with the rest of the pubs.
Comment by mossabobasir -
As the author of the original post that set PR tongues-a-waggin, I appreciate that you took the time to further explain your general disdain for the PR profession, at least as it relates to the start-up community. I work with both startups and established companies, as well as with PR professionals of all stripes. I remain bullish about what a smart PR pro can bring to the mix, but also recognize that finding one can be a challenge.
It matters little who’s opening the doors to reporters and digital influencers. More importantly, the startup should hire a firm or consultant who will take the time to fully understand the competitive landscape, what distinguishes the startup’s product or service, and most importantly, what keeps the founders up at night. This is where most firms fall down.
Only after this essential upfront work is done can the process of creating and syndicating the narrative proceed, which includes media relations.
Thanks for the wake-up call. We’ll continue to work to gain the trust of entrepreneurs — most of whom we recognize have made considerable sacrifices to get where they are.
Flatiron Communications LLC
Comment by peterhimler -
Agreed. I started a non-profit organization with $36- Across America for Childhood Obesity. I bicycled 11,000-miles to raise awareness for childhood obesity, and to inspire youth to actively pursue their dreams. After a handful of failed attempts with acquiring media attention, I got the hang of things.
I successfully completed my tour after speaking to over 150 schools in 21 major cities. I receieved media coverage in every city I rode through. And I even stumbled upon a small featured spot on the Today Show, which by the way did not noticably increase my supporter base.
I read an interesting article about how to effectively approach a book release from a PR standpoint (The Tim Ferriss Effect: Lessons From My Successful Book Launch – Forbes http://shar.es/WDft2). Basically, it states that targeting a small number of passionate prospects with your product, is far more beneficial than outlets of mass media. Which is what I observed on my childhood obesity campaign. I’d rather have a small dedicated supporters, then a large army of casual readers not passionate about my cause. Create those direct relationships, as Mark has stated. Gaining one passionate contact will benefit you more than 1,000 gained through media.
What happened after I completed my bicycle tour? I departed, and currently riding, on another tour- 100 major city school assembly program tour! http://www.aa4co.com
Comment by wheresmrteddy -
Start ups should probably hire a consultant who will actually save the company more than they will cost instead of a PR firm, companies that are gaining traction, have product, and are growing, might then want to consider a PR firm since there is now something tangible to P.R.
Comment by alexlogic -
As a member of the press, I have to say you are spot on. I would add that all writers have egos – why else would they think anyone cared what they had to say?
Comment by bjdraw -
Mark, I agree with this. Wouldn’t you also agree that an ideal situation would be for a startup’s founder or CEO to also have an extensive PR background and expertise in place? I think that never gets written about near enough by people (maybe because it’s an oddity or just overlooked – not sure). Entrepreneurs who have a background in Marketing & PR…so they don’t have to pay someone else to do it, especially in the early stages.
Comment by mikesprouse -
I was one of the people that disagreed with the original PR comment, and I continue to disagree with it as a generalization. It just depends on the startup, and especially on the PR firm. Yeah, a bootstrapped startup working with a shady PR firm is an awful scenario and a big waste of money and time. One the other hand, let’s consider a startup with a bit of a cash to spend (either from revenue or investment) that needs to make a big splash to pick up traction. The founder could spend hours finding the right contacts for reporters (not all of them make their info easy to find), learn how to write a half-decent pitch (which, trust me, most can’t), and then take the time to do the necessary followup.
In my mind, not a very time efficient scenario… and time is money. On the other hand, they could hire a good PR firm or person who can help them articulate their message (blending their expertise with best practices for pitching), and get them the right coverage with targeted emails/calls/releases. Much more time – and I would argue capital – efficient.
And to be clear, I’m not a PR professional, I’m a startup guy (JetZet) that has wasted a lot of time trying to pitch on my own, and has had good luck with the *right* PR people.
From MC> You are right, if a company has tons of cash and wants to make a big splash, there are some very good PR firms that can help you accomplish that. I guess Im never a fan of just “making a splash” . And Im not big on “pitching”. Like I said in the post, quick and to the point. Definitely not a pitch. If you dont feel comfortable at any level trying to communicate with media. I guess I can see that as well. But those should be the exception. Far from the rule
Comment by nickfarina -
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Thunder Up! LOL
Robin Smith Co-founder
Comment by WeGoLook.com -
PR or propaganda? Edward Burnays a master propagandist coined the word Public Relations….
Due to negative implications surrounding the word propaganda because of its use by the Germans in World War I, he promoted the term “Public Relations”.
Burnays said…..”If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits.”
He called this scientific technique of opinion-molding the ‘engineering of consent’………..
The engineering of consent is the goal of any PR firm and facts are not all that relevant.
Your email is way better than the spin most PR firms would come up with. It is also way less expensive and, in my opinion, a more honest approach.
Comment by frfumtopia -
Mark, Great post. I have taken much needed notes. I don’t plan to hire a PR person, but I do hope to gain direct access to you for Peace Of Mind hydrotherapy Spa LLC, coming soon to N. Dallas, Frisco, Area.:)
I enjoy, myself, the aspect of networking, marketing our business and meeting professionals, even if it is just to get the word out. I also have written publicist looking for articles to write about, which, is another great idea.
Thank you for reading and sharing!!
Comment by pomhydrotherapy -
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