5 questions startups need to ask before plunging into PR

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This blog post originally appeared on VentureBeat.com.  
November 26, 2013 9:30 PM
Linsey Fryatt, VentureVillage
To do PR yourself, or to hire an agency – that is the question. In this piece, Linsey Fryatt, Germany Managing Director of Clarity PR and former editor-in-chief of VentureVillage, gives us a teaser to her upcoming PR workshop and outlines what startups need to consider before jumping into PR.

Kevin Leu, a “PR specialist,” recently penned a piece in VentureBeat about why PR agencies are crap. Thankfully, PR pro Patrick Ward fashioned a response that was much more polite and balanced than I could ever have managed. Incidentally, Leu is also the founder charming startup that lets you rate women (or “girls”, as he prefers) based on how hot they are. On a map. So obviously his expertise on what constitutes groundbreaking branding is in absolutely no doubt.

But his piece does raise an important issue. The biggest challenge I have faced since recently donning the furry robes of PR (having previously been shod in the Hessian trousers of journalism for many years) is explaining to people what a PR firm actually does, and why — especially if you’re a new brand — it’s absolutely vital to have a PR strategy, whether that means in-house, consultancy, external agency or gorillagram.

Your marketplace is crowded and increasingly global. The media landscape is massive and fragmented. Your product is, and should be, the most important thing in your world, but why should anyone else give a sh*t about it? You need to make the world take notice, and in most cases, you’re going to need help with that.

There’s a certain amount of nervousness, especially in the startup world, in hiring a PR agency. And rightly so. Your seed or Series A money is precious, you don’t want to waste a cent on unneccessary or unquantifiable services. When you couple this with perhaps lukewarm experiences with one-size-fits-all PR firms (I assume the ones that Mr Leu might have issue with) and it’s difficult to justify any kind of spend on communication strategy.

My colleague Sami wrote a great piece on the questions you ought to ask PR companies before you hire them, but I’m going to take it one step back. Here are the starter questions that you need to ask yourself that will help you guage whether you need actually need a PR agency or not. And if you do, how to have a more fruitful relationship with them…

1. What do you actually want to achieve?

It seems obvious, but it’s easy to get swept away by the first flush of column inches. It’s not enough just to want “to get a piece in TechCrunch.” [Editor: Or VentureBeat!] Do you need to attract investors? Do you need key hires? Do you need a quick increase in user numbers?

Set you key objectives you hope to get from any exposure before you do anything else. From here it’ll be much easier to brief anyone else correctly.

2. What’s your timeline?

Getting scattergun press coverage around product launch is great, but it can be really difficult to follow up. I see many companies enjoy an initial spike of interest and then drop completely off the radar in those critical following months. Think about your product timeline, and consider how you want to knit a full communications strategy into that plan.

3. What’s your budget?

Have an idea of what you are willing to spend, considering the factors above. Whether that’s an external agency fee, human-hours within your company or a completely new hire. If you’re going with an external agency, then look for ones that don’t just offer standard retainers, but also ones that are willing to offer project-based work. That way, you can see how they perform around a single task.

Also realise that it will involve a spend to do this properly. Communications and marketing should be built into your budget and not just added as an afterthought once your product is market-ready, especially if you’re a B2C product.

4. What’s your story(ies)?

What three words describe your company values? Would all your team give the same answer? Spend half a day internally nailing down your core qualities. From there, it’s much easier to begin working on the rest of your communications.

What’s your context, what do you do differently? What voices can you add to a discussion in your market? What’s your story? And who are you telling it to?

This is where the fresh pairs of eyes at an agency can give a new perspective. Ask an agency for a handful of ideas in their pitch. At the very least it will demonstrate that they “get” what you’re doing and you can gauge their creative fit.

5. Who else is doing this well?

Which companies in your space are suceeding at this? And why? And do you have a robust angle or statement as to why you are different? Journalists like to have a product placed in context (“we’re the Airbnb for dogs”) but also the justification as to why you’re offering something different to the market.

Linsey will be hosting a workshop on How to Communicate your Brand on 11 December with VentureVillage. Click here for more details.

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Read This Before Blaming Your PR Agency For Lack of Coverage

ImageOn behalf of PR agencies everywhere, thank you Amy Westervelt for your recent tell-all post on why startup companies need to stop pointing fingers at their PR firms and instead learn more about how editors and journalists do their jobs.

Amy is a freelance writer/editor/author and frequent contributor to business publications like Forbes, the WSJ, Bloomberg BusinessWeek and Fast Company among others. In her post, “Stop Complaining about Your PR Firm. Here’s How the Media Works,” Amy’s shares nine things about the media “that will hopefully help you figure out how to deal with us (and maybe your PR firm) better.”

One of the bigger challenges PR firms face in working with startups is the clients’ often unrealistic expectations when it comes to media coverage.  The combination of ego, drinking of the Kool-Aid when it comes to their offering/product, pressure by investors, over sensitivity as to what the competition is doing and general ADHD-related behavior can be toxic when it comes to building a mutually beneficial relationship between agency and startup.  Add in the factor of a client who has a fundamental misunderstanding of what compels a journalist to write an article and you have a recipe for disaster.

Any engagement with a new client should include a period of expectations setting that includes how agency and client are going to work together (roles & responsibilities) to achieve the desired results of the communications program.  It’s during an expectation setting session, which should happen in the first week of a new relationship, when the agency account team should be able to find out how much the client actually knows about how the media works.  If the client is a startup, chances are the principals have limited exposure to the media and taking them through a primer would be invaluable to the relationship.

Ms. Westervelt makes a number of great points in her post, and I encourage you (if you’re a PR pro or a client) to read it in its entirety, but for now I wanted to spotlight a handful of her points.

Editors are important.  Freelancers are your best friend. So true. Freelance journalists are more prevalent and more influential than anytime in recent memory.  Unlike a staff writer, a freelancer like Amy may write for several publications. They can make more money by repurposing one article so that it might run in multiple publications, albeit with a different angle and fresh content.

The most important PR move you can make is to build and maintain relationships, and be patient.  Another great point here. Just because your PR firm was able to set up an interview with a journalist for you doesn’t mean that journalist is going to run right back to their office and bang out an article.  “Maybe I’m waiting for a newsy hook to peg it to,” Amy says.  The worse response by the agency is to harass the journalist to find out when the story is going to run “Because his or her client is sending equally as many emails.”

Stop worshiping at the altar of print media.  I think it’s still largely true that a print article is held in higher regard than an online-only piece.  Amy, however, says clients should thank their PR people for getting them mentioned in Time.com blogs.  “You may not get a photo of yourself in TIME to frame for your office,” she says, “but chances are those blog posts will be read more and pay back more over time than that one print hit will.”  Print stories still carry a ton of weight, then again, who buys TIME anymore?

And finally …The press release is dead, please stop trying to revive it.  Like you, I’m pretty tired of reading the press release is dead stories.  They’ve been showing up for years, yet thousands upon thousands of press releases are issued everyday in the U.S. though Amy maintains that “No one in the media reads press releases. Not a single person, I promise you.”  Really, Amy?  Members of the media still look to news releases to keep current on companies and their financials, business trends and for story ideas, among other reasons, including to occasionally mock PR people.

Otherwise, I think Amy’s post is spot on and I wouldn’t hesitate to share it verbatim with any startup.  Would you?

What Brand Ambassadors Can Learn from Honor Guards

American FlagHave you ever watched a U.S. military honor guard fold the American flag at a veteran’s funeral?  If you have, did you notice the honor guard’s striking appearance and presence, their laser-like focus on the task at hand, their dexterity as they expertly folded the flag 13 times until it took on the appearance of the hats worn by colonists during the Revolutionary War? And how they held the flag when they presented it, once it was completely smooth and its corners tucked in and it was perfect, to the survivors of the deceased?

No pun intended, but an honor guard does not cut any corners when it comes to the ceremonial folding of the American flag, when it comes to doing their job as perfectly as possible or when it comes to presenting the brand they stand for in the best possible light.

This week, at a funeral for the father of a good friend, the friends and relatives who stood outside in the cold to say their last good byes also witnessed a brilliant display of workmanship and brand ambassadorship, thanks to the honor guard.

To start the flag folding ceremony, the two young guards pulled Old Glory on each end until it was taught and then held it steady as possible waist-high.  With the flag now rippling in the breeze, the guards — making only eye contact with each other — began the methodical 13-step process they have rehearsed countless times.

Though skilled in their job there was no hurry in their actions, no distractions or multitasking at play, no desire to cut a corner.  Just the will to respect the deceased and his grieving loved ones. But also the desire to live the brand they hold so dear — and to do so perfectly.

Precision, attention to detail, professionalism, engagement and commitment to their brand. That’s what I saw in the U.S. military honor guard at William Joseph Casey’s farewell.

They are everything any organization could want in a brand ambassador.

Boston to Bill Maher: A Simple Apology Gets You off the Hook

A simple apology, done with meaning and quickly — like today — gets comic/satirist/political commentator/HBO “Real Time” host Bill Maher out of a jam for his rather thoughtless comments last Friday about the Boston Marathon bombings.

You’ve likely heard by now how Maher, on his HBO talk show “Real Time,” seemed to minimize the physical and emotional toll last April’s bombings at the finish line of the Boston Marathon had on the region.

Perhaps it’s just because he doesn’t live here, but Maher completely failed to grasp how the Boston Red Sox and the team’s unlikely and successful march to and through the World Series helped to pick up a grieving region and accelerate the healing process.

When a few Red Sox players placed the World Series trophy on the Boston Marathon finish line during the team’s victory parade a few of weeks ago, it was if the region’s stages of grief and suffering had come full circle.

But Maher doesn’t see it that way. Instead, he said that while the day of the bombings was a “bad day, three people died, that’s terrible.  More were maimed <Bill, it was actually 264 maimed>, that’s horrible, but unfortunately that happens every day, in car accidents and everything else.  I mean, your city was not leveled by Godzilla.”

He’s been criticized for his comments by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, by a number of newspapers (here’s a taste of what the far right is saying), and on Twitter by even the most fervent of Boston fans, like this one..

Jessica Britt ‏@jmacbritt14 Nov

@billmaher, love you, but disappointed by boston marathon comments. Parade route was where bombs were, meant a lot to our city…..

So Bill Maher gets paid to be controversial, like a shock jock.  On this particular issue, though, he overstepped the bounds of decency.  But I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt on his miscue — that he didn’t mean what he said and that he regrets it.

Tonight at 10 p.m. ET, Maher is on live TV again.

It’s Maher’s chance to redeem himself. A simply apology will do.

Avoid These Four Agency Client Types at all Costs

boat for saleYou may have heard the expression popular among some boat owners:

The two best days of being a boat owner are ‘the day you buy it’ and the ‘day you sell it.’

Others use a similar expression. Like those who have purchased a vacation home they never have time to enjoy.  Or that convertible as a full-time car (if you drive in New England).  I’ve heard some hackers on the golf course say the same about their Titleist blades.

And it’s been said on many occasions in the PR agency world; on those occasions when a new client turns out to be everything the agency hoped they wouldn’t be – when the two best days are the day the agency wins the client’s business and the day the agency fires that client.

A boat.  A second home. A roadster that’s to die for.  That shiny new client. All seemed like great ideas at the time. All looked wonderful from the outside. And then the honeymoon ends…and you’re in it for real.

For better or for worse, things we learn in life are often learned through trial and error. While we may try to not repeat the same mistakes over and over (there’s a definition for this type of behavior), we sometimes do.

Unlike the regretful boat owner who is typically one and done, PR agencies have histories of chasing bad client after bad client, deluding themselves into thinking that this time things will be different because they will “control” the relationship and not let the client run roughshod over them.

What do I mean by “bad’ client?  Well they come in many shapes, sizes and disguises.

There’s the client whose initial budget is below the agency’s minimum monthly retainer but promises that the budget is going to increase after the first three months or when the next round of funding comes in.  Three months come and go … another three months come and go … etc.

There’s the know-it-all client who has never worked with a PR agency before but skimmed the Public Relations for Dummies Cheat Sheet which has a section entitled, “Convincing Editors to Print Your Press Release.”  Seriously.  This client knows just enough about PR to be dangerous but still doesn’t make the distinction between an article written by an actual journalist and a news release replayed verbatim on one of those free press release web sites.

Of course, there’s the client working at his third start-up, the first two of which had successful exits and were media darlings and who is expecting and demanding the same level of media interest for his also-ran entry into the dying market du jour.

And finally, there’s the worse client type of all: the one who hires you and then disappears expecting the PR program to run smoothly without them having to pay any attention to it now that a firm has been hired.  You know the type … they make a living of hiring and firing agencies as a job protection ploy.  They blow off weekly check-in meetings, rarely return your phone calls or email pleas for information but are fast to get in your face when their company is left out of a story.

But they are happy to take credit for any positive results the agency does manage to generate.  When that happens, it’s time to sell the boat.  Don’t you think?

Rebuilding a City’s Reputation, Brick by Brick

BrickIf the out going mayor of the city of Lawrence, Mass. thought about Warren Buffet’s famous quote on reputation — “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it” — then William Lantigua might have done things differently.  Maybe.

For nearly four years Lantigua has been the mayor of the besieged city of Lawrence and its 80,000 souls squeezed into a puny seven square miles that sit just south of the New Hampshire border in the Merrimack Valley region of Massachusetts.  For several decades leading up to the middle part of the last century, this once proud urban center was a leading manufacturer and exporter of textiles and a significant wool processing center.  Its glory days came to a rather abrupt end in the 1950’s when the need for cheaper labor moved to the southern states.

Since then, the city has endured decades of fits and starts; effort upon genuine effort by buoyant officials who would begin their elected terms with bright promise and optimism only to find that once the celebrations and the honeymoon were over that most were in over the heads.  Leading a city like Lawrence, better known recently for its high unemployment, poverty, gang violence, a beleaguered school system and corruption among city officials than it is for being a great place to raise a family or start a business, isn’t a job for the faint of heart or the inexperienced.  Ask the parade of mayors who preceded Lantigua. While one can easily argue about the success of their administrations, it’s more difficult to argue about whether their hearts were in the right place or not.

However, the same can’t be said for Lantigua or his administration during which ….

  • he was sued by the state’s attorney general for allegedly violating campaign finance laws,
  • his former chief of staff and deputy police chief, appointed by the mayor, faced criminal corruption charges,
  • a close ally was found guilty of bribery, obstruction of justice among other charges, and,
  • his ex-campaign photographer was indicted for allegedly stealing proceeds from the city’s parking garage where he worked.

Earlier this week, following his failed elected bid for another four years as mayor, Lantigua repeatedly refused to address the election results in any great detail, instead letting his lawyer do most of the talking.

Lantigua has almost single-handedly tarnished the reputation of a city that was trying OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAmightily to fight its way back.  He has scared away investors, long time homeowners, and businesses.

Now he has what is perhaps the biggest decision of his life to make. Does he demand a recount from this week’s election which he lost to challenger Daniel Rivera by a mere 60 votes?  Does he dig in his heels and drag the city though the angst of an unresolved election?

Or does he, just this once, have what it takes to truly lead and begin to rebuild his own tainted reputation by conceding the election, congratulating Rivera and leading the smoothest possible transition from his administration to the next so that the city of Lawrence can pick up where it left off four years ago?

It’s up to Lantigua on how he wants to be remembered.