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?

IPO Communications Guidelines That Make Good Sense

GM-NYSE-listed-720x340It’s the dream of many public relations professionals:  land a position with a promising pre-IPO company. Take less base compensation and sacrifice weekends and holidays for the promise of mainlining a gold vein of stock options and sailing off to the Caribbean following a robust IPO and the requisite vesting period.

Ah.  If only it was that easy.

The reality is that the PR pro in a pre-IPO company has enormous pressure and responsibility to ensure that his/her organization is playing by the IPO communications rules of the road. The job can be like herding cats.  A single communications misstep can be extremely costly to the organization, and of course to communications leadership.

2013 is actually turning out to be a banner year for IPOs in the U.S.  According to the czars of IPO research at Renaissance Capital, 165 IPOs have priced so far this year — that’s a near 50 per cent increase over 2012. In addition, a whopping 208 IPOs have been filed with the SEC year-to-date, more than 75 per cent than a year ago.  And the average IPO has returned almost 30 per cent from the offer price.

Twitter, as the galaxy is aware, is expected to complete its IPO process before the end of the year, possibly by Thanksgiving. Its recent decision to fuel the IPO frenzy is having a significant and positive impact on other recent IPOs as well, like Rocket Fuel Inc. and FireEye Inc.  Their stock price has doubled since their IPOs less than one month ago.

Going public has many pluses.  Among the benefits is the opportunity to earn significantly more interest and coverage from business and financial information channels, major newspapers, business magazines, television, radio, financial and business websites, among other media outlets.

However, the benefits of enhanced publicity come with the increased responsibility of communicating appropriately, leveraging new-found media attention to support strategic business goals while playing by fair market rules and maintaining corporate transparency.

Much of this enormous responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of the organization’s communications leadership. Remember the companies in the dot.com boom that screwed up their IPOs by inadvertently leaking confidential information that found its way to the media and then the SEC?  That’s a sure-fire for the dream to become a nightmare of epic proportions.

Here are a few guidelines for PR  pros and their pre-IPO companies that will help dreams come true:

1. Prevent official and unofficial spokespeople from telling external sources your company intends to go public. Regardless of when it’s said, it can be published during the IPO quiet period and will look like SEC rules have been violated. Instead, focus on the company’s growth story.  Talk about financing as an adjunct that facilitates growth.

2. Develop a story that describes your company’s competitive advantages and barriers to entry without industry jargon. Keep it simple and do it well in advance of the IPO as it will serve as the basis for your corporate description in the prospectus.

3. Strengthen your website. During the quiet period, your company website will speak for you to industry influencers and potential investors.

4. Stay visible.  Typically, visible IPOs price higher in the range and trade higher afterwards. Don’t focus only on the Wall Street Journal and other national publications. Industry trade publications, bloggers, industry and Wall Street analysts are also excellent visibility creators.

5. Be visible now or company attorneys may say “no” after you have filed. If you haven’t been active before the filing, it will be difficult to be active once you have filed.  Even if you have been active with the media before the filing, many attorneys will take an ultra-conservative position and still try to prevent the company from being visible.  Challenge their position by sharing the many examples of companies who got their cake and ate it.

6. Once your company has gone public, employees have no right to material information before other shareholders. Make sure your company employees understand the rules. Be prepared to circulate policies that explain how to handle material information and how to avoid insider training.

7. IPO day is the beginning, not the end, of communications. Use the remainder of your quiet period to plan your debut as a public company. Decide what your publicity stance will be on the first day of trading.

8. The first nine months of being public will prove whether you can properly forecast your future for Wall Street. It’s easier to keep your good reputation than try to rebuild it.

9. Look to bellwether companies outside your industry for best communications practices, and not only to your competitors.

10. Work with your company’s attorneys and advisers to fit your desired business strategy within regulatory rules.

11. Get your corporate legal and investor relations teams involved in social media to protect the company from violating disclosure requirements. The risks simply don’t outweigh the benefits.

Oh, and good luck.

For Agencies, Working with Clients on a Shoestring Can Be an Acquired Taste

????????????????????????????????????????It’s not entirely new for global PR firms like Ogilvy PR and Edelman, among others, to make a run at emerging VC-backed companies who need communications help but are on a shoestring budget.  Every few years — either just before a so-called bubble, like the dot-com boom or right in the middle of one — big firms seem to act on the fact that they may be missing out on opportunities to work with potential rising stars.  Or, that they are simply leaving money on the table and have the resources and chops to chase many of the same prospects that have typically been the domain of boutique and mid-size firms.

Why not? At the turn of the last century, global firms did pretty much the same thing to take advantage of the plethora of VC-backed emerging Internet companies.  For example, a number of firms owned by communications holding companies like OMNICOM and WPP created so-called “conflict brands.” With a conflict brand in place, a global PR firm who had a company like HP as a client might also take advantage of the opportunity to work with an emerging VC-backed company that was actually competing with HP in one market or more. The conflict brand would have a different pricing and staffing model, different value set, a less is more approach and firewalls in place — all of which made them appealing to smaller, emerging brands.  But clients mailed their monthly retainer fees to the same address as did clients of the parent brand.

In other cases, a global shop would set up a sub-branded firm (a firm within a firm) that wasn’t necessarily set up to handle conflicts but did specialize in working with start-ups. These sub-branded firms, as did the conflict brands, had stronger appeal to the start-up technology segment — I.E., working with a cool, fast-moving edgy firm vs.  a more bureaucratic, stodgier parent brand.

Of course, the plan was to transition the small client from the sub-brand to the parent as the client grew and thus keep it in the portfolio for the client’s entire life cycle — from start-up to growth to maturity.  To be honest, it’s hard to say how successful this model really was as so many of the dot.com companies were acquired or blew up without every having the chance to reach maturity.

Recently, Ogilvy PR introduced Espresso and just before that Edelman introduced Sprout – offerings specifically designed with the little guy in mind.  (Love the names by the way…surprised a firm hasn’t selected “Adrenalin” yet though.)

Edelman says “Sprout supports early-stage start-ups and small companies looking for communications counsel and high-impact support outside of the common agency business model.”  Like programs before Sprout, Edelman “scales” a program to suit a client’s needs and budget (I’m sure Edelman is finding that the “needs” and “budgets” of some of these start-ups are misaligned).  Ogilvy PR says its offering for emerging brands “includes a range of services from brand narrative and messaging through media exposure and influencer relations, all within a simple, affordable and flexible cost structure.”

Both descriptions do contain a lot of big agency speak and PR clichés (which may scare away some start-ups).  We’ve all seen too many times selling points like “scale” and “high impact” and  “brand narrative” and my fav:   “affordable and flexible cost structure.”

But the programs, in light of the big well-known PR brands and deep resources behind them, will earn their share of success – at least in the short-term.

Time will tell if in the longer term they’ll beat the boutiques and mid-size agencies at what they do best.  If they do, I’m sure we’ll hear about it.