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How to pick a PR agency for your tech startup

November 17, 2016 - Marketing, Startups -
By: Chris Riley

PR activities are not reserved for large businesses with an already established brand. PR agencies can help any business gain exposure and set a PR strategy into motion. But they are expensive, and for a tech startup, there are additional factors you should consider.

When your company is small (less than 50 employees), you do not want to enter into a commitment with a PR agency too quickly. Results won’t be seen until you’re at least three months out. (The average is actually 12 months.)

It takes time to start a PR engine, and you should launch some external activities right away. Here are a few things that I recommend our customers do before they approach agencies.

  1. Establish what you want to do before talking to anyone. PR agencies are in the business of giving advice as well as reaching out to press. This is a useful service. However, early on in a tech business, you need to get to tactics quickly. You should have a strategy that recommends projects for the PR agency to begin working on right away. Activities like branding exercises are good, but they may not be the best use of your money and time.
  1. Be realistic about what the press can do for you. Chances are you will not get into TechCrunch tomorrow. Activities like strong content marketing can be more helpful to branding than PR, and in fact may be necessary for effective PR down the road. Use your PR budget to buy strong industry presence (for example, build analyst relationships to make sure you show up with your competitors in reports).
  1. Create an interesting story. Don’t list company events. Raising money or adding a new feature without a bigger story is not enough. Go to the press with a strong message about your philosophy, vision, and solution and how it contributes uniquely to the broader market. Features and fundraising announcements alone are imminently ignorable.

Once you know what you want and have your expectations clear, it’s time to select an agency. Here is what I suggest:

  1. Find someone who is currently representing companies similar to yours. It’s a chicken or egg problem, but because PR agencies have clients all over the place, they need to be educated about markets. And if someone else has already paid for that education, you will benefit. This also means that they already have the press contacts in the right industry.
  1. Don’t expect them to produce content. PR agencies are not where you should go to get content for your business. It should come from your content marketing firm. PR agencies don’t know your customers, or talk to them enough to talk about it in a way that is credible. (Which means they would need a lot of handholding—the equivalent of writing it on your own, except you are paying for it twice over.)
  1. Similarly, don’t expect them to be your design agency. They staff up for these types of activities, and they will bill you for them, but PR agencies are not often good design agencies. You should look for them to be good project managers.  If they have produced good design, then you can trust their selections. If not, use the schedule they create and hire your own team to collaborate with your agency.
  1. Figure out how expansive their reach is. PR agencies want to sell you on strategy, and they should, because if all they are is a contact list, then it’s pretty cut and dry. However, at the early stage of a company, you need reach, and that comes from contacts. One way to elicit proof of this is to pay a firm to do a joint PR tour with some key media sites for your industry.  If you aren’t ready to sign any contracts, then ask the firm to prove the placement they have gotten for similar customers.

PR is a critical activity for any business, but also an expensive one. Because PR can quickly become a strategy-only exercise, you need to choose your firm wisely. Help them help you by focusing their efforts on amplifying what you already have.


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Chris Riley (@HoardingInfo) is a technologist who has spent 12 years helping organizations transition from traditional development practices to a modern set of culture, processes and tooling. In addition to being a research analyst, he is an O’Reilly author, regular speaker, and subject matter expert in the areas of DevOps strategy and culture. Chris believes the biggest challenges faced in the tech market are not tools, but rather people and planning.