When to hire PR for your startup

two people sat at a table completing paperwork and working on a laptop

Whether you have 10 employees or 1,000, at some point you will need help telling the story of what you do. You might think you understand it and do a great job telling it without realizing you in fact are not connecting with your audience. Public Relations or “PR” helps you build, refine, and deliver that story to the public.

This doesn’t mean you don’t know how to tell your story! But just like any function you might need for your company, it helps to bring in experts with a track record of getting results. PR is often a subset of marketing that helps you grow in a way that you can’t get through typical paid advertising channels. More importantly, it can help your company reach an audience that you might not otherwise reach.

How PR works in action

PR itself could be described almost like a matching process: how do you connect and tell your story to a media outlet that is working on its own story, and how do you position it in such a way that’s mutually beneficial. Reporters are constantly strapped for time and are sometimes spread across a very wide range of topics, and having a deep understanding of that field of coverage is critical. Both you and the media outlet you hope to work with have goals to hit, and both sides want to maximize the results from the stories that make it onto the Internet.

As a startup, you want to build up a “share of voice” — defined as the percentage of time you are mentioned in a subset of media about a specific topic — to make sure you’re constantly in the conversation of your industry. Writers want to ensure they produce the best-possible story for their audience that informs, engages, and entertains them so they got the most value out of it. Just as you work in service to your customers, writers work in service to their audience. Hiring a firm (or a full-time hire) that deeply understands that can pay significant dividends.

When to invest in PR

Eventually, the monetary benefits of investing in PR outweigh the costs that are associated with it. Here are some key milestones that when reached indicate you should consider a defined PR strategy:

  • You have some evidence of a clear product-market fit. If your customer numbers are going up in a scalable manner, you need to start thinking about how to reach a broader audience.
  • You have heavy competition in your space. When people are reading about your competitors, they should at least know you exist and you fit into the broader story somehow.
  • You are trying to build your recruiting pool. You should try to increase that pool of candidates that know who you are before you reach out to them.
  • Paid advertising is prohibitively expensive. Some areas are so hot that you’ll be competing with very well-capitalized companies that can dramatically outspend you on advertising. You have to think about non-linear ways to get in front of customers.
  • You’ve already received some media attention. If a media outlet — no matter how niche — has published something about your startup, it means you are on their radar and a part of the conversation.

Even if you have picked up some media attention, you have to start thinking about media as the same kind of channel you would for any other kind of user acquisition.

Some PR operational models to consider

There are multiple ways to deploy capital to invest in PR operations. A full-time hire isn’t typically advised til later in a startup’s lifetime when PR is baked into user acquisition, especially if founders or the team already have connections or access to a network through partners or an accelerator.

Some early-stage startups opt to hire an existing firm on a monthly retainer, which offers consulting from a group with broader connections and expertise. They might also benefit from hiring a firm on a project basis to build the initial strategy. Either way, all of these are a big financial commitment to varying degrees, and require some thought as to what stage of growth you’re in and what your specific goals and needs are.

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Prior to all these things being in place, as a founder, one of your best bets is to try to take the early steps to build a relationship with your favorite media outlet that’s the best match for your startup. Find a creative way to engage with one of your favorite writers whose coverage maps roughly to what you are working on, and do what you’d do with anyone else while networking: offer to help if you can. This could be offering a perspective, data, an interview, connection or introduction. Working with the media isn’t quid pro quo, but being top-of-mind when it’s time to write about your startup or market (and you’re a good fit) is just as valuable when you’re getting off the ground.

If you’ve never worked with anyone in PR, you probably have the wrong idea of what the role actually does. There is not some dollar value that you can pay to anyone in the industry, regardless of how good they are, that will ensure you end up on the front page of the New York Times. (At least, not for good reasons.) Bringing on PR help does not mean you will automatically get stories in the media outlet of your choice, nor does it mean you’ll suddenly solve a perception crisis for your company.

That said, PR unlocks powerful brand and acquisition marketing channels and is critical for many new companies aiming to make a mark on their industry.

Brex Experience

In an effort to provide transparency to startups navigating the same decisions as we did, we are sharing our own experience. This is not an official endorsement of any decision path or product decision.

Brex waited until it was 3 months ahead of its public launch and hired a PR agency to help coordinate the launch messaging and strategy. Brex relied on the PR firm to coordinate a pre-launch roadshow with a series of reporters who covered the Brex launch. Brex continued to engage the PR agency post launch and has yet to hire a full time person dedicated to PR one year post launch.

Photo credit: Sarah Shaffer on Unsplash

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