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Bare-Knuckle PR Tips For Your Growing Startup

tl;dr: Well-known PR professional Ed Zitron has notes on how growing startups should approach public relations, what they should expect to pay, and what they should anticipate in return.

Editor’s note: This post will irk some people. If you are irked, you can redeem beer from your humble servant the next time we see one another.  

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Depending on who you are or who funded you, you’ll have some idea of what you have to do as a company. One of the things you see founders get excited about is the idea of “being in the media,” or you’ll hear your friends say “you need PR,” or alternatively you’ll hear them say “you don’t need PR, PR is bullshit, I killed a PR person and buried them in a shallow grave somewhere in Santa Cruz.”

The PR industry is built on the pillars of obfuscation of actual work, actual results, and set costs. It has some very, very bad players who still get referrals despite doing things that in other industries would have you put in handcuffs, and yet PR is necessary. Somewhat.

I’ve run EZPR for four years, done PR for eight and been a professional writer since 2002. I’ve advised everyone from VC firms like Storm Ventures to Fortune 100 companies I can’t legally name to small startups.

I’m an oddity in that I talk very bluntly [Editor’s note: Accurate.] about what I do and why I do it, what it costs, what’s bad and that I definitely didn’t bury anyone in a shallow grave somewhere in Santa Cruz.

So Here’s How It Works And What You Should Pay For

PR is, for most of the valley, about getting press in places like TechCrunch, Venturebeat, the Wall Street Journal and so on. In some cases, it’s about more niche publications focused on the enterprise.

Then there’s the other stuff people will attempt to cram down your neck; for example, an agency I won’t name that charges $45,000 for something called a “24/7 newsroom” which, from my best guess, is just a very fancy looking Dropbox and a marked up series of Google Alerts an intern watches.

Here’s what you probably want in no particular order:

  • Someone to get you stories written about you and your company.
  • Someone to write your press releases, despite the fact nobody really cares about them.
  • Someone to take your personal blog posts you’ve written and get them published on the places that you want to write about you.
  • Someone to help you tell your story in a way that doesn’t sound like a robot’s ass replaced your vocal chords.

In addition to the above, here’s what they’ll attempted to sell you:

  • Some vague newsroom type thing, usually involving them collating stories “on your industry.” That they can then say they researched, which you can then say to yourself “oh I didn’t know that,” even though you probably already saw it. But you feel like you spent money well.
  • “Content marketing,” meaning that they’ll ghost-write your blog, which if you for some reason want to do, you do yourself.
  • “Social media,” meaning they’ll tweet or Facebook for you.
  • The above, but replace “marketing” with “strategy,” where they’ll create a document to tell you to do the work for them. This is so they can blame you when it doesn’t work.

So, really, you’re looking for media attention here. There’re plenty of PR people who will disagree with me, but that’s because there’s a great many PR people who want to say “well we made the blogs and the tweets, the rest is your problem.”

If they’re talking about doing Facebook or Twitter ads, that’s someone doing advertising, not PR. If they’re writing copy, that’s copy-writing.

The Economics

Many agencies will lock you into a 3-6 month engagement. You’ll most likely not be able to option out in the event that they’re useless.

For an ongoing relationship for a normal company:

    • The lowest you’ll see is around $3000 a month.
    • The highest you’ll see is around $25,000 a month.

On average, I’d say you’d expect $8000-$15,000 a month.

If You’re Launching A Crowdfunding Campaign

This situation gets very dicey. There’s an agency I won’t name that likes to do things like say “oh we have tons of VC relationships” and make promises they can’t keep. Stick to facts.

Pricing in this case is usually a project based fee of:

  • $X for 6-8 weeks. This can be anywhere from $8000 to $25,000.
  • $X for the duration of the campaign and a percentage of the eventual amount raised. This may seem like a good deal, but can end up with the firm doing little and you raising $25,000 despite needing $250,000, of which they still get a piece.

Expectations

  • PR is a total mess when it comes to actual expectations. Some agencies will promise you the world. Some will give you a fair guess. Some will promise you the world while saying it’s a fair guess. It’s hard to tell.
  • Journalists have become rather bored of fundraising, understandably. Just because you raised $4.2m in your seed round means nothing if you are a boring bastard or your PR agency describes you badly.
  • Be reasonable. If they say New York Times or Wall Street Journal they are probably talking a line of bollocks unless it’s a $50m raise from well-known VCs in a space of note.

What All That Means

Your PR firm is an immensely low-burn business. You are very valuable to them, by all means, but a PR firm is very cheap to keep alive, and thus many agencies will gladly take you for a three month guaranteed retainer and spam multiple reporters. Why? Because it’s cheap.

So very, very cheap. Even a big, 20-person agency is nowhere near as expensive compared to a real startup. It requires no engineers, no CFO, no CMO, no sales team, no customer support beyond the people who work there. The job can be done by using something called mail-merging (just sending out an email to a bunch of people) and if it works a few times, that keeps the client around.

PR firms are very expensive despite being one of the cheapest startups you can possibly run. The reason that even big firms with terrible reputations continue to get great business is that they’re able to sustain themselves at this immensely cheap rate—and if they lose a client, that reputation from one big client keeps the good times rolling.

I’m not a cynic. I promise.

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Featured Image via Flickr user Susan Sermoneta under CC BY 2.0. Image has been cropped.
© Mattermark 2017. Sources: Mattermark Research, Crunchbase, AngelList.
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