Exploring the Value of PR for Startups

A series of opinion pieces last week by Dallas Mavericks owner and billionaire business mogul Mark Cuban asserting that startups “should never hire a PR firm” got the PR world buzzing with outrage. But does he have a point or is it too general a brushstroke to paint that PR can “never” benefit a startup? Let’s look at the tape.

But, before doing so, it’s instructive to take a deeper look at what, exactly, Mr. Cuban said. In an op-ed for Entrepreneur.com, excerpted from his latest book, “How to Win at the Sport of Business: If I Can Do It, You Can Do It,” he lays out his “12 rules for startups.” Rule No. 11 states:

Never hire a PR firm. A public relations firm will call or email people in the publications you already read, on the shows you already watch and at the websites you already surf. Those people publish their emails. Whenever you consume any information related to your field, get the email of the person publishing it and send them a message introducing yourself and the company. Their job is to find new stuff. They will welcome hearing from the founder instead of some PR flack. Once you establish communication with that person, make yourself available to answer their questions about the industry and be a source for them. If you are smart, they will use you.

Pretty sound advice, no?

On the whole, it appears so. But when you dig into it a bit deeper, Mr. Cuban’s advice works only if you are an entrepreneur on his level: widely successful, media savvy and charismatic. For the 99 percent of entrepreneurs who don’t fall into this category, it’s not quite as clear a picture.

With this in mind, and with Mr. Cuban’s multiple posts filling the blogosphere with comments galore, both pro and con, I thought it would be interesting to ask you, dear PRBC readers, what is the value of PR to startups.

Offer your own take in the comments section of this post. (Note: The ever-wise Peter Himler has a great rebuttal post that is especially interesting in its detail of how his PR firm counsels startups.)

Below is an amalgamation of my responses to Mr. Cuban and others who have filed posts on this subject in recent days. Keep in mind that I direct PRSA’s advocacy program, so, naturally, I’m biased about PR’s value. Just sayin’.

Why Startups Need PR
Mr. Cuban is correct in pointing out that reporters want to hear from entrepreneurs, especially those who are knowledgeable and passionate about their business and industries. They become terrific sources. But that’s a small sliver of the modern role and value of public relations.

Let’s look at the reality of the situation: Is PR going to help a company’s sales grow by double-digits next quarter? Is it going to turn a bad product into something “magical.” Not likely. That’s not its true value.

But it will help an entrepreneur gain an objective sense of where his or her business stands in the broader consumer and buyer marketplace. Strategic PR pros also will provide entrepreneurs with a nuanced understanding of the local media market, something few CEOs have the time or experience in handling themselves.

Perhaps most importantly, PR will prepare entrepreneurs for the inevitable day when their business is no longer the “next big thing” (something that is of particular concern in the tech world).

As Margit Wennmachers, co-founder of San Francisco-based OutCast Communications, told The New York Times in 2009, “Few tech companies with absolutely no PR have built a user base successfully.”

In short, getting media coverage is great, and certainly many entrepreneurs can do just that on their own. But for nuanced insight that will help build a company’s success for the long haul, a PR pro can be an invaluable resource for any business owner, no matter if their business is young or old, hot on the media’s and public’s radar or just hoping to be.

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