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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  • Good post Keith, and I agree with you that in an ideal world, all small biz entrepreneurial startups would be savvy enough to handle their own PR without the assistance of an outside agency or an in house dedicated specialist. In the modern digital world, it’s also important to note that creating managing and leveraging social media for PR is also a big part of most startup strategies, something that takes time which is very precious for leaders of these businesses. Granted, not all startups can benefit from using social media as a PR tool but I think that it may be safe to say that a large majority of these businesses don’t have a solid foundation as to what social media channels can be the most effective and certainly can’t afford the time needed to cultivate the relationships made to further propel reputation, reach and word of mouth. Effective PR takes a long time to successfully develop, and a lot of investment in resources.  

    • Spot-on point here, John: “Effective PR takes a long time to successfully develop, and a lot of
      investment in resources.”

      That, ultimately, is what I would hope every entrepreneur at least understands and takes to heart. Getting media coverage for your new business isn’t all that hard. As Mark Cuban notes in one of his posts, most publications (especially in the tech space) want to hear from new businesses and entrepreneurs. It’s the next phase of PR — reputation management, messaging, stakeholder development, etc. — that is far more complicated and nuanced. In my estimation, it’s not something that can be easily taken on by your average CEO.

  • Adrian Miller

    Interesting!  Startups need PR sure but can they afford the type of strategic, well-thought out campaigns that are the bread and butter of more well established (and profitable) companies. Most startups are working on a shoestring budget without the benefit of backers and all sorts of angels that have their back. Better use of money—get your feet wet with ProfNet or HARO and just do it yourself. Perhaps hire a PR pro to do a bit of consulting but never in your wildest dreams should you jump at the multi-thousand dollar retainers being asked for by PR firms in major markets.  Remember there are no guarantees and that kind of investment is just too risky.

    • Thanks for chiming in, Adrian. As someone who has worked with a number of startups as clients, I find that those who at least explore whether they should get some outside PR counsel are often the ones that get out ahead of those that take a “Let’s see how this works on our own” approach. I say  that because the very act of exploring whether PR counsel is right for your startup gets an entrepreneur thinking about what it is they are trying to achieve through their comms and marketing efforts.

      It’s important to remember that when it comes to a startup, getting some media coverage is great, but it’s what you do with that coverage that really matters. If you just have a few clips, say in TechCrunch and your local paper, that may get you a few thousands page views on your website, but so what? If you don’t have the type of knowledge our counsel of what to do with that momentum, then you’re just squandering your own time, resources and effort. And at that point, I’d argue that you could have put those lost resources/time to better use by hiring a PR pro or a small PR firm that specializes in working with startups to provide you with some needed counsel.

      Just my tow cents. Thanks for weighing in with your thoughts.

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  • I would say this makes sense for start ups, most can’t afford to hire PR firms. But after they have been established, do they trust their CEO to get out the message?

    • Exactly. And with most CEOs having, what, hundreds of different issues and tasks on their plate at any given time, it’s asking a lot for them to develop a company’s messaging themselves, get that message out, hone it, establish relationships with key stakeholders, build those relationships, and oh yeah, build and enhance the company’s reputation. Hell, that’s a lot for most PR pros to handle and it’s their job; let alone a CEO who has a multitude of other issues to address. 

  • I work specifically with tech start-ups in NYC and it’s almost always the same story. We meet with them, give them the lowdown on how PR works and almost every time, they say they want to get covered on Techcrunch, Mashable, NYT, WSJ etc. And that they only are looking for a 3-month stint, aka using PR as a hired gun. In hindsight, if they do get that coverage, are they ready for it? Usually not.

    A smart company will realize that PR should be integrated into their daily routine and can be used for more than just “Hey look I was covered on…” With PR expanding beyond just press releases and more into content creation, social media is a great way to start from the ground up and build the community that is really necessary to create a sustainable business. PR can be vital to a company’s success if utilized properly but if you have a small team focus on the product and value you provide first.

    • Well said, Trace. I’ve been in that situation before of the startup (usually a tech firm) looking for that 3-month PR engagement, mostly just to get a few media clips and call it a day. And no matter how much you try to explain that that is really a poor use of their money, it never ceases to amaze me how few take that advice to heart.

      Let’s just hope that this debate with Mark Cuban has at least gotten a few entrepreneurs to think beyond the media coverage aspect of PR (really, that’s publicity, not PR) and to consider our broader and more long-term role and value. 

  • Thank you, Keith. I missed most of Mark Cuban’s posts on this subject.

    I really appreciate you noting the reality that PR does not always double a company’s sales growth, nor can it make a poor product adequate. I agree that the value of PR is in helping companies and their leadership and representatives gain an objective sense of where their business stands in the marketplace.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Kel. Happy to help shed some light on what I think has become a really good discussion/debate. Honestly, I appreciate Mark Cuban saying what he did because he has gotten many PR pros to seriously consider what it is that we offer startups and other businesses and whether we need to better clarify our value to clients.

      At PRSA, we interviewed Mr. Cuban for more insight into his assertion. Here’s that interview: http://ow.ly/8xCfn

  • I agree with Manny in the sense that money can be an issue for start-up businesses or/and entrepreneurs.  I work in the fashion industry as a stylist and writer, and I am constantly directly approached by new/emerging fashion designers who for financial reasons choose to forego being represented by an agency and decide to promote themselves by themselves.

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