It can be hard for early stage start-ups to decide when is the right time to spend money on PR. And then with the limited resources they have, should they spend that budget on a PR agency? An in-house PR or marketing person? Or a PR consultant? Down the line, you’ll probably need both an in-house person and an agency but initially many start-ups have to make do with one or the other.
Firstly, consider what expertise or resource you have in-house to do PR. You may have a marketing person with limited expertise or time for PR but who could work well with a PR consultant or agency. Or you might be lucky and have enough expertise in-house to be more self-sufficient with your PR program.
If in doubt, get some external expertise to get you started and headed in the right direction.
When hiring external support, firstly think about the best use of your budget. Its unlikely you have the budget to hire a large agency and may be better served by a small agency or consultant whose work with you can expand as your business grows.
If you’re thinking about hiring an agency you will typically need to commit to a six month contract (although some agencies do have special kickstart type programs for start-ups). But in my opinion, you need to commit and budget for at least six months to get any real traction.
Most agencies will bill you on a monthly basis based on the agreed billable hours for your account. Some agencies will work with you on a fixed retainer basis of say, £4K a month, and give you some flexibility of the work load going up or down but the cost staying constant. Others will want to bill you for the actual hours worked. Make sure you’re comfortable with the billing arrangement up front and there are no surprises.
When you’re ready to hire a PR agency, ask your network for recommendations. Also look at what agencies other companies you feel are getting good media coverage are using (usually listed as media contacts on their website or on press releases). Also consider who your competitors have used in the past. There are many reasons why a competitor may have moved on to another agency – for example extending international reach – that bares no reflection on the work of the agency and they may have a team of people sitting there that are already experts and well connected in your market.
Narrow down the recommendations to three or four agencies that you can approach. They may not all be able to pitch for you business – they may have a competitor conflict or the budget may be too small for them. Then arrange meetings with the agencies you’ve narrowed it down to. At these meetings expect the agency to brief you on the agency capabilities and be prepared to brief the agency on your business and what you hope to achieve with a PR program.
After these meetings ask the agencies you felt were a good fit to comeback to you with a proposal in a couple of weeks. Put together a brief or request for proposal to help guide the PR agencies – I’m a big believer that time invested in the brief saves time down the road and gives you a much better probability of getting what you want from an agency. Give them as much information about your business as you can (ask them to sign an NDA if you’re sharing confidential information).
An agency will typically assign you a small team and a lead day-to-day contact who will learn about your business and talk to the media on your behalf.
When selecting a PR agency its important you meet and get a feel for the day-to-day team. They will ultimately be far more important to you than the agency directors who may lead an agency pitch presentation and you may never see again.
I think it’s also important to tie the agency down to specific targets and have at least a percentage of the monthly retainer as performance related. If an agency is not prepared to do that then you have to wonder why.
You could also hire a freelance PR consultant who may offer you more flexibility on budgeting and scheduling but perhaps won’t have the range of expertise or the bandwidth of an agency.
Whatever you decide to do be under no illusion that you can assign someone to PR and forget about it. You know your product, your story, your vision better than anyone else and whether or not you’re comfortable in front of the media, you still need to be closely involved in presenting your business to the world. Ultimately the most important thing is having and being able to tell a newsworthy story and everything else runs in support of that.
If you have any questions or need advice about PR for your start-up, let me know in the comments below. I’ll do my best to answer.