Should you hire a PR firm to help you launch?

Nailing down the company’s message is an important yet often overlooked aspect of entrepreneurship. Potential customers have to know what a startup sells, why it sells the product, and what makes its product superior; a clever brand message meets all three criteria. This is particularly important when a company decides to spread its message to the media and hires a public relations firm. The first few weeks with a PR consultant are spent making sure the key components of a company’s message — value propositions and the “why statement” — are clearly defined. A garbled and inconsistent message is the fastest way to lose media, and customer, interest.

25Deciding when to hire a public relations firm can be tricky. In general, early-stage companies that are somewhere between seed funding and a Series B round, have been through minimum viable product iterations, and are ready to execute a go-to-market strategy should consider hiring a PR firm or consultant.

“If the product isn’t quite ready, or you can’t properly approach the market, or you don’t have a sales plan or a customer acquisition plan in place, why do you want media coverage?” said Pam Miller, founder of Sammamish-based Numoon Communications. “Do you have the infrastructure in place? People get fixated on coverage, but what happens if the story is a bad one? How do you counter that?”

Outside consultants bring a fresh perspective to the formation of value propositions. Michele Mehl is a Bothell-based public relations consultant who specializes in startup firms. She founded Buzz Builders in 2004 with Deanna Leung Madden, and the company went on to handle PR for notable area startups like Cheezburger and Zulily. In 2014, Mehl launched her own company, Excy. Despite her PR expertise, Mehl struggled to craft her own firm’s message.

“It’s really hard to do that for yourself. I even know what I need, and it’s hard to limit down the words and focus and talk about the value,” Mehl said. “A third party can come in and figure it out right away. Getting a third-party perspective is key.”

After a startup’s message is determined, it and the PR firm can formulate an origin story that best explains why the founders decided to start the company. Only then can a PR firm execute a media strategy that will actually generate attention for the company.

“You have your on-boarding process where you probably won’t get coverage, and then you have your pitching effort where you won’t get coverage,” Mehl said. “But come two, three, or four months, coverage starts to go up. And then at seven or eight months, it really starts to go up. And then you know it’s working.”

In the world of online publishing and social media, startups must produce enough content to keep PR campaigns afloat. For Mehl, that content marketing approach means turning company triumphs and updates into videos, photographs, infographics, or GIFs that both inform customers and solidify the brand message.

“The worst thing I think a startup can do is come out with guns blazing and fireworks, and then go dark,” Mehl said. “What’s your strategy to go out and have a great initiative, but also what does the road map look like afterwards? That is content marketing.”

Many founders get caught up in the desire to be first to market, but that’s often not a viable message for a company to project. In a tech economy where most products are variations on, or combinations of, existing services, it’s nearly impossible to actually be “first to market” in anything. But a company could be first with a certain feature, which is why it’s so important to take the appropriate amount of time to hone the story, identify the company’s narrative, define what makes the company different, and clearly outline a go-to-market and PR strategy before reaching out to media.

Entrepreneurs preach the value of hiring people smarter than themselves and building a communicative and passionate team. Those traits are just as important in internal teams as they are in consultants hired to assist the startup. “If your PR team is not as excited as you are, they shouldn’t be on your team,” Mehl said.

A dedicated PR team is particularly valuable for overburdened executives. A startup CEO’s time is spread thin, so she may not have the time or wherewithal to handle a media strategy when competitors start picking up coverage, or she may devote time to PR when she doesn’t need to. This is where a PR firm can lend a hand.

“I’m here to help them pick and choose the right things to be focused on to move the company forward — to help be a steward for the business, instead of just solve the media relations,” Miller said.

An outside PR firm will cost a startup between $8,000 and $15,000 per month, according to Mehl; spend far beyond that range, and an entrepreneur will either pay for services he doesn’t need, or will be throwing money at an ineffective consultant.

Startup budgets are tight, but for founders with a quality go-to-market strategy and a defined message, public relations can pay off in the long run through media coverage, brand recognition, and customer acquisition.