You start (me) up. When and how to ramp up PR?

Bob Geller, president of Fusion PR and Social Fluency

Guest post by Bob Geller

As a veteran of the tech industry – in the PR agency world for the past 14 years and on the industry/client side before that – I have worked with many startups. I am often asked, “When is the right time for a young company to bring an agency on, or otherwise kick PR into high gear?”

The answer is not an easy one. While it might seem obvious that you need PR to support the launch of a product or service – whether you are opening a restaurant, selling software or are in some other type of business – many can benefit from PR counsel even in the earliest stages, prior to an official launch or opening.

The decision about when and how to best ramp up your public relations efforts depends on many variables – not the least of which is the ability to pay for the counsel and services!

This post will explore this question and offer specific suggestions and advice. It is based on my past experience and conversations with entrepreneurs.

Road to launch and PR

You have labored over the business and spent countless hours planning for this time. Long days, nights and weekends were dedicated to getting the right people on board, honing your products/services, designing a logo and website, etc. You are now ready to go to market. You want to make some noise.

While this stage is when many entrepreneurs first start thinking about PR and marketing, you’re at a disadvantage if you are at the launch time and do not have a plan in place already. When exactly is the right time to start thinking about (and planning for) PR?

Short answer: the earlier the better. In fact, the company’s business plan (assuming there is one) should address PR and marketing right at the very outset, and include details about strategy, tactics and estimated costs.

For mature businesses, marketing is often budgeted as a fixed percentage of sales. However, in many cases a young company doesn’t have any sales or projections to speak of for reference. It is also true that PR support needs – and hence costs – can vary, depending on the type of company and its stage of development.

Profile and education

Even before you are ready to open the doors and start selling, you will want to let the world know about your new company and its reason for existence.

Those who are introducing new types of technologies or concepts may want to spend some time educating their various publics and markets, to develop a need for the company and its products or services, well in advance of launch time.

PR agencies that have experience in your tech field can help – even in the earliest stages – to define the messages and positioning that will support the company’s efforts. The communication platforms, including plans for social media channels, need to be put in place early on.

Launching products and services into the market, and supporting the business afterwards, brings a much more intense pace of PR activities. If you haven’t done so already, this is a good time to hire an agency, the right staff or divert existing resources to assist with the task. Work backwards from the desired launch date, subtracting the time (allowing for several months) that it can take to find and ramp up the right staff or agency. Then you have the right time to start cranking up PR.

Budgeting (and paying for) PR

As stated, PR is one of those critical business support functions that should be planned and budgeted from the outset and not just considered as an afterthought. But paying for it can create a challenge for a young company that is not yet generating revenues. Whether the new venture is self-funded or getting money from angel or venture capital investors, it is important to conserve precious working capital and put it to the best possible use.

Having said that, good PR and the results and benefits this can bring a business, requires hard work over many hours, and this obviously comes at a cost, whether you are hiring staff or an agency.

One should begin with a realistic assessment of the costs for the way it should be done, and balance this against the funds that are available. If you cannot afford the type of effort that is needed, try to seek creative solutions with the agency or staff. This could involve:

  • throwing some equity into the mix
  • performance incentives or
  • starting out on a smaller scale to prove ROI to investors or other stakeholders in order to secure more funding.

What should one expect to pay? For details on fees and other elements of choosing a PR agency, reference an article I wrote for Handshake 2.0: 5 Features to Look for in a Tech PR Firm. Here is an excerpt:

Most agencies work on a monthly retainer or fee, which corresponds to a fixed number of hours or specific deliverables/results. This helps to ensure a consistent on-going effort and dedicated team, and provides a predictable monthly budgetary amount for clients. Some charge by the hour and handle individual projects.

In PR you have a wide range of resources ranging from freelancers and one-two person shops that handle clients for $2-$4K/ a month, to the largest agencies that generally won’t even look at you unless you can spend at least $10K a month. The boutiques and mid-size firms fall somewhere in the middle.

It may seem like hard work, and all the preparation and planning may be a bit intimidating. If you are close to launch time, but have not factored PR into your plan or figured out all the details yet, don’t worry.

There are many great agencies and PR professionals who are eager to help out. While I don’t think lack of planning should put undue pressure on the PR team, you do want to partner with those who are motivated, ready, willing and able to help. Part of your selection criteria should be getting a sense of the energy, enthusiasm and willingness to put in extra effort to help the combined teams succeed.

Good PR can be an important factor in the success of your business. Plan early, often, determine a way to pay for it and you will be on the road to getting the PR results that can help make a difference.

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Based in New York City, Bob Geller is president of Fusion PR and Social Fluency. He is a veteran of tech sales, marketing and PR and has developed best practices for working social media into the PR mix, in parallel with the growing influence of blogs and other new media during the past five years. He has been covered in publications such as (the former) CMO Magazine, PR Week, PR News and Bulldog Reporter. Bob writes and speaks frequently on social media and PR.

He posts on Flack’s Revenge and Social Fluency and has contributed to Cision Navigator, Ragan’s PR Daily, and Handshake 2.0 amongst other publications. You can find Bob on Twitter, LinkedIn or contact him by email.

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16 Replies to “You start (me) up. When and how to ramp up PR?

    1. Yes, well as he says he does not advocate one approach over another (i.e. stealth followed by reveal vs. being more up front).

      In my opinion, scarcity, mystique, suspense… these are classic ingredients for building buzz and interest.

      It is true that social media makes it harder to keep a secret these days… that is why the ability to do so will be much valued by the marketplace, it is at a premium.

      I think there may be fewer big reveals, more blown attempts at them – but the ones who can be disciplined and do it well will reap the benefits (it is up to the marketplace to decide if all the guessing and buzz were misguided and overblown).

  1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Kelly. Glad to hear that the college students you mention are getting this advice… sure, we are happy to talk to companies to help guide them even before they have their funding and launch plans in place.

  2. Bob, recently, I sat through a day’s worth of student business/product pitches at an entrepreneurial summit. One after another the teams were told they MUST add PR and marketing to their budget projections/financials. The panel of judges advising these budding entrepreneurs were adamant about the need for a line items in the budget to cover PR/marketing and sales. These college students had beautiful designs and concepts for new, exciting products and services and thought they were the best ones to tell their story and get the word out. It was clear they would likely not get venture capitol funding without some quality attention given to PR.

    Do startups consult with agencies such as yours to put together their budget for PR/marketing when seeking VC? Do you recommend this?

  3. Thanks, Heather, you raise some excellent points.

    Not to be flip, but crashing servers and flood of publicity at the outset – well, those are the very things most young startups would love to have.

    The advice we always give is that it is a good marketing and general business habit to deliver more than you promise. So yes, don’t want to hype things to death, over promise and focus too much on the launch, to the exclusion of putting time and effort into long term relationships and reputation building… I do think it is possible to do both, that is focus on a successful launch and longer term efforts.

  4. Thanks for the post and raising an interesting topic. I understand entirely the argument for PR helping to position and advise prior to launch and also engaging with innovator and early adopter influencers (whether media or other trendsetters online or traditional). This is particularly helpful with concepts that may need some change for successful adoption, whether that is in attitude, understanding or behaviour.

    My concern, however, is about using public relations “to make some noise” and “cranking up” at this stage as that feels like hype and surely too much attention, too early can be a danger, particularly for start up organizations.

    Too often we see a huge fanfare of publicity created by public relations practitioners which puts undue pressure on new concerns to deliver on an over-promised scenario. A sudden influx of attention even if it is welcome enquiries or sales, can overload a fledgling operation. The resulting crashed website, failure to be able to cope with demand and emerging poor word of mouth is not what any start-up needs.

    I know we now live in a world where everyone starting a business has to have a brand and often that comes before a focus on the product or service. But isn’t there an argument for slowly building a solid reputation and allowing good old fashioned word of mouth (albeit helped by carefully managed public relations) to support a manageable pace of organic growth?

    1. Yepp, Heather, you’ve a point. In the software this sort of hype used to be called “slideware.” It was invariably some half-baked solution that was under development whose developers wanted to test its acceptability especially at trade fairs. More often than not nobody ever heard of the new software again.

      But that does not discredit, an honest effort by startups to create market buzz about their ideas — if they’ve the cash. Since funds for PR are a scarce commodity at such an early stage, editorial promotion through the trade press maybe a viable alternative.

  5. As you’ve worked with a lot of startups, Bob, I’d be curious to know the average length (months/years) of your agency’s relationship with the majority of clients?

    Also, at a certain point do the successful companies grow large enough that they either:

    a) hire in-house public relations staff; or
    b) move their business to the larger PR agencies?

    Thanks in advance for your answers. (And I’m delighted you “pitched” me the idea of doing a guest post on this topic. Heather Yaxley thinks it would be interested if we get similar guest posts from PR practitioners in other sectors.)

    1. Thanks for the comment Judy, and for the opportunity to write… here are answers:

      Most clients stay for at least a year, we have had quite a few for many years. Sometimes they go to larger agencies, less often do they bring PR in house, although that does happen.

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