A version of this article previously appeared in the Wall Street Journal.
You have been planning to ask your long-time partner to marry you for months and the big day has finally arrived. In order to reduce your risk of failure, you ask your roommate, who has proposed to several times previously, to pop the question on your behalf.
Sound crazy? This is the approach many startups take when they communicate their story to the market. Rather than directly explaining their value proposition with all the passion and heartfelt stridency that only an entrepreneur can deliver, they outsource this communication to a Public Relations (PR) firm. PR agencies are expensive versions of Cyrano de Bergerac. Their best attempts to woo the media will never equal your ability to sing your own praises.
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Keep the Passion In-House
In addition to passion, any function at your startup that involves iterative learning and/or close proximity to your customers should be performed in house. Beyond PR, such roles include: Sales, Product Development, Strategic Planning and Fund Raising.
There are a number of reasons why it makes sense for a startup to not outsource PR in its early days, including:
PR Is Sales - Have you ever met a successful, yet dispassionate, salesperson? Thought not. PR is not order-taking. It involves persuading jaded media gatekeepers that your venture’s story is compelling enough to warrant their audience’s valuable mindshare.
Most journalists have been burned by wantrapreneurs who did not let the facts get in the way of a good PR story. Thus, without trust, the media gatekeepers will not risk their hard-won reputations promoting your venture. People buy from people they like and trust. Journalists are no exception.
Morphing Message - During the early stages of your venture, your value proposition, and thus your messaging, will be fluid, as you assess the market’s reaction to your evolving story. This reality makes it especially difficult for a dispassionate, third party to promote your story. It also causes an inefficient relationship, as you spend much of your time with your PR firm simply updating them on the latest tweak of your story.
You Are Not Really The Client - A PR agency’s true allegiance is not to you. Rather, it lies with the journalists with whom they work with on a daily basis. If a journalist rejects a particular client’s story, an agency will not risk its relationship with the writer by aggressively countering the rejection. An in-house PR person is not hampered by such media allegiances and will thus launch an aggressive campaign to ensure that your story is heard.
As depicted in the following schematic, a PR agency will readily sacrifice a relationship with a client before it will risk damaging a valued gatekeeper relationship. New clients are much easier to obtain than industry connections, which can take years to cultivate.
Your initial in-house PR personnel should be a relatively junior person who will execute your straightforward strategy – to economically gain as much market validation as possible. The best person to carry out this mission is a “doer” who will roll up their shirtsleeves and hit the phones. This person should have many of the same characteristics of a good salesperson: be verbally engaging, charming and doggedly persistent. They will sell your story to a variety of media outlets, so they must be able to craft a compelling yet believable story to fit the various journalists’ biases and interests.
The Shill Game - Another reason in-house personnel can be more effective than hired guns is that PR agencies are often viewed by journalists with a jaundiced eye. Given that they are paid to get their clients media coverage, their credibility may be specious. Even when they are genuinely excited about a particular client’s solution, it may be difficult for them to convince journalists of the sincerity of their excitement.
This phenomenon is aptly described by Christopher Locke, one of the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto. Christopher came to PR from the engineering world and thus was not tainted by the industry’s rampant hucksterism. Working for a small software company, he discovered that something interesting occurred when he abandoned the company’s talking points. According to Christopher:
“Something amazing happened. As soon as I stopped strategizing how to ‘get ink’… as soon as I stopped seeing journalists as a source of free advertising … I started having genuine conversations with genuine people.”
“Then something even more amazing happened. The company started ‘getting ink.’ Lots of it … in places like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Business Week.”
What Christopher discovered is that real conversations in the PR world are rare. Thus, his genuine enthusiasm and willingness to engage journalists in non-agenda-driven dialogs was infectious. He effectively bro’ed up with the otherwise jaded journalists, just by being genuine and real in a world in which such behavior is rare.
Right Time, Right Place
Clearly, as your company matures and your story stabilizes, it can be appropriate to work with a third-party PR firm. Your messaging might lose some of its inherent passion, but the trade-off will be corporate communications that are more strategic and methodical.
However, in the early stages of your venture’s journey, it is unwise outsource your promotional pleas, just as it would be foolish to ask a friend to propose to your significant other on your behalf.
Ultimately, at a startup, PR does not stand for “Public Relations.” Rather, it translates into “Passionate Relationships” and passion can never be outsourced.
Follow my startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse. I promise I will never tweet about killer burritos or cuddly kittens.
Image: AP Photo/Francois Mori