Six Things You Need Before You Hire a PR Agency

Here’s how the conversation sometimes goes: “We’re getting ready to launch our first product next month, so we thought it was time to bring on an agency.” The above scenario is not uncommon when working with start-ups whose energy has, until this point, been solely focused on proving their idea and developing their technology – and are now chasing funding from the VC community to fuel market adoption. They plan to bring on a PR agency to bolster early trials or help convert early adopters into paying customers. It sounds great, but before you go forward, consider the following criteria to determine if you are set up for success with a PR agency partner.

Startups usually run lean, so the ability and the interest in running this program takes a real commitment and deserves serious consideration. Do you have a person who can quickly react when incoming PR opportunities present themselves? Does that person (as a bare minimum) have dedicated time and the necessary knowledge and experience to manage the client-agency relationship? If your answer to these questions is using a contractor or a “temporary VP of marketing” consultant, think twice before investing in an agency. Often times, temp executives have different priorities than the person you will hire to run marketing and PR. Conducting an agency search and asking for agencies to spend (lots of) resources to prepare a thoughtful pitch is time consuming for both parties, and can leave the agency with a bad taste if you switch leaders and they find themselves out in the cold. And guess what? Agencies talk to one another, so you can gain a reputation as a bad client.

To work, PR has to be a priority –  and most startups need to commit at least five hours to PR per week, and that will escalate depending on the opportunities and market excitement for your solution and industry.

Commitment and prioritization also needs to come from the top. Unless the CEO has bought into the hiring decision and supports the budget, the road to success can be rocky. When we are asked to “help convince the CEO,” we know that is a bad sign. Every bill will represent an uphill battle unless the CEO has a personal stake.

A Willing and Compelling Spokesperson
Beyond commitment, you must have the ability to conduct engaging interviews with press and deliver compelling briefings. And that is no small matter. Not everyone is automatically great at conducting briefings, and some simply are not interested or refuse to be that person. A lot of startup founders are brilliant engineers who can describe their technology in intricate detail, but they go so deep they lose all but a small audience. At the other end of the spectrum is a spokesperson who struggles to explain the technical aspects of their product or solution. Being a willing spokesperson also means putting the time and effort into message and media training, and of course, showing up when your agency arranges a media briefing for you (which pretty much takes us back to commitment).G

As the saying goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” – and in this case we’d say it is paved with good expectations. 10Fold advocates having very clear conversations about “what good looks like” and specifically what the CEO, the board and the CMO / VP of marketing wants. That is an imperative. We’re not talking about having them commit to a vague statement like “top tier coverage,” but rather providing a detailed list of the activities, expected deliverables and results. For example, a media program with outreach to the specific verticals (name them), and specific IT press (name them), and specific business press (name them) that result in a specific number of articles (and differentiate how many will be feature-length coverage). That discussion can open up a useful conversation about what will be required to achieve those goals. In some cases you may decide the cost is too high to get what everyone truly wants – and you should not waste your time or money. This may be temporary, but it’s good to know before you embark on a costly, time-consuming relationship.

Be prepared to spend based on a realistic budget. To determine the answer to that question (what is realistic?), there are a number of considerations including the size of your company, your funding, your industry, your wish list for the agency, and your competition. Ask around, consider what your competition is spending. If you succeed in negotiating your rate to the nubs, you will more than likely pay for it in level of service and quality of results later down the road. No matter where you fit, for any agency that knows your business and the real challenges in presenting you to the market, they know it takes a minimum investment to make a dent. Most agencies have a “floor” – and it’s good to know what that is before going forward. For international companies coming to the U.S., minimum monthly rates for agencies in Silicon Valley may be double or even triple what you are paying now. 

Valuable news assets are the name of the game when it comes to getting your fair share of media coverage. Having represented more than 400 startups at 10Fold, we know that they are often short on real news – and we know that ready-made news is just a small part of achieving coverage. For instance, we also know that simply selling into a new company is not typically newsworthy unless that company has deployed and has a compelling use case. After all, companies sell products every day. However, we know that aggregating information, conducting a survey, or providing insights that your executives uniquely have to offer may be exactly the right asset from which to build strong coverage. We also believe that proactive editorial efforts and creative strategies that lead to news-making assets are often key to building real awareness for a startup – and often these are the beginning of thought leadership.

Note:  Be prepared to invest in assets, especially if you have no news. Asset development may cost $5,000 to have an analyst-driven case study – or it may be $25,000 to conduct a global survey. Investing quickly to get off the ground is worth it – much better than months of disappointing coverage. And be clear on what results look like with and without these assets. Remember, to garner coverage, your assets should educate the market about something that is NOT obvious.

Being able to clearly answer the question “how will you help me achieve what I’m trying to do, better, faster or cheaper than all the other competitors?” is, without doubt, critical to taking center stage with the media.

Having the product management / product marketing discipline is essential, as this differentiation needs to be clear and agreed upon by everyone in the company. And don’t forget: differentiation proof depends on data. This is doubly true if you are competing in a market with established vendors – and in particular, the billion-dollar variety. Reporters are not interested in risking their reputation on an unknown brand these days, unless there are sufficient proof-points to make it worth it.

This may not be an exhaustive list for determining whether you are ready and prepared to engage with an agency, but if you can check these items, you should be ready. We look forward to hearing from you!

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