June 28, 2012

What’s the Right Time for a Start-Up to Invest in PR?


In my part-time work as an advisor to startups, a common question that comes up is “When should we invest in Public Relations?” So recently I canvassed several PR leaders on the topic, and here’s what they had to say:

“Public Relations firms are critical to a startup’s success.  It is important for young companies to know how to talk about their product and company before going out to the public.  Specifically, being able to hone in on differentiating propositions through messages that elevate the company above competitors is critical prior to talking to analysts and the media. Public Relations firms help determine their communication goals and then implement strategies for the company’s long-term success.”

Maggie Zeman, Managing Director, The Barn Group and Senior Vice President at Double Forte. (Note:  Maggie is a former colleague at Netscape and AOL and simply one of the best around).


“Working with a PR consultant or agency can be helpful even before you’re planning a launch.  Early buzz around your company, perhaps highlighting the founders’ story or the business problem you’re tackling, can help with fundraising and attracting key hires.  Announcing your initial round of funding can also be a good way to enter the market, and to talk about the need your company is addressing or the innovative way you’re approaching a particular problem.  I would recommend following up this announcement with a series of contributed articles in relevant industry publications to establish your company as a thought leader and lay the groundwork for your future launch.”

Leyl Black, Senior Managing Director at Sparkpr. (Black has more than 15 years’ experience driving communications programs for early-stage technology companies.  Leyl also writes for Mashable and interviewed me for her article “5 Tips for Group Deals Success.”)


“As a startup it is important to know when to make the PR investment. Your first investment should be in your messaging, messaging your company, messaging your product and positioning your company/product in the competitive landscape in which you play.  Once this is established, you can begin evaluating company milestones to start your external public relations efforts.

Start thinking about what is newsworthy? There is no need to push the press if your father-in-law writes you a check for $5K. I recommend starting your external PR launch with these milestones in mind: Series A funding, public Beta testing, public product launch, etc. If you have received angel investments or are part of an incubator, focus on your messaging first, then make the external PR investment when it is time to go-to-market.”

Melody Callaway, APR, has launched venture-backed startups and represented publicly traded companies. (You have seen her clients in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Inc. Magazine, and on CNN, NBC’s Today Show and FOX News Channel.)


“You should be thinking about PR as you start — what’s your story?  What need are you filling?  What pain are you stopping?  What trend are you leading or hopping on?  How are you different?  These are all PR items. So often companies don’t engage with communications people until they are well down their path and the story they tell isn’t very compelling and has to be reworked, which often leads to product development changes etc.  So pay for some time up front.

When to engage in an active outreach campaign (stealth, limited, or blown out) is at least 3 months before your product, launch, opening, is ready.  Actual outreach strategies vary from industry to industry and product type to product type.  It’s imperative that you understand those vagaries that that you’re not swimming against the current or off-cycle.”

Lee McEnany Caraher, President of Double Forte, an independent San Francisco-based PR and Marketing Services company that serves consumer, interactive entertainment & technology and consumer technology clients nationwide.


6 Responses to “What’s the Right Time for a Start-Up to Invest in PR?”
  1. Jeff Hyman says:

    I couldn’t live without public relations. Its the highest ROI marketing tool I’ve found yet, and I’ve relied on it to get 4 startups off the ground. The key is to find a unique angle – not just “here’s my great new product” (nobody cares).

  2. Raul Mujica says:

    It always on your mind. The story you tell to excite your co-founders and build the product should ultimately play into the story you want others to tell on your behalf.

  3. Anirban Datta says:

    Every startup has a story, and PR is about storytelling. Told well, the story amplifies the product perception and reach.. but of course, there’s got to be a kernel of good and meaningful product to begin with.

  4. Josh Morgan says:

    PR for start-ups used to be all about “the spike.” This involved lining up a big exclusive with a “top-tier” publication like The Wall Street Journal or Business Week and giving them early access to the product/execs etc in exchange for a longer article.

    This still happens sometimes, but there’s another way. Tell your own story, and make it easy for your early customers to tell it too. Don’t wait for the media to tell it for you. The channels through which potential customers used to get information were controlled by the media. That’s no longer the case.

    The first thing to do is figure out your story.
    What’s your story:

    Who are you trying to reach?
    Then figure out who you are trying to reach. You know your prospective customers are…right? OK, you probably want to reach them. Find them and make friends with them on Twitter. Maybe you are looking for funding. Then you probably want to find where the investors hang out.

    Don’t go for the hard sell
    Tell your story with blog posts, with videos, respond to people online. Build your online footprint, your ecosystem, your world. When you have a product ready for people to try, start talking about it. But not only about that, because no one chooses to listen to a commercial, alright almost no one.

    Here’s when interesting things start to happen. You have a product. You have people using it. You have people talking about it. It’s time to get professional help. The reason is that it’s your job to make great products. It’s our job, to keep people talking about them.

  5. Michael Buhr says:

    You really need to think through PR and especially who is the right person/firm to support what you need. PR support is needed in stages – more at some points as discussed above. For me, I have found PR as an extremely valuable tool for recruiting and hiring.

  6. Guy Kawasaki says:

    PR shouldn’t be a separate function or a job title. It should be ingrained into the team from the minute two guys/gals are thinking of a new product or service.

    Lousy PR happens when it’s an after-thought. It’s like having a pig and deciding to put lipstick on it.

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