In a random act of Googling last night, I was searching on PR firms and I stumbled on a bunch of Quora and Google+ discussions where entrepreneurs were asking a simple question: how do I choose a PR firm? The answers to these questions were many, all with the same common theme largely from journalists — you can do PR yourself. Forget the agency. Just get to know the press you need and reach out yourself. This argument is not new to me or to the PR community. But we often just sit back and let journalists air their grievances with PR firms — after all, journalists are our clients too. It will come as no surprise that I am on the other side of this argument in most cases (although not always). But for good reasons.
A few months back, a blogger at TechCrunch wrote a blog post on why entrepreneurs don't need PR agencies. He suggests that you get to know the 100 or so journalists who matter to your company and do the networking and pitching yourself. If you have that kind of time, that makes perfect sense. But here's the thing: reaching out to the press when you have news isn't the main reason you need a PR agency. While getting the reporter to write the story is the way we score the run, you need to make way your way around the bases. What do I mean by that? There are many things that need to happen before the pitch gets to the reporter:
- What's your story anyway? While every company executive — and especially entrepreneurs — like to think that every new product and product enhancement is news, usually this is simply not the case. (See Beth's post on Why Your Product Launch is Not Your Watershed Moment.) Unless you are a well-known entrepreneur, major pubs and blogs just aren't likely to cover your product as a standalone piece. There are exceptions: if you are launching your product along with venture funding news; or if you are launching your product as part of your company introduction, you will get press if you hit the right targets with the right message. But how do you get press when you don't have news? What are the story angles you have to work with? How can you get your ideas and perspectives recognized and picked up by the press? If you just announce REAL news, you will only have reason to reach out to the press 2-3 times per year. Creating and finding ongoing story angles worthy of coverage is where a good PR agency shines. Solid PR people are content creators and storytellers. They can devise angles and stories where they previously didn't exist.
- Who wants to hear your story? The targets for your company or major product launch may be obvious, but even if you get them to cover you, those reporters aren't going to cover you every week — or even every month. So where else can you go to tell your story? Getting gadgets on the “Today Show,” getting O Magazine to feature you as a product of the month, getting the NYT to name you an app of the week, getting a key mommy blogger to list you as one of the 5 "must have" technologies for busy moms, and so on is critical. To stay at the forefront of your market, you can't leave a single stone unturned. Finding these reporters and bloggers, developing a pitch that is custom for that reporter, and pursuing the coverage is a big job — especially in the age of social media where you constantly need to be monitoring the conversations these reporters are having. And landing the story is a sales job that most entrepreneurs just don't have time to do.
- How can you make sure your story reaches the maximum number of people? It takes a ton of work on both the client and agency side to land a major feature story. From figuring out the message, to landing the placement, to prepping the spokesperson, there is a lot involved. So once you accomplish the coverage, how do you maximize it? Not so long ago, a story in Fortune would reach millions of readers in print, and that print publication would get passed to multiple people. But those days are over. What now? This is where social amplification comes in. What LinkedIn group discussions would your story fit into? What Twitter conversations? What forums on the Wall Street Journal are a fit? What news aggregation sites — such as Hacker News, Slash Dot, Digg or Buzzfeed — could get your story trending? We scored a major feature for a client in Forbes two weeks ago which drove significant traffic to the client's site; once that Forbes story was placed on Hacker News and started trending, the client's traffic went through the roof. Knowing what social channels will provide the best amplification for your story is an important part of PR in today's world of constantly changing news.
- You need to self-publish. It is no secret that there are fewer and fewer reporters staffing publications and blogs today. And as a result, most now take contributed content. From Forbes to TechCrunch to Huffington Post, editors are seeking solid contributed content. The rate at which content needs to be created is rapid. Plus text is not enough — you need videos, infographics, slideshows, to help sell your story. If writing, design and video production aren't competencies of your company, that's where the agency comes in. And, of course, all that content then needs to be amplified through social seeding and syndication.
So if you are a startup making the decision as to whether or not to hire external PR help, you may want to consider these points. If you have a single news announcement, perhaps handling it yourself is best. But if you are not "one and done" and don't have a few hours per day to spare to get your company buzzing, you may want to consider the agency route.