I read with interest the post of fellow contributor and PR expert Robert Wynne on why you can’t do your own public relations. I agree with the value of agency connections and the need for media training before going into interviews or appearing on air. But on his other points—the discouragement of rejection, the risk of poor writing, and social media fails, I disagree that agencies are required. And I am far from alone.
Admittedly, as someone who expands my own PR company by selling public relations, it pains me to visit with hundreds of founders and see some of them trip. They may accidentally talk about a partnership that isn’t quite signed. The next day—voila—the story is at the top of the press and a deal is ruined. Or an employee says “Hey, we’ve got as good a story as anyone” and calls up TechCrunch. The reporter agrees and the resulting story goes wild. But the company isn’t ready to respond to the sudden attention. There’s no clear positioning. On the website, there’s no contact information or even a section to describe their “About.” Only one of the two founders is mentioned. And now the opportunity to make a great first impression is gone.
Conversely, I see early-stage entrepreneurs spend investment dollars and personal savings hand over fist to achieve visibility through agency PR. This is a phenomenon that particularly grieves me, as the people who execute on the PR are often junior executives marching through steps to pitch hundreds of editors, badly. As a columnist, I receive at least 20-30 of these pitches every day. In the weeks before a tradeshow, I may receive hundreds.
The problems: Almost never do these practitioners take the time to even glance at the writing of the reporters they’re pitching to see what they cover. And even after responding to hundreds of messages with “just like my masthead says, I write about small businesses doing innovative PR,” the practitioner will argue, “But this is a great company. They are unique. They deserve to be profiled in Forbes. So will you please interview our CEO?”
“All I’m asking is for you to upload [?] a single article. We will write it for you.” They aren’t passionate about the company or story. They may not even understand the company’s story. But if they’ve found a writer for Forbes or Inc. or Entrepreneur, they latch on for dear life to the “get.”
I’ve called several of these agencies out, though not by name or in public. In one case I found their client on LinkedIn and forwarded the email string I’d gotten multiple times from his team in spite of responding each time that I don’t write reviews. Each time, the sender ignored my response and replied weeks later with “Can you believe it’s nearly Easter? I haven’t heard back from you yet. So how about that review?”
The client was horrified and fired the firm on the spot. Ironically, when we spoke I learned he actually did have a fitting story. But in the hands of the agency, I’d never have known.
In another case, I received nine off-base pitches over a course of weeks from members of a single agency and requested each time that they either read my columns and take a look at the masthead or stop sending mail. Finally, at wit’s end, I found and copied the agency’s owner and suggested that since I write about PR, perhaps this situation should be my article focus. She was mortified. It makes my head hurt to think of the money these clients have spent.
As for massive rejection, the risk of poor writing and social media gaffes, let’s break it down point by point:
I reject this idea completely. An entrepreneur is someone entirely comfortable pitching and selling their wares every day. They have learned to hone their messages. They’ve learned to study their audience and tune their “ask” to align with the listener’s needs (in this case, the reporter with ways to add meaningful value to the readers they serve). Where do the synergies lie? And how can they help? So in the hands of an entrepreneur, the fear of sending hundreds of messages and receiving just 2-4 responses—or no responses—goes away.
Instead, a message might say something like, “Your article about social media rang especially true. We’ve conducted some research on the things you talked about that produced some surprising results. Would you like to hear more about it?” Not every reporter will be able to respond to your ideas. But if PR activities lead to mass emails with hundreds of “ignores” or rejections, I’d offer up that it doesn’t mean you’re improperly steeled for rejection. It means you’re approaching things wrong.
The poorest writing I’ve witnessed in pitches has come from PR practitioners; not from entrepreneurs. Yes, there are good and bad ways to pitch. But the right approach can be learned by reading a couple of columns to learn what works and what doesn’t. Furthermore, the reporter isn’t asking a pitcher to be an excellent writer. They are simply looking for the pertinent facts—the who, what, when, where, why and who cares, of a story—through the lens of interest and value for the readers they serve. The writer will address the semantics of the telling the story themselves.
Yes, social media is a noisy environment. And simply adding more posts to the ocean is an immediate fail by the agency or by an entrepreneur. So is spending inordinate money to “buy followers” or to get people with massive followings to share or re-tweet. But the ability to get meaningful stories amplified through social media in the places your customers visit is a powerful PR maneuver. Particularly when the message is micro-targeted through Facebook tagged to a particular topic on Instagram or Twitter, or shared through a special interest group, social media wields massive power beyond the original audience who sees an article when it comes up in the press.
Not only are entrepreneurs well poised to succeed at public relations, I have encountered at least several who have been so successful it has changed the trajectory of their companies or even careers. But, like Wynne and others, I am not a fan of founders who go blindly after press without getting a little training on the nuances of PR in advance.
In our company, we provide workshops and email courses to teach early-stage entrepreneurs the basics of successfully getting into the press. Additionally, my columns and those of at least several other marketing-focused contributors provide ongoing tutorials on the art of PR. These are free. I am a fan of the advice of Silicon Valley investor Marc Suster, editor of the online magazine “Both Sides of the Table” on Medium.com. Suster notes that in the early stages of business, the best use of public relations is for media savvy and connections (which Wynne agrees with as well).
Interestingly, I’ve met and written about companies who used large media firms in the past but have opted for smaller agencies or to go it alone in their current endeavors. For example, Lin Dai, the CEO of Hooch.co has directed media budgets of millions of dollars in his prior positions. But when Hooch was fortuitously outed in a Timeout New York article about drinking apps, the company was engaging in no formal public relations at all, preferring to garner attention through activities such as presentations at SXSW. Once the news was out, the company chose to engage a very small agency of four members. The small firm was not only able to provide them with a discounted rate, but also ensured that the people who’d sold them on the public relations were the same individuals who would passionately and accurately represent their firm to the press.
When a company reaches growth stage (generally $5 million and over), the return on investment for agency public relations is much more clear and more readily measured. Until then, consider using an agency for media training and key connections only. As an early-stage company, you should do as much of your own PR as you can.