The Case Against Hiring a PR Agency

Let me say something that shouldn’t need to be said: No seed funded or pre-A round startup should have a PR agency on their balance sheet.

Feels better getting that off our chests, right? I mean, come on, we all think it. Heck, we all know I’m right. But, we all also know that the seductive siren-like call of a meaty agency retainer and the promises of wave upon wave of media adoration are too enticing to pass up.

And how does that typically turn out? Exactly.

Most startups are created by people steeped in code, not marketing. Eventually, every one of these startups reaches a point where what they’ve built is ready for others’ eyes. My friend, Aneel Lakhani, wrote a great post on “PR 101 for Engineers.” His post was sparked by a tweetstorm by Craig Kerstiens on how non-marketing people see the dark art. There’s a ton of great, based-on-experience advice in both of their posts.

This is Aneel waiting for the cruise at Monktoberfest.

But, like the infomercial says, wait, there’s more.

The PR agency model was built on a foundation of media relations. Of building massive lists of reporters, writing buzzword-filled press releases and spamming out pitches with the hope that a couple of them will stick to the wall. And reporters — what’s left of them — despise that model. They despise it with the heat of a thousand bad trade show coffees.

That model no longer exists. Hell, it hasn’t existed for a couple of years. Yet, startups continue to throw away hard earned capital because that’s the way it’s always been done and that’s what you’re supposed to do when someone hands you a check to build your dream.

I see it a different way. Here are eight reasons why most startups should think differently about how they approach PR:


1/At best, your startup has funding news (which is no longer news to most reporters). The lucky few of you will have a strong beta announcement that ties into a larger industry gap or customer pain point. The rest of you will have something that looks a lot like a me-too or so-what story to reporters.
2/Most startups haven’t built a story. You’ve collected product facts and maybe a few generic industry analyst stats. You haven’t dug deep to develop your point of view on what you stand for. You haven’t built the narrative around why you do what you do. These are the things that set you apart.
3/Unless you’re part of the tech 1%, you’ve probably got one or two legitimate shots at a story each year. Most of you have less than that. It sucks to hear that, but it’s the harsh reality of today’s news landscape. This is where relationship building and establishing your team as smart, reliable and provocative sources pays off.
4/Which brings us to here. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that the tech media has been decimated. You don’t need an agency building a massive list of reporters you should be contacting. Because there aren’t a massive amount of them left. You need to focus on building relationships with the 3-5 insiders that matter most to your biz. With emphasis on you. Because I don’t know a CEO or founder who outsources their top customers to a third party and it boggles my mind that anyone would do likewise with their company’s top influencers.
5/If you are serious about building a company, how you communicate needs to be baked into your DNA early. This means paying attention to your style, tone and frequency and staying consistent and true to it. This is where building your brand begins.
6/$10,000 a month as a starting retainer for 99% of startups is insane for what you need. Spend smarter.
7/Think of PR less as media coverage and more as a listening post to help you with your product/market fit early on.
8/This last point is applicable to executives across the spectrum, from startup founders to Fortune 500 vice presidents. Every leader needs a confidant, someone they can trust to bounce ideas off of, to test language, to advise them on who they should be talking to and how, to be their eyes and ears in the market and, ultimately, to be their voice of reason. This is the part of PR too many people forget.


So, here’s my advice: Go read Craig and Aneel’s posts. Read Caryn Marooney’s seminal post on the subject. And then email me when you are ready to get started and need someone to coach you without crushing your budget.



2 responses to “The Case Against Hiring a PR Agency”

  1. […] What does your company stand for? Are its principles embedded in the organization’s DNA? More importantly, are they principles that matter — not just to investors, but to the betterment of humanity? If you don’t know, hire someone to help you find it. […]


  2. […] VCs like that I don’t needlessly suck up valuable budget/capital. PR agencies are expensive. And the disintegration of trade media means a startup’s PR requirements aren’t what they once were. I wrote more about this important shift here. […]


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