PR Passion – Why Startups Should Never Outsource Public Relations

You have been planning to ask your long-time girlfriend to marry you for months and the big day has finally arrived. In order to reduce your risk of failure, you ask your roommate, who has proposed to several women previously, to pop the question on your behalf.

Sound crazy? This is the approach many startups take when they communicate their story to the market. Rather than directly explaining their value proposition with all the passion and heartfelt stridency that only an entrepreneur can deliver, they outsource this communication to a Public Relations (PR) firm. PR agencies are expensive versions of Cyrano de Bergerac. Their best attempts to woo the media will never equal your ability to sing your own praises.

Startup PR does not stand for “Public Relations.” Rather, it translates into “Passionate Relationships” and passion cannot be outsourced.

Keep the Passion In-House

As noted in Beware The Consultant, you cannot effectively outsource positions that require passion. It is not reasonable to expect a dispassionate third party to be as effective as an in-house employee. During the early stages of your adVenture, your value proposition, and thus your messaging, will be fluid, as you continually reassess the market’s reaction to your evolving story. A third party will be far less effective, as they will be reticent to promote a story which is subject to change, because they do not want to negatively impact their media relations.

A PR agency’s allegiance is to the journalists and other media gatekeepers with whom they work with on a daily basis. If a journalist rejects a particular client’s story, the agency will not risk its relationship with the journalist by aggressively countering beyond an initial rejection. An in-house PR person is not hampered by allegiances to the media. Your captive PR team will launch a crusade to ensure that your story is heard.

As depicted in the following schematic, a PR agency will readily sacrifice a relationship with a particular client before they will risk damaging one of their valued media relationships. New clients are far easier to obtain than new industry relationships, which can take years to establish and cultivate.

PR is sales. Have you ever met a successful, yet dispassionate, salesperson? Doubtful. PR is not order-taking. It involves persuading jaded media gatekeepers that your adVenture’s story is compelling enough to warrant their audience’s valuable mindshare. This requires that you establish a level of trust and “Bro up” with the journalist, as discussed more fully in The Bro Factor. People buy from people they like, and journalists are no exception.

Establishing affinity is important, as it is often the first step to developing trust. Without trust, the media gatekeepers will not risk their hard-won reputations promoting your adVenture. Many journalists have been burned by PT Barnum wantrapreneurs who do not let reality get in the way of a good PR story. As noted in Time Wounds All Heels, a disingenuous, short-term approach is not effective. However, the damage caused by these amateur wantrapreneurs enhances journalists’ natural skepticism. Because of the jaded nature of the PR world, many journalists will find an open and honest approach refreshing.

Your initial in-house PR personnel should be a relatively junior person who will execute your straightforward strategy – to economically gain as much market validation as possible. The best person to carry out this mission is a “doer” who will roll up their shirtsleeves and hit the phones. This person should have many of the same characteristics of a good salesperson: be verbally engaging, charming and doggedly persistent. They will sell your story to a variety of media outlets, so they must be able to craft a compelling yet believable story to fit the various journalists’ biases and interests.

Another reason in-house personnel can be more effective than hired guns is that PR agencies are often viewed by journalists as shills. Given that they are paid to get their clients media coverage, their credibility may be specious. Even when they are genuinely excited about a particular client’s solution, it may be difficult for them to convince journalists of the sincerity of their excitement.

This phenomenon is aptly described by Christopher Locke, one of the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto. Christopher came to PR from the engineering world and thus was not tainted by the industry’s rampant hucksterism. Working for a small software company, he discovered that something interesting occurred when he abandoned the company’s talking points. According to Christopher:

“Something amazing happened. As soon as I stopped strategizing how to ‘get ink’… as soon as I stopped seeing journalists as a source of free advertising … I started having genuine conversations with genuine people.”“Then something even more amazing happened. The company started ‘getting ink.’ Lots of it … in places like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Business Week.”

What Christopher discovered is that real conversations in the PR world are rare. Thus, his genuine enthusiasm and willingness to engage journalists in non-agenda-driven dialogs was infectious. He effectively Bro’ed up with the otherwise jaded journalists, just by being genuine and real in a world in which such behavior is rare. For additional thoughts regarding how you can break through the corporate façade, see The Bro Factor.

Consider Your Source

In order to gain the trust of media gatekeepers, it is important that you understand their motivations. The penalty associated with being duped by an unscrupulous wantrapreneur is far more significant that the benefit derived from introducing a new technology or product.

In addition to being jaded, a surprising number of journalists are socially awkward. Until recently, writing was one of the few professions in which workers could perform their jobs remotely and in relative isolation. As such, many long-time journalists were initially attracted to the media industry because they preferred the lack of work-related social interactions. This proclivity makes it all the more challenging to win over this cynical, seen-it-all, socially awkward group.

Clearly, as your company matures and your story stabilizes, it can be appropriate to work with a third-party PR firm. Your messaging will lose some of the inherent passion of an in-house approach, but the trade-off is a greater degree of professionalism. In addition, the relative impact that passionate PR can have on your business will diminish as your company grows and gains broader public recognition.

However, in the early stages of your adVenture’s journey, you cannot outsource the delivery of your passionate proposal to the marketplace, just as you should not ask your best friend to propose to your significant other on your behalf. There is too much at stake and no one, no matter how good a friend they may be, can deliver your passionate message as well as you.

Share and Enjoy

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Delicious
  • LinkedIn
  • StumbleUpon
  • Add to favorites
  • Email
  • RSS

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

Get real world advice from John Greathouse, Subscribe Today.