If you start a company, you have about a 50% chance of being around in five years, which is the same survival rate as if you were just diagnosed with colon cancer. Now let’s talk about PR.
When you start a business, you also start a timer that is counting down the days until your cash flow runs dry and your business fails. Regardless of how well you are financed, who sits on your board or how good you are at keeping your costs under control, there is heightened significance to every moment, dollar or action when you are starting a business.
Every dollar or hour you commit has to have a discernible return. The duration over when that return plays out may vary from company-to-company, but the return has to be there in a time that makes sense given your balance sheet and cash flow.
PR has traditionally been somewhat amorphous in terms of analyzing its return so it presents a challenge to start-ups. Somewhere in the back of your mind, you know that it’s important to get people talking about or with you but it’s not always easy to justify the costs (mostly time-based) involved with generating and participating in the conversation.
The evolution of PR has accelerated over the past decade and some would say it’s become more impactful and measurable. Mid and large-market companies can now take a more quantitative approach to understanding the impact of their activities but the metrics are generally still one step away from the metric that start-ups should care about, which is dollars.
As a start-up on the clock, PR should be tied on some level to dollars generated because if PR isn’t helping to generate sales, then it’s not worth doing.
Starting from this premise, here are some additional thoughts on the how start-ups should think about PR:
1. Even if you’re not spending dollars on PR, you’re spending time on it and time is the most valuable commodity you have when starting a business. Your time could be spent building an awesome product, selling it to customers or supporting customers after the transaction to make sure they come back for more and tell their friends about your business. Every hour you spend on PR is an hour you lose on actions that you know have a discernible ROI.
2. Derive multi-faceted value from singular activities – If you are going to spend an hour on PR, then make sure you get some benefit out of it. If you spend that hour digging up a journalist to pitch, constructing a pitch, sending the pitch, not hearing back and then summarily forgetting that the hour just happened, then you have just failed. If you use that pitch as the basis for a story that you share on your blog, then you have derived some value from the effort.
Every day, you are doing things outside of PR that can be repurposed to support PR and vice versa. Keep that in mind.
If you just spent an hour writing an e-mail to a customer, explaining your perspective on something, then you have just created a story for your blog, which brings us to our next point.
3. PR can be mediated or disintermediated – It used to be that PR meant relying on someone to tell your story on your behalf to their audience. Not any more. You can tell your story to your audience yourself these days. In fact, when you’re getting started, disintermediated PR is often times better because A. You aren’t relying on anyone else to communicate on your behalf so you can be sure that your content gets out there into the public sphere, B. You can get feedback that will help you tweak your product and your marketing/sales mix and C. you can target people that will actually care about your business or product and this is important because…
4. You aren’t that special – As Palahniuk wrote in Fight Club, “You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else, and we are all a part of the same compost pile.” Most journalists don’t want to write about you because they know that it’s likely you won’t even be around in a couple years and they have heard the same pitch ten times today already.
Journalists don’t want to hear you telling them why your business or product is unique and special. In fact, I don’t really want to hear that either. What both the journalists and I want to hear, is something interesting that I haven’t heard before. Don’t write 300 words about why you’re awesome and send that to a journalist, write 300 words about the research you did to determine that “awesome” is actually “not awesome” (and how this sparked your interest in starting a new brand called “not awesome”) and why that research is relevant in the context of a story I wrote last month. Now we’re having a conversation and the conversation is important because. . .
5. A hit isn’t the result of a pitch, it’s a manifestation of the relationship that you build with your network – When you’re engaging in mediated PR, don’t go looking for one-night stands, look for buddies. I’ve heard from my friends that one-night stands can be quite exciting. You meet someone out, flirt, hook-up then never see them again. You really don’t want to treat journalists or bloggers like this.
Journalists or bloggers are as tuned-in to your market as anyone. Building a great relationship with one can be incredibly beneficial for a lot of reasons. They can be an incredible source of information, they can point you in directions you never considered and can even lean on you for future stories and this is valuable because…
6. Even if you get a hit, it may not be a hit – I’ve talked to many entrepreneurs and small business owners who have spent too much time pitching, who have finally received a hit. The ensuing conversation often times goes like this:
Entrepreneur: “Hey, I finally got a hit in [Insert prestigious publication of your choice].”
Me: That’s awesome, did you get a lot of new customers?
Entrepreneur: I got a couple.
On a side note, I really think the value of hits is in how the hit becomes a promotional tool by reinforcing your credibility (so pimp the brand where you got the hit all over your site) and in the organic search value the link from the hit brings to your site. This is important because even after you have gotten a hit, you want to think about whether the benefit justified the cost and if it didn’t, then
7. If the experiment fails then stop and try something different – The most successful entrepreneurs who do their own PR are good because they try a bunch of things, stop doing things that don’t return and focus on things that do. It seems like a simple equation but there are complexities, mostly in the execution of the tactic, the length of time that the tactic is executed and in the framework through which return is analyzed.
In general, PR can be an extremely valuable exercise if it is performed with the right mindset. This is just a list of observations I’ve made, based on my own experience as well as from watching others. What do you think?