Why You Should Almost Never Pay for PR
By Neil St. Clair
This article was originally published on Forbes.com (March 5, 2015)
Good public relations are important. But for most companies paying for PR is absolutely crazy. Reputable PR firms charge anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000/month to start, and often what you get is a series of media hits that provide a traffic "bump" without any meaningful conversion to customer. So you've paid $10k+ for what, window shopping? (For an alternative view, please be sure to see the comment from Richard Edelman, CEO of the Edelman PR company.)
Now, for firms of a certain size that are looking to target new markets, build new media relationships or rehab their image, a good PR firm may be a best and highest use of time and money. And for e-commerce firms and personal brand builders (i.e. wannabe celebrities, politicians, or executive influencers) PR is a must-have. Want to be the next big fashion brand? You better make sure your PR guru is hooked in with Lupita Nyong'o's team.
But for emerging brands, and even the majority of mature firms in most industries (e.g. financial services), pure PR is a waste of money. So what's the alternative? On the one hand, for most brands, it's something you can truly effectively manage yourself. On the other, there's a meaningful hybrid approach between an in-house PR/marketing lead and an outsourced communications firm. There are only the rarest of circumstances where fully outsourcing a wing of your communication strategy makes sense--and this involves the use of specialist firms.
But overall, PR should start as an extension of an in-house endeavor or gap-filling by outsourced firms on an as-needed basis. Yes, telling your own story is hard and sometimes tedious work, but no one can tell it better than you. And when you do, the RoI is the highest.
My recommendation is simple: keep control of your PR by keeping it in house. After all, no one knows and can tell your own story better than you and the people who live it every day.
The DIY PR Flack
With the right tools and knowledge, anyone can be their own PR team. At its core, PR is simply an extension of marketing by other means. A paid-for PR team has a massive network with strong relationships and leverages those to get you appearances on various media and to get influencers to tout your vast esteem. They then manage those relationships and help target audiences and effective channels. But for young companies, and for companies in industries that don't require constant outbound communication, an external PR team is simply bad thinking.
Now, for certain large firms, public relations is an all-encompassing and ongoing task. You need Edelman on your side. But for those of us outside the Fortune 100, a simple bit of effort from your marketing lead, founders and other executives is really all that's required:
0) You should already have a pretty good idea of your target audiences and most effective marketing channels, and if you don't, I'm not sure why you're in business. This is Day 1 research.
1) Find a core list of journalists, influencers and media publications in your space. If you don't already know this, set up Google Alerts with relevant industry terms and track who's writing about this over time. Then do a bit of LinkedIn connecting or email diving and create a contact list. You can also work with companies like MuckRack, which have done much of the legwork for you.
2) Invite the media/influencers to a free event (say a cocktail hour--as a former journalist I can say we love free liquor) or head to a known networking spot, and introduce yourself. Most importantly, do this "introducing" when you need nothing. There really isn't much worse than begging for coverage or a connection when you're desperate.
3) Keep in contact and repeat this process often. When the time is right, send your contacts a personal email to request coverage, a publicity tweet, etc.
Note that most paid-for PR firm's have a so-called "media blast list." As part of your $10k/month service all they simply do is put together a boilerplate press release and "blast" it to their 1000-strong contact list of "schedulers" at various media outlets. When I was a journalist, we literally got hundreds of these a day. Most are ignored--save for those from people who have wined and dined us a bit and can add a personal touch.
Want to see the realities of the PR-Journo relationship, put a click on this article: "I Read and Replied to Every Single PR Email I Received for a Week"
Yes, a few media types will respond to help fill their content wheel, but you're paying someone $10k of your precious money for something that you could do yourself for nominal time and cost. It seems a bit lazy. Especially when you consider the RoI equations of the paid-for v. DIY scenarios. With the few exceptions I've listed above there is no direct corollary between "media awareness" and sales. There's this perception that getting on Shark Tank or doing a segment on NBC's Today will lead to people literally stomping on each other to get to your door. I've been there, and with credible consistency, it simply doesn't happen.
In fact, this type of cognitive dissonance between PR perception and over-hyped reality has a name in the startup world--a phenomenon known as the TechCrunch "bump." That is, the increase in traffic and awareness that typically comes after an appearance in the well-read tech publication. But this wears off (and is inevitably followed by "The Trough of Sorrow"), and it then becomes increasingly difficult to get into other publications since TechCrunch had you first. Remember, media like novelty and exclusivity. This type of "bump and fall-off-a-cliff drop" occurs for mature companies as well after an initial PR engagement.
So while media coverage and influencer posting is important for raising awareness, improving SEO, and assisting, to some extent, with sales through additional discovery-validation, it's not going to make your business. Knowing this, why pay for what you can and should be doing on your own?
In short, don't be wooed by professional communicators selling you PR's publicity nostrum. It's simply not worth it.
N.B. As a quick DIY tip, to stay relevant after your initial "bump," begin to consistently create content that can establish yourself as an expert. The media is always in search of folks willing to speak with supposed authority on some day-of topic of interest. Publicity stunts, events/conferences and celebrity endorsements are also ways to maintain relevancy, but all must be done with precision. In the end, if you can really nail your PR plan as part of your marketing strategy it can help develop business opportunities over the long-haul. But don't expect any quick wins.
The Hybrid Approach
So when might PR be worth it? Once you've established yourself a bit and bring in someone to focus on marketing/business development, part of their role should be to manage your public relations and external communications. This helps take the pressure off founders and other pure business development-types who can be distracted by media requests and influence glad-handing. However, growth can begin to outpace the abilities of one or even a few mere marketing mortals. There may come an inflection point where your marketers need to focus on clearer bottom-line-driving activities and content generation, leaving little room for PR and media relations.
At this point, you may need to make a decision to have your marketers fully concentrate on your outbound communications, or to have them focus on content and other marketing needs. Assuming you have them focus on the latter, a good PR firm may become necessary to keep proper momentum. And here we need to stop and draw three important distinctions on outsourced communications providers:
1) Brand & Design Consultants--Firms like Frog Design, and IDEO are great thinkers. They come up with brilliant and beautiful ideas and processes. But they are not PR firms.
2) Marketing & Advertising Firms--Saatchi & Saatchi, Hill Holiday, and others are primarily content firms. They create really great ads. Event marketing specialists also exist here. They may say they do PR/communications, but be wary.
3) Pure PR & Corporate Communication Firms--Edelman, Ruder Finn, and others focused mostly on communication (including crisis and investor relations) and media. They may say they create content, but be wary.
In this hybrid approach, Number 3, a PR & Corporate Communication Firm (perhaps not on the scale of Ruder or Edelman) would be most appropriate. Until you're a multi-national, multi-channel firm, I'd highly suggest looking at independent regional or specialist players that focus on your core geographies and industries.
N.B. Alternatively, there are a few "all-in-one" firms that have robust PR practices as well as excellent content creation services. These may be called full-service communication or content firms. I've always been leery of PR specialists who say they are content creators or, conversely, content creators who end up doing PR. But recently, this hydra-head approach has become a bit more normal--and expected. Here, I think of firms like JCPR and even AlleyWire's content agency AW/CS, which has recently started providing PR, corporate communication, and media relations. Similarly, the "Big 4" of WPP, Omnicom, Interpublic, and Publicis have a hodgepodge of niche agencies that work together to form an all-in-one network. But I remain unconvinced of the benefits of being a very small fish in their very large pond.
Specialist Communicators & End of Scene
As mentioned, there are certain top-level firms that truly do need fully outsourced communications services. This might be BP post-oil spill or a multinational like Coca-Cola that finds the extra hands are more cost-effective than a fully in-house approach. However, short of being one of the biggest and baddest corporations around, there is really very little need to spend $50-$100k a year to let someone else talk about you.
Note, however, that there certain specific challenges where a top-notch specialist may need to be brought in. This can include reputation management/SEO experts or a crisis communication team. And, as you grow, you may need a more "local" or "specialized" PR team that knows the proper topography of a new landscape--leaving your core team to focus on your core business.
But overall, my recommendation is as it was in the beginning: keep control of your PR by keeping most/all of it in-house. After all, no one knows and can tell your own story better than you and the people who live it every day.
Neil St. Clair is a respected social entrepreneur, journalist, and philanthropist. He is currently CEO & Founder of social change consultancy, NES Impact as well as fear-focused venture studio, Notimor. An advocate for children and gender equity, he founded and chairs The NextMen Foundation. Follow him on IG @neilstclair