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One of the biggest expenses for startups as a component of their marketing budget is often public relations. It’s not at all uncommon for a startup to spend $7,000–15,000 per month with a PR firm, delegated to sing the company’s praises on its behalf. To us humble Canadians, the idea of conscripting a third party to talk up our story is fairly appealing.

I recently read from a competing media outlet the universal adage that “Startups shouldn’t hire PR firms.” First, before reading this or any other startup column, heed this blanket advice: beware of all blanket advice.

Second, understand my bias. In my career I’ve built primarily consumer apps and services. For the scale at which most consumer services operate, the most authentic way to reach a substantial audience is via third-party media. I have driven earned-media campaigns, fronted by internal and external public relations personnel, to considerable success.

The roll-out of BuzMe.com in 2000 garnered more than two million unique visitors in less than six months, and more than half as many signups. More recently, RosterBot grew at the expense of competitors thanks largely to TV, radio, print and online coverage in more than 250 media outlets.

When it works, PR delivers the best value for the dollar. When executed poorly, PR becomes a costly failure. It is perhaps this latter experience that has led critics to recommend against hiring a PR firm early on. But like anything in technology, garbage in invariably results in garbage out.

Here are some great things that well executed PR can do for your company:

• Deliver exponential growth: With Google or Facebook ads, you can’t buy the kind of traffic that a single article in The New York Times will deliver. A rule of thumb is that a quarter-page article in a major niche publication has an equivalent value of about $20,000. But really, this value is incalculable. Get reported in the Times on a weekday? Your web servers probably won’t be able to handle the traffic without some cacheing.

• Deliver growth long after the event: When you stop paying for ads, they stop delivering traffic—they don’t exist anymore. A newspaper article that appears online is likely to be available for years, if not forever, and will drive traffic with an initially high volume that practically never declines to zero.

• Deliver unforeseen opportunities: Investors and potential partners will almost always respond to a publication’s favourable review of your product or service. You simply can’t predict who who will see potential in what you’re doing, and this opens the door for opportunities you had not previously conceived of.

• Provide the best form of SEO imaginable: You can pay search engine optimization experts to hack your way to the top of Google search results; effective PR will deliver more valid and effective results with immediate effect. This is because Google’s PageRank algorithm favours major publications and high-traffic media sites. If they’re describing your service and linking to your site, this is the best kind of SEO you can get.

• Provide you with lasting, validated endorsement: When you reach out to customers, investors, partners or prospective acquirers, the endorsement of respected journalists and publications, plus your ability to convey your story via third-party media, will speak volumes about the value of your business.

• Act as a multiplier for other marketing: You can leverage third-party media in your own outbound marketing to broaden their impact. Reference a particularly strong article via a Facebook ad, for example, and encourage others to share this authentic piece.

Like it or not, people will believe what others say about you long before they believe anything you say about yourself (or your product). That is the fundamental value that every successful PR campaign leverages, and you simply can’t buy that.

The major misconception is that PR is free. It’s not. Whether it’s bisecting your time or it’s a dedicated hire or a contract with an external firm, public relations costs money. It’s also challenging to measure the return on investment. You can track an ad through to your sign-up flow. You can track sales associates via their close rates. But a PR campaign can generate as much indirect as direct inbound traffic, and little of that can be traced back to the point of origin.

As such, PR is more art than science, which is likely why many in the technology industry are so averse to the concept. But if you can harness it, it can make your business.

In my next piece we’ll discuss how to leverage public relations effectively for your business. Stay tuned.

Ian Bell has been bending bits into business since 1993 and is creator of ‪TingleRosterBot and other things celebrated and ignominious. Follow him @ianb on Twitter.

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Do you agree? Does your business use PR? Share your thoughts and experiences by commenting below.

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