How to Hire a Tech PR Firm—Or Not
One of the most frequent questions I get from startup CEOs is, “Can you recommend a PR firm?” Often, I get this question over email, and it often feels as if the executive asking it expects a quick and formulaic answer—as if the situation is one-size-fits all. I’m supposed to say, here’s my list of three great PR firms—problem solved!
The fact is, this question is actually fairly complicated and requires some context to answer. Not all good PR firms are good for all companies—and not all companies, especially earlier-stage, B2B-focused startups, even need a PR firm at all. In today’s incredibly competitive and busy tech environment, where my cat could potentially raise money at $100 million valuation, there are sometimes other, better options, at least in the near term, for beginning to build a technology brand.
So how do I approach this question, and how should you think about hiring PR help? Here are some thoughts.
Why are you doing this?
The first question companies seeking outside PR support should ask themselves is why they’re doing it. In other words, why do they feel they need validation and visibility in mainstream tech and business press right now? Is it just because everyone else (especially their business competitors) are doing it? Is it to reach specific customer personas? Or is it to make the company seem like a great employer, to aid with hiring hard-to-find engineers or executives? Often, a company’s goals for PR are a combination of these.
But if you’re an early-stage, B2B startup, hiring a traditional PR firm is not always the way to go, at least at first. If you’re a small, “deep tech” company, innovating on some obscure but fascinating aspect of artificial intelligence or data analytics, for example, it’s going to be hard to get many mainstream journalists to write about you at this stage, no matter how great your PR firm is. It might be that targeting specific customer audiences in industry trade publications, not the New York Times, is a better way to kick-start your revenue right now. Hiring a lower-cost freelancer who knows your market well might be the best way to do this.
Or you might be able to generate the industry buzz you need through smart content creation, like bylined blog posts or even social-media campaigns picked up by industry influencers. You can create this content with help from a freelance writer, who may charge by the piece, instead of a hefty monthly retainer. Most PR firms now offer content services as well, though only larger ones will offer it as a specialty.
Customer stories, told through whitepapers or case studies posted on your website, can also be socialized, assuming you have some early customers to promote. These can serve as fodder for journalists down the road, when you’ve established some market traction and are ready for more traditional PR.
It’s hard out there for a B2B startup
All this is quite a departure from the startup-PR playbook of just five or 10 years ago. Back then, there were armies of journalists and tech bloggers willing to write (mostly) happy profiles of unproven companies and $6 million Series A fundraising rounds. So in that environment, hiring a real PR firm earlier in your company lifecycle could generally deliver ROI.
Things have changed dramatically since then for a number of reasons. The first is that the competition for press attention is so great; there are more venture-backed startups than ever hauling in cash and sending pitches to reporters. According to Pitchbook and the National Venture Capital Association, the deal pace in the first six months of 2021 exceeded the activity in all of 2020, with 385 companies raising $85.5 billion in financing in this year’s first half. In all of last year, 329 companies raised $75.2 billion, according to the NVCA. In the second quarter alone, 198 companies raised $100 million or more—a figure that used to be almost unheard of. This means journalists can be extremely selective about which companies they cover. If you spend any time on Twitter, you can find plenty of reporters complaining about the number of pitches in their inboxes, and/or declaring that they need at least two weeks’ time to cover a piece of news, if they’ll respond to you at all.
In parallel, the pool of reporters willing to write about these companies continues to shrink, creating even more of a supply/demand problem for startup PR. The ad-based, journalism business model has been in trouble for years, but it keeps getting worse: Publications like GigaOm have closed up shop in recent years, while outlets like Quartz have had major layoffs and others, like TechCrunch, have seen a large number of reporter departures (Anthony Ha, Jon Shieber, Steve O’Hear) more recently. Still others, like Re/Code, have been swallowed up by larger publishers; Fortune was purchased in 2018 by Asian business tycoon Chatchaval Jiaravanon while billionaire spaceman Jeff Bezos famously rescued the Washington Post.
The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has also put a dent in the once-lucrative events businesses run by many media companies as a way to offset declining ad revenue, which could put further pressure on budgets and reporter counts.
PR is dead, long live PR
This is not all to say that tech PR is dead—far from it. It’s just that mainstream, startup PR is tougher and more complicated these days, requiring a more diversified approach, more creativity and, sometimes, more money if you want to hire the best help.
So let’s say your specific business goals align with hiring a bona fide PR firm right now, and not a less-expensive freelancer or content creator. How do you pick one? The biggest factors my team sees here are sector expertise, budget, creativity and team chemistry.
It’s usually wise to look for a PR firm that has worked with clients in your specific industry before, whether that’s cybersecurity, e-commerce, fin-tech, whatever. Sometimes, I see B2B companies cut this a bit too finely. A good firm with documented experience and results in enterprise-tech generally is often as effective as one with targeted experience in DevSecOps or data analytics. Many of the reporters and publications they’ll be pitching are the same, especially if you want higher-level coverage and not just stories in industry trade publications.
Usually, it’s easier to pitch consumer tech than B2B (everyone can relate to DoorDash and videogames), so you should prioritize firms that can show you B2B client success stories. If you have an industry competitor whose public profile you admire, do some digging and find out who they’re using for PR. If they’re still working together, the PR firm likely can’t work for you, a direct competitor. But maybe they’ve moved on and you can scoop them up. Or they can recommend someone else.
As we’ve discussed, the age of “pitch it, and they will write” is over in tech PR. Startups need to think more creatively about how to build their brands through a combination of traditional PR, content, speaking (mostly on Zoom these days) and social media. Look for a PR firm whose leaders have a record of thinking creatively and running thoughtful campaigns for other clients—fresh and clever narratives that attach a startup to larger industry or societal trends to make a big splash. The firm should be genuinely interested in crafting compelling storylines for you and then pitching them relentlessly. A firm that simply promises a certain number of press releases or “media placements” a month is not going to cut it.
That said, you, as a company, must support this creative process by devoting enough resources internally to make these great stories come to life. Usually, this means providing relevant data, insights and anecdotes to your PR/communications partner in a timely manner—your partner can’t magically unearth this material on its own. These things are the building blocks for the storylines that ultimately will move your brand forward.
While this is less of a problem as startups raise larger amounts of money, marketing budgets are still often tight—and startups often try to cut corners. The fact is, any effective PR firm is going to cost at least $15,000 per month, though probably closer to $18,000 or $20,000. Many larger, pre-IPO companies pay double that. If you’re not willing to spend the money, don’t do it; focus on content or social media and save your budget for when you’re more established and need visibility more. Alternately, you can try out an agency for six or 12 months and see what kind of return you get on your investment. If it’s amazing, you can keep going and feel better about the cost.
Most PR firms are led by charming, articulate people who will make you think their firm will get you on the cover of Fortune, stat. Don’t forget: This is a sales job. The day-to-day work on your account usually will be handled by others, including many twentysomethings without the great insights and reporter relationships of the PR firm’s founder or CEO. Ask specifically to meet with your potential account team and make sure they are smart, creative and responsive enough for you. If not, move on to someone else.
What’s not important? One factor is geography. This was true before Covid, but now, in the age of hybrid and remote work, looking at PR firms only in your specific geography or time zone just doesn’t make sense. They can do just as good a job from 3,000 miles away. Another bright, shiny object I see many CEOs latch onto is awards—they gravitate toward firms that win lots of PR-industry kudos. To me, this could mean the PR firm is actually good. Or it may mean they just spend a lot of time applying for awards. A better indicator of success is the results they actually get for specific clients, and recommendations from other founders and CEOs.
It’s a tough world out there in tech PR, and more competitive than ever. But great, provocative stories still resonate; you just need to find the right people to help you tell them, the right way, in the right marketing channel—in a way that won’t break the bank.