Startup PR – making the right outsourcing decision

By 22nd May 2013Corporate Blog

If you’re a VentureBeat reader, you may have read a recent guest post by startup CEO Kevin Leu on why startups shouldn’t hire a PR agency.



In it, he asserts that, from his experience, a PR agency cannot provide sufficient value for a startup with limited resources. Now naturally we’re inclined to disagree, not just because we know which side our bread is buttered on, but because we have real experience of building startups from scratch which successfully used PR as a major strategy to produce sales leads and brand recognition, as well as having a front row seat for some of the alleged tricks (and overall lack thereof) that Mr. Leu speaks of in his article.


Contrary to what Mr. Leu espouses for startups, PR done well can be the cheapest form of lead generation for any company – including startups.   This has been proven time and time again by empirical studies. The issue lies NOT in the discipline of PR, but in how the startup selects an agency (or employee) and manages the agency (or employee) on a day-day basis.


To create a successful relationship with a PR provider, startups must understand how to hire, or when to hire, an agency. Based on our experience, hiring an agency should be viewed in exactly the same light as hiring an employee. In fact, hiring an agency should be an “outsourcing” decision where you’ve made the decision NOT to hire a full-time person, but instead trust an outsourced company to handle the work for you that a full-time employee would. Would you hire a person full-time as Kevin Leu suggests that “doesn’t know how to tell a story”, “rests on their laurels”, “takes more credit than they deserve”, etc?  Of course not, especially in a startup where every hire is critical, and a bad hire can set you back months if not man years in progress.


And would a decent agency take you on as a client if they felt they could not produce results?  No.  Just like a really sharp candidate for a job will be the first to drop discussions when he / she realizes there is not a great mutual fit, a reputable agency will do the same.


Hiring an agency requires the same level of requirement as hiring an employee and involves skill definition, recruiting, due diligence, and then hand-holding at first to ensure clarity exists between goals, deliverables and measurement. Any agency worth its salt will get under the skin of your company as quickly as possible, but there is a bedding in time and they cannot be expected to be some kind of fairy godmother figure who should and will wave their magic wand constantly to magic up unrealistic results in a matter of minutes. To minimise this bedding in time, the fit is very important. If you are a mobile games startup, you should probably look to “hire” a full-time or outsourced agency who has proven expertise in the mobile gaming space.  Hiring someone who has spent 25 years doing PR around real estate will likely not produce the results you seek any more than hiring a COBOL programmer will meet your Ruby on Rails needs.


Second, an agency must be part of your team. They are an outsourced part of your team, so treat them as such. Properly defined and managed, the “bait and switch” that Mr. Leu asserts is commonplace (whereby senior executives who win the business disappear, delegating all account work to their junior ‘underlings’) will not occur any more than hiring an employee and having their second cousin show up for work will. Have you defined your requirements up front?  Have you in your due diligence defined who will be on your team if you sign an agreement with the agency and have you clearly defined what each person’s daily role will be?


I am sorry that Mr. Leu has had such bad experiences that it taints his view of agencies. But writing such an article to say that ALL agencies are bad and a waste of money for startups is simply untrue. If we take his arguments seriously, then I suppose no startup should also ever consider outsourcing some development tasks to very talented outsourced developers either, and always hiring full-time staff. His complaint that an agency has other clients than you on their roster and therefore isn’t always solely thinking about you is baffling. If an agency is producing the value and return we agreed to, such that the $ being spent monthly is generating the required return in exposure, lead generation and revenue, then how does this argument really stand up? If I hire a full-time employee for the same, or less costs, but they do not deliver results, then how is this better?  Moreover, agencies often find that the cross-pollination of their client base can deliver dividends in terms of selling stories and gaining coverage – what’s better than pitching one client to a journalist than a range of clients who can represent different angles and present a wealth of perspectives?


There are plenty of GREAT agencies that cater to startups, and understand how to derive the best value for a client based on their clearly-defined business goals. The onus is on the entrepreneur to understand how to hire, manage and fire an agency (as well as employees), to understand what he / she wants out of marketing, and how to measure results to know what’s working and what’s not. Agency or employee, if you don’t have a clue what you’re getting, then how do you ever know what’s working?

Dee Gibbs

About Dee Gibbs

Dee is the Founder of Liberty Communications.

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