Should The Start-Up CEO = PR?

May 2, 2013

We work with a lot of start-ups – which means we work with a lot of smart, highly motivated people.  The CEOs of these companies have made it this far by hard work, great ideas, and refusing to let obstacles slow them down. They are tenacious. They are relentless. They don’t sleep a lot.  Ask any of these guys their keys to success and I’m pretty sure they’ll mention something about hiring the right team.  Which brings me to the subject: Should CEOs be responsible for their company’s PR? I say, no, kind of.

In a recent post, tech-marketing consultant Mark Evans argues that CEO=PR. He acknowledges that it’s difficult for start-ups to get media or blogger attention, and with so many start-ups competing for attention it’s a challenge to stand out. I agree with him on this point – it is hard. (But so is starting a company, getting funding, finding office space, hiring good people, creating a culture, and about 1000 other things.) But where me and Mr. E especially disagree is his claim that “a start-up entrepreneur is the best person to get media and blog coverage – much better than a PR agency/boutique.” 

It would be easy to dismiss my disagreement with Mark given what is assumed to be my inherent bias toward agencies, but really that’s not it. I do not agree with him for practical and tactical reasons. A start-up CEO has so much to do: he has to be available to his team, oversee product development, business development, and staffing issues, and oh yeah – respond to the hundreds of emails that populate his inbox each day. Each of these tasks could be its own full-time job, as even the single task of fundraising can envelope a CEO’s every waking minute. So exactly when is this CEO, who already is maxed-out, going to set aside hours each day to keep up with industry goings-ons across trade, consumer, and business press, identify relevant reporters and bloggers, get their attention, and convince them your company is worthy of coverage, submit for speaking slots, and on and on and on? I suppose there is always the weekend.

After nearly 15 years of working with start-ups, I find it interesting that the issue of hiring a PR firm is still so polarizing.  On one side there are the naysayers who argue that engaging with a PR firm is a waste of time and money (in some cases they’re right). Then there are those who’ve had good experiences with PR folks and understand the value of a successful partnership. My friend (and client) David Mandell, CEO of PivotDesk, did an excellent post on the issues around hiring a PR firm. David has the unique perspective of having lived on both sides; before he was a start-up Founder/CEO he was a PR/Advertising exec. In his piece, “Five Things Every Start-Up CEO Should Know About Hiring a PR Agency,” Mandell addresses the key issues start-up CEOs should think through when meeting with potential PR partners. His points are spot-on (and no, I’m not appeasing him because he’s a client) and a good check-list for start-ups.

Last month in Boulder I had a similar discussion about start-ups hiring PR firms with Brad Feld and Seth Levine of the Foundry Group and David Cohen of TechStars. My takeaway wasn’t so much about whether to hire or not hire, but more around when is the right time, for how long, and to accomplish what. A lot of start-ups are put off by being asked to make a long-term commitment to an agency when they don’t know where their business will be in a year. Agencies should be willing to embrace shorter-term agreements that give start-ups the flexibility required when launching a company.  And in the spirit of compromise, start-ups need to understand that us PR folk are running businesses and the arrangement needs to make sense. My grandfather used to say, “Buy quality. It only hurts once.”  Start-ups do not expect to get a talented engineer for $8 an hour; nor should they think a PR team could be had for the same rate. Something else that makes no sense and annoys start-ups is the expectation from PR firms to have a few months of ramp-up time to learn the client’s business; on this I call bullshit. As Mandell points out in his post – and this is critical –the agency should know what the client does and understand the landscape before the first meeting.

So should a start-up CEO be in charge of PR? Yes and no. They should embrace and spend time thinking about the PR strategy, interface with a professional team as often as necessary, participate in the meetings and events that benefit from their presence, and enjoy the PR wins. What they should not do is attempt to manage all of the day-to-day minutia and the myriad of moving pieces that make a PR program successful.  Like so many other topics I’ve ranted about here, I feel that this debate is rooted in bad PR people peeing in the pool and wrecking it for the rest of us.  No CEO really wants to do their own PR, but the horror stories of start-up CEOs who’ve spent so much and received so little from PR firms causes trepidation.  While I understand the “once bitten, twice shy mindset” of CEOs and Venture Capitalists around hiring a PR firm, we’re not all dogs.  Best advice? Do your homework. Like Mandell urges, ask yourself: “Would I hire them as another FTE?  Do they make the cut?  Do they fit culturally as well as professionally?  Am I prepared to invite them to team meetings and be open to their insight on the business?  If the answer to any of those questions is ‘No’ then I thank them for their time and move on.” 



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