On The Decision to Hire a PR Agency vs. Pitching the Media Internally

Propublica
29 Aug 2019

One dilemma that startups and early stage companies/projects face is whether to hire a PR agency or to conduct media relations in-house. 

The starting point assumption is that PR agencies are the conduits to getting stories published about what you are doing, because they already have the “relationships” with the media writers and editors. 

So, the conventional wisdom calls for companies to go looking for a PR agency with budgets in the range of 10-25K per month to start with. Sometimes, the impetus to hire a PR agency is because you’re thinking “I don’t have time to do PR, so why not off-load it externally.” But that’s not always the best decision path.

I’m a proponent of doing your own marketing in-house. Instead of rushing to hire a PR agency, consider hiring a person with media experience and paying them a fraction of what your media relations budget might have been. 

There are several reasons why the in-house approach might yield better results, especially for the long term. 

Your internal person will be expert on your products/services and they are always updated on developments. With a PR agency, not only do you need to bring them up to speed initially (sometimes at great length), but you need to continuously keep them updated. 

It’s so easy to reach editors and writers via their online profiles and what they have previously written. Reaching them is not the exclusive purview of PR agencies.

PR agency staff changes. If someone leaves, your “expert” is no longer there, and you will need to re-train someone else. Plus, the person who sold you the engagement is not typically part of the team that delivers the services for you. Sometimes, your team is a surprise you get later, and there will always be junior people on that team that don’t always pull their weight in, but you are paying for their time.

More importantly, the key component that is often missed is that you may not have a good messaging strategy as a starting point. Your PR efforts can only be as good as your messages are.

Although most PR agencies will tell you they will work with you on developing a messaging strategy, most of them do a poor and rushed job on it, because they aren’t really subject matter experts on your product/service, and brand strategy is not their expertise. They would rather pitch your story, and move on.

Often, the frustrations from not being able to get your stories published pushes you to hire a PR agency. But the real reason is that your messages are not good enough, unique, engaging or they don’t matter much to the market! 

Don’t put the cart before horse. You need to first have a formal and detailed messaging strategy (with a messaging hierarchy), out of which various pitching angles can come from. If you have a budget to spare, spend it rather on hiring a brand strategy firm (such as Brandsinger), and they will turn your messages into powerful weapons of attention.

Many startups / early projects (including blockchain ones) don’t have a formal messaging architecture matrix. They don’t think it’s important, so they either wing it or they rely on a PR agency to craft some mediocre messages for them.

If you don’t “own” your messages, you won’t be able to develop the necessary pitches you will need in order to attract the media’s attention. Pitching takes time. That’s why companies hire PR agencies to pitch on their behalf, but keep in mind that you are one of several other clients that a given agency will be pitching sometimes to the same editor. How can you be sure that your pitch is delivered in the most effective manner? An in-house person works only for you. They have a single interest in mind, and they are committed to being consistent across the board. 

So, here are the key components to think about when devising your media outreach strategy:

  1. Develop a comprehensive Messaging Matrix that includes the right Positioning for your Brand and the back-up proof points about your products and services (I have written extensively about that topic, this is a good starting point to 12 posts on it, Startup Marketing Compendium of 12 Posts on Positioning, Branding, Messaging and more)
  2. Hire a Brand Strategy firm, before you hire a PR agency
  3. Hire an internal marketing outreach person, before you hire a PR agency
  4. Work on your pitch angles on a weekly basis, and don’t pitch the exact same thing broadly to all your media contacts. Customize your pitch so it fits within their interests, or don’t pitch to them at all if there is not fit. 

Media relations takes a lot of orchestration, co-ordination and timing. Make it a core competency. Don’t outsource such a critical aspect of your marketing.

(Source : http://startupmanagement.org/2019/08/29/on-the-decision-to-hire-a-pr-agency-vs-pitching-the-media-internally/)