So You Think You Need A PR Firm?

Sure, every Internet start-up needs “buzz” (read: positive media coverage in influential publications online and offline) for lots of reasons.

This so-called buzz can build awareness quickly in the hugely competitive cyberspace, attract customers, partners, clients and employees — not to mention VCs! — for that illusive IPO not far down the road.

But if location is the key to success in real estate, timing plays a similar role in the public relations realm. Executives at start-up companies must understand that one cannot simply holler, “Get me a PR firm,” and expect torrents of atoms and ink to flow. One must recognize the right moment to retain a public relations agency or risk damaging one’s image in the most crucial stage of the roll-out.

As the president of an agency that specializes in marketing public relations for emerging cyber companies, several recent client experiences and prospect meetings helped to drive this point home.

From my experience, the assets that generally drive a start-up’s engines are: An interactive marketing concept, a web-based service or software, content ownership, a patent, or all of the above, with or without first-round financing. By exploring these drivers we may, perhaps, shed some light on the moment to begin the agency selection process.

Enter The Entrepreneur

Eureka! Enter the entrepreneur with a concept for a new online service that promises to revolutionize the web experience, to provide useful information, understanding or analysis, make introductions and or keep track of people or data, entertain, explain, search, and so on. And, the business plan is written.

The entrepreneur is hot to hire a PR firm that will beat the drums that will attract the capital that will fund the development of the prototype. Sadly to say, this case does not appear a likely candidate for a successful PR effort, unless the entrepreneur has a proven track record and is building his second, third or fourth business.

The web site goes live next month, or even next week. That’s nice, but don’t jump for the agency directory just yet. Nine times out of 10, something unexpected will intervene. The client will demand changes, the hardware/software/server won’t run right, or the site is but a clunky beta version that will require an immediate overhaul. Or all of the above.

Enter The Inventor

You just got a patent. Congratulations! But you may not own the world, yet. Get me that agency on the phone? Maybe, maybe not. Patents are great, and I highly respect anyone who has earned one, but they are generally the starting point.

Next comes a business plan that will attract first round financing to build out the concept or to debug the software. If the patent is for software, you need packaging, distribution, a marketing plan and an ad budget. If it’s a process patent for a web-based application, you need to demonstrate some interest from influential marketing partners or prospective licensees.

Enter The Consolidator

No one offers this kind of service/product package mix. It’s time to move! Perhaps. You’ve come up with an innovative e-commerce solution, an automated template to control the design of storefronts, to facilitate the flow of front and back-end data, etc. Good! You’re playing with the big boys here and better have the credentials to crack the ice, either in terms of personnel, business partners, a marketing war chest and/or a VC with faith and deep pockets.

Okay, let’s say you completed the check list and met all the requirements. Then it may be time to put out a call for PR agency presentations. But first, take a deep breath, and scan the road ahead for any and all possible obstacles that might set back the plan.

PR firms are generally expensive. There’s no sense inviting them to the party too early since you are footing the bill. Before you seriously consider retaining an agency, have your ducks in a neat row.

Ask yourself does the product work perfectly? Is the site or concept really ready for prime time? Can you make a credible argument that partners, sponsors, or investors are at hand? Have you worked out the roll-out timetable?

Finally, do you have the time or staff to partner effectively with a PR firm?

Yes, public relations has played a key role in the successful launch and build-up of Internet services. Yes, it has also been a drag on young companies with scarce finances and on precious little executive time to spare.

Finally, remember first impressions are hard to overcome. It is better to err on the side of caution than to throw one’s dream into the media den prematurely.

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