Dear Startup CEOs – You DO Need PR Expertise

As usual, I am a little but late to the party in contributing my two cents to the debate, but smart people like Shel Holtz, Neville Hobson Katie Payne and Jason Calacanis of “Silicon Valley Insider” have debated an important topic:  do startup CEOs need PR expertise?

Jason kicked off the debate in his post “How To Get PR For Your Startup: Fire Your PR Company” by stating that:

My philosophy of PR is summed up in six words: be amazing, be everywhere, be real.

You don’t need a PR firm, you don’t need an in-house PR person and you don’t need to spend ANY money to get amazing PR. You don’t need to be connected, and you don’t need to be a “name brand.” Today, many bloggers lament how much press folks like Kevin Rose and Robert Scoble get. They say that they get too much attention and that they got this attention too quickly and without earning it.”

This was a hot topic and I am firmly in the “NO” camp, prominently represented by my pal Chip Griffin.  So here’s the deal from my perspective of someone who worked on the agency side for 15 years and is now in-house.  If you are a start-up CEO, please move away form the post.  Slowly and carefully…that’s it…

I think that Jason has done an amazing job of making public relations work for him.  Good for him.  But he also notes that:

For over ten years I’ve been in the unique position of being both a CEO and a journalist in the technology space. My first company produced Silicon Alley Reporter magazine, where I held the dual titles of CEO and Editor. At my second company, Weblogs Inc., I was a blogger and CEO.

Here’s where we part company.

Jason clearly has communications expertise.  I have no statistics to back this up, but my guess is that the overwhelming majority of CEOs have a good idea (or not), some money (or not), but lack the fundamentals of how to create their own public relations machine.  I have a few other nits with this.  They include:

  • Public Relations or Lead Generation? A lot of what Jason describes is promotional in nature, most of it earned media is some high profile outlets.  But remembering that the true definition of public relations is “establishing mutually beneficial relationships with your target audiences,” much of this seems more promotional and less conversational.  Sure, the lines between marketing and public relations blur, but when earned media is designed to generate awareness that is designed to generate sales, this smacks of marketing, not public relations.
  • The ABCs of Communication. I continue to be aghast at the lack of communications skills in even some of the most senior public relations practitioners in large corporations — and I won’t even get into my series of “How to Sell Social Media to Your Dumb-Ass Boss” posts —  but you can get authentic and real all you want, but if you do not have the right messages that are reaching the right audiences at the right time, you are wasting your most likely scarce communications dollars.  And this is Public Relations 101 – define who you want to talk to, the channels through which you can reach them, offer messages that are relevant to them and then make sure that you measure your campaign so you can swap things out that are not working (thanks, Katie Payne for the lat one).  Forget startup CEOs, I have met very few senior communications professionals who can do even these basic steps.  Most (gasp!) hire agencies, who, if you have selected carefully, have existing relationships or expertise that can get you there.And the most important word in the preceding paragraph is channelS – with a big “S” at the end.  It seems impossible to me to keep up with all of the different online and offline channels if you are one person.  Monitoring and reacting when you really kick things in gear can be a full-time job.
  • No Time, No PR. I had one brief and very unhappy experience as a start-up COO (without someone else’s “money” – and “money” is in sarcastic quotes because when I told Mr. Moneybags how much it would cost to make his idea a success, I was out on my ass).  Fast.  But I can tell you that the life of a startup CEO is grueling – you have to make your widget, get new business, make payroll, seek out and hire talent that works for you, balance your books, make payroll, etc.  For those CEOs who have the time for this, your Red Bull consumption must be a significant line item in your operating budget.

Finally, Jason’s piece is detailed and offers some solid points.  What is lacking is that I sincerely doubt that most startup CEO’s have the skills, time and human capital to carry out the recommendations.



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