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Why 'Pixie-Dust' PR Programs Are Bad for Startups

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There is a moment in the early life of startups when founders realize they need to create public excitement to help fuel growth. At this moment, founders diverge into two camps. Either they focus on cultivating happy customers before they map out marketing and PR plans, or they begin pursuing short-term, bare-bones, "magical" press campaigns to catapult their companies to greatness in a matter of weeks or less.

The latter option tends to be the wrong approach. This "pixie-dust" strategy to PR might get an entrepreneur that single press hit she thinks is needed to get her business to the next level, but she's mistaken. It’s highly unlikely that 12 inches of space in any publication will sway a discerning VC, create a customer base or initiate partnerships.

PR isn’t the magic that propels a company to the next level. It is the actual startup. It begins first with the right story and then a strategy that aligns closely to business goals and incorporates multiple paths to creating influence with press, analysts, VCs, prospects, partners and other audiences. It should be an ongoing part of a marketing plan, not a one-hit-wonder machine.

Related: Pitching Practice: A PR-Checklist for Early-Stage Startups

To achieve long-term PR success, here are some pointers.

Don't expect to be an overnight sensation. When a founder argues that, “We just want an article in TechCrunch,” any PR or marketing professional worth her fee should ask that entrepreneur some hard questions about whether the thing she thinks she wants -- a single press hit with no long-term strategy -- has any actual value.

Instead of focusing on these magical press campaigns, entrepreneurs should concentrate on long-term value – ongoing programs that create measurable awareness, generate demand and leads, increase conversions, confirm value for investors and support other strategic business goals.

Have an agenda. When a startup has a specific milestone or plan in mind, then you can consider PR.

For instance, if a company has a strategic goal (i.e. to secure VC funding) and a marketing goal (i.e. to gain mindshare) then it could pursue PR. By having pinpointed a particular mission, the PR team knows what is expected of them and can work to achieve this goal. Also, the founder is able to measure the success of the campaign.

Related: The Very First PR Step a Startup Needs to Take

Ask these questions. After a founder lays the groundwork in terms of strategies and goals, she needs to answer the following set of questions with a confident 'yes' before reaching out to a PR firm.  

  1. Do you know what you’re selling?
  2. Can you REALLY explain why your company is or will be unique?
  3. Do you know the difference between PR and advertising?
  4. Do you have a sense of how fast you’re likely to grow?
  5. Is your website ready for information-seeking visitors?
  6. Are you prepared to measure marketing activities?
  7. Does your team have time to manage PR and marketing programs, even if you outsource most of the work?
  8. Do you have the funds to invest in PR and marketing?

The last question sparks a lot of, “Yes, but…” answers. “Yes but only enough for a one-month project.” Or “Yes but only enough to pay a single freelancer.” All of these “Yes, buts…” are warning signs that you aren't ready for PR.

Don't get discouraged. All of this is not to say that small or emerging companies should avoid PR. On the contrary, when there is a clear goal, a solid team and a long-term vision, PR can be the most efficient use of a startup’s marketing budget. But if you don’t have that internal framework first, then PR is going to hurt you more than help you.

New companies don’t succeed without consistent effort, time and resources. PR and marketing programs are no different. A sprinkling of pixie dust to get a piece of coverage here and there won’t create magical results. But for the company founder who knows her business well, understands its place in the market and sees PR as a means to reach long-term strategic goals, investing in influence is a sensible choice. 

Related: Want to Get the Most Out of Your PR Pro? Follow These 5 Tips.

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