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When to Spend on PR and When to do It Yourself (or Not at All)

You sold your story to your customers. You can sell it to the media too.
When to Spend on PR and When to do It Yourself (or Not at All)
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You’ve just started your business, your website is finished, your SEO is lined up, your products are ready to ship, and you’ve got a hungry team eager to seize the moment. All you need to do now is get the word out about that amazing product. Right?

Maybe, but maybe not. 

When speaking to budding entrepreneurs, I sometimes find myself giving advice that you wouldn't expect from a PR professional. I tell them that, for a lot of brands, hiring a PR pro isn't worth the cost. Don't get me wrong, a great PR team is one of best brand-building tools a business can employ. But if your brand isn't positioned to benefit from a well-executed PR strategy, you could end up wasting your time and money.

Related: Getting the Right Press Coverage for Your Business

Here are a few tips to help you decide whether PR is right for you.

Do you really understand what PR is and how it can benefit you?

When brands work with PR agencies, they're usually looking for editorial media placements above all else. They might also want help with their launch strategy, marketing efforts, social media presence, content creation and even reputation management. But most of the time, PR agencies are hired to deliver media placements that highlight the best elements of a brand in outlets catering to potential consumers.

There’s real value in this approach when compared to advertising, which anyone can do if they have money; editorial placements are earned. Reporters and editors are under no obligation to care about your origin story or your latest product launch, so when you land a great editorial placement, it signals to the world that your story is worth paying attention to.

The grim reality is not every brand has a story that can be told consistently over time, and not every brand needs to. In fact, a lot of brands don't have a story worth telling at all, or looking at it a different way, telling their story won’t provide enough value to justify the expense. PR agencies will always be happy to take your money. It's up to you to decide whether you need the kind of attention they can bring to your brand.

Related: 7 Ways to Get PR Before You Can Afford to Hire a PR Manager

As an entrepreneur, there is nobody alive who understands your brand better than you do. A committed and creative PR team can certainly help tell your brand's story, but there's a real chance -- with a little practice and research -- that you can do a better job than whatever mid-tier agency you're thinking of hiring.

Every entrepreneur should do his or her best to get a feel for the media world and develop an understanding of what stories outlets are looking for in their coverage. When you start to experience diminishing returns from your efforts, or you want to look at a more involved strategy, you should turn to a pro. Even then, you should remain as involved as possible.

Content matters more than contacts.

Without question, a rolodex of contacts is the single most overrated selling point for professional PR. This is also the primary reason companies think they need to bring in an agency. Good media relationships will help get your emails read by reporters and producers, and may even give you a small edge over a cold-caller. But PR folks rarely have more than a handful of good contacts. And just because those contacts worked with a past client, it doesn't mean that they'll give your brand special treatment.

If you can tell a compelling story to the right journalist at the right time, they will engage with you because you are helping them. But they won't put you on the cover of Entrepreneur because your publicist bought the editor-in-chief a steak four years ago. Sometimes an open, honest appeal from a business owner is far more powerful than the slickest pitch from a PR guy. There, I said it.

You’ve already sold your partners, your investors, and even yourself, so if you can sell your story to them, you can sell it to journalists. After all, reporters are people too. As long as you're willing to invest the time, going it alone can pay dividends.

Don’t be afraid to dream big, but be realistic.

I regularly receive RFPs outlining a company’s PR goals in detail. This type of agenda-setting is important, but too often, a brand's ambitions are simply unrealistic. If you're asking for a New York Times think-piece on your new line of ladies hair care products, you're setting yourself up for disappointment. You're also ruining any chance of forging a productive, long-term relationship with your agency. And if you think you are going to achieve even your realistic goals in a few months, think again. Good PR takes time, and it's not fair to your agency to put that type of pressure on them.

Related: 5 Moves to Get Your Startup Featured in Major Media Publications

Something else to keep in mind -- solid media placements don't always lead to increased sales, especially in today's fragmented media environment. Media placement isn't about conversion; it's about building a meaningful, layered brand that is poised for years of sustainable growth. The ROI is there, but not on your terms or timeline.

With that in mind, you’ll want to consider what your immediate goals are. Will strong media presence absent immediate ROI still be a win for you?

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