A common question that PR people try and answer every day of their lives, even with paying clients, is whether they need PR, and for what reason. I also get a fair amount of people that randomly ask me this, and increasingly see people claiming they “don’t need PR” based off of the fact that they believe journalists are all out to get them, which is…not really true, unless you’ve done something bad, in which case they’re probably out to tell a story about you and it’s not really something personal.
To answer this question is to dig into what Public Relations actually is, and why people do it.
What Is Public Relations, Really?
I’m not going to give a vast answer here, because it’s boring to write and even more boring to read. PR these days is about communicating with the public about something you’re doing.
You do a lot of preparatory work:
- Media Messaging: How you sound to the public, be it on a website or in an email or on a TV show, but in written form.
- Media Training: An actual roleplayed session where you’re prepared for speaking to the media.
- Crisis Communications: What to do if you messed up.
- "Strategy”: I put this in quotes because in many cases a company’s press strategy is more freeform unless they have a great deal of product offerings.
- Content Marketing: Writing blogs to put on your website or studies you put out to the world.
What I’m writing here is very media centric because I believe that PR is media centric. Many people in PR do not agree with me because they enjoy being wrong. There’s also an argument that social media is included in all of this, but in my opinion that is an entirely separate medium called “social media” and is not PR.
I should also add that this is a somewhat diluted version of everything, but these are the core things most people are doing.
This can be in a few different ways:
- Product: I’m selling X product and it does Y. You want to buy it because of Z. Usually, this is either in the form of a third party review where you’d be quoted.
- Thought Leadership: I’m an expert in X, and my thoughts about Y are Z. You want to buy my product or hire me for your service because you think I’m smart.
In the case of a lot of startups, you’ll also see a mishmash between these in the form of a funding announcement - company X has raised $Ym - receiving funding is considered a watershed moment for a company and makes reporters consider them important.
Why Do PR?
It’s to work with the press. I do not know how you sell PR services without it being directly related to media relations activities. Media Relations is getting press for the client, and I seriously am very confused about what people offer in the pitch stage other than media relations services, as it feels to me like offering to make someone a sandwich that’s literally just two pieces of bread. I will probably get a bunch of people saying that I’m wrong here, but that’s fine, I love hearing from people called StevenComms who have giant JPEG-compressed header images and follow 40,000 people.
Anyway, there are a few different reasons people start looking for PR:
- They’re launching for the first time.
- They have a big announcement.
- They want to build awareness of themselves and they feel like they’re unknown in the press.
- They have some press but want to increase the amount they’re getting.
- They have a lot of press, but they want to go for big, meaningful stories - usually in the big business media (Forbes, Fortune, and so on).
- They want to be on TV.
And what are they looking for really?
- Clickthroughs: Actual traffic to sell stuff.
- “Awareness”: Notoriety in their industry, awareness with people that may want to buy the product.
- Brand Building: Building trust with their industry and trust with their customers.
The difference between 2 and 3 is that one just lets people know that they exist, and the other builds their actual reputation as “the one to trust.”
So What Does It Do?
One of the hardest things to get with the press is actual traffic that converts. This isn’t to say it’s impossible, but being able to get consistent traffic that converts into users is hard to guarantee, mostly because you are actively pitching the media to write about something, which they then write and post at whatever time seems good to them. You cannot guarantee how many people will be reading at a particular time, nor can you guarantee whatever is written will engage them in the same way that a writer cannot guarantee a click on an article.
This isn’t to say it’s not possible - just that it isn’t guaranteed and, just like anything in the press, there is no possible way your PR firm can guarantee anything to you at all. This is why you ideally want to be hitting sites with high traffic (lots of people visiting) and high domain authority (well-ranked on Google), so that when people search for stuff related to you it’ll be likely that the article you’re in appears.
Good PR results in third party discussion and approval of what you and your stakeholders are doing, or third party discussion and approval of what you and your stakeholders think. The reason it’s tough is that you do not inherently have any control of anything other than what you say and do - you cannot make anyone do anything for you 100% of the time, and what you are doing and saying will always be organized and mediated by someone else.
This is what terrifies the anti-media sect, though they’d never admit it. Researching what reporters do and having good relationships with them is the best way to have some control over what is happening around you, but it’s control in the sense that a boat has control over the sea. There may be things that are likely to work and regularly work but they do not always work, and the job you are doing is making it so that when you throw yourself into the rube goldberg machine of the media you are getting something approximating what you were seeking to do.
Ok, So Why Do It And Not Just Do Advertising?
Think of the last time that you purchased something. Did you buy it purely because of advertising, or did you go on Youtube and watch a video? Perhaps a friend sent it to you because they saw it on a site they read, or on Twitter? Or maybe you read a review and thought that this was a thing you should buy. That’s because PR was doing some of that.
More directly, I’ve been named to several “top PR people in tech” lists in my life. It’s got me a good amount of business, as has being recommended by Jason Lemkin of SaaStr. In both of these cases I got them by being good at my job, and the resulting search engine validity of good sources that relate to terms like “good PR firm” or “good tech PR firm” means that I come up when people search for stuff. You cannot buy advertising like this, because legally you have to disclose advertisements because, well, they’re ads, but also because advertising doesn’t really resemble this kind of thing.
People are not stupid and can tell when something is paid for and not paid for, and people want to read and see and consume things that are real, and feel actively deceived when an advertisement tries to pretend to be ‘real.’
Generally, people want to learn about things and make their decisions based off of what they consider to be an impartial source - and yes, PR is inherently built on persuading an impartial source that you or your product is good, which might interfere with their impartiality, but the truth is that you are not deceiving anyone - everyone is influenced by something, and no PR person is doing magic on a reporter to make them cover something that objectively stinks.
PR also lasts longer than advertising or marketing. The articles I linked above are months or years old and still send me business, and likely will for a long time. When people look something up, both old and new articles inform their decision making, and that’s really useful.
Conversely, when stuff goes wrong, having good relationships and good SEO and a good reputation makes it easier to deal with, and means that your entire existence won’t be clouded by a mishap.
Why You Shouldn’t Do PR.
Generally I’ll tell companies not to do PR if I don’t know why they’re doing PR. I’ll also tell them not to do it if they want to guarantee anything. I’ll also tell them not to do it if they don’t have a shot at the kind of press they want.
When you do PR as a company, you generally want to be a certain stage in your company growth, and have realistic expectations of the kind of press you can get.
If you need PR to be your primary traffic source, I would really recommend you don’t do it, mostly because it’s hard to guarantee that that’ll work unless you’re launching something really, really crazily good, like a very popular thing that’s 10th of the price. Even then, it had better apply to a huge audience.
Similarly, if you’re someone in a crowded space vying for competition in quotes, say, in accountancy or HR or something or rather, you have to have a really, really good story and truly unique thoughts on something, and be the easiest person in the world to work with, and even then you may take a while to break through. PR firms will use this against you to make you pay them for months and get nowhere.
Your story needs to truly be different and interesting in a way that matches the media at the right time, and in the right way, and there either need to be enough people writing about a subject for you to matter or you need to be able to resemble something that they’re interested in. It’s tough.
This is why I’ll usually turn away anyone with an early business without traction, or singular people who want to “be famous,” because there are millions of people trying to do it and it doesn’t work. What may seem remarkable to you is boring compared to the news, and a fair assumption is that if you’re struggling to see where you’re fitting into the narrative, or having to lie to yourself to see where you fit into the narrative…you’re most likely just not that important.
Why Should You Do PR? And When?
Stories also need hard numbers and real meat to them. Companies need to share real customers that use them and be willing to talk about said use on the record. Thought leadership needs to be grounded in real expertise and say more than generic quotes - even if you see people on TV giving them. Your product needs to have a genuine thing that it does that matters to a genuine group of people.
This means that it’s oftentimes worth waiting to do PR until you’re really somewhere with your product or career, or at least means that you should do it yourself (which is time consuming). There’s a great deal of pressure to keep up with the joneses and hire a PR firm or get an in-house PR person right away, for fear that you’ll be swept away, but that’s money you do not have to burn until you actually have a reason to.
It’s also fine to start PR and then stop it - maybe get a part-timer or just invest some time of your own around a particular event, say, like your seed or series A funding. PR firms love to say that you need to keep doing PR when you don’t, claiming that “things take time,” and this is a slippery slope that needs to have real milestones to hit like actual conversations with real reporters that are actually working on stuff.
But the best time to focus on PR is when your company has enough stuff going on - even small stuff - that you can talk about something every month with the press. If it’s a product, you need to have a large enough addressable market that you can spend 3 months pitching people and there are three months’ worth of people to pitch.
If you’re a singular person, are you prepared to spend thousands of dollars waiting for a one-line mention that may take a few months to actually get you anywhere?
This is the grizzly reality of the business, and why a lot of PR people like to dissuade people that media relations is PR - because so much of it is not tied to actual dates and actual events. Being more positive, the result of good, pragmatic, real PR, with real conversations happening with real reporters is an ongoing digital doctrine about your company told by other people, in a way that isn’t misleading or underhanded, delivered in a way that doesn’t have the greasy feeling of being advertised or marketed to.
PR at a later stage of a company is also really effective, especially when press has become a relatively automated baseline such that your announcements are, on some level, covered by a chunk of press just from a few emails. This is when you can focus on giving reporters more meat - time with particular executives, stories from behind the scenes that tell their audience something new and interesting, and so on - but it’s also a time when huge companies pay big agencies $35,000 to spam 150 people, write a big report every week and then cash the check.
In any case, yeah, I’m never going to be the person to tell someone that they have to do PR. If they want to, I want to give them the reasons they want to, and if it’s the wrong time, I really want to help them make the right decision and wait.