The dot.com boom saw a shift in the way companies looked at and used PR. Some argue it was critical to the success of the business; others saw it as simply burning cash, without any real results.
As a result, the question that springs to mind is whether startup companies actually need PR to achieve goal and reach their exit? Simple enough question, but when you begin to think about when they should start a PR campaign, things get interesting.
This question was put to a panel of experts from the worlds of technology, venture capital and PR, at a Chameleon PR roundtable, which highlighted that there’s not one definitive answer.
“It is all a question of timing,” suggested Martin Mackay, venture partner at Add Partners. “If you’re just starting out, then you don’t really need PR until you get to the next level”.
However, Rachel Woods, sales director at Outlander, thinks differently: “I would argue that companies need to have PR from the beginning, as it gets you out there. At a former company we kicked off the campaign from day one, with a look to being acquired. The analyst work we did was particularly useful and got us noticed in the US. That was exactly what we wanted to do.”
Talking from recent experience, SpinVox’s marketing director, Melissa Lehrer, suggested that there is a point when PR should begin: “We chose not to begin the campaign at the very beginning, as we had a very simple concept that could’ve been replicated by an operator before we got traction in the market. Now we have the product and partners, we’re using PR effectively to drive sales.”
There is of course no hard and fast rule about when to kick off a campaign, as every company is different. However, the PR strategy should be driven by the business objectives. “The two are inextricably linked,” explained Helen Holland, managing director at Chameleon PR. “You need to keep going back to your marketing plan and reassessing your aims and objectives. Then you need to stick to it.”
The important thing that all of the panel members agreed on, however is that PR should be part of the overall strategy. “PR is certainly an important part of the marketing mix, but it depends on the product,” suggested Diane Nye, executive-in-residence at Ariadne Capital.
Alex Bartfeld, EMEA director at Softscape agrees: “Marketing and PR should be the focus of any start up, rather than the technical intricacies.”
The challenge is when do you start shouting? Dot.com companies in particular were great at getting the message out, but they often went to market too early, with an idea and a PowerPoint deck.
They were creating hype for the sake of hype, which was a good way to burn money. But, it’s a very fine line between getting first mover advantage and going to early – get it right and it pays dividends.
“First mover advantage is critical for many startups,” suggested Lehrer. “For SpinVox, we achieve this with the help of PR and companies that could’ve been our competitors are now partners.”
Another consideration is when to engage with a PR agency in order to get maximum benefit. “Start ups often come to a PR agency two weeks before the launch date, and expect to be on every front page,” explained Holland. “What they should do is have a clear launch strategy and include PR within the overall business plan. This will ensure a planned approach to launch versus a last minute after thought.”
Mackay agreed: “If you work with a PR agency in the early stages, it must integrate closely into the company – creating a symbiosis between the agency and the marketing team. PR is critical to a start up and should be fully integrated with the marketing team and board of directors. You need to match the size of your company to the size of the agency – and ideally grow together.”
Beginning to work with an agency early also allows start ups to develop messaging and positioning in the market, which grows with the company.
The key underlying message that came through in the discussion was for start ups to know what they need and want from a PR campaign and understand what PR can do for the company . “I honestly believe some people think PR stands for Press Release, which is frightening,” suggested Woods.
So, if PR isn’t just about press releases, what is it about and how can it benefit start ups? “It’s about reputation. The right reputation breeds success. Reputation should be a key element in every CEO’s daily operations. Reputation is the CEO’s responsibility,” explained Holland.
"From the perspective of an established firm PR is about reputation, about building a brand 'picture' to ensure that people understand the company and what it's doing” added Tim Magness, marketing director at Civica. "Ultimately it's to ensure customers and partners choose and become advocates for the company.
"At first sight start ups have a more immediate agenda than reputation and competitive politics. Yet the need to articulate the next new idea clearly beyond the clamour of other innovators means the PR imperative remains.”
But companies must decide between strategic and tactical PR. The reason many people just think about press releases is that most do the tactical element and forget strategic.
“People just don’t understand,” said Nye. “They may look through the ‘Style’ section of The Times and not realise that the makeup is there because of PR, not because it’s the best product on the market.
"Companies can use the relationships the agency has with journalists to maximise their impact.”
It is impact that’s key for start ups. Lehrer said that “PR has moved mountains”, while Magness suggested that “It’s all about differentiation and getting the message out over the noise”.
From a VC’s perspective, “PR is essential to get the desired effect in the market,” suggested David Brocklebank at Outlander. However, start ups “must have a clear idea of what they need from PR,” added Woods.
The panel overall agreed that PR plays an important part in the development of start ups but there was some differences in opinion about just how important it really is.
It was neatly summed up by Mackay, who suggested that PR is “a critical non-essential”, but it really does depend on what the company wants to achieve in the market and what the exit strategy is.