Q. Dear Zenagos, I’m just starting my business, and I want to get the word out. I got a call from a PR guy who says he can get me on TV shows. Is that a good way to get customers?
Hiring a public relations (“PR”) firm is rarely a good choice for a new business. While publicity is generally a good thing, there are much higher priorities when you are first getting off the ground.
Why is a PR firm calling you?
As we discussed in an earlier post, when you start a business, you become a marketing target for a wide variety of companies that provide services to new businesses. While a large PR firm would have little interest in serving a new business (because the revenue would be too small for the cost of the employees to perform the work), a small PR firm might make its entire business selling starter publicity packages to other small businesses. For example, a one-person PR firm might ask for $1,000-2,000 for a media test or media training or a similar offering.
What is PR?
“Public Relations” or “publicity” can be used to refer to a wide variety of services. As described in this Forbes article, a PR firm might perform mostly writing services (creating press releases, writing speeches, copywriting for marketing), research services (market research, inside sales), or outreach services (social media posting, event planning). Some PR firms train customers how to prepare for media sessions. Still others work as “fixers,” handling crisis management or reputation development. Since the breadth of potential services is so wide, it is critical that you ask for detail: Exactly what services is the vendor proposing to perform on your behalf? Make sure you understand the exact activities to be performed before you sign a contract.
Is PR what you really need?
While there is such a thing as “bad publicity” (such as when a restaurant is associated with an outbreak of intestinal illness), an increased profile is generally a good thing for a business. However, PR may not be what you need right now. The work of a PR agency is very difficult to measure. You pay their invoice, and they perform some activities, but what is the real value of those activities to your business? If you cannot clearly see and measure the effectiveness of the activities, then you should not pay for them, at least not while your business is small.
Small businesses are generally better served by paying for “direct marketing” – the direct purchase of leads. When you purchase leads, you can see immediately how many leads you acquired from the marketing source and derive a cost per lead. This enables you to clearly compare one source of leads to another. For example, if you pay for search terms on a search engine and you buy a mailing list and send post cards, you can clearly measure the cost per lead for each source, enabling you to decide where best to spend your next marketing dollars.
Can you handle the demand?
While sometimes the effects of PR are difficult to see, you might also have the opposite problem. What if the publicity sets off a viral frenzy? Will you be prepared for a sudden and dramatic increase in demand? If you have just printed a million copies of your new book and a celebrity mentions your book on a hot TV show, that may work out perfectly – you will just sell the books more quickly. However, if you provide a service, and your operators are inundated with phone calls they can’t handle, then a huge increase in interest may lead to long hold times and just damage your reputation.
When do you need PR?
Some business ideas really do need publicity in order to get off the ground. When you sell something brand new – a new product that has never previously existed, or a new use for a product or service – you need to educate your audience. This is called an “evangelical sale,” where you need to teach people that they want your product. In this case, publicity is critical to getting the first customers to try the product. If they enjoy the product, then they will tell their friends and family, which can get your sales off the ground.
If publicity is key to launching your product, then you will need to have the funds on hand to generate this publicity. This is the reason that some companies raise vast sums of money to launch their product. This kind of business requires a specific type of investor who is savvy about how to generate publicity and has the stomach for large PR spending.
As usual, as the buyer, you must beware. There is a reason why PR firms won’t guarantee a result. If they won’t guarantee it, then you are taking on the risk.
15 reasons for leaders of midsize companies to hire a PR firm. (2021, July 2021). Forbes. Retrieved on October 10, 2022, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescommunicationscouncil/2021/07/21/15-reasons-for-leaders-of-midsize-companies-to-hire-a-pr-firm/?sh=2ecdf4855872