I engaged a PR agency, so you don’t have to

I got a lot of press. I hired a PR agency. The two were mutually exclusive.

[ First seen on Substack ]

We have been exploring growth channels for our company. Every once a while “PR” would come up. I talked to a few founders and tried to analyze what it meant to do PR. I found a lot of advice that didn’t work out for me. I learnt a lot of dirty secrets.

I had a news run about our company on the front page of a leading Indian newspaper, I had an article about our company on the leading tech publication on the planet. Both of these happened without hiring a PR agency. Rather, both of them happened because we didn’t hire a PR agency.

TL;DR : If you want to do PR for your product growth, don’t engage an agency.

What is a PR agency?

I was misinformed. They said a PR agency will get your story out on multiple publications all at once. They will also get you profiling — which means you’d get quoted on articles. “They will have connects in the publishing industry” they said. “They will help you get the word out faster” they said. Both of them are half truths.

PR agencies are these people who do have connects in the publishing circles — in the sense that they have the editors’ or journalists’ phone number. But the truth is, most of these journalists safely ignore any messages from agencies. Startups are in abundance and stories many. Journalists are picky about what they write about. Every journalist has something they like to write in particular. So, every startup potentially has a few publications that will actually write. So you need to find an agency that has connects with journalists who care about you. Finding such an agency is hard in itself. As a founder I think you’re better off just trying to build relations with the journalist directly.

That brings me to the second half truth about being able to get the story out to journalists faster. Again, since they have their phone numbers and a dirty secret called a wire they do get to the journalists’ inbox faster. A wire is this mechanism where agencies keep feeding stories and some publications pick it up automatically — usually verbatim. A wire story is utterly useless. It gets published in a side channel on big publications. This is not the same as being published on the main publication. However, agencies do wrap this half truth as “We’ll get you published in the top publications of the country”, but what this really is you’d go into the wires section of some publication. The publications use the wires to discover good stories to write about. They’d put it up on their secondary publication — and track hits. They don’t want to miss big stories. If your story gets a lot of traction after being published on their non-editorial feed, they might write about you. But then, you were doing the PR so that you actually get hits — but this says you’ll get covered only if you get hits! So this usually doesn’t work. Also, if your agency claims to have many great connects to journalists with impressive credentials, take it with a pinch of salt. Journalists I’ve had the luck to have become friends with over the last few months of this fiasco, tell me that they ignore agencies almost without exception. They want to talk to founders. So if a founder pings them, they’d want to hear the story. It’s more interesting.

I talked to a bunch of founders who did get PR — and no one really said their PR efforts succeeded because of a PR agency.

“PR is a long game, and you can’t expect immediate results”

I agree. It is a long game to build a brand. PR is probably important in that front. Being covered by a good publication does give you significant ranking advantage on Google.

My fear is, this statement gets thrown around way too frequently than I was comfortable. I found this to be a consistent answer from all the agencies I talked to whenever I would have a pointed question at them.

We’re a young startup and we are still figuring out our channel of growth. We’re exploring PR. If people tell me I need to pay a substantial retainer fee for a year to see results, sorry that’s not how I work. I didn’t come across any agency that spoke startup tongue.

We need something that we can put some effort and capital behind, test the results of a small experiment and double down when we have traction and conviction on the performance of the channel.

I kept asking PR agencies to help me figure this out. I gave them a free hand. You tell me what you want to track, and we can figure an incentive model around it. 100% of the agencies I talked to declined to work on this model. I talked to a dozen. I feared I was being too naive. My ask was the number of readers on the articles we get mentioned on should gradually increase with time — monthly growth. It came to me as a shocker when something so simple was declined. Many conversations later I realized a part of why this was the case. The agencies do not have access to the numbers themselves. It is that kind of an industry, maybe. But what’s more concerning to me is that the PR agency ecosystem has not put the pressure on the publications to be more systematic — or atleast haven’t been successful at it. That failure tells me two things — these agencies are non-scientific in their approach and that the publications don’t respect the agencies’ requests (if any) to help them become scientific.

I was naive. I was naive not in asking for a number, but that I was asking for the wrong number. The best advice I got from a fellow founder was that if you are doing PR, the search traffic on the website should gradually increase. Initially it would be small and it is OK — but gradually the search traffic and attributions should increase. This was a better ask. This is not only a better to track from a business stand point, but also one that we have access to ourselves. I went back to the agencies with this new proposal to have an incentive model around the search traffic. I was laughed upon.

The real mistake I made

Somewhere between my commitment to the team to set up a PR experiment and my killed confidence on being continuously ridiculed, I decided to work with an agency. They were nice people. I didn’t like the approach to the work, but I found the people behind it to be nice. I made two mistakes already. I picked up a channel that I hadn’t build conviction on — I should have just confronted the team on it. Secondly, I made a naive mistake on going on to work with a firm because I liked the people. It is a good filter when hiring. But when you’re outsourcing — I think a far greater emphasis should be laid on the quality of work.

I spent, luckily not too much, money. I could have very well been tricked into getting into a 6 month agreement. I stayed clear and agreed to work for a month. I knew I wouldn’t be comfortable committing to long timescales without witnessing the results.

At the end of the month, I received an email with 20 links to established publications where our company was mentioned (all of them were wire pickups) along with the invoice. If you search for my company name — the first of these 20 links showed up on the 4th page of Google. This is on the day of the publication where we published some time sensitive information. We got zero attributions. And, as you’d expect — no difference at all in search traffic.

I should have known this

How to do PR right — it’s simple

After the fact, I talked to a few of my journalist friends. I should have pre-empted what they had to say. You should make friends with the journalists. Make friends with people who care about writing things in the domain in which you operate. This is a win-win relationship. The journalists have access to stories and opinions in areas they care about. You have access to journalists who contribute to a publication that your potential audience actually reads. More importantly, you make friends.

PR for a startup is a slow on going effort. You need to build relationships that will yield outsized returns.

The best advice I’ve received with respect to PR is to treat PR the same way you treat Business Development. Make friends, mutually benefitting.