The good people at alarm:clock wrote a scathing piece called “Live Longer- Fire Your PR Firm” last Thursday that had little new to say, but nonetheless it ignited quite a firestorm. More than a dozen comments were posted decrying alarm:clock for being so harsh on PR firms.
While the whole journalists poking fun at so-called “flacks” bit is played out, alarm:clock is right that this is an important issue for start-ups and venture capital firms, and like it or not it’s a hot button.
I regularly get calls from lost entrepreneurs, and yes, even general partners at VC firms asking me about the PR world. Does it make sense to hire in house? Does it make sense to go with an agency? And what agencies are best?
I don’t agree with the alarm:clock folks that all agencies are bad for start-ups (see the combo of Outcast Communications and Salesforce.com for a notable example), and I do know several agencies that are working hard to figure out what blogs are and how to include them in the media strategy. But I could count them on one hand.
Yes, there are good PR folks and bad PR folks, like any profession. But the vast, vast majority of bad PR folks I’ve run across were from agencies. And guess what startups? No matter what an agency says, a junior person will be handling your account. Don’t get me wrong, there are some brilliant junior people. There are also hundreds who haven’t quite mastered the “check-the-reporter’s-name-before-you-call-them” trick. As such, I now answer to Stacy and Lucy, in addition to my actual name, Sarah. And you know what? Stacy and Lucy are much crankier when they call you back.
So, yes, in most cases it makes more sense to hire someone in house, or a third option, the entry didn’t mention: hire an independent contractor. There are many good, seasoned independent contractors in the Bay Area who got fed up with agency ways or just wanted more control of their destiny. Here you could have the best of both worlds: No burden of paying benefits or committing to a full-timer, but a lot more attention than you’d get at an agency and an assurance of who’d be working on your account. Independent contractors are also easier to research with journalists since you’re asking about a specific person not a whole agency where someone could have had a great experience and a terrible one all in the same week.
Here’s the most important thing I’d look for in anyone I was hiring, were I a startup CEO: Someone who can stand up to a bossy client. The worst PR firms, from a journalist’s point of view, are ones who keep pitching you a story they know is lame, that you’ve already told them you aren’t interested. Ever wonder why so many journalists are cranky? Fielding the same phone call over and over again. Imagine if I called you several times a week about a story you’d already said you didn’t want to be interviewed for.
Often times, the caller knows the journalist won’t bite, but they’re checking off a list of things to do the client has ordered them to do. Only problem? It’s at the expense of their relationship with the journalist. The calls I pay attention to are from PR folks who have proven they get what I do and what I’m interested in and don’t waste my time with something lame. Doesn’t always result in a story, but they will always get a call back.
How venture capitalists handle PR is a bit more nuanced. For most, it’s uncharted waters. During the boom, venture capital became a mainstream media topic. During the bust, many venture capitalists wanted to—and tried to—retreat back to anonymity, but it was too late. The smart ones found a good PR person to help them navigate through the choppy waters, fending off articles that wouldn’t benefit the firm, while keeping good relationships with journalists. The agency model makes even less sense for VC firms. It is such a specialized business, very, very few firms do it well. Spark, VCPR, and The Blue Shirt Group are among the few. On the contrary, some of the best PR people I have ever worked with are inside VC firms. They sit in on partner meetings and just plain know what’s going on.
One thing the alarm:clock guys harped on is the annoying agency tendency to write the same old tired press release. Amen. Here’s hoping the profession at large will soon catch on to the fact that words like “leading solutions provider” and “world class” have lost all meaning and are a sheer waste of space.