In my work with new and growing businesses, a common area where people rush to spend is on PR: hiring a PR firm or publicist to get media coverage in order to draw attention, create buzz, generate audience, and impress investors. It's an attractive option: who wouldn't want their creation featured on the front page? But before you reach Fortune 100 status, it's important to understand when it's the right time to go big on PR.
As a marketing and communications consultant who helps entrepreneurs transform great ideas into smart, sustainable businesses, I'm here to pause you before you rush to engage publicity services. Spending on external help before it's truly merited can end up being a huge waste of money, fantastically frustrating, and even hurt your long-term communications strategy.
Many new entrepreneurs are unclear when it comes to marketing and publicity - what needs to be done, when, and how much it should cost. And there is a huge gap in the help available to you as a small business: you can either read a book for $10 and still be lost on how it applies to your business, or hire a firm for thousands of dollars a month. That's not exactly the spectrum of choice we're used to in our culture of innovation.
I'm working to fill the very wide gap between internal execution and external retainer, from my Game Plan service, a focused consulting session to generate immediate promotional priorities, to DIYPR, my new publicity bootcamp where I teach pre-PR firm businesses how to set up their own publicity department and begin to build relationships with the media before it's time to bring in the big guns.
Here are the essential questions to ask yourself and your team before deciding whether to do it yourself or outsource your promotion:
What are my goals?
What are the success metrics for your project? If you're looking to showcase yourself, test an idea, or just get something out there into the world, it's probably too soon to hook media attention. But if your goals are heavily invested in expansion or going up against major competition, you'd do well to set up the publicity channels to play at that level.
How much do I really have to sell?
You're producing an event in a 100-person venue for one night, and your mailing list is over 1,000 people. Do the math: you can probably fill it as long as you compellingly convey the value of the event to your immediate audience. I spoke with one self-published author who wanted top tier coverage but only had 600 copies of his $15 book to sell. He would have gone deep into the red hiring a publicist with a margin that small -- a better start would be hitting some blogs focused on that book's topic, which he was able to do on his own. Match the strategy to the product.
Do I know my core target audience and which media they consume?
If you're building an art business, "people who like photography" is probably still too broad when defining your target audience. Perhaps your true core audience is contemporary art aficionados in their '30s who love nightlife and have disposable income. Can you narrow down where they are on a regular basis and gain access to begin to attract their attention?
Do I have time?
If promotion brings a learning curve, it may take your entire Tuesday to write a media alert -- time that could have been spent on another aspect of the business. Many of my clients are extremely smart about marketing, but they just don't have the time to execute. These relationships are quite successful because we collaborate on the ideas and I can run with the game plan for making those ideas effective in the real world.
Do I have the money?
Not just for the publicist, but for your graphic design, printing, distribution, press kits, photographer, videographer, video editor, web design, print and digital advertising, and everything else that is needed to properly promote. I have seen small businesses and even nonprofits spend up to $10,000 per month to keep an established PR firm on retainer. Even if you're hiring a freelancer, consider the average amount an experienced professional in your area makes -- how much will you need to spend for a healthy portion of her time? Still, an agency or freelancer can be a far more cost-effective investment than a full-time staffer, because you benefit from more experience and wider resources for less than what you would pay for a full salary and benefits.
More marketing and publicity considerations...
- How did marketing and PR go for my last or most similar project? If I want different results, will it take outside help?
- How are projects with similar scopes doing their marketing and PR? Do I want the same results they have?
- Do I know the protocol for interacting with press?
- Do I understand the structure and content of a press release?
- Is this project truly newsworthy?
- Do I have a current and updated press contact list?
- Am I willing to spend the time to build long-term relationships with journalists, to treat them with respect instead of spamming every sales message?
- Am I an excellent, persuasive writer and communicator?
- Do I have an professional photo and video of my product or service to support my pitch?
- Do I know how to leverage online tools like social media to get attention?
- Do my investors or board expect to see media coverage of this project?
When you're running a business, launching a product, or producing an event on a budget, it's important to look at every line item to make sure your spend is on target with your short and long term business goals. Every entrepreneur's instinct is to do as much as possible yourself to keep costs down and the vision streamlined, but taking on duties that are unfamiliar can hinder success, from lack of expertise to draining valuable time and resources.
Be sure to explore all your options and ask the right questions to make the best possible decision about your promotional strategy and team.