The Startup's Guide to Communications, PR and Social Media

Not every startup needs communications.

You read that correctly.

Might be surprising to hear that coming from an agency communications person, but it's true.

Not every startup is ready for communications.

If your product or service isn't ready for people to use or there's not a need to prime the market for a future release, you don't need communications.

At least not yet.

If you have a product or service that can be used right now or you do need to prime the market for a later introduction (maybe it's a brand new technology), you probably need communications.

So why is it then that there are so many arguments around why start-ups don’t need marketing and communications? Let me break it down by sharing with you the opinions of some of the "leaders" in the startup space - investors and entrepreneurs.


Anti-Comms Opinion #1: Sell, but don't market

This post from Jessica Livingston, founding partner of Y Combinator, shows that investors don't want you spending money on marketing (and comms).

"Startups need sales, not marketing."

But how are you going to sell a lot and drive your revenue as high as possible, which is what investors really want, unless people are introduced to and know about your product?

As the founder of a startup, you need people to know about your product or service. You need people buying your product or service. But your investors don't want you spending money on marketing your product or service.

Quite the dilemma.

What are you to do?


Quick tangent on Jessica's outlook before I go on. I need to point out that sales is actually a function of marketing, a part of the marketing mix, so saying a startup shouldn't be investing in marketing is saying they shouldn't be focusing on selling their product. Sales and marketing have always been tightly integrated in the overall scheme of a business. Stating an organization should not focus on marketing and instead focus on sales is a contradiction in itself. Pushing someone for sales if people don't know about what you're selling is an even further contradiction.

Jessica says startups should be introducing their product/service to a small group of people using a "narrow and deep" strategy rather than the "broad and shallow" one that most people think of as marketing. However, "narrow and deep" is still marketing. A $50,000 campaign spend isn't the only way to market. Many, many companies have been successful with small, extremely targeted niche marketing campaigns.


Anti-Comms Opinion #2: You are the best person to pitch your story

Stephen Robert Morse, co-founder and head of marketing for Skill Bridge, argues a startup shouldn't hire a PR firm. His main argument is that a founder can pitch his or her own company's story.

First, let me state the obvious. Morse is right. Sort of. You can and should pitch media.

However, it's important to also understand that when you are pitching a reporter, you're rarely ever "pitching your company."

It's not a sales call. It's not a sales email. You're pitching a story, which is almost always bigger and broader than your company.

A reporter may cover your funding announcement, but if you don't have a round of funding to announce with name investors, you'll soon see it's hard to get coverage. You must tell the reporter a story that he or she wants to print and readers want to consume.

Morse says, "you need to be the story." He's wrong. Of course your company fits into it the reporter's story, but you are rarely the complete story. It's usually hard for founders to think this way.


Anti-Comms Opinion #3: PR firms cost too much money

Mark Cuban thinks you shouldn't hire a PR firm because of costs. That's a somewhat valid argument, at least more so than Morse's.

Cuban doesn't get as hung up on the importance of you being the one to pitch media because you know the company story best. Instead, he points out the benefits of establishing media contacts. He's right. Developing media relationships are important and can be very valuable for you during the infant stage of your company. Many journalists would rather hear from you as a founder than me as a consultant.

He also says that doing your own PR saves you money.

I suppose it does, but if you look at the situation in terms of overall business value I would have to disagree with Cuban.

Sure, it's cheaper for you to handle PR yourself instead of hiring someone else to do it. But that time you're spending doing PR, what is it preventing you from doing? There are a lot of other responsibilities you have as a founder. Does it make the most sense for you to be focusing on PR rather than something else?

Rather than saving money as Cuban says, there's a good possibility you could be losing money if you look at it in terms of opportunity costs. Doing your own PR will take you more time than someone who has experience doing it day in and day out. That extra time takes your attention away from other activities where you could have more impact and see more results because you're the expert. I could probably do my company's accounting, for example, but it would take me much, much longer than my accountant - and most importantly, it takes time away from servicing my clients, doing the activities where I'm the expert.


Anti-Comms Opinion #4: PR is pitching media

Both Morse and Cuban fail to realize that PR is much more than pitching. Their advice should really come with a disclaimer that they aren't practicing communications professionals and have only seen one small aspect of the much bigger PR profession.

The argument that a startup doesn't need a PR agency surfaces from time to time because of the misunderstanding of what PR is. That misunderstanding, which seems to have driven the perspectives of both Morse and Cuban, is why I prefer to call myself a communications professional. PR has become synonymous with media relations over the years; however, PR is not just coverage. It is and should be much more.

If you meet with a specialist or an agency and all they talk about is getting you coverage, that's the sign you should end the meeting or call right there.


Now that I've given advice on what to watch out for - the false opinions around communications that exist in the startup community - I want to provide some proactive tips to keep in mind when approaching comms as a startup. You have limited time, limited budget and a lot of pressure. You can't afford to misdirect your efforts in any area of your business, but especially not comms and marketing.

Comms Tip #1: Reach your audience directly

Communications is media relations, social media, content marketing, event marketing and more. It's communicating with the audiences you want to reach using whatever vehicles are necessary. And the audience you want to reach is rarely media. It's more likely that your audience is potential customers, current customers, partners, potential employees or investors. Media is simply a channel for reaching those audiences indirectly, but there are many other ways in which you can reach your target audiences directly.


Comms Tip #2: Focus on your messaging before all else

A big aspect of a PR or communications program that is often forgotten, but is vitally important to every startup, is messaging. An experienced communications professional knows this and will help you develop that messaging before you ever pitch a reporter. You know your company messaging, the messaging you use in sales situations. However, the messaging a communications pro will help you develop is commonly referred to as thought leadership. That's broader and bigger than your company. And though thought leadership gets tossed around a lot, it's not snake oil that we're trying to sell you. It's the basis of what you'll pitch a reporter. It's why he or she will ultimately include you in a story. It's also the foundation for all other comms activities - social media, content marketing, event marketing, etc. Hugely valuable stuff.

I'm not saying you can't do your own thought leadership messaging. Some founders can and do a very good job. For many founders it's difficult to hone their message on their own. Some find difficulty with thinking broader than their company, others find actually putting the stories together quite hard. If you're a founder who has an engineering background, communications and storytelling may not be your biggest strengths. Know when to call in reinforcements. You want your company to be as successful as possible.


Comms Tip #3: Understand all the comms channels available and have a strategy for using the ones you need

There are other aspects of your comms program that you can do yourself besides messaging and media relations - social media, content marketing, influencer programs, event marketing. The list could go on and on. As with messaging and pitching, there's nothing preventing you from doing these functions on your own.

However, these often require even more time than pitching. And some of them require more specialized knowledge and experience.

There's a key to all of them - having a larger strategy in place. Some functions may seem tactical, but you have to remember that they all can and should be strategically helping your business.

Let's look at social media as an example.

Why are you active on social media? What do you hope to gain from it? Who do you want to reach? How consistent is your publishing? Where does your content come from? Which social networks are you using and why? Do you have a monitoring and response mechanism in place? Do you have the time to do that monitoring? What process do you have in place to find content? How are you actively engaging with fans?

All those questions need to be answered to properly put together a strategy and each of the other functions have similar questions to consider.


Comms Tip #4: Know how an agency or consultant can help

Hopefully by now you understand that you can run a comms program by yourself - but it's hard work and it takes time.

If you don't have the time personally to invest into a comms program, think about bringing on an agency or consultant. There are a number of areas, aside from those I've already talked about, where a comms professional can be beneficial and provide solid value:

  • Help determine your objectives - media coverage is not your objective. It should be something larger and more impactful to the business. Raising awareness is an objective. Increasing sales is an objective.
  • Develop a communications strategy - this will align to the objectives and be an integrated, holistic program. It probably won't just be social media or media relations.
  • Train you to be a media spokesperson - you may think you're a good spokesperson, but you don't really know. It's very hard to asses yourself in that way. There are people who've spent years as a media trainer, find themselves in a role as a spokesperson and discover they're terrible. Being self-critical is hard, especially if you don't know what you're looking for.
  • Train you to be an online spokesperson - again, as with the above, sometimes you don't know what to look for.
  • Develop content - it's absolutely better for you or your employees to do this, but you're a startup. Your time is spread really thin. You likely don't have the time to develop the amount of content that's ideal to run a good comms/content marketing program.
  • Help with execution - whether it's content marketing or social media or media relations, sometimes you just need extra hands to get the consistency needed to make a program impactful.

After all that, what if you come to the conclusion you do need to be performing comms activities, but you don't have the time or knowledge to handle it yourself? And your current employees aren't able to handle it either?

Now that's the golden question and it's the spot most startups find themselves in.

There are a lot of agencies out there who will insist on putting you on a retainer where you pay at least $6,000 per month. I don't think that's the way to go, at least not initially. While you do need comms, you're probably not at the point yet where you need to make that kind of investment in it.

You need to work with people who understand you. Look for consultants and agencies who work with startups and specialize in comms for organizations like you. They understand the financial challenges and sometimes even have specialized pricing models that aren't prohibitive to you.

I encourage you to look at starting a comms program earlier than when you need it. Not because I want you to spend money - quite the contrary. The reason for doing that is so you can plan ahead strategically and also plan ahead financially.

If you bring an agency or consultant on early, they can do small projects with you - help with messaging, determining your comms strategy or prioritizing audiences. You can gradually allocate more budget and add more activities to their plate as you're able to afford it.The consultants and agencies who know startups are used to that and know how to scale with you as your company grows. This approach also lets you test out a consultant or agency before making a larger investment in them to make sure their approach matches your style.


Communications is more than coverage. It's more than Twitter followers. It's more than writing press releases or blog posts. It's a broad, creative field that can drive serious results for your company. We're not living in the age any longer where the value derived from comms is ambiguous and all we can point to is outdated metrics like impressions. Comms can and should directly support sales. Whether you do it yourself or you bring on others to help you with it, I encourage you not to overlook it, and put serious thought into it.

This post is syndicated from its original publishing on LinkedIn.