Entrepreneurs and PR: Don’t try this at home

I've never asked a client, "Would you like fries with that?"

Everyone’s entitled to change their minds, but if you’re like me, it’s hard to admit it when you’re the one doing the changing.

I think that’s because it implicitly means you were once wrong.  And who likes admitting they are wrong?

Yesterday, The New York Times ran an interesting blog post from an entrepreneur who has changed her mind about the need for public relations. Last year, in the same blog, the writer announced she really didn’t need a PR firm — she could manage media relations all by herself. This year, she’s hired some outside help.

Her experience is not unlike most small business people I’ve encountered. When you’re starting up a business, you’re concerned about cash flow and to save money, you do a lot of things yourself. While most small business people wouldn’t try to be their own attorney or accountant, many think they can be successful running their own PR programs.

Over the years, I’ve had many friends come to me for PR advice for their start-up. Sometimes, they try to convince me to work with them on a freelance basis. I always say no.

I say no, not just because I don’t want to risk my friendship, but also because I don’t like the unrealistic expectations small business people tend to have. Most small businesses — meaning their products and employees — aren’t newsworthy. Yet they seem to think if you know a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, then you can magically make a favorable story appear with a quick phone call or email. (I wish it was that easy.)

If there is a small business with a truly innovative product which is newsworthy, I won’t take on the work because, frankly, too many entrepreneurs are micromanagers. For many small business people, their business is like their child — perfect in every way. Only they know how to parent their child.

I have no patience for people who want to hire a PR professional, but really want to order items off of a media relations cafeteria menu. I’ve had a lot of PR jobs over the years, but I don’t recall ever asking my clients, “Would you like fries with that?”

Another big reason I won’t take on PR work with an entrepreneur is because in nearly all cases, they think that they need PR, but what they really need are some solid marketing communications and marketing programs. That should be their first order of priority — the PR can wait.

The biggest reason I won’t work with entrepreneurs is because they’re often penny-wise and pound-foolish. Earlier this year,  I was approached for some PR advice by a friend of a friend who was starting up a new business. The business is truly innovative and I think will do well when it’s ready to launch.

My friend’s friend and his partner had raised several million dollars in venture capital to get the business off the ground. They had also invested several hundred thousand dollars of their own money. Despite all of this, they were really only prepared to spend about $20,000 on PR for their first six months of business.

When I advised them what they should be prepared to invest to get the PR results they expected, they were stunned.

“We can just do the PR ourselves.”

But here’s the thing: they can’t. They have no idea how to craft a pitch to a reporter, no idea how social media works, no idea how journalism is changing and frankly, no idea how much time they will have to invest if they try to do it themselves.

I’m tempted to send them the blog posts from entrepreneur who changed her mind about PR, but I’ll resist that urge.

That’s not to say that the business won’t have a successful launch — I’m pretty sure it will be successful simply because the product being sold is a terrific idea.

But I’m also certain that the guys starting the business should be spending their time on what they know and hire a PR professional to help them with what they don’t know.


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