Chicago entrepreneurs -- I am one of you. In October, 2010, I co-founded VineSprout, a Chicago public relations firm. Two extremely fulfilling years later, our firm has represented more than 25 startups, many of which were built in Chicago. Some are as far away as Atlanta, Miami and London. We have worked with you in all shapes, sizes and stages. We have watched this amazing startup ecosystem in our city continue to blossom and impress. This is my first post for NBC Chicago's Inc. Well blog. My aim is to share my experiences and PR expertise with fellow startups and to help you make smarter PR decisions as you grow.
There are many misconceptions about the public relations industry. I will address some of these myths now and in future posts. What does a PR person not do? They do not write articles for newspapers, nor buy advertising. What does a PR professional do? They work with the media to get products and brands featured editorially in the news. The PR job description then is to build brands, reputation and credibility for clients.
Does my startup need a PR firm?
Want people to know your company name or product? Do you need to attract more users or customers to demonstrate traction to the investment community? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you probably want a PR firm on your side. Many startups realize they must get the word out about their product or business to grow. A PR firm can help startups grow by securing media coverage that will garner attention of users, investors and customers. Solid and consistent media coverage in newspapers, blogs, radio and TV lends credibility to your brand.
Can I do it myself?
Aside from coming up with that innovative idea, a successful entrepreneur must delegate and delegate well. Can you lead your startup’s public relations efforts by yourself? Perhaps. But how effective will you be, and should you be spending your limited time on PR rather than focusing on fundraising or product development? Only you can answer that. Surely some startups can successfully manage PR internally. It doesn’t take a Daniel Edelman to pick up the phone and call Crain’s Chicago Business or The Wall Street Journal. But are you comfortable tooting your own horn? Do you know how to approach relevant contacts with unique, compelling newsworthy angles and trends? Do you have time to research each journalist and customize your pitches? Can you explain your company in a concise and simple way without jargon?
How do I find the right PR firm?
Ask around. Get opinions from entrepreneurs and mentors you trust and respect. Connect with them on Built in Chicago and on your other social networks. Do you see a local startup in the news repeatedly? Ask them who is working the press on their behalf. Find a small firm that will be hands on with your startup. Find a company that believes in you and what you’re selling.
How much does PR cost?
Many in the industry, VineSprout included, work on a retainer fee system. A realistic budget for an early stage startup should fall somewhere between $2,000-$3,000 per month. Determine and set your goals during consultations with your PR firm to ensure you are getting the return that is important to you. Not every PR firm or client determines success or ROI in the same way. If circulation or impressions mean little to you, ask for a metric that better fits your definition of success.
When should I start working with a PR firm?
Do you have paying customers? Is your product accessible and in a decent enough beta form? If you are a bootstrapped startup with no revenue in site, consider holding off on launching a PR campaign until you have secured several customers.
Once you have a date set for the launch of your startup, be sure to allow some cushion for development issues. Sit down and get to know the partners. Engage at least 30 days in advance of your announcement. This gives your new team ample time to familiarize with your messaging, brand and products.
Have confidence. A strong, reliable PR team will be able to communicate about your brand extremely well. You are hiring them because they should do this better than you.
Ben Pavlovic is the co-founder of VineSprout, Inc., the Chicago public relations firm that specializes in growing startups by getting them in the news. VineSprout has worked with graduates of Excelerate Labs, Healthbox and Incubate Miami. Follow @VineSprout on Twitter.