How to Hire a PR Agency for Your Startup Business in 2024

Updated May 2024 – Welcome to the complete guide for businesses and brands in the startup space that are ready to hire a PR agency. In the ever-changing landscape of startups, effective public relations (PR) programs can be a game-changer. A well-executed PR strategy can help a startup build brand awareness, attract investors, and establish credibility in the market. However, navigating the world of PR can be challenging, especially for new entrepreneurs. This guide aims to provide a comprehensive overview of how to hire a PR agency for startups in 2024, covering everything from understanding what startup PR entails to measuring the effectiveness of your chosen agency.

PR is about making sure that your story is heard and understood by those who matter to your business.” – Brian Solis

What is Startup PR?

What does PR mean for startups and how is it different?

Startup PR and PR for big brands are very different. As a startup you are typically building your brand reputation from nothing or from very little. Big brands don’t usually have that challenge and are either maintaining a reputation, changing their reputation or managing a crisis. When you’re working with media for startups, the challenge becomes more dynamic. It’s about getting the journalist to understand and see value in a story that (hopefully) hasn’t been told yet or one that is emerging. As a PR professional that has been working with startups for 20 years, I have learned that a majority of startups don’t realize that they are not necessarily at the cutting edge of their industry’s. They also don’t realize that sometimes they are not solving a problem that is universal. With that means educating a lot of people, which slows down the process quite a bit for the PR pro and the startup.

For example, at The Silver Telegram, we have worked with an autonomous robotics company for more than two years. One of the biggest challenges was not the “cool” factor of the robot but the government regulations that were yet to be put in place so that the company could grow to its full potential. While we were raising visibility of the brand, it was challenging to create customer momentum, because the market for autonomous robots is still very nascent. This presents challenges that most big brands wouldn’t understand. Because of this we have to focus more on storytelling to support political movement, investor relations and overall industry expertise versus focusing on sales.

Is PR important for startups?

There is a time and place for a strategic communications program, but its never too early to start planning or get insight for PR. There is a point where you may have missed the boat however. If you’re at the point of asking how to hire a PR agency for startups, the key idea that many businesses often miss about the practice and integration of a PR strategy, is to have a successful sales and marketing program, PR must be at the center of the communications mix to build consistent brand messaging across the different departments as you scale your startup.

Examples of successful PR campaigns for startups

PR should not be used only to manage reputation when it’s too late, a good PR campaign can be the catalyst for success for a startup. While most people may not categorize these as “PR Stunts”, these three campaigns were all part of a bigger communication strategy that contributed to these startups’ overall buzzworthiness:

  • Dropbox created an early access campaign (similar to Facebook and Gmail): Dropbox utilized a clever PR strategy by implementing an early access campaign that required users to share the service with their friends in order to get more storage space. This campaign effectively turned their users into brand ambassadors.
  • Dollar Shave Club leverage viral video and humor : Dollar Shave Club launched with a humorous and straightforward video titled “Our Blades Are F***ing Great.” The video clearly communicated the company’s value proposition in a memorable way., The result was that the video quickly went viral due to its wit and direct messaging
  • Airbnb and the fun cereal campaign: During the 2008 Democratic National Convention, Airbnb founders created a unique PR campaign by offering “Obama O’s” and “Cap’n McCain’s” cereal boxes to raise funds and gain media attention.

When to Leverage PR as a Startup Business

Key milestones that warrant PR efforts

Before you venture off armed with the answers around how to hire a PR agency for startups, consider this: With every communications plan you want to have a level of strategy that makes sense for you and for your audiences. There are some key milestones in every startup story that can warrant press releases and causes to create some media attention. You can do this in a variety of ways, but that’s for a different article. The main turning points typically include getting funded (in almost any round) with denominations of $5M or more generating the most interest and media attention similar to our work announcing Gecko Robotics’ Series A Funding. The collection of a notable founding team launching something truly innovative or an offshoot of another big brand often draws eyes. A new product launch is always worth announcing and creating a PR plan around, we have done many cool product launches, like launching Soundboks’ new bluetooth speaker. Lastly, when you’re a startup receiving awards and accolades, especially in the science community, can serve as great credibility and leverage for future funding, similar to our work with Farmsense.

Is your startup ready for a PR program?

I suppose the best question to ask yourself first isn’t “how to hire a PR agency for startups”, but instead, “am I ready for PR?” While the stage of PR may be in question, the answer is always “yes” in my eyes. When you’re not actively pursuing media you could be creating strategy, thought leadership and positioning content. When you are ready to move forward with a more aggressive customer acquisition and awareness you go full force towards the media. I would say that there are a few essentials you need to establish before getting into the hiring of an outside PR professional for support. It is crucial that you should create or establish:

  • Your value proposition to the market and to customers.
  • An understanding of your competitive landscape (yes, you have competitors!).
  • Messaging for each one of your target audiences.
  • Have a website – however PR pro’s can typically support content development for your site if you have the above.
  • Goals for your PR team – A PR pro should be able to help you establish measurable objectives and goals after hearing your business development goals.

How Do PR Agencies Differ?

What are my PR options? (Freelance vs. Boutique vs. Large Firms)

You have options when it comes to PR and often it boils down to budget. However a big PR agency doesn’t always mean big results, you may get a more custom approach with a freelancer or boutique. Let’s look at how to best consider these areas when asking how to hire a PR agency for startups.

Choosing a freelancer

You often get what you pay for when you’re looking at freelancers. If you’re looking at Upwork for someone that is $15/hour, you’re probably not going to get PR that was worth the money and time you spent. A good freelancer should have at least 3-5 years of PR experience doing PR in an area similar to yours. Doing PR for a shoe company is very different compared to doing PR for a software company, unless you’re Zappos. These freelancers can start at $15/hour and go up to about $65/hour. I would find someone that can give you examples in your line of business and go with the freelancer that best fits your needs and industry and the goals you are trying to achieve. When they write their proposals, they should be able to give you direct examples of what they would do and how they would achieve results.

Why use a boutique PR agency?

A boutique PR agency, like The Silver Telegram, typically offers more personalized and tailored services compared to larger firms. They focus on understanding the unique needs and goals of each client, providing bespoke strategies in addition to working more directly with senior staff who have a deep understanding of the business, ensuring more consistent and high-quality service. Using a boutique PR agency can offer startups the advantages of personalized service, specialized expertise, and cost-effective solutions, making them a valuable partner in achieving PR goals. This option can give you value and results if you choose the right partner.

Go big or go home with a large PR firm

The biggest pro about working with a big agency is that they typically have a great amount of resources and media relations, have experienced PR pros across many markets, and can generally manage several aspects of the business including social media and marketing, sometimes advertising. However, If you’re ready to go for a big agency, make sure that you are prepared with a large budget. Another caveat is that big agencies will often present with their big hitters while having junior account members working on the account (bait and switch), make sure you have the time and resources to closely manage your agency to reach your goals. Request that you have access to members of the team so you can see who is doing what. Be sure that your contracts are all-encompassing and always check the areas of expertise and ask for case studies. I wouldn’t say a big agency is the best option for startups, but if you want to make a big bang, you may get your money’s worth.

Specializations within PR agencies

All PR agencies are not created equal. In public relations you will find many specialty formats of public relations and depending on what you need you’ll want to select the firm that has the most applicable industry experience. For example, we’ve already discussed how startup PR is different from big brand PR. If you’re a startup you’ll want to go with an agency that understands the limitations and challenges of startup PR, especially if you’re budget conscious. Going with a freelancer or boutique firm that has experience with startups is your best bet. They will understand the dynamics of an ever changing market and startup trends.

You could dive even further based on the type of business you are B2B versus B2C or any particular industry. I will say, however, within the startup realm, PR is more similar than not for all new brands. If you are a B2C brand you definitely want an agency that has product launch experience and if you are a B2B brand you want to know that your agency has thought leadership experience with examples of work from both areas.

Five Questions to Ask and Answer for your Your Potential PR Agency

Outside of “how to hire a PR agency for startups”, when you’re vetting an agency, make sure you are armed with all of the questions that will give you complete comfort and trust once you select the agency. If you don’t trust your PR provider the relationship will not pan out well. You need to be able to trust that the agency knows what they are doing and are transparent with their advice. Here are five questions you may want to ask during your discovery call:

  • What is your agency specialty and what kinds of clients do you typically work with?
  • What are some examples of campaigns that would be similar to one you have done before?
  • Do you have some initial thoughts on how you create a PR campaign based on what we have shared?
  • How do you measure the success of your PR campaigns?
  • What will our working relationship look like on a day-to-day basis?

You should also be prepared to answer some questions, as PR is a very collaborative practice. Here are five questions you should be ready to answer:

  • Do you have existing marketing or press materials?
  • Who are your key spokespeople and their experience with PR?
  • Who are your main competitors?
  • What are your expectations on how we will work together?
  • What is your budget?

What to Look for in an Agency and an Agency Proposal

Key qualities to seek in a PR agency

Once you have a proposal, there are definitely things that you can look for that will give you clues on how knowledgeable and creative your team will be with your campaign. You definitely want a professional or team with deep experience in PR, but more ideally in your industry area when possible. You also want to look for proposals that have proactive ideas for your campaign and are transparent and communicative.

I have had several clients come to me out of frustration because they just didn’t feel like they knew what the PR agency was doing or thought they weren’t “doing anything”. As PR professionals and managers it is our job to clarify any questions and explain our process so you have a clear understanding. After working with startups for the past 15 years, I have leaned into educating our founders and executives and that has definitely helped them understand what we are doing, when we need shift or pivot messaging and understand expectations and results in a more clear way.

PR Red flags to watch out for

Yes, it’s just like dating. Just like any service provider, once you make a selection you want to have complete trust in your PR partner. Make sure they clearly understand your initiatives and the results that you expect them to provide. A good PR agency will ask questions, be collaborative and display a level of professionalism and understanding of your program. They should not be afraid to ask technical questions, that’s not the red flag you should be looking for. An agency may ask some obvious questions to gain clarity on how you may answer with your value proposition, for positioning reasons. Red flags include:

  • Lack of communication – As PR professionals working with tight deadlines, we are trained to respond in a timely manner, which should be within 24 hours. You’ll probably get a response before that, but I like to remind everyone that you’re probably not their only client and they are managing multiple requests. When I respond to an email I always want to provide the level of detail that they need, so some emails may take longer than others.
  • No clear way to contact your provider– These days you should be able to communicate regularly via email, slack or whatsapp. There’s no reason you shouldn’t have a way to contact your PR agent.
  • Program doesn’t have metrics – You should have a clear understanding of the initiatives that are being run by your PR person. Typically they won’t tell you EVERYone they reach out to until they have some kind of positive response to provide to you.
  • Not being proactive – In our industry, we typically need to learn to be nimble with our pitch ideas or strategies, if your PR person is not providing input, ideas, creativity into the program, then you may not have a person that has enough experience and skills to execute a successful program.
  • Not being able to clearly articulate their process – PR is not some big mystery. Every PR person has their own secret sauce of how they work and achieve results. If the person cannot articulate their approach, it may mean that they are winging it.
  • Per placement – success based PR – This isn’t a realistic or effective form of PR. More often than not the professional is not going to produce the results you would expect or they end up paying for a “sponsored post”, which is not really PR but more so content marketing under the guise of PR.

Many marketers believe that they can do public relations. They are not mutually interchangeable. While a marketer can be skilled at email marketing, creating copy and drafting social media posts; it does not mean they know how to work with the media. Public relations professionals are trained to create targeted media lists, manage media expectations, train and support spokespeople and write press releases; which is nuanced and different from writing marketing collateral. Reputation management is just as critical for your media relationships as it is for your target audiences.

What should I look for in an agency proposal

Every proposal will be a little bit different. When you’re reviewing your proposal, make sure you see a proposal that is NOT generic but specific to your brand. A good PR agency will have the attention to detail to tailor the objectives, goals and tactics to your brand and even map them to your business development goals.

The proposal will include specific deliverables and may also include a timeline if it’s relevant. In addition, they will give you a cost proposal that will outline what is and isn’t included in the cost of services.

If there is potential room for creative ideas, then you should ask for them and they should provide. It’s always nice to have one proactive or out of the box idea, just so you know they have an understanding of the market and where you may be able to differentiate yourself. You can also test them by coming up with some creative content ideas and topics after understanding your company’s direction a bit. Every PR pro will have a different set of skills, the more seasoned the professional the more dynamic and detailed they will be in their proposal.

It’s also important to have some options for PR programs, especially if you are a startup. When hiring a startup PR agency, they will typically offer several cost options that will give you an opportunity to make a selection that is right for you.

All that being said, PR is a marathon and not a sprint. While you can certainly get good short-term results with the right news, PR should be something that you want to execute with a long-term strategy and stick with for consistency with the media and your target audiences. In addition, PR professionals can’t guarantee that a storyline or pitch will work, we won’t know until we try, with several factors playing a role in success. Give your PR pro the flexibility to try different angles and collaborate with them on sharing your expertise. I always say that we are experts in PR, but you are the expert for your brand/industry/etc. Just like any colleague it does take time to learn the different styles of different people, PR is not magic, although sometimes it certainly feels like it.

How Much Does a PR Agency Cost for Startups?

Typical pricing models for PR agencies

Startups are known to have creative budgets for marketing and PR and are mostly shy to invest in PR for the first time, when they haven’t experienced the results of good PR in other places. Pricing models can range from hourly (with freelancers), project-based (for a set project or results) and retainers (longer term arrangements).

If a PR person is offering a per placement fee, that is one of the red flags we mentioned earlier in this article. PR is much more than getting media placements; it’s communicating a strategic message to build your brand reputation, something that may last for years.

For example, years ago we worked with an e-Bike company and were able to place them in Digital Trends and get its bikes reviewed. Not only did their article get featured by Yahoo! (a media partner of Digital Trends) but it continued to be featured years after we worked on the initial review, building the reputation of the company as one of the more economical and efficient eBike manufacturers.

Budget considerations for startups

At the end of the day you get what you pay for and you pay for what you can. A solid budget for a starter campaign could start at about $1500/month if you are working with a freelancer, $3000/month if you are working with a boutique and $10,000/month for a large agency. It’s worth comparing different types of options so you can see what you can get at each category. It’s not always the agency that will make the difference, but the people that are designing and executing your campaign.

I have been told by many of our clients that were burned by larger agencies that they felt that they had a more direct connection and cleaner approach than working with us, in addition to better results and productive communications versus a big agency. We’ve also worked with brands that have had to downsize where we were able to help them vet freelancers that were best suited for the work they were looking for.

Hidden costs and additional expenses of PR agencies to be aware of

You most likely won’t get hidden costs or fees when working with smaller agencies or freelancers. You should understand how many press releases, the wire services and the types of reporting that the agency will be providing at the cost they offer you. Some additional costs may be:

  • Publishing press releases on the wire
  • On-site or off-site event support
  • Marketing and additional content development
  • Social media content strategy and creation

What Happens After You Hire a PR Agency

Onboarding process and initial meetings

Most new campaigns start with a kickoff call that will get aligned with your PR strategy and goals. While your agency should have an agenda and/or checklist of their needs, you should expect to discuss how the team will work with each other, how the PR team will be reporting to you, and any other expectations that you may have for the program. Likewise, the PR team should also do the same, so you have a clear understanding of how you’ll be engaging and interacting with each other during the time that you collaborate.

Developing and implementing the PR strategy

For us, the kickoff is also a time to brainstorm main storylines, hear more from the client about what story they want to tell and gather materials around messaging that are most relevant to the campaign. It may be best if you prepare these items in advance or ask your agency what they will be needing so you can spend more time on the brainstorming aspects and less time around logistics. The more material you can provide upfront that is actually aligned with the campaign you are planning to run, the better prepared your agency or PR professional will be to assist you as quickly as possible. And as we all know the startup world isn’t the most patient industry to be in. The more upfront and open you are about where you are in your process, the more clearly and quickly your PR professional can assist you.

Common misunderstandings/missteps when getting into any PR relationship

You may have a better idea as far as how to hire a PR agency for startups at this point, but there are some common misunderstandings when startups work with pr professionals for the first time that are worth discussing. They typically include:

  • Thinking your PR person is a magician – Pretty often I have to explain to startups that PR is very collaborative and there is a period of time where we need to collect and digest information to properly create media outreach and pitching angles. You need to provide input to get the right output, otherwise we are just guessing.
  • Thinking your PR person is the spokesperson – Executives need to be available for commentary. Create a scheduling link to make this easier.
  • Not responding to the media in a timely manner – Media typically has a short shelf life, if you don’t respond in a timely manner then they will move on to something and someone else.
  • Every media opportunity is NOT guaranteed coverage – No media coverage is EVER guaranteed and schedules can change quickly. The best advice I have is to be nimble, provide options and priotize media interviews.
  • Not reviewing materials in a timely manner – Not reviewing what’s been given, affects our ability to place and get content published, which will affect the results of any campaign. Make sure that you have regular check-ins with your PR pro and a steady feedback loop on both sides.
  • Not having high-resolution images – This applies for executives, products and screenshots alike. The biggest complaint that we get from the media is the lack of high quality images to support their articles. Have a pool of original high-res (300 dpi or higher) images ready to supply to the media.

Our how to hire a PR agency for startups article is a great resource, but if you’re at this stage of the process, I recommend also checking out our popular article that details what you should expect when working with a PR agency.

Measuring the Effectiveness of Your Agency

Key performance indicators (KPIs) for PR – How to Hire a PR Agency for Startups

There are eight core areas where you can directly measure the impact of your PR programs. Together these KPIs will provide you a dynamic look at how different parts of your communication program are coming together to create a cohesive and strategic plan that will build your reputation, visibility and awareness over time.

  1. Media CoverageTracking the quantity and quality of mentions your brand receives in various media outlets is one of the most visible components of a successful PR campaign. Make sure you are evaluating the quality of these mentions by considering the prominence of the coverage (placement), the tone (positive, neutral, negative), and the unique reach of the media outlet.
  1. Impressions and ReachWith tools like SimilarWeb, you can get detailed information on impressions and/or reach. We leverage a modern PR dashboard, called Releasd, that generates the reach, clicks and social impressions for every placement, leveraging data pulled from SimilarWeb. Impressions can be something as simple as clicks, where reach includes potential viable audience, based on circulation.
  1. Engagement – Via social media tools you or your agency can track likes, shares, comments, and other interactions on social media platforms. High engagement rates indicate that your content resonates with your audience.

For PR events such as press conferences or product launches, measure the number of attendees and their level of participation. We typically are on the lookout for media attention and coverage from the event, which depends on if you have an announcement or create a PR strategy that reflects any particular milestones.

  1. Share of Voice (SOV) – We typically benchmark every campaign with a competitive analysis to measure the brand’s presence in the media compared to its competitors. SOV is calculated by comparing the number of times your brand is mentioned in the media against the total mentions of all competitors. We also look at additional information like the amount of press releases that were distributed by the competitors and social media mentions.
  1. Website Traffic – Looking at the incoming traffic sources to your website is a key indicator for referral traffic, where you can directly monitor the number of visitors coming to your website from media placements and press releases. Tools like Google Analytics can help track this metric. If you are closely monitoring the activity on your website, you should be able to measure how many of these visitors take a desired action, such as signing up for a newsletter or making a purchase. If you do not have these actions set in place, you may want to consider leveraging UTM’s and specific landing pages to measure this metric closely.
  1. Sentiment Analysis – Sentiment is a little more tricky to analyze, but typically gives you an indication of if your messages are being received in a positive, negative or neutral way. You can also analyze the sentiment of media coverage and social media mentions to understand the public perception of your brand. There are sentiment monitoring tools like Observe.ai or Sprinklr that can monitor sentiment and social engagement.
  1. Backlinks – SEO Impact can be an indicator and typically increases once you publish press releases on any major newswire like PR Newswire or Businesswire, among other wire services. You can track the number and quality of backlinks generated from media coverage. High-quality backlinks can improve your website’s SEO performance. Tools like Ahrefs or SEMrush can give you a backlink analysis that can provide insights on the quality of your sources and links.
  1. Lead Generation – New leads are always a golden indicator of successful PR, but only if you ask your leads where they are coming from or where they have heard about your brand. There are ways to create unique lead links and monitor and measure the number of new leads generated through PR activities. This includes tracking inquiries, sign-ups, and other forms of lead generation resulting from media coverage.

By consistently monitoring these KPIs, businesses can gain valuable insights into the effectiveness of their PR strategies and make data-driven decisions to enhance their public relations efforts. Ultimately, a legitimate public relations agency will provide multiple metrics and KPIs based on your specific business goals, not just those that were covered in this how to hire a PR agency for startups article.

Top 5 PR tools in our arsenal for tracking and reporting

There are several tools that PR professionals use on a daily basis to track and monitor PR outcomes for various projects. When considering how to hire a PR agency for startups specifically, it can be an expensive area to leverage but essential for any PR agency. If you don’t leverage these tools on a regular basis like we do, it’s likely not worth spending your limited resources on and better to have an industry professional have access. The question “what tools do you use to measure success?” could be added to your discovery process if you want access to specific data points in your program. Our favorite tools include:

  1. CisionCision is a comprehensive media monitoring and analysis tool that tracks media mentions across online, print, broadcast, and social media platforms. It offers detailed analytics, sentiment analysis, and the ability to measure the reach and impact of media coverage.
  1. MeltwaterMeltwater is a media monitoring and social listening tools to track brand mentions and analyze media coverage. It includes features for competitive analysis, share of voice measurement, and media impact assessments. This is great for competitive analysis and benchmarking.
  1. Google Analytics – As we mentioned in a previous section, Google analytics tracks website traffic and referral sources, helping PR professionals understand the impact of media coverage on website visits. It allows users to set up specific goals and conversion tracking to measure the effectiveness of PR campaigns.
  1. MentionMention is an easy to use tool that offers real-time monitoring of brand mentions across the web and social media. It provides sentiment analysis, competitive benchmarking, and detailed reports on media coverage.
  1. ReleasdReleasd is a personal favorite tool for creating professional PR Dashboards and reporting that pulls metrics and data and creates a unique formatting opportunity for weekly, monthly and campaign reports. Releasd allows your team to highlight media coverage, including articles, blog posts, and social media mentions. It automates the process of gathering metrics such as reach, domain authority, and social shares; saving time and easily generating a user-friendly and easily viewable format.

The Takeaway – How to Hire a PR Agency for Startups in 2024

By following this comprehensive guide on how to hire a PR agency for startups and what to expect once you do, startups can make informed decisions when hiring a PR agency, ensuring they select the right partner to help them achieve their business goals in 2024 and beyond. The Silver Telegram is happy to provide you with additional information, insights and PR support. Feel free to reach out to us via our website for a free consultation. We’re also more than happy to answer any other questions you may have around how to hire a PR agency for startups.

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