Why I don’t believe in PR agencies for enterprise B2B startups — and what to do instead

“I love my PR firm” — said no startup CEO, ever

Don’t get me wrong — PR is an amazing B2B marketing channel. I’ve seen good press coverage drive quality inbound leads for months, and make an entire year worth of sales. 

This TechCrunch article got Keywee dozens of deals.

This Wired article got Custora thousands of inbound leads, and multiple enterprise deals.

OK, PR is great. So the next logical step would be to hire a PR agency to drum up some coverage for your startup, right? 


Here’s why partnering with a PR agency is a mistake, and what to do instead. 

  1. It’s expensive.  You can hire 2-3 full-time employees for the average cost of a US PR firm ($10-20K / month). Sure, one incremental enterprise deal covers the cost and leads to great ROI, but…

  2. Results are not guaranteed and hard to measure. PR is a crapshoot, the channel you have least control over. You can have a great interview, and ultimately the reporter decides to cover something else that week. Apple announces a new product, and everyone rushes to cover that instead of your startup. Beyond that, it’s incredibly hard to measure. Most publications won’t even link to your website, making traffic impossible to attribute to their article.You can easily spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on PR and not see any resulting leads or sales opportunities. Are you ok with that?

  3. The Rolodex myth. You partner with an agency because of the senior partner’s Rolodex—their relationships with reporters at top tier publications like TechCrunch, NYT, WSJ, and Fortune. But once real work begins, you’ll likely be assigned a team of junior account managers with zero relationships. 

  4. Most importantly, the PR agency folks don’t understand your product and technology. The more complex your product technology, the worse this issue is. The PR team will resort to using cookie-cutter, generic press angles, instead of innovative and original ideas that can break through the noise and land coverage.

  5. Lame publications. The combination of the previous two points often leads the PR team to focus on low-tier publications and paid awards / speaking opportunities (“pay to play”). Unfortunately these mentions don’t drive any results for your business (nobody reads “the lame insurance magazine weekly”), and you could have totally gotten them on your own.

So what should you do instead of hiring an expensive PR agency?

In one word (OK three) – DIY. Two flavors based on your stage:

DIY PR for early-stage startups: Have someone on the marketing team work with the founders on PR. 

Here are our recommendations for three different types of PR opportunities at this stage:

  1. A launch campaign (coming out of stealth) + funding announcement.

    This is relatively easy to get placed (though harder in today’s crazy funding environment), and reporters like hearing from the CEO or company employees better than they like hearing from an agency.

    It’s really not rocket science. Be persistent, write a clear and human pitch email, and target the right reporters. Try to find connections to the reporters you’re targeting — your investors are a good bet. 

    Engage with the reporters on social media, or at least mention a recent article in your pitch email, to show you follow them. 

  2. Content placements (e.g. thought leadership or data journalism).

    Make sure you have original, captivating content before starting to pitch. Focus on a few publications where your content is a strong fit with their audience. We’ve been able to get guest columns and byline articles in trade publications on our own many times. The key is high-quality content, targeting the right publications, and developing these relationships over time. 

  3. Paid placements / awards. 

These are really easy to execute — they’re more of an advertising campaign than press coverage. Make a list, reach out, pay money, get mentioned. (The fact that PR agencies often tout these placements as huge wins is ridiculous.)  

DIY PR for later-stage startups: When your marketing team is bigger, hire an in-house PR person.

Lure someone from a PR agency, with relevant experience and connections. It’s a very cost-effective hire (PR agencies don’t pay well), and they would perform so much better than an agency. The reasons? 

  • Being embedded in your company, they’ll understand your product so much better.

  • You’ll be their only “client,” and they’re well incentivized to care about your success. 

  • They’ll sit right next to you and the team, with direct access to your brain, content ideas, and time. 

  • Your company will own the relationships with the reporters and publications, vs “renting” them through an agency. These relationships are an asset that will serve you for years to come.  

The bottom line

Press coverage can be a game changer for your startup. But it doesn’t mean you have to go the expensive route just because it’s what everyone does or your board is telling you to do so.
Try it yourself first – it’s not just about cost savings, you can actually get better results, and own the reporter relationships as an added bonus.

Further reading

Netta is the founder and CEO of Blue Seedling. She loves third wave coffee, thin crust pizza, and B2B marketing.

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