Lucy Siegel recently penned an excellent five-point primer aimed at PR firms and warning them of the five most common marketing and communications mistakes made by start-up CEOs and entrepreneurs. Her bottom-line: PR is not a cure-all for a business model.
It's a great list. But, I could easily add five other miscalculations made by start-ups when contracting with their very first PR firm:
1.) “We have skin in the game and think you should as well”. This was a big part of an entrepreneur's budgeting strategy in the original dotcom days and seemed to make a lot of sense since these guys were making hundreds of millions of dollars (at least on paper). So, why shouldn't a PR firm accept half (or more) of its fee in stock options for launching commode.com? I'll tell you why. Most start-ups fail and guess who's left holding reams of worthless stock options? The PR firm.
2.) “You need to light it up immediately”. Every CEO of every technology start-up with whom I've met over the past 16 years believes his mug belongs on the cover of Inc. Magazine and his company's story should be featured simultaneously on all three morning talk shows. PR legend Howard Rubenstein once told a PRSA audience how he dealt with egomaniacal entrepreneurs: he'd pull a water pistol out of his drawer, hand it to the CEO and say, “Here, go shoot someone. Then, we'll get you on a cover.”
3.) “We're changing the world”. Every start-up CEO believes this even if her Web 2.0 company does little more than provide a hub for educators to share research papers. “'Our model could find the cure for cancer and the world needs to know about it NOW!” Well, your model won't cure cancer and, frankly, the healthcare and business press would laugh at our team if they even suggested such an absurd notion.
4.) “Every press release has to be perfect”. Start-ups approach a basic press release the same way Fyodor Dostoevsky must have planned for his magnum opus, War and Peace. It's not unusual for a start-up CEO to demand 15, 20 or 25 rewrites of a simple release announcing little more than the company's creation. “We need more superlatives, more game-changing adjectives and, most important of all, I want us to be seen as funky.” I can just see The Wall Street Journal's front page story now: “Start-up's decision to be seen as funky is nothing short of revolutionary; Tech firm will also save the planet”.
5.) “We're a B-to-C, no, a B-to-B, no both”. We once represented a technology firm that changed its business model more often than Snooki switches sex partners. One month, they said their target audience was other small businesses. The next month, they said they needed to go directly to the consumer. Then, in month three, running short of funds, they wanted an all-out media blitz on the VC community. I now picture the one-time wunderkind of a CEO standing on some street corner trying to sell fruit: “Oranges are the way to go! No, wait, it berries. Berries are better! Did I say berries? Your body needs the potassium only found in bananas!”
Representing start-up businesses is a dicey proposition for any public relations firm. For every Microsoft/Waggoner Edstrom fairy tale of success, there are tens of thousands of coffeelids.com/Smith & Jones PR sagas of rack and ruin.
The best approach to dealing with start-ups is the one you should take when preparing to go for a swim in shark-infested waters. Check all the reports, ask all the experts and then, if you must move forward, only dip a toe in the water. The leg (and the agency) you save may be your own.