Well, here's where I piss off a bunch of good PR firms, and even a few friends who work in that business. Sorry in advance. But my blog is about lessons and advice for business owners, and in my 20 years of experience, I have found that most small business owners are better off not using PR firms.
We have tried outside firms, always with the best of intentions and highest of hopes that putting PR into the hands of professionals would take work off our desks and get us more/better publicity for a cost we could stomach.
I have almost* always regretted it -- mostly because I have found that we do much better not "farming it out," both in terms of money and results. I can pretty confidently say that our products get more media exposure -- online, in newspapers, magazines and even national TV -- than anyone in our category, and we are in an industry with hundreds of competitors, some of them hundreds of times our size.
Here are my arguments for why small business owners shouldn't use an agency (after you read those, click here to find out how to do your own PR).
- PR agencies can never know or sell your product as well as you do. By far the biggest reason to do it yourself. Nobody knows your business or products as well as you do, and for sure nobody can represent them as genuinely and passionately. Even with a great, small-business-oriented boutique firm, most of us can't afford enough agency time or "mind share" to get that PR company suitably immersed in what we do. In fact, I have had PR firms tell me as much.
- Money. Like any outside professionals, PR firms are costly; even the most basic project or retainer starts in the thousands, and as mentioned above, the entry level doesn't realistically get you the time or level of attention you need. If/when you need more, the meter is running. Like most professionals, PR agents will tell you it's an investment that yields a return. Maybe... maybe not. But it's you who has to write the big checks every month, and the returns are neither immediate, nor guaranteed, nor (usually, for a small business) measurable. So the "ROI" argument is a very tough one, while the out-of-pocket measurement is very real and precise. Obviously using your own time is not free either, but you have more control, it will probably cost less, and you will likely be happier with the results relative to resources used. You are less likely to be wringing your hands and saying, "I just wrote another check for five grand... where's my breakthrough story?"
- The media like entrepreneurs. It used to be that many in the press wanted to be formally "pitched" by a professional PR person. Some still do, but it is more and more common for the press to request "no agency pitches." The media like hearing real stories directly from real business people, and this has only been helped by the endless number and types of outlets hungry for good content. For example, high-visibility blogs and review sites have tremendous, real-time influence. A real review on a major, targeted blog can do much more for you than a product blurb in the most famous newspapers (trust me). And most of the bloggers I know (we have 3,000 of them on our contact list) really like having direct relationships and access to inside people.
- It is easier than ever to do it yourself. There are nearly endless applications and resources, many free or very inexpensive, to help with press releases, contact lists, process management, follow up, and results monitoring. More on that in this post.
- You need to build permanent relationships. With a PR firm acting as intermediary, for all intents and purposes the key media contacts are theirs. If the agency goes away, most or all of those bridges are broken. But when you become a regular, trusted, direct resource for an editor, writer, producer or blogger, it becomes "your" relationship, and can be a valuable contact for years. I can't overstate how important this is.
Don't want to make the same mistake? Learn how you to do your own PR.
*Full disclosure: In fairness, we did go through a period in Skooba Design's early days where we worked closely with a startup PR agency. Both of our companies were in bootstrap mode and we were one of its first clients, so we were able to do a lot of good things together on a very reasonable, pay-for-performance basis. But as that firm (deservedly) grew, the "sweetheart deal" became understandably undesirable -- the PR company was winning clients and had to start making money -- and the new, "real" pricing led us to go our separate ways. Business is business, and we are still friends. If you do feel you need a firm, let me know and I'd be happy to refer these great people.
(Illustration provided by Skooba Design)