Generating buzz on your business is almost always a good thing — but when it comes at a high cost, what’s the return on investment?
Q: I’m trying to decide whether we should take the plunge and invest in a PR agency to help our business grow. What’s your experience? — Vince, Toronto
My consulting company used to offer public relations services for books, technology and physical products. But if you look at our work today, we do PR only as an add-on for long-term clients. Why? It wasn’t because we sucked (which is usually why we’d pivot away from something). We’ve done PR for three New York Times best-selling books, two successful TV shows and a billion-dollar fitness empire. We understand the value of PR, but for us it’s low on the hierarchy of scaling a business. I call Pen Name Consulting a “growth agency” — and PR is one of the last areas you should invest in when taking your business to the next level.
Public relations is an inexact science with a low rate of conversion and success. It can give your business a shot in the arm, but it’s temporary. You can’t say the same about investing in your team or fine-tuning your internal strategy. That’s where we spend the bulk of our time — focusing on the inner workings of a business. It has a much bigger ROI for the client, and that’s how we measure our success. If your success hinges on great PR, I’d argue that you’re already screwed.
I don’t mean to make it sound like PR is worthless — it’s not. Whether it’s a TV show, connecting with influencers or getting media placement, PR amplification is a real phenomenon. But for every massive PR success, you’ll probably have 1,000 failures — and you’re eating the same cost no matter what. That’s a tough ratio to swallow. If you are a small business, spending tens of thousands of dollars on a hypothetical payout is a big risk for cash flow. Like gambling, you should be prepared to lose that money.
If you decide to go the PR route anyway, be careful not to be fooled by vanity metrics. Every PR agency loves to point out its big-name clients, but getting press for established businesses is much easier than breaking ground with the new kid in town. And some agencies will treat their big-name, big-budget clients much differently than they’ll treat you. I’ve read approximately 10,000 PR emails and pitches over the past 15 years, and 99 percent of them are obvious form letters that will never get serious consideration. The agency will sell you on how much of their network they will contact, but oftentimes they’re attempts that never lead to results.
Instead, ask PR firms to show you work they did for businesses that are similar to yours, and find out what results they got. And this one’s important: Ask if they are comfortable with you contacting past clients. If you really want to know whether you’re about to make a good investment, talk to the entrepreneurs who took the same route and find out whether they’d do it again. At the end of the day, remember that getting PR for your business doesn’t depend on hiring a PR agency. You can create your own if you are willing to go the extra mile, make connections, open doors and let your product or service speak for itself. The internet has made us hyperconnected, which means you can build your own relationships with the gatekeepers you seek. Is it more work? Of course. But that investment — in networking, connecting and learning how to position your story — will be invaluable in the long run.