How to pick your first PR agency or freelancer…and what to reasonably expect from them
Updated: Apr 11
You’ve got some traction - customers, investors, partners - it’s all starting to come together. And you think, “The world needs to know what we’re up to. Let’s get some press!” It’s time to start your PR engine. Here are some tips to get going.
Building your agency shortlist
Start by asking around. Who have your friends had luck with? Who do your investors recommend? Who do your partners (not competitors) use? Ask around on Twitter and LinkedIn. You should be able to get a list of three or four agencies pretty quickly.
Your list should include only right-size agencies. Try to find one that isn’t too big, but does understand your target media audience. You may have heard names of big global agencies tossed around. Don’t even think about it. These are great agencies for large clients, but you’ll be the smallest client they've ever had, and they’re going to give you their jr. jr. baby intern as your account manager, if they even call you back. Instead, go for the freelancer or boutique agency who specializes in your particular niche (fintech, SaaS, etc).
Also, if you're seed or Series A, in my opinion, you should not be spending $15-20K a month on PR. Your agency or freelancer should be in the $7-12K range.
Vetting is the hardest part of this process. Every agency is going to come with some glossy presentation and a general air of professionalism, dropping buzzwords and making promises. So what do you look out for?
First of all, hustle, energy, and excitement. Ideally this comes in the form of very specific and thoughtful ideas tailored to your company, executives, and narrative. They should be listing publications and journalists by name where they might find success for you – this is the one time name dropping is a good thing. You want them to rattle off a bunch of ideas like…
“We noticed you have a female CFO. X reporter at CFO Magazine does a monthly corner with female CFOs that we could set her up with. We had a CFO placed in it just last month.”
“We see a lot of rapid response q’s on how SMBs can save money or better plan for downturns– we could pitch your CEO as an expert for any of those.”
“Your CPO with their background in AI would be a perfect speaker for X conference, which has an AI track this year. We know X journalist, who is running two of the panels. We can email them ASAP.”
“Wired might not want to write right now, but I’ll try to get you in with X reporter for a background chat with your CEO so he is friendly when you have hard news.”
“The downside of crypto is a trend we’re seeing in a lot of pieces. I feel like your offering could fit well into the narrative as an alternative. I'd pitch X and Y on that first.”
What you want to see is that they can go out and get quick wins, a steady drum beat of trade pubs and solid mentions, and at the same time, start planting seeds with top tier pubs, so when there is big news, they have a lot of options and can go big.
You also want to see that they are primarily focused on pitching stories to journalists. Paid or contributed content should be a fall back, not their primary strategy for you.
Finally, confirm who is on the day-to-day team. They usually bring out their big guns for pitching, but who is on the weekly calls, who is in your Slack channel? You want senior people working with you day-to-day.
Non-PR people hate this, but you have to temper your expectations around PR for a private startup. Top tier business and tech pubs write on funding rounds, IPOs, acquisitions, and then every move big public companies make. Things that are a big deal to your company and your customers (an entirely new product!) are not news to them. Think in terms of clicks: Is the headline “small company you’ve never heard of launches a new product” going to make you click on an article? Nah.
Journalists also can’t trust that there is a meaningful difference between your startup and any other startup in your space unless you give them your hard user or revenue numbers, which startups don’t typically do. Workarounds like “We grew 3000% this year” don’t mean anything if they don’t know what the starting number was. So, they have to get to know you over time in order to buy in to your story.
Also, know that PR is one of those areas where solid work doesn’t always guarantee an outcome. A journalist may not write because of a million reasons that are wholly outside of your agency’s control. What you want to see is a pattern of success over time, not a 100% hit rate. Most importantly, you want to see media interviews landing on your calendar, ideally at least once a week.
And finally, don’t expect PR to deliver you a massive quantity of leads. Use your demand gen engines for demand gen. PR is about building or shifting brand perception. Be patient, trust the process, but verify the pattern of success.
So, you don’t go into the PR relationship demanding “TechCrunch in one month!” You need to look for the seed planting and the steady drum beat I described above. BUT you also don’t want them to rest on their laurels, spending their time making pretty decks and not pitching. So you need to let them know what you expect from them.
To that end, I would put in scope for their contract: pitching media, press release drafting, pitching and supporting executive speaking gigs, executive press training (typically costs extra but is important), and monthly/campaign reporting. You can even try to negotiate minimums for activities or results.
I tend to keep out of scope with a PR agency: case studies, social media, pay-for-play content, and any other marketing or comms work. They’ll often include this stuff by default because it’s easier for them to control for successful outcomes, but none of it is actually getting you earned media. Pay-for-play isn’t always bad, but should be a decision you make internally, factoring in brand, comms, and digital marketing considerations, not something you pay an agency to facilitate.
Weekly coverage round-ups and quarterly formal business reviews should help you keep the agency on track and accountable. But don't let them fill their days with busy work, they need to be pitching.
I like to start with monthly or quarterly contracts with a 30-day max out. This gives you enough time to see some early traction or know if an agency is just a terrible fit. In fact, I often keep contracts on a quarterly basis forever unless there is some compelling reason not to, like a discount. If an agency says they need a month or two to ramp and six months to demonstrate results, that's not the agency for you. They should be pitching week one and generating interviews by the end of the first month.
Staffing up in-house
I am of the opinion that agencies are a great way to get a lot of work done by people who have broad, solid journalist relationships. If you’re just starting PR, it’s important to have an in-house comms or marketing employee who manages that agency, as well as corporate communications more generally. As you grow, you’ll hire in-house PR talent, but they will likely still need agencies to support them so they can be truly successful across geographies, verticals, and other media subsets.
After you get your primary market PR spun up, it’s time to look at your other priority markets where PR might be helpful. I would generally recommend going with a matrix of boutique agencies as opposed to one big agency, at least to start. This ensures you have the best agency in each geography. You can assign a lead agency in each region if it gets unwieldy to manage it all directly in house.
I hope this helped you think through your first PR agency selection process!