A disconcertingly bitter piece in The Guardian that recently made the rounds amongst the PR and startup communities made one thing very clear: A startup’s real communications needs are very different from what many PR pros think they are.

Having worked previously at big tech PR agencies and now BookingBug, I have experienced this challenge from both sides of the table. The PR-startup dynamic is rarely as easy as it should be, and like any other relationship it takes work, trust and communication from both parties.

This isn’t just a challenge that affects startups. Companies of every size in every industry have different goals and need different communications strategies to support them. Unfortunately with startups, the differences are even more extreme. There’s a huge void between how both industries work, iterate and measure success. They really are worlds apart.

So what’s the answer? For a startup, understanding how to handle PR and its nuances at different stages of every stage of the growth journey is key. If you understand the differences between how businesses and PR agencies think and what motivates them, you’ll soon see why so many relationships end up in trouble.

Here’s a few things I’ve learned — sometimes the hard way — moving from agency side to startup life as BookingBug has gone from punky six-man startup to a global team with a successful PR campaign generating great sales leads.

It’s all about timing…

How do you know when is the right time to look for external comms support? Often this happens way too early and the businesses simply doesn’t have the cash, momentum or internal resource to invest in the kind of campaign that’s needed to make an impact. PR is a long term investment, not a quick fix, and if you can’t commit long term, it’s probably too early to take on an agency.

If you’re a before a significant funding round then bootstrapping is key. Unfortunately the old “a great product sells itself” chestnut simply isn’t true. Marketing your product in the early days needs time and attention. The founders should act as the de facto PR function in the early days: You know your product and market and can can tell your story better than anyone else can.

There are tons of great DIY “growth hacking” resources out there and journalists are more accessible than ever before. Some of the best influencer relationships can be built by the founders at this early stage.

Even once you’ve received funding you shouldn’t jump into bed with the first PR agency that comes along. And they will come along — agencies will be scouring TechCrunch and VentureBeat for funding announcements. As a first step, make the most of your VCs’ network and support. This might include shared resources across their portfolio that include PR and marketing, or perhaps your investors already have established press contacts they can introduce you to. Or perhaps other founders in your VC’s portfolio can make introductions and share their contacts and experiences.

Once you’ve nailed product-market fit, figured out how to tell your story and, crucially, have a handful of happy customers willing to to tell your story for you, then — and only then — are you in a solid place to take on external PR support.

Finding perfect fit 

With so many agencies out there, from the monolithic international stalwarts to the smaller, agile newer players, the first step is to identify the one you want to do business with. Try matching up based on areas of expertise, size and of course ideas and ethics.

Don’t run a beauty pageant-style pitch process where you drag out every agency under the sun. This isn’t enjoyable or effective for either party. First, identify your top five, ask them in to the office for an informal chat, and find out if you have chemistry.

Once you have an idea of who you could imagine working with, invite your shortlist in for the formal pitch. And don’t underestimate cultural and personality fit here. You and your agency are in this together for the long haul and it’s not all going to be a walk in the park. Ensure you select an agency that not only ticks the experience boxes, but one where you like, respect, and trust the team members.

And always clarify upfront who your account team and day-to-day contact will be — those experienced PRs who pitch the vision and dream to you may well not be the same people you are working with after campaign kick-off. Accounts on a startup budget may well end up working with more junior team members. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Younger PR professionals bring something fresh to the party that more senior colleagues might not be able to offer, but ensure you have access to a senior team member when needed.

Practice patience

PR isn’t something any business can just ‘turn on’ when they hire an agency. There are months, sometimes even years, of foundations that need to be built to get it right.

Agencies that are pressured to deliver on high-profile media coverage as soon as they come on board may end up unable to spend time developing a long term communication strategy. Treat your PR agency as a partner or as your outsourced marketing department, talk often, and realize that good PR requires a two-way relationship between client and agency.

Despite the rise of social media and the shifting media landscape, it’s still all about establishing relationships, building trust, and telling compelling stories. Ensure your agency is keeping a steady drumbeat of interesting opinion and great announcements, and soon enough journalists start coming to you for comments.

Don’t expect results overnight. The expectation that an investment in PR support will deliver short term ROI is probably the biggest wedge that drives startups and their agencies apart.

Business integration

I can’t stress this point enough.You can’t see PR as a standalone service that can succeed in a silo. You have to let it permeate every area of your business. Not only will this allow agencies to learn more about your company but it enables them to uncover the interesting opinions of your staff.

On the other side, PR agencies need to focus on establishing what value they can add.Is it as simple as increasing traffic, driving downloads, or accelerating lead generation? Or is it ultimately raising your profile with potential investors or acquirers? Or something else?

You’d be surprised how often this discussion doesn’t happen. Or it does happen at campaign kickoff, but is then forgotten quickly, with “results” being measured in terms of the lowest common denominator: bits of coverage. Both sides need to agree what success looks like and ensure that remains the benchmark.

It’s important to clearly brief an agency clearly on what you want to achieve and make sure you’re both agreed on measuring the right things. Just as a graphic designer won’t succeed without a solid brief, PR agencies need to understand every challenge your business is facing before they can outline ways to support your success.

Look at things from the other side

Both sides need to spend some time understanding the needs and challenges of the other.

Have you given your agency the tools they need to do a great job on your behalf? They cannot work their magic without your support, input and feedback.

The startup client will more often than not be founders or early employees — these people care about their business in a completely different way from any corporate client. For them it’s personal, and they want to know that PRs understand their needs and can help them achieve their goals. Founders are trusting their agency with their brand — their baby — and sometimes it can be hard to let go and empower others to represent it.

But whatever size your business is, it is important to manage your own expectations of what “good PR” is and how it’s achieved. Sure, you might not be on the front page of the Financial Times every week, but when your latest customer story results in huge retail brands calling up to find out more about your technology, that’s success all around.

So take some time to learn how to work together with your agency. You’re both on the same side and this shouldn’t be a battle. Identify how you’ll communicate, collaborate, and measure success. If you equip an agency with everything they need it will soon become clear whether you’re spinning on the same frequency — or hurtling in different directions.


Kate Hyslop is head of marketing at BookingBug.

This story originally appeared on Tech City News. Copyright 2015