How PR lets start-ups down

A few years ago I spent some time among the sockless, bearded, and brightly coloured of trouser in London’s tech city scene, chatting about opinions of PR within this most dynamic and innovative community.

At the time, few had anything good to say about the industry – it seems agencies had gone in with the “traditional” model and tried to suggest start-ups should invest a retainer fee per month in the same fashion that an established big business and enterprise do. It’s thus understandable why there was little love for the profession.

Three years later, and talking to the same folk it would appear the situation remains the same – including the proliferation of beards, bare ankles and garish legwear. Nothing has really changed, and PR still has a bad reputation within a market that is driving growth in the UK, and making our capital a destination for venture capitalists, start-ups and research and development.

The problem is, we’re still trying to foist on to small, dynamic and frequently-pivoting start-ups a model which is too static, too fixed and frankly utterly unsuited. Agencies are being too arrogant – condescending even – in their approach to start-ups and thinking that the established way is the only way; there’s still too little agility and flexibility PR-side, and instead just a drive for revenue through immobile monthly service models.

It’s a blind approach – “do things our way or you won’t succeed“, and as a result, the industry just isn’t trusted. PROs need fundamentally to address this trust gap and stop scrambling for high cash returns, instead looking to see where we can add genuine value and prove tangible returns, beyond just coverage. Only then will we get the opportunities to work with small, dynamic outfits on genuinely ground-breaking emerging technologies and innovation, and to do so through tailored and suitably priced projects and consultancy, rather than expensive and unnecessary retainers.

Start-ups don’t need the traditional model, but there are plenty of services PROs can provide – research, messaging, content, landscape mapping, and campaign structure, as well as having to hand contacts in media and analyst circles where needed. Unfortunately, too many agencies are still relying too heavily on the latter of these and focusing just on media results.

I’m sure there are some agencies which are taking the right approach, but given how PR is still perceived as an industry, it can’t be enough – although the reinforcement of the perception in the public domain of PR being run by spin doctors can’t help our industry’s reputation either, but that’s a debate for another day.

The start-up scene is one of the UK industry’s most exciting assets and there’s a definite role for PR to play within it, but we need to get over ourselves first and be prepared to create programmes which match the dynamism and agility of the entrepreneur scene, rather than sending tired, retainer-based creds over to companies who don’t need them.

Chris Owen, Director, Grayling

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