Jennifer Walzer, the CEO of Backup my Info! (what is it with companies that use punctuation in their names?), is a regular contributor to the You're the Boss blog for the New York Times. About a year ago, Walzer wrote a post about why she didn't use a PR firm. In short, Backup my Info! was getting solid coverage without paying an agency to get it. She was good at building relationships with media people and telling her company's story. She followed that post up with another where she considered the opportunity cost of doing her own PR. Was it really in her company's best interest for the CEO to be spending a good chunk of her limited time chasing clips? She promised to rethink her approach.
Walzer's initial inclination to go it alone isn't unusual these days. PR gets bad-mouthed all the time and social media has (seemingly) made it much easier for companies to build direct relationships with customers and get attention from the media and other influencers. It's very tempting, particularly for early-stage companies, to forgo the hiring of a PR firm and put that money to other uses. But that strategy also comes with risks and trade-offs.
First, not every CEO is as talented and committed to working with the media as Walzer. In fact, most aren't. The skills that make someone a good CEO don't necessarily make her a good company spokesperson. Some just don't like talking to the media, and it shows. More than one company has run into trouble by going to the media with a poorly crafted or poorly delivered message. First impressions, especially bad ones, are hard for companies to shake. Objective outside counsel can prevent that.
Second, there's an amazingly widespread lack of understanding about what PR encompasses and how much time and effort is required for it to be successful. Military people like to say that "amateurs talk strategy; generals talk logistics." Similarly, companies often fail to realize that good PR is a process that covers many fronts, not a result of one-time effort. Press releases and blog posts do not a successful PR campaign make. A PR firm can help a company build and execute an integrated communications strategy that consistently delivers a clear message to the right audience at the right time for sustained coverage.
Finally, as Walzer herself ultimately concluded, going it alone on the PR front means you're not doing something else. In the case of a CEO, that can mean not doing things like raising money, talking to customers, building a team or thinking about business strategy. Those are pretty large opportunity costs.
Today, Walzer wrote a new post ("I've changed my mind about P.R.") in which she talks about why she's finally decided to go with an agency. She still has reservations about spending the money, but she's concluded that the coverage they got in the past wasn't necessarily well-targeted and that the effort she put into getting it can't be sustained. She's also clearly learned some lessons about what PR really means. As she puts it:
I’ve also realized that while we have an excellent story to tell, we haven’t collected enough of the evidence. We have more than 500 clients, many of whom have recommended us to other companies. However, we have yet to get their feedback in writing. As I’ve been building my sales force, I’ve realized that the sales people need these case studies as tools to help share our story.
A good firm would have told Walzer in the first meeting that the most effective tool for building long-term credibility in the marketplace is customer validation. But as a PR amateur, albeit a very talented one, Walzer didn't realize the importance of that. I'm guessing there are a few additional lessons her new firm will be teaching her as well.
Speaking of which, let's hope her new PR firm performs as promised. While Walzer's post is undoubtedly going around the PR-o-sphere today as a much needed shot in the arm, if her agency fails to live up to her expectations (or fails to set them properly) she could come back with another post about why PR agencies aren't worth it after all. So, no pressure guys...
Photo credit: Albino Flea via Flickr