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We’ve written before about how to know whether or not a startup should hire a PR firm. We’ve also written about what goes into calculating a PR retainer. But those are just two of the considerations to make in the decision-making process.

The real decision – the one that will most decide the success or failure of your startup PR efforts – is the agency you select. But there’s an important step between deciding to hire a firm and actually doing so.

That step?

Understanding the kind of program you’re really looking for.

There are five kinds of startup PR programs – the Project, the Test, the Taskmaster, the Partner and the Leader. Below is a rundown of each, and an explanation of what is involved.

The Project PR Program

Many startups first experience PR as a project to promote a venture capital funding round or product launch. They turn to PR agencies for a short-term burst of activity over four to six weeks, leveraging the news to grab a quick burst of coverage to tide them over for the next six months or so.

While these projects can be fun for PR firms – they tend to generate a good number of placements with great outlets while helping a startup at a very exciting time – but it can be hard to get a PR agency to do projects. The reason is that PR firms can’t build a business on them – project work is too unpredictable and can unfairly pull attention away from longer-term PR programs with committed clients.

The Pros

— Startups make no long-term financial commitment.
— It can offer a good basic evaluation of a PR firm’s abilities.
— Startups will likely see a very positive placements per dollar ratio.

The Cons

— After launch, if you go quiet, reporters might think your startup is struggling or worse, forget all about you.
— It can create an accurate picture of what PR is and what it can do.
— Funding coverage is too often focused on the startup, not the needs of its customers or other stakeholders.
— Most articles might more or less say the same thing about the news, so you’re not building a well-rounded story.

The Test PR Program

A favorite request of startups without much experience with PR, no hard news and indeterminate funding beyond the next three to six months, the Test PR program is typically a three-month engagement. At the end of the three months, the client should ultimately be deciding on whether to continue for a longer-term program.

The Pros

— Can give a good sense of the PR firm’s capabilities and the experience of working with them.
— Can be a way to limit long-term commitment should the relationship not work out.

The Cons

— The best PR firms won’t go for this, as most “kick the tires” programs don’t move past the trial period, regardless of success.
— PR programs build over time, and three months – whatever the results – may prove little of a program or agency’s overall effectiveness.

The Taskmaster PR Program

These PR programs are all about blocking and tackling. The startup has an idea of what needs to be done, feels good about its messaging and is really just looking for a PR firm to be an outsourced communications team led by an in-house contact.

The Pros

— Outsourcing to a PR firm ensures focus stays on PR, not on all of the other responsibilities foisted on in-house communications teams.
— An agency with a diverse client-set will uncover opportunities that an in-house PR person won’t.
— You know what you’re going to get in terms of roles and responsibilities.

The Cons

— This may not be a great approach for earlier stage startups that need more support in messaging, positioning and broader communications strategy.
— The best PR people love digging deep into client accounts, so task-driven programs may not attract the talent you need.
— The client may have to really manage the PR firm, versus them proactively finding new opportunities and pushing things forward.

The Partner PR Program

This is where the best PR firms really start to shine. The Partner PR program is one that has the PR firm doing more than making the trains run on time and executing on a plan. The PR firm is at the table on messaging and positioning strategy, they’re offering their guidance and insights on growth strategies, marketing tactics and more.

The Pros

— You can go to the PR firm with anything, and they will step up with expert advice.
— The PR firm is every bit as good as you at talking about your business – they know everything you do and are on the same wavelength.

The Cons

— These programs need senior-level attention but are susceptible to the old PR bait and switch trick, where the top agency exec you think you’re getting goes MIA, replaced by less-experienced associates. This can lead to some difficult conversations with your account team.
— Can require more regular interaction with the PR firm than some startups really want.

The Leader PR Program

The Leader PR program has the agency setting the direction for the startup’s communications strategy. It’s an almost complete outsourcing of the communications role. There may still be someone inside overseeing it, but Leader PR programs entrust the agency to do right without the normal agency/client approval process.

The Pros

— You know you have experts doing everything, freeing you to focus on other areas of expertise.
— The PR firm’s incentive for success is high due to their strong ownership of the program.

The Cons

— It can be easy to lose track of what’s being done on your behalf.
— While the Leader is leading, it’s important still to know and understand what they’re up to. Not everyone has the ability or time to do so.
— These can be very costly programs, with longer term contractual commitments.

So there you have it.

The five primary PR program types.

By taking the time to determine which of these program types would best fit what you’re looking for you’ll dramatically improve your chances of finding the right partner and having a strong, productive and mutually beneficial relationship.