Colette Ballou: PR Is Not Magic Bullet That Solves All Your (Startup) Problems

Every startup knows what PR is. It’s a swish of the magic wand that’s going to get them all over the news and solve all their problems, right? Wrong, says Colette Ballou of Ballou PR, one of the key speakers on the upcoming How to Web conference in Bucharest.

PR is mostly common sense, but people often need to be reminded of that, Colette notes.
“PR is mostly common sense, but people often need to be reminded of that.”

Many early-stage startups handle their PR internally, and this is quite a good way to go about it, Colette notes:

Doing your own PR is not like operating on yourself, like taking your own appendix out. It makes good sense for early-stage companies to do it themselves. The core team is the best communications team at this stage, they are the ones who should be getting their team and colleagues excited about the product, talking about it, getting the word out about what they are doing.

The rise of social media has made it much easier for founders to communicate with the public – it gives them a good shot at being heard, listened to, admired if they interact in a clever and constructive way,” she adds.

Are You Ready To Be In The Spotlight?

Switching from building a community around your product and connecting with early adopters to then doing full-blown PR, however, should be done carefully:

The right time for a startup to seek professional PR varies for every company depending on what metrics they need to hit, but on the whole, I wouldn’t hire a PR firm until there’s a solid 5 to 8 million euro in funding. At this stage, a company has the internal resources to devote to PR, whether staff – someone senior to handle communications, and a person who can slice & dice data, if they have it – and the time of the founders to devote to the time-intensive activities of interviews and speaking engagements.

How To Web  is one of the biggest startup conferences in the CEE
How to Web is one of the biggest startup conferences in the CEE.

When you do decide to do a full-blown PR campaign, make sure you are ready for it, Colette stresses:

PR puts a bright spotlight on your startup – don’t do it if you’re not ready. If you do a full blown PR campaign and your servers are not ready, for example, people are going to come flooding, have a terrible experience, and never come back. Or you may get them back, but at twice the cost.

Are you truly ready for every person on the High Street to come to your website? Is it user-friendly enough for your grandpa to use? If you’re doing a campaign in English, do you even have an English website? This is all common sense, not just when it comes to PR but to business as well.

PR Is Mostly Common Sense

A lot of what they do at Ballou PR is counseling, and talking to their clients about what business problems PR can and can’t solve:

People think that getting into TechCrunch is going to solve all their problems. It does not work that way – it is not a magic bullet, PR does not replace your sales team, or your recruiting process. Your cares don’t go away just because you get into the Wall Street Journal – what usually happens is you get a different set of cares.

PR is also not sold by the pound or by the inch of publication, she stresses.

The ROI of PR doesn’t show up in a calculation that says 5k EUR / month = x – thousands inches of press, or of sales. It doesn’t work that way, and if you can’t accept that, then PR isn’t for you. This is a problem for many quantitative founders.

It’s more like hiring a lawyer, she explains, there’s no guarantee that you will win in the court of public opinion. PR is about building a relationship with the public – often via the media, but also directly, at conferences, etc. – and that takes a while, especially if you as a startup have never communicated before.

One of the common misconceptions about PR it that it is simply meant to get you “out there”, in the media, in the spotlight, but it doesn’t quite work that way. You need to tie a campaign to very specific business goals and think very carefully if your business can handle it.

How To Web puts great focus on education of early-stage startups
How to Web puts great focus on education of early-stage startups.

This can be illustrated through a case study for the campaign Ballou PR did for WhatsApp after it was acquired by Facebook. The goal was to acquire more users, with specific markets in mind, and the Ballou PR team approached this task by going to the mainstream media. At that point, the early adopters, readers of TechCrunch or Wall Street Journal, were already hooked or at least aware of WhatsApp’s existence. To approach other audiences, they needed to go through daily publications, where people outside the tech world get their information on a daily basis.

They talked very plainly to journalists about WhatsApp, reminded them about what WhatsApp does and that it doesn’t store messages. Again, it’s common sense, approaching the target audience through the channels they use and presenting the product in terms of what matters to them, but common sense is often overlooked:

People get excited when they talk to the press and sometimes lose perspective on what they need to be communicating.

A Smaller Market Can Be An Advantage

Colette is also one of the speakers at the How to Web Conference in Bucharest, where she will talk more about PR for startups. Even though we in the CEE like to talk a lot about the pains of the small and fragmented markets in the region, she believes that coming is an advantage:

Startups in smaller market have their challenges, but also one huge advantage – they have to go international from the day one. They know they won’t survive if they only hit their local market, and that is an amazing thing most high-growth companies understand.

Moreover, CEE peaks her interest as both a PR specialist and an investor:

This is my first trip to Romania, and I am very excited about it. I am very bullish on CEE startups and talents, looking forward to getting to know the people and opportunities better. I love developing ecosystems, there are a lot of possibilities for success, good things are lining up and it’s exciting to be a part of that.

If you want to talk to Colette, you can catch her this week at How to Web 2014, which takes place on November 20 and 21. For more information on the conference, visit the official website where you can browse this year’s speakers and directly purchase tickets!

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