In Silicon Valley there exists a handful of firms whose mission is to provide the critical communications’ component for early-stage startups to household name tech brands. Public Relations (PR) is one of the core business communication disciplines that most founders of startups lack, and in most cases, have no interest in. The same holds true with established tech firms as the majority of the C-Level executives aren’t PR experts.
Due to this deficiency, startups and established tech brands in the Bay Area hire PR agencies due to their expertise, connections and results. The PR firm’s responsibilities are diverse, but most often their clients use them for media relations, analyst relations, integrated branding campaigns, speaking and awards programs, editorial support (i.e., press releases), social media, and strategic communications consulting.
Those components of a monthly PR program help generate brand and product exposure, including serving a higher purpose of playing an integral role in funding and M&A activity. But in the Silicon Prairie, these firms are almost non-existent.
In-House vs. PR Agency
During the .com boom, I landed my first career job working for a Silicon Valley PR agency. Within months I was serving on six different accounts – in this case, six different tech brands that ranged from a pre-funded startup to an IPO client whose headquarters was in China. The clients were in completely different market spaces, meaning I had to learn not just the unique technology of each client but also their respective markets, including their target audience markets.
Why is this important to a tech brand? Since PR agencies operate in so many different markets (i.e., security, healthcare, Big Data, etc.) for their clients, they provide exponentially more value (and results) than their in-house peers. As a result, PR agencies’ scope of work isn’t just confined to one particular industry which can significantly pigeon-hole a PR practitioner’s experience.
To put it simply, high-tech agency PR is the most complicated and demanding form of PR. Period. Compared to an in-house PR practitioner who just has to focus on one client (their own company), their counterparts in a PR agency must know a variety of brands (that continually change as clients get acquired, and new clients receive funding).
The downside to agency PR is attrition, and this is primarily caused by practitioners getting burnt out working for so many clients at once. In just over one year of working at my first Silicon Valley PR agency, I became the 8th most senior staff member of a team of nearly 40 employees. As the saying goes in the industry, “not everyone is cut out for agency PR.”
Cost Benefit Analysis
Any Silicon Prairie tech brand wants to employ the best and brightest staff, but in most cases (unless they’re a household name tech brand) they can’t come close to affording an engineer with 15 years of experience working in Silicon Valley for only $90,000. It’s nearly impossible.
That scenario is where the cost value of using an agency comes into play. PR agencies are specialists. If a Silicon Prairie tech brand wants to compete with the top-tier competitors in its respective market the chances of finding a PR tech veteran with 15 years of experience for $90,000 is nearly impossible.
The pay range for a Silicon Valley PR agency executive with 15 years of experience (residing in the Bay Area) is between $175,000 to $250,000 (base salary, not including bonuses). However, by using a PR agency the Silicon Prairie tech brand can generate the same level of results (if not more), and have access to the same or more experience than the in-house practitioner (and probably for less than $90K).
Generating Funding and M&A Activity
One of the other core responsibilities of Silicon Valley PR agencies is to help generate M&A activity. Through carefully choreographed PR and analyst relations programs, including integrated communication campaigns the agency secures the attention of decision-makers responsible for selecting new partners and making recommendations on potential acquisitions. This process is a traditional mainstay for Silicon Valley PR agencies and what separates them from the pack.
On the funding front, high-tech PR firms develop and execute strategic communication plans that are designed to generate attention from a combination of investors (angels, accredited investors, venture capital firms, banks, etc.). This can be achieved in a variety of ways, including proactive media pitching that results in standalone feature stories in magazines like Fast Company, Entrepreneur, Inc., etc.
Stop Drinking from the Same Pitcher of Cool-Aid
We’ve all heard the expression, and know its true, but why is it still happening in the Silicon Prairie? One of the major benefits of using a PR agency is their independence. Agency staff are separated from their clients, so they’re not exposed to the daily barrage of communications and meetings that in-house PR staff (or lack thereof) contend with.
PR agencies must be viewed in the same light as a law firm. Individuals and businesses rely on law firms (outside legal counsel) for their expertise and judgment. The same holds true for PR firms. PR agencies have a long tradition of providing an independent voice in a room filled with a client’s employees drinking the same pitcher of Cool-Aid. PR agencies also bring to the table an outside perspective that is rooted in conversations and relationships with other third parties (i.e., the media, analysts, etc.) whose job it is to provide an unbiased view of the market and trends associated with the client.
In closing, several Silicon Prairie firms/organizations have greatly benefited from this type of PR (i.e., Palisade Systems, The Technology Association of Iowa, Caleris, Alliance Technologies), most notably Dwolla, whose epic national launch was managed and executed exclusively by Freestyle.
For the Silicon Prairie to ever come close to emulating the successful ecosystem of the Valley it needs everyone from entrepreneurs, business leaders, marketing personnel and investors to adopt the use of high-tech PR agencies. This is a bigger challenge than many believe, as Silicon Prairie-based tech brands are mostly unfamiliar with these types of firms and have a reliance on solely using in-house PR staff including marketing (not PR) agencies and personnel to handle the responsibilities of a high-tech PR agency.
To overcome this challenge, decision-makers need to invest in outside PR agency counsel that has a long and successful track record of helping grow and get acquired high-tech brands in a variety of market spaces.
David Splivalo is the CEO of Freestyle Public Relations and a Silicon Valley PR expert who opened his firm’s first Midwest office in Des Moines a decade ago.