Why You Can’t Switch PR On and Off

If your business were a house, your PR program would be more like your HVAC system than the the lights – constantly working in the background. It works best (and most efficiently) when it can run consistently, ready to be adjusted to suit your needs and the weather.

Here’s a look behind the scenes of PR for startups for some insight into why it’s not effective to start and stop a program.

PR Is Based on Relationships

How often do you answer a call when you see an unknown number on your cell phone?

Or what about this: how would you react if someone you don't know showed up out of the blue at your office and tried to sell you something?

That’s what it’s like to be a reporter getting cold calls or emails from a PR rep. If you’ve never made contact with a reporter before, the chances of you getting through to them are much lower than once you’ve established a relationship – just as we’re all much more likely to answer a call from a known contact or buy a product from someone who’s sold us something useful in the past.

In PR, when a client retains our services over several months or years, we have regular contact with the reporters covering their space. They get to know us and our client – and we get to know them. We bring them useful information and sources, even when it has nothing to do with what our client wants to say, and they learn that our phone calls are worth answering.

In other words, we learn to trust each other.

That trust becomes especially important if something goes wrong.

Here’s an actual example of how I’ve seen this play out in real life: a disgruntled customer wanted to get even with a client after a bad experience. They went to a reporter who they knew covered my client and their space in a national business magazine. But because the reporter had had so much positive interaction with us over the years, she didn’t rush to write an article about a customer done wrong. She first contacted us to get the company’s side of the story, and we were able to show her that the customer was in fact on the wrong side of the argument.

Think about that: because the reporter knew us, she trusted that our take on the customer’s claim was worth hearing before she moved forward. Even more important, once presented with the evidence, she decided there was no story there.

It’s almost impossible to win that kind of trust if your first contact with a reporter is when crisis hits.

(To be clear: I’m talking about a case in which it was the customer’s word against the company’s – and the customer was not being completely honest. I would never attempt to flat-out deny accurate claims about a client – that would lose a reporter’s trust instantly.)

But PR is about more than crisis control.

Successful PR Depends on Reciprocation

Reciprocation is a central facet of all human relationships. One Psychology Today article puts it well, noting that the “dance of ongoing, reciprocal giving and receiving is a characteristic of all highly successful relationships.”

I couldn’t agree more.

We’re hardwired for a rhythm of give and take, which means building strong relationships with reporters and others requires us to make exchanges of meaningful value. That might be data from a client’s recent survey when it’s relevant to a piece they’re working on. It might include the introduction to a perfect source, whether or not that person is a client. It might be something as simple as sharing and amplifying one of their articles on social media.

We don’t do these things with the expectation of immediate return – that’s not how relationships work.

Instead, we do them knowing that if we’re helpful, over time, we’ll become trusted. As we build trust, reporters will be more likely to consider the stories about our clients that we pitch them – or point us to a colleague who might be a fit if they’re not. They might be willing to cover something that’s slightly outside their usual beat, or something that’s not quite as newsworthy as it should be, because they too want to manage the relationship.

Again, this is not manipulation. We are genuinely invested in building mutually beneficial and authentic relationships. Over time, that’s the only thing that works.

PR Success Builds Momentum

You’ve probably seen the research that shows that it costs between five and 25 times more to acquire a new customer than it does to sell to an existing customer.

Or maybe you’ve seen the study that found that increasing customer retention by just five percent can boost revenue by as much as 95 percent.

While we don’t consider reporters our “customers,” the same principles apply in PR. It’s much easier to work with a reporter you’ve already proven yourself to than with someone you’ve never met. Over time, as we get to know more and more reporters on behalf of a client, we’re able to pitch and secure placements more easily.

The Exception: When Project PR May Make Sense

As a general rule, it doesn’t make sense (or yield good returns) to turn PR on and off. But if you’re about to release new data on a hot topic or raise a new round of funding and you don’t have the budget for an ongoing PR program, then project-based PR around the news – assuming it’s truly impactful – can make sense.

The reasoning here is that, in the case of hard news, reporters are often interested regardless of existing relationships. For startups, short-term PR becomes a worthwhile investment because media coverage can help reassure existing investors that they made a good decision – and get the attention of potential future investors.

If you find yourself in this situation, though, I strongly recommend doing at least some DIY PR on an ongoing basis.

Keep PR On to Make Your Business More Attractive to Everyone

Let’s head back to the HVAC idea.

Just as an HVAC system makes your home’s air cleaner and more comfortable – and therefore the kind of place you want to spend time in – an ongoing PR program continuously spreads good news about your business, making it attractive to potential employees, investors, and customers.

Over time, the positive coverage of your company will raise your profile, improve your public image, and increase your likelihood of long-term success. Those are serious wins – and they don’t happen with the flip of a switch.