On a recent Tuesday morning, my business partner and I woke up to an email from a client that read as such: “The launch story is out, it’s not nearly as big as I expected it to be, we need to talk NOW!”
If you’ve worked in public relations in any capacity, odds are you’ve become accustomed to receiving communication of this nature at least several times a week. Panicked emails from clients are just one of the many reasons that publicists tend to be incredibly thick-skinned as well as experts at managing the often astronomically sized expectations of brand founders. And while that Tuesday was hardly any different from most days as the co-founder of boutique PR and marketing agency MBA Partners, the conversation that arose as a result of this particular panicking client got me thinking: Do founders have a solid understanding of the process of public relations and marketing? For example: Are they aware of the baseline level of investment in marketing and public relations that is needed to get a brand off the ground? Do they realize how long it can take to even begin to see results, and do they truly understand what goes into securing even the smallest of PR “wins”? If not, had I done a sufficient job of shedding light on what can often feel like a whole lot of smoke and mirrors?
I began my career as a beauty writer and editor and then served as the public relations director at Dior Beauty for seven years before launching MBA Partners with my business partner, PR and marketing veteran Matthew Snyder—my experience has afforded me a unique perspective on what it takes to get a brand noticed and supported in the ever-evolving landscape of “earned” media. First, it’s not easy. In fact, it’s a long, hard, costly road. That said, I believe there will always be room for brands that have compelling stories and offer a unique point of difference, especially if founders are able to approach the process with a clear understanding of what it takes to set a brand up for meaningful, lasting success.
I understand why the business of public relations can feel opaque to brand founders and investors. For one, it’s not transactional in the way advertising or paid content is. Two, it can take (literally) years for a PR and marketing program to start paying off. PR is a brick-by-brick effort, not a prefab build, and it is not a black-and white process—there is no one-size-fits-all strategy, often the strategy you start with needs to be tweaked at multiple points, and there are no guarantees, ever. There may have been a time at some point when all it took was a buzzy launch party and a few calls to top editors at Condé Nast to get a brand off the ground (although I have been a publicist for 15 years, and that anecdote feels like an urban myth to me). Regardless, that mythical time is no longer, and I find myself constantly amazed by the sheer number of founders who seem to think that all they need is a retainer budget of $3-$5K, a small launch event, and a few editor meetings to build a solid foundation for their brand. This could not be further from reality, and I have seen countless promising brands disappear when this “strategy” doesn’t pan out as a result.
No one is at fault here—there is a lot of inaccurate chatter about what publicists do, how brands become successful through PR and marketing, and what it takes to get there. Bottom line, organic, earned media remains hugely valuable—necessary, many seasoned entrepreneurs would say—in building a successful brand. Below, I’ve outlined the top 10 myths about the process of public relations in the hopes of giving founders a more accurate window into what to expect and how to better prepare for a successful partnership with their agency or consultant of choice.
1. Three to six months is enough time to gain traction.
There’s a good reason why the best agencies and consultants have policies of a one-year contract to start. It takes a minimum of six months to a year to start gaining traction in today’s extremely crowded marketplace. When I say “traction,” I mean several pieces of organic editorial in the form of simple product placement. If your publicist succeeds in securing a longer, more brand-building piece or founder profile with a national outlet in less than a year’s time, that’s a feat, but it’s not the norm. Earth-shattering results can happen, but typically take years of relationship-building, pitching, false starts, and revisiting the drawing board many times over. “It takes constant storytelling and visibility for a brand to start getting recognized and thought of for various editorial stories,” says Linsey Tilbor Rubin, CEO, Rell Marketing & Communications, founder INCOMMN. “If you aren’t seeing results within six months, my advice is to listen to your publicist’s advice and stick with it. They will have ideas and ways to pivot to generate more opportunities, but it takes time.” Adds Jaime Maser, founder of Maser Communications, “I've secured my fair share of “chef's kiss” placements in my 20+ year career, and some of those have taken over a year to see come to fruition. That's because PR is a slow burn. And if it's not about new SKU or pegged to something timely (say, a holiday or a season or a buzzy new ingredient sweeping shelves), but is more of an evergreen story, it's a process.”
Consider the first year of your brand’s relationship with an agency the foundation. Brick by brick.
2. A budget of $3K per month is sufficient.
In 2022, $6K to $8K per month should be the baseline monthly budget for a public relations program. A baseline PR program involves 1-2 junior or mid-level publicists working on behalf of the brand to secure digital and print opportunities, nothing more, nothing less. If you’re looking to secure a senior-level team and a larger scope of work (such as: organic influencer seeding, paid partnership management, event planning, and so on) prepare to spend between $10K to $20K per month. That said, if the budget is not where it needs to be, hold off on PR efforts until a sufficient budget is in place. Matthew and I often advise brands to wait for additional funding in lieu of embarking on a partnership with an agency that does not maintain standards around budget. There is a reason why the phrase “You get what you pay for” is a cliché, and there is no such thing as a bargain in PR. “A retainer at $3,000 really limits the hours we can spend working on an account,” says Tyler Williams, founder of Nouveau Communications. “Time can quickly be eaten up by client calls, reporting, and other admin work, so low retainers limit the amount of time a team can spend pitching—and that's what your PR team really needs to focus on.”
3. PR alone is enough to build a successful brand.
Public relations, digital marketing, affiliate marketing, social media, influencer partnerships, paid content, advertising, and retailer partnerships all make up a brand’s “ecosystem,” and, these days, each piece of this ecosystem is necessary. When I tell founders this, the general response is one of disbelief—they are often under the impression that one of those elements is the most important, or that it is sufficient to focus on one element for a period, then skip to another, and so on. I understand, it’s a LOT. But a founder who is armed with the understanding that the above should be budgeted in as non-negotiables from day one is ahead of the game or, in the very least, where they need to be. “PR is part of an overall strategy, so please don’t think we can make you into a multimillion-dollar brand on our own!” says Jennifer Bickerton, founder of JJBPR. “There is a pie and PR is a piece of it. Every piece has a function and needs to be in place for success to happen.”
4. PR placements equate to sales.
“PR has the potential to drive sales, but PR alone will not move the needle the way it will in a 360 approach,” says Lauren Kahn, founder/CEO of K3 Media Collective. “Publicists rely on the sales, marketing, social/digital and advertising teams along with the brand itself to work synergistically to collaboratively elevate the company." Think of it this way. If I’m scrolling through Instagram and an ad for a brand keeps popping up in my feed, I might click the “not interested” button right away because I’m a little annoyed, it’s an ad I didn’t ask for. But a few weeks later, I stumble across the same brand sold at a boutique I love. At that point, I take note. Then, a few more weeks later, a friend posts about the brand, and I DM her to get her honest take. Finally, I do a quick Google search and discover that one of my favorite digital outlets gave said brand a very positive review. At that point, I’m willing to give it a try. Maybe. Or maybe it takes a few more rounds. Either way, there’s no point A to point B. There’s point A to point C to point B and over to point D and maybe back to point A.
5. All it takes to get an editor’s attention is a clean formula and a sustainability angle.
The beauty landscape is more competitive than ever, editors are more discerning than ever, and brands must REALLY stand out to even so much as pique the interest of the consumer. “If I had a dollar for every brand that tells us what sets them apart are their clean ingredients and recyclable packaging, I’d be rich,” says Julia Labaton, President of Red PR. “That’s basically expected today.” Every brand’s journey is different, so there is no one-size-fits-all template to “making it,” but I can say that there are several key elements we look for when considering a new client: First, what is the brand’s point of difference—seriously, what makes your skincare or color or wellness brand different from every other skincare or color or wellness brand already on the market? Next, does the brand have a soul, a heart, a conscience, a voice, a unique point of view? And, finally, if the brand is sitting on a shelf with 25 other brands, does it stand out? At MBA, we work with many design-driven brands that editors are drawn to because they create a visual moment—what we refer to as retail “eye candy.” If that visual moment isn’t up to par, we will refer brands to creative agencies for a branding tweak or even a re-do before we recommend investing in PR. All of these elements have to be in place for a brand to stand a chance.
6. If your publicist doesn’t get you an editorial in Vogue or a feature on The Today Show, they’re not doing their job.
“Great publicists help facilitate this kind of coverage through strong messaging and relationships, but it takes a true point of difference, and timing plays a big role,” says Amanda Smeal, PR Consultant at Amanda Smeal Consulting. “Brand-building media such as Vogue or The Today Show cover cutting-edge trends that are either currently happening or are about to transpire.” In the simplest of terms, a publicist’s job is to advocate on behalf of a brand, to build meaningful relationships between the brand and relevant writers, editors, and influencers. This “advocating” involves many different responsibilities, from sending thoughtful pitches via email (and following up on that email too many times to count) to talking about the brand in a meeting with an editor, to working with the brand’s team to solidify brand story, launch strategy, and sometimes even chime in on product development. It’s also a publicist’s job to work toward securing organic editorial for a brand, but this should never be a promise. Even one piece of organic editorial is a huge win (especially for a brand that does not put money behind paid content and advertising). Treat it as such.
7. If you’re not getting editorial placements every month, your publicist is doing something wrong.
There will be lulls in activity. I repeat, there will be lulls in activity.
8. All PR agencies are the same.
“Just as you spend time and resources to hire great talent for your in-house team, you need to spend time and resources to find the right PR pro that jives with your brand,” says Randee Gilmore, President and founder of Real, Good Communications. “It’s not just about the agency’s specialty and skill set but also about who they are and how they will adapt to your needs and grow with you. Every agency is different, and you want a PR team that ‘gets’ you and will invest in you like you are investing in them.” Every agency has a different approach and culture. Ask around for recommendations from other brand founders. Meet with as many agencies as possible and get a feel for the way they work because every agency is different. Ultimately, committing to an agency is about chemistry—many times, Matthew and I have passed on working with a brand because we just didn’t feel the connection in our gut, and I’m sure brands have passed on working with us for similar reasons. If I were to recommend an agency to a brand, my top criteria would be: 1) long-standing director-level relationships; 2) dynamic, thoughtful, strategic storytelling; 3) transparency, honesty, trust; 4) meticulous attention to detail. You should be able to get a good feel for the above four points through one Zoom or in-person meeting and a detailed proposal.
9. Editors will cover your brand if they’re good buddies with your publicist.
This is not an accurate representation of what journalists do. Yes, much of the coverage we have managed to secure for our clients is a result of the quality relationships Matthew and I have built over many years in the industry. That said, legitimate writers and editors build out stories based on many different variables, including personal interest, timeliness, SEO, relevancy, and cyclical trends. Whether or not we happen to be pals is generally low on the list of priorities. “The relationship between a publicist and an editor provides invaluable insight and transparency into that outlet's strategy and can help us sharpen our pitch, but it never guarantees coverage,” says Gloria Yang, founder of GlowYang PR.
10. PR is one of those things you can start and stop and start again.
Okay, this isn’t 100% myth—parts are true. Matthew and I sometimes advise clients to pull back on efforts (aka reduce the budget and SOW) if they are not launching anything new over the course of the next four to six months. That said, going “dark” can negate progress that has been made during a launch phase, so MBA offers our clients a maintenance retainer at a reduced budget. This way, growing brands have the flexibility to focus budget on another area if absolutely necessary while staying in the mix for editorial opportunities through a monthly email blast. But! This reduced SOW is only a temporary solution, and the brands that do this have a plan in place (e.g., new launches) to get back on track as soon as possible. “One of the biggest mistakes brands make is to stop and start PR,” says Kathy Pape, founder of Pape PR. “There are so many brands on the market and the media is just inundated with information. Even a small break can undo all the hard work it took to get your brand noticed in the first place, so it's important to always stay top of mind.”
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