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Dear start-up founders and CXOs,

Amid news reports of how COVID-19 is impacting business, including the start-up ecosystem, we wanted to see how we could use this moment in history to pause and take stock of the value of communications and public relations.

Moreover, we want to address start-up founders directly and provide clarity around some misconceptions that we have been hearing about in recent months as we talked with our clients and contacts who are chasing their dreams as entrepreneurs.

One key observation is that Marketing and PR are often handled tactically, rather than as strategic levers that could drive business objectives. Far too many start-ups we spoke with relayed information from previous encounters with PR folk that we do not fully agree with or endorse. Others appeared somewhat jaded because of past experiences working with agencies – something we are working hard to address.

In a bid to lay it on the line, here are three things for start-ups to consider:

1. You don’t need funding to do PR

Which comes first – funding or PR? This is like the classic chicken or egg question.

The common perception is that you can’t afford PR without first raising capital. On the other hand, venture capitalists and private equity investors have said this during founder pitches: “You say your company is growing and doing well, but I can’t seem to find any credible third-party validation of what you’ve just said.”

We suggest asking these questions instead:

  • What will my business stand to lose if I don’t do PR?
  • How can PR supercharge my business in ways that other forms of customer acquisition methods cannot adequately achieve?

If you’re in the process of acquiring your first few B2B customers or your initial B2C user base, it’s probably more worthwhile to focus on inbound marketing that drives leads, such as content marketing, social media marketing and search engine optimization. This is why we have advised some founders to put PR aside temporarily as the allocated budget could be better spent in other marketing channels and disciplines.

Meanwhile, we have worked with seed-round start-ups who have invested ‘low five figures’ on a three-to-six-month PR project and found the resulting media exposure delivering a good return for their business in terms of leads and third-party validation.

Ultimately, your decision should be based on what specific business goals you're trying to achieve. Communications professionals are duty-bound to advise if PR is the right thing for your business or not, and not just blindly sell their services.

The importance of selecting the right PR partner, before deciding on a project or retainer

For early-stage start-ups, PR shouldn’t be a resource-sapping, year-long marathon. Rather, think of each agency engagement as getting a partner who paces and supports you in sprint-mode as you work toward achieving a specific business milestone.

For example, Mortgage Master came to Cognito requesting for PR support in educating consumers on the benefits of engaging a mortgage broker. This was a key lever as the founder, through consultation with our team, understood that media coverage will help boost customer leads.

Working in step with Mortgage Master’s in-house digital marketing campaigns, Cognito ‘sprinted’ for two months and secured 12 pieces of top-tier media coverage. As a result, the start-up experienced a boost in leads as readers and listeners started contacting the company to find out more about their mortgage financing and refinancing needs.

A retainer makes sense when you start finding your company regularly in the news and may not have a PR/communications expert within your team. For practical reasons, you would need external help to track the news, maintain correspondence and relationships with journalists, ensure your company’s viewpoint is reflected accurately and that your brand is mentioned in the right industry discussions.

If a prospective agency suggests a retainer without first understanding your immediate business needs, challenges and marketplace, it might be best to consult another.

PR does not equal press release

It is time to let go of the misconception that PR (public relations) = press release.

Think of a press release as an instrument in your toolbox that can help communicate information on your business to the target audience.

A press release will do nothing for you and your business if it’s not backed by a sound communications strategy and compelling narrative.

Rather than jump into thinking that you need to write a press release, consider how you would articulate your responses to the following questions:

  • Who is your audience?
  • What ways do they consume information about the industry?
  • What sources of information would your audience find credible?
  • Why people should care about your business?
  • What is the problem your business is trying to solve?

By interrogating yourself and your team with such questions, the posture you would take when embarking on a communications campaign would be more aligned to help influence your business outcomes.


Yasmin Ramle and Nicholas Tan
Cognito Singapore