When a startup invests in and engages a well thought out and sustained PR effort, the upside or ROI can be incredibly valuable.

Establishing a reputation and putting a new venture on the map pays off immensely -- in all sorts of ways. A brief list of the potential outcomes include attracting great talent, increasing visibility (to support everything from business development and enterprise sales to liquidity events), raising employee and investor morale, supporting fundraising efforts and multiplying customer/user base acquisition and retention efforts in other marketing channels. That takes care of the “why.”

In terms of the “how”, all it really requires is for certain key message points to be properly articulated and disseminated by the startup and then highlighted and discussed by the right influential journalists, analysts and pundits. And, since there's definitely no shortage of PR talent out there vying for tech startup clientele, just go find the right PR agency/practitioner/employee and make it happen.

Sounds easy enough, right? Well, the devil is in the details -- namely the who, when and how much.

Who?

It's commonplace for VCs to connect startups with professional services firms, i.e. PR, recruiters, accountants, attorneys, etc. The key question (at least for a startup that values autonomy) is just how much consideration should be given to funding sources when they start to look for an outside PR firm?

Of course, there are all different kinds of VC/startup dynamics. There's a difference between working with VC's that have “an embedded reputation in their space” versus those VC's that are simply supplying cash for growth.

“When a startup works with a VC that has an embedded relationship in their space -- which I think is far more preferential -- their domain experience usually means they understand the purchaser of your product and have unique insight into how to sell and market to them, so it would follow that they also know the PR firms that have similar domain experience,” said Alec Hartman, a tech entrepreneur and founder of NY TechDay.

“Obviously the VC firm isn’t the end-all, be-all for service provider advice, but they have quite a bit of experience that should be taken advantage of, for example, the VCs hear when companies are unhappy or happy with certain service providers -- and they're typically open to discussing why as well as connecting the founder with other founders who can talk to the experience in more detail,” advises Elizabeth Craig Conway, director of communications at Greycroft Partners.

What kind of agency?

In the not-so-distant past the typical PR firm that catered to startups offered a pretty clearly defined set of capabilities, usually focused around message development, competitive positioning, media relations, analyst relations, event support and crisis management. Nowadays, everyone kind of does everything.

Startups are often presented with a choice -- work with a firm (or look for a skill set in a hire) that melds PR into SEO/paid media/social media, or go the more traditional route and hire different vendors in order to obtain the best-of-breed for each marketing/communication channel. The newer, hybrid-model provider is usually much better positioned to fit the multiple needs a tech startup may have as they launch and grow -- as opposed to a traditional PR firm. “Startups are used to having people around them that can do everything," Conway says. "So being told, ‘No, we only do this, not that,” isn’t what an entrepreneur is going to want to hear from a PR firm.”

Agency vs. in-house

“Finding someone to hire in-house, who's willing to be paid far less than an agency (mind you this is still a decent salary because there’s less overhead that an agency would need to cover) is the better option,” says Conway. “An agency can be best utilized once a company has grown and has a marketing and communications person in-house who can manage the agencies, has time to work with them and knows the company’s brand and story.”

When?

One commonly cited piece of advice for startups is to hold off on running any kind of PR until a product is ready for launch -- or at least firmly out of beta, since trying to draw attention toward a product that's not fully baked will likely do much more harm than good. As the saying goes, you’ll never get a second chance to make a first impression.

One workaround? Break it down beyond idea-beta-launch, and tie PR to smaller iterative steps for your product. “For most tech startups the functionality is what makes their product, service or application sticky to users, so once the stickiness has been completed in the build, startups should then begin actively seeking any means of getting in the public eye,” Hartman said.

In addition, it's worth noting here that PR’s capabilities extend way beyond simply supporting products. PR is “especially important if the startup is seeking funding, since one wants potential investors to be able to find the company name beyond just the website if you put its name in a search,” says Joanna Jana Laznicka, publisher of VC-List.com. “If a product isn’t ready to be announced, focus on getting press about topics such as research findings, patents filed and influential people who can join your advisory board.”

Finally, one major problem with the “hold off for now” approach is that it takes many months to properly cultivate real relationships with the right influential media and analysts. Interacting with journalists and influentials without expecting much in the way of coverage might look like a low return activity. However, waiting to barrage them with news -- having neglected these key elements of relationship-building -- is most definitely a low-return activity, and in fact, it's also potentially damaging.

How much?

While the old maxim you get what you pay for is definitely true with PR firms, there's nothing like a standard when it comes to PR agency price structures. Also, PR, more art than science, consistently defies attempts at automation and mass customization.

This can make it very uncomfortable for technologists who launch startups, since they tend to like a scientific approach that reduces variability. Bearing all this in mind, might PR be just too much of a highly variable environment for a startup to risk investing resources in?

“Not at all,” commented Laznicka. “Startups should approach marketing and PR with a focus on quantifiable analytics, and they should look for those PR agencies and in-house hires who think likewise.” In other words, don’t try to reduce the variability by applying rules governing processes and outputs; instead, tie the PR investment to the achievement of measurable business objectives.

The bottom line is that at some point in a startup’s trajectory, growth and increased competition will necessitate adding a PR function.

In order to ensure the greatest probability of success, startups are advised to get referrals from funding sources, engage in some form of PR activity from the very start, try to work with recognized industry/category experts with wide capabilities versus generalists who may offer a narrower set of products and services and tie the PR spend to clear business objectives.