Even startups which can face pitch judges and investors need PR help
Perhaps PR agencies and professionals can adopt the pro bono tradition
AT a recent non-stop startup event I was covering, a few startups were invited to the floor to introduce themselves to the audience.
This was not a pitching session, mind you, otherwise I am sure they would have known exactly what to do … well, more or less.
They were not facing judges or potential investors, which they would have been prepared for. This was a public function where they really just had to introduce themselves and talk about their products or services.
One small company went up and made its presentation. The presentation was a bit awkward, but that’s okay. A little bit of stage fright isn’t going to kill you.
What struck me, and concerns me most, is that if I didn’t already know what this startup was doing, I wouldn’t have learned this from the presentation. It really didn’t tell me anything – and the audience members, who didn’t know what this startup was about, were left scratching their heads.
I recalled the incident with an old friend of mine who has since quit the public relations (PR) industry. I told her about how so many startups needed PR assistance, but few could afford it, and she went, “You know, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for pro bono work to be part of the PR profession. They could adopt startups.”
Pro bono, or pro bono public (for the public good) is essentially professional services done voluntarily, either for free or at very reduced rates. Unlike traditional volunteerism, pro bono involves practising your profession or skills for free, for the greater good.
Indeed, in my short stint at Microsoft, I liked the fact that the company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) programme, or what it calls ‘Citizenship,’ involved employees using their skills and competencies to help organisations or individuals in need of help.
Of course, Microsoft critics would say it’s because the company was just being miserly, but I would argue that such help is more effective and meaningful than throwing wads of cash to solve problems. (It must also be pointed out that Microsoft does donate to charities and causes too.)
Pro bono work is a time-honoured tradition in the legal profession. However, over the years, many other professions – most notably in the healthcare and education sectors – have also begun implementing some kind of pro bono activity.
This involves them dedicating a certain percentage of their billable hours to those less wealthy or fortunate, or the marginalised of society, who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford their services.
These are usually informal arrangements, although some companies make it part of their corporate culture. Whole movements have started.
For instance, San Francisco-based non-profit organisation Public Architecture launched its ‘1% programme’ in 2005, which challenges architecture firms to pledge a minimum of 1% of their billable hours to pro bono work.
This can be in architectural or interior design, or even related activities such as feasibility studies and needs assessments.
The Chartered Insurance Institute (CII) also encourages pro bono work. “Taking part in such pro bono work also chimes with the mood of greater engagement by businesses in civic society,” its president Chris Hanks said in a 2010 paper.
“It also enhances the very fabric of our society: The communities in which those recipients live, the professionals themselves, their employers, and the profession itself,” he said. “It is quite literally a situation in which everybody wins.”
Now, you may think PR work isn’t that big a deal. You’re not fighting for the legal rights of someone wrongfully accused; you’re not saving lives or saving the future of inner-city kids. After all, PR is just PR, isn’t it? When our political leaders announce initiatives but don’t follow through, we say, “See, I knew it was just a PR exercise!”
But PR is about communicating, an essential part of the human experience and our societies. It’s about communicating ideas and aspirations, and possibilities.
And if you believe that entrepreneurship and the startup ecosystem are essential to economic enablement and creating a wealthier, more prosperous and fulfilled society, then don’t startups need to have good PR in their arsenal?
Even we at Digital News Asia (DNA), notorious for giving PR practitioners a tough time, believe that PR is an essential part of the ecosystem. It is why we have written so many times about it, and why two of our monthly Disrupt panel discussions focused on PR with respect to startups.
Indeed, in the Disrupt panel discussion held in May, we had three of the most experienced PR professionals in the country giving advice: Edelman Kuala Lumpur managing director Raymond Siva; Hill+Knowlton Strategies Malaysia managing director Justin Then; and Cradle Fund vice president of marketing and strategic partnership Hazel Hassan.
When asked how much it would cost startups to engage the services of a professional PR firm, none of them could give a concrete figure – which is not surprising given that so much of PR work depends on the circumstances, and how deep they have to dive in to produce anything resembling a proper PR plan.
It also depends on how involved the PR activity is going to be, and whether it is a one-off or a sustained campaign.
They did give some ranges, but it still means that a new startup doesn’t have much to work on if it thinks it should budget for PR activity of some kind.
All of which actually makes pro bono PR work even more valuable and needed.
So how about it? Why don’t some of you PR firms and agencies make dedicating 1% of your time and effort to a startup in need as part of your corporate culture? Or at least, make it the preferred (or perhaps the only) type of CSR activity in your company?
Indeed, it doesn’t have to be restricted to startups only. There are many non-profits and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which could do with the services of a consummate PR professional.
I know of some individuals in the PR industry who already give their time this way, but how much more effective it would be if a portion of all the resources of big PR firms could be channelled into this. (Small, boutique agencies may not be able to afford this, granted.)
There would have to be guidelines of course, especially with regards to the clients you have that may be in the same line of business as the startup, but all that can be worked out.
This is something surely worth exploring, perhaps by the Public Relations Consultants’ Association of Malaysia (first known as PRCAM, now more popularly known as PRCA Malaysia).
Go on. Adopt a startup or two. Help them make it big, and make an impact.
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