When businesses are starting out, they create a business plan that usually includes some form of advertising, but quite often neglects to include public relations—because they don’t realize how PR can be one of the most cost-effective methods to raise brand visibility.

The reasoning is understandable—as consumers, we encounter advertising on a daily basis, so it’s more familiar. And most people are unaware of the role that PR plays in the content they consume and in the news articles they read. They often don’t realize PR is substantially less expensive than advertising, and can be incredibly valuable and impactful to a business. Small to medium-size businesses often have smaller budgets and will typically get more for their money when choosing PR over advertising.

You can tell them that hiring a PR agency is an attractive option—who wouldn’t want their business featured on the front page or in a major industry magazine? But before they reach Fortune 100 status, they need to understand when it’s the right time to go big on PR, and may need a PR pro’s perspective to make it clear.

Many new startups are unsure where to start when it comes to PR—i.e. what needs to be done, when, and how much it should cost. And unfortunately, there is a huge gap in the available options—they can read a book for $10 and still be lost on how it applies to their business, or they can hire an independent PR practitioner or firm for a certain budget. That’s not exactly the panorama of choices we’re used to in our culture of innovation, but it’s a start. Business owners are always advised to do their homework, so they will ask questions of their mentors, peers and colleagues who might have experience, or they may know someone with PR experience, so it’s likely that an investment in PR will start to make more sense.

Once a business decides to invest in PR, it means they understand that a consistent PR program will certainly help build general awareness of their product, service or brand and supplement any direct marketing and advertising efforts. They may also hope the investment will help to make the business appear larger and more established, which may in turn help to secure additional partnerships, customers and funding.

Before these businesses bring in the big PR guns, there are some essential questions they will ask themselves—questions PR firms need to be able to answer:

What are the KPIs and success metrics? If their product is at a phase where they’re still testing and just want to test the water to get a reaction or push something out there into the world, they may not think it’s the right time to hire a PR agency. But their goals are likely heavily invested in lead generation, awareness, customer acquisition, expansion or going up against major competition, and it’s usually wise to ramp up the publicity machine to compete at that level.

Who/Where is my target audience, and which media do they consume? Are they people who read the latest consumer electronic trends or are they casual electronics/tech person who might read something in USA Today as opposed to Mashable? They need to be able to narrow down this ideal “customer” profile, and understand what content would grab their attention and where they congregate.

When’s the best time to invest in PR? Business owners will often see doing the PR themselves as a viable option if they’re on a tight budget. However, they usually have no experience in it, which means they might find themselves spending a whole Wednesday writing a pitch email—time that could have been spent on other aspects of the growing business. They need to know that the right PR partner has this experience, which will cut down on the amount of time needed to create relevant media content—and they’ll have the relationships to reach out to key media outlets in the industry. They need to understand that, as an executive leader of the company, they will need to make time for interviews—which is among their key PR goals.

Do I have a budget for PR? Not just to hire a PR agency, but do they have the budget or internal resources to help develop visual assets like infographics, headshots, microsites, explainer videos, bylines, etc. to help an agency build brand awareness for the organization?

Which PR agency is the right one? Their research will turn up the fact that there are many PR agencies saying they know what it takes to get media results. They’re going to want to know about your experience in their industry, and see proof of it, as well as see an actual proposal with costs included, along with references from current and past clients. They’re also going to want to be sure that your agency is a good fit culturally, in addition to experience.

Remember you only get one opportunity to truly make a good first impression with prospective clients. Fully understanding the client’s perspective can empower your agency to explain when they need to onboard an agency to build their business empire through major brand building, thought leadership and PR.

- Jennifer Abreu, Vice President

Note: This byline was first published on Bulldog Reporter.