How to build the PR team you really need

An interview with Erin Fors

Erin Fors (@forsie) is cofounder and President of Cutline Communications. Erin has nearly two decades of experience in PR, with an emphasis on industry-impacting launches and media strategy. She’s worked closely with giants like Google, WhatsApp, and Yahoo!, as well as startups like Instacart, Yik Yak, Polyvore, and more. She launched Android and Chrome for Google and single-handedly responded to hundreds of press inquiries pre-launch, establishing a reputation for being able to simultaneously charm reporters while offering no comment. In all of her experience, Erin’s dedication and drive have had an undeniable impact on her clients and the technology industry.

Prior to cofounding Cutline, Erin worked for a range of small and large public relations agencies including Merritt Group, A&R Partners (now A&R Edelman), NCG Porter Novelli, UpStart Communications, and Fleishman-Hillard. Erin has been recognized by both Business Insider and PR Week as an innovator and leader in the PR industry.

I sat down with Erin to chat about how founders can find and deploy the best PR pros, when they should start, and why any successful communications strategy has to start with a good story.

Elad Gil:A lot of founders ping me with questions around PR and communications, government affairs, crisis management—a bunch of things that all tie together. How should founders and CEOs be thinking about PR, and about partnering with external PR folks?

Erin Fors:
Founders first need to understand what communications and PR can accomplish for the company—and also what communications and PR cannot accomplish. Those are two things that we sometimes struggle with explaining to founders the most. And my sense is that’s because they are getting conflicting advice.

You may have board members or advisers saying, “You need to get a PR firm or person.” And then you read TechCrunch or you follow reporters on Twitter and they’re saying, “PR is stupid. Don’t work with PR firms.” PR people and reporters have this long-standing tension: Reporters think they don’t need us, and we’re being pushed by our clients, particularly on the agency side, to go and get coverage. It can be a vicious cycle.

To me, the importance of PR and communications more broadly is that it gives the company a voice and helps create credibility, or build on their credibility. PR gives the company a way to communicate their purpose. It also helps humanize the company. And given where we are now as a society and what’s going on in the world, that’s really important. I’ve also seen good PR programs help tremendously with recruiting and morale.

“PR gives the company a way to communicate their purpose. It also helps humanize the company.”

– Erin Fors

Elad: You mentioned three things: One is controlling the external narrative and how people perceive the company and potentially its founders or executives. Second is around recruiting, and third is around morale. What do you view as the relative priorities of those things? How much time do you think high-growth companies should be spending on comms and PR, and does it differ by type of company? And how much of the founder’s time should be going to it?

Erin: It does vary by company. Take a company like Pinterest, which is a place (whether through the app or their website) where people go to feel good. It’s an incredible platform for the world right now. PR for Pinterest is way different than for another company, like Airbnb or Stripe.

For Pinterest, it’s about getting users. It’s engagement. It’s figuring out how to get current users even more engaged, how to grow your users, and how to scale with all this content that’s coming onto the platform. If you have a consumer tech company where the regulatory or privacy or security concerns are really low, do you need a giant agency or multiple specialty agencies and a big internal PR team? I think you could argue that having a small, focused internal team (or person, depending on the size of the company) with some level of agency support—for example, an agency focused on just media campaigns or launches—could work well and we see that a lot with clients.

With a company like Airbnb, they have a lot of regulatory and privacy and security issues, because they’re a platform for people who rent out their homes. So for a company like Airbnb, their comms focus, at different parts of the company’s evolution, is likely more on the regulatory side.

For a company like Stripe, where you get into payments and security, you need more than just an internal team and some level of agency support. You need a stronger, more solid crisis plan. Depending on the focus of the company, you might need regulatory and Capitol Hill communications plans.

It definitely varies by company. But, generally speaking, most higher-growth companies have an internal PR team and also PR agency support.

When it comes to founder support, it’s critical that both founders and the broader executive team buys into the overall PR strategy, but they should trust their internal team(s) to execute the day-to-day.

Elad: Where do you see the ball get dropped, if anywhere, as companies scale up?

Erin: Ironically, I think it’s lack of communication. I think a company’s intent is always to do the right thing for customers, clients, or users of the platform. But there is a fear of admitting that you’ve done something wrong or that something isn’t working when you need to change course or make a correction.

This could be any type of change or correction. Maybe you’re an enterprise company and you’re changing the pricing model, but you don’t communicate that clearly to customers. Or you try to sneak in changes to the product, hoping nobody will notice. Or you try to bury something in a terms of service or privacy policy. I’ve seen this fear of backlash and/or a negative press cycle when potentially bad things are happening—but it’s always best to be straightforward and ride it out.

You can generally recover from those things, but from a PR perspective, it’s extremely frustrating. Because you could be a media darling and have one misstep where you communicate something really poorly, and it really sets you back in terms of the public perception of your company. It can be really hard to rebuild that trust. That’s why authentic communication, never lying, and transparency—to the extent that you can be transparent—are so important.

I really do think that if companies would just embrace when things break or have to change, they would be much better off. It’s true across industries. You have airlines, for example, that have issues with the way they handle passengers, and they don’t handle it right. They don’t just say, “This was wrong, and we don’t tolerate this.” They’re either quiet, or they put out totally artificial, canned responses, and then there’s this backpedaling that ensues.

“I really do think that if companies would just embrace when things break or have to change, they would be much better off. It’s true across industries”

– Erin Fors

Oftentimes, this isn’t something that’s driven by the PR team. It’s driven by a founder who doesn’t want to put their own personal credibility on the line, like, “I screwed up and I need to fix this.” More often than not, PR will say, “We have to be honest. We have to say that this is what happened.”

Elad: So, if you’re the CEO running a company, what’s a warning signal that you should quit pushing back on something that the PR team is saying? Is there any rule of thumb? Because, to some extent, especially if you have a founder-CEO, they succeeded in part because they didn’t listen to a lot of people. The most successful companies often select for behavior where a founder just has to be bullheaded or has to ignore experts, because otherwise the founder would never have gotten to where they are. How can you tell when it’s time to listen?

Erin: As an agency partner we often have clients who want to do something we don’t agree with. In those situations, we make our case for why that shouldn’t happen or why they should do it differently. But ultimately they decide to do it their way, and there’s backlash or something happens or it doesn’t go the way they thought it would. And then it’s like, “Oh, okay, I should have listened to you. You were right.” The same is true with founders. People need to fail in order to learn, in life in general and definitely in business.

I do think that it is really important when a company hires its first internal PR person that that person is in complete lockstep with the founder. Because it is all about trust. Generally companies that don’t have that trust between founders and PR people are the ones that struggle with having a good PR program or comms campaigns.

Elad: How do you select for that? Do you think there’s a specific style of interview or interview process that would most surface whether the person that you’re interviewing is right for you for an in-house hire?

Erin: I always say PR is more art than science. A lot of it boils down to chemistry and cultural fit and experience. You could give a PR candidate different scenarios to walk through and see if your thinking aligns when it comes to how they would handle certain situations.

I think sometimes founders aren’t as involved with the hiring of PR people. It’s left up to marketing or to some other function of the company to make the decision. But I’ve been the most successful working with founders or leadership teams when they are on the same page about what PR can and cannot do and when there’s really respect for PR as a discipline.

Honestly, not every company needs PR. There are some instances where maybe the company’s goal is really user acquisition, full stop. That’s something PR can certainly help with, but that’s really more a direct function of marketing. There’s more that marketing can do than PR can do. PR is really about, again, helping a company communicate their purpose, generating awareness, helping build profiles of the company, the product, the leadership.

The most successful founder/CEO and PR team relationships that I’ve seen are based in trust. Shannon Stubo Brayton is an excellent example. Jeff Weiner and Shannon are completely on the same page, and he fully respects and trusts her. And she has a seat at the table—that is critical. She’s built this huge team, and everything they’ve done is incredible. And she’s grown so much, too. I mean, she started out as a PR person, and she’s now the CMO of LinkedIn, which is extraordinary. The leadership team at LinkedIn fully respects her, and that starts with Jeff.

Elad: Say you’re trying to bring on a Shannon-style person. What do you think are the signals that somebody’s a great PR person? Is it prior work that they’ve done, is it the organization that they come out of, is it references? How can somebody who’s never hired for the role hire somebody great?

Erin: It’s experience for sure to some extent, but given what we do I’d also put a lot of weight on references and people skills. And I think it’s back-channel references frankly. I don’t put a ton of weight in the interviewing process. At Cutline, we’re very particular about who we hire, and we’ll always back-channel. The Silicon Valley network, in particular the PR world, is kind of small. And relationships in the PR industry are key.

Founders should ask their board and advisors. They should ask any reporter connections they know. Start with the people that PR people generally engage with. What are the names that rise to the surface? You can even ask agency people and other PR people. Who do they respect? There’s a very small list of people that I would rattle off.

Elad: How should founders think about hiring on the agency side?

Erin: If we’re talking about hypergrowth companies, it’s a little different. We have a lot of conversations with early-stage startups, and I think they’re often just told to hire an agency or to hire PR. And I don’t know that they really know what goes into that.

For us, we look at it in different stages. So early-stage startups, they don’t actually even need a person in house. They really need a freelancer or a consultant who can help guide them, and who can easily scale up and down to support different moments in time such as funding announcements or product launches. You don’t need PR all the time. We work with many companies that don’t have in-house PR people yet, because of where they are as a company.

But the approach is somewhat the same here as it is for hiring an in-house person. I would ask reporters for the list of PR people they respect and/or admire and look at their agencies. I would ask VCs and advisors for recommendations on agencies. And then I think that it’s really important for the founder or somebody from the leadership team to be part of that discussion, too. It comes down to understanding the business and being passionate about the company and/or the product. Do they use the product, if they can? Are they excited about it? How do they talk about it?

If you’re interviewing someone—whether someone for an in-house role or an agency—you can also look at how they share on social and how they talk about things publicly. What is their brand voice? You can easily determine that through Twitter, social, their website, blogs. And just see if the cultures align.

When an agency and a client really align on culture and have a shared sense of purpose, it’s like magic. The results just kind of roll in. When you have an agency and a client that aren’t really partners and whose cultures clash, it is virtually impossible to get results. And that’s not good for the client or the agency team.

I think making sure that there is a shared sense of purpose is crucial. This probably should go without saying, but it’s also critical that when a company is hiring an agency they meet, as part of the process, the actual team they’ll be working with. Be explicit about that requirement. Because a lot of agencies have new-business teams, where they send in the best of the best to win the business. It’s like bait-and-switch. They’ll change up the team after. Make sure that the team is smart and that they’re all engaged in the meeting, and that they’re asking questions about the business, about the personalities of the team, about the industry.

Elad: I know common process is to also ask for some written proposal or some pitch in terms of what the agency would try to do in a given scenario. If you were on the other side of the table and you were choosing who to work with, do you think that work product is valuable?

Erin: I do. When the ask is too specific, I think it’s kind of hard for agencies and it’s unfair to some degree. We should have some understanding of the industry that the client is in, and it’s our job to go really deep once we land the business. But I think, as part of the RFP process, clients should stick to broad asks: “We want to reach consumers in the tech space. How would you engage women between the age of 18 and 34?” Keep the exercise to something that’s not too specific but not too broad.

And then the other thing that I would evaluate on if I was on the other side—and I actually was once and had to pick an agency—is whether agencies challenge you. I think that an agency that questions and pushes back instead of just delivering what you’ve asked them for should be weighted higher, even if the ideas don’t align. That shows someone who’s really looking out for the best interests of the company and what’s right for you. That’s someone who isn’t afraid to stand up and say, “You know what, you asked for X but from a PR perspective we have some other ideas there. Based on where you are and what we know, there’s more value to do it a different way.”

I just think challenging—and discussion and debate—is a lost art. But it’s so important.

Elad: Do you think there are circumstances where the CEO or founders spend too much time on communications and PR?

Erin: Yes, I do. I don’t think a founder or CEO should be—and I’ve seen this before—hyper-focused on how much coverage they get, how many pieces of coverage. The focus really should be on quality. Especially now, because reporters change jobs and their beats change quickly. There’s a constant change and shuffling in the media industry as it figures out how to adapt to content consumption and figure out what the right mix is between writing, video, print, online, and more. My advice would be to focus on quality and really understand what PR can and cannot do.

I also think that there’s this tendency to ask, “Why aren’t we in Tech- Crunch?” or “Why aren’t we in X blog?” or whatever. That kind of nit-picky stuff can really be demoralizing, because it’s actually hard. It’s hard sometimes to get into TechCrunch. And this is where trust comes into play, and making sure that your internal person, or agency, is someone who you really trust and respect.

I have seen founders who go off the deep end worrying about, “Why am I not in TechCrunch? How many stories am I going to get?” And yes, those things are important to a certain extent. But to me, founders should spend their time on making better products and scaling the business in other areas, especially if they have a PR person they can trust.

Elad: I’ve found also sometimes people get a little bit caught up in the attention they get for appearing in press. They have a strong positive reinforcement loop from their peers or from family or other people pinging them about it, and so they think they should do more.

Erin: That’s true. I think if the founder has something good to say and can contribute to trend conversations in a meaningful way, then yes, they should be out there talking. But not everyone has something to say. And reporters are only going to call on you every so often.

This also goes back to relationships. Some of the most successful founders I’ve worked with have strong relationships with reporters who call them directly. And that’s good. That isn’t a bad thing. Sometimes founders get this idea in their head, like, “Well, if this reporter is calling me, or you’re asking me to talk to this reporter, then why am I paying you? What is your value?” But that’s just not the right way to look at it. Reporters do want to have personal connections with founders and sometimes circumvent the PR person. But then it’s our job to help prep, whether it’s background on the reporter or figuring out what the right story angles are. So there’s value on both sides.

Elad: I think the other big mistake I’ve seen people make is they do a launch, they get a big spike in traffic due to the PR and acquire a bunch of users, and then that goes away. They have to do the hard work of developing a channel. But they think that PR could be a way to keep that going, but that doesn’t work for most companies.

Erin: That’s exactly right. And that is a challenge all the time. It’s also a pretty big investment for smaller companies. We work with a lot of clients to come up with those evergreen story ideas that we can pitch between big news moments. The key here is patience: It takes time to develop those angles and then to land them. Reporters are crunched for time and there are only so many stories they’ll write on any given day. That’s where marketing and other disciplines within the broader advertising/PR/marketing umbrella come into play. There’s also social media. For companies who don’t have a lot of news to work with, there are a lot of storytelling opportunities you can create—but you can also use those moments in between larger press cycles to engage with your customers where they are: on Facebook, Snap, Instagram, Twitter.

Elad: Are there any final lessons you would impart to a founder approaching PR for the first time?

Erin: I do think the biggest thing is to understand and to be clear about what your goals are for PR. To understand what PR can and can’t do. PR cannot come in and fix a bad business decision. And in order to do our jobs, there has to be a story, there has to be a product or company culture or something to work with.


This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.