Andy started -- or rather restarted -- the great PR retainer debate. I have always had trouble with the PR model as it currently stands. In today's environment - why get second hand "press coverage" when you can get the goods right from the horses mouth! Plus, a lot of press get their stories and research from existing online communities these days. There is nothing more REAL or AUTHENTIC than enthusiastic customer.
Chris sums it up:
In other words, the organizations that will win are the ones that most easily enable customers to build relationships and communities with people they trust."
I have argued that RESPECT must exist before you can gain trust. Hiring a third-party as a mouth piece for anything just does not lend itself to trust.
So, my answer to the 10,000 questions is clear cut. If you are a start-up with limited funds [or even a larger company] HIRE a PERSON (or two) whose sole responsibility is to be a CUSTOMER ADVOCATE and reach out and engage and enable other stakeholder's online and offline - wherever they may be.
I don't care if you call this person a community manager, evangelist, relationship manager, rabble rouser, customer support, or an intern. The key is finding the person with the right ATTITUDE for this role.
Stay tuned for a follow-up post on the skills required in this role. Attitude is just one. Jackie & Ben's story about Moleskin serves as a great example of the kind of relationship and interaction this person will have.
[Caveat to above: hiring a person and developing trusted relationships takes time - if you want quick hits, by all means focus ALL your energy on getting the attention of the FEW 'press and bloggers so you can get some ink. Just remember, those same alpha bloggers and lead columnists will be the first to pull you off your pedestal if your customer's start complaining about you!]