By Cari Sommer, CEO and founder of RAISE Communications
Some early stage company executives believe they need to tighten up or reduce their communications during times of economic uncertainty but the reality is that companies need to be communicating with even greater frequency and intent. Or, they may face an even greater uphill battle to stand out from the competition.
So, how can companies enhance their reputation and sustain momentum for their story with fewer resources at their disposal? The good news is that as marketing and advertising budgets become leaner, communications has an advantage. Well-executed public relations remains one of the most cost-effective ways to reach your stakeholders.
How do I know this? Because over the last decade I’ve worked with hundreds of founders and growth leaders who have raised hundreds of millions and exited in the billions to help them shape and tell their story. These are some of the proven ways we’ve worked to uplevel PR and communications efforts, even during times of uncertainty:
- Resist the temptation to go dark. As leaders look for ways to manage burn and cut expenses, the natural inclination is to do so shrouded in secrecy, as if nobody’s watching. In reality, startups are looking to learn from one another and potential customers and investors still glance at news coverage when evaluating a company.
While it may be tempting to ‘go dark’ on communications and PR, companies have a lot to gain by doing exactly the opposite. Maybe you should be writing about your strategies in managing spend and keeping an optimistic company culture in hard times — that could be a great piece in an industry trade magazine. In today’s environment, how a company handle’s adversity can be just as newsworthy as their growth story was the year before.
- Saying nothing is still saying something. Without clear and consistent communications, you risk delivering wrong or confusing messages to the people that matter most to your business– investors, customers, prospective clients and employees alike. Not unlike the social world, when people see a “black hole” we make assumptions. If your blogs and social channels are sparse and outdated, that says something. Did something go wrong? Is the company still in business? Why don’t the C-level executives have a public profile or POV?
Imagine those types of assumptions made about your business, multiplied across an entire market, quietly degrading the brand you have worked so hard to build. If you are hard at work navigating your company through volatility, make an effort to tell that story so it is not inadvertently told for you. Define how you want the world to see your business and differentiate yourself from your competitors by bringing your audience closer.
- What story can your proprietary data tell? Journalists are always looking for data-driven stories to bolster the credibility and newsworthiness of their articles. If anything, this appetite for data is only becoming stronger. Even if you don’t think of your business as a quantitative one, you still have data, from buyer behavior, website traffic, changes in days receivable or a spike in in-person meetings. Note that there are media outlets that will use your entire pitch deck to illustrate how startups raise money and the magnitude of the problem you are solving.
Further, your end-customer or prospect can give you great fodder, so consider taking advantage of cost-effective survey tools like Pollfish and others to publish data studies. These could be either B2B or B2C and include themes like “how comfortable are you with proptech tools; how likely are you to use digital banking tools or invest in crypto.” There are endless possibilities depending on your business model and reporters like supporting data for their trend pieces.
- Zig when everyone is zagging. As you stay on top of what’s happening in tech and business trends, don’t be afraid to surface a counter story. Resist the temptation to pile onto a theme that has already been told.
Startups are often on the frontier of leading indicators and market inflection points. Maybe the news is getting it wrong and you see something that others don’t. One of our creator economy startup clients did this effectively when they took a stance on broader topics rather than just focusing on their platform. Once you identify what’s different or what’s coming next, share those insights with reporters and become an expert source that offers more than just status quo observations.
- Demonstrate message discipline. The need for financial discipline during uncertain times has been discussed. But what about message discipline? One of the most powerful aspects of PR is that it can fuel a host of marketing channels and ensure that your messages are being delivered again and again. When running at the speed of business, however, companies can end up wasting time and resources on poorly aligned PR opportunities or sloppy messaging. To tell the story you want the world to hear you need to be in the driver’s seat.
One tool our team uses to drive comms efficiency and message discipline for our clients is a message map – a clear and consistent visual guide for marketers and company spokespeople. With a message map in place, founders and leaders can use a clearly defined and consistent set of messages to tell your company without reinventing the wheel. It also serves a great way to filter out opportunities that may not be well aligned to your goals
- Treat employee and company communications as one and the same.
The last few months have brought with them many layoffs and with them a wide variety of related communications approaches. One thing that is for certain – word travels fast. How proactively a company communicates before, during and after a reduction in force will have an impact on how well they rebound from these unfortunate events. And if you do have to conduct layoffs in this downturn, make sure you always respond to requests for comments from the media. Sometimes reporters are relying on rumors and LinkedIn posts from laid off workers but can mistakenly overinflate the numbers. It’s better to get ahead of the story than hide from it and have to ask for a correction.
- Create an event that does not yet exist. In the midst of change and uncertainty, it’s tempting to follow the “tried and true” playbook. In reality, this is a perfect moment to be a pioneer and unlock new, innovative opportunities to showcase your brand. If you’re facing challenges you’ve never experienced before, chances are others in your sphere of influence are as well.
So, embrace the change and consider bringing industry colleagues together to talk about what’s really happening in your market. Money 2020 is a great example of how leading financial and tech companies pushed the limits of the traditional business conference model. And as an added bonus, reporters may be very interested in getting a behind the scenes look at how the experts are perceiving existing challenges and forging ahead with potential solutions.
Now is not the time to hit the snooze button on your PR and communications efforts but to invest time and effort into crystallizing your company’s story and fortifying its reputation in the marketplace. Remember that PR is one of the most cost effective ways to keep your message top of mind with the people who matter most to your business. As other players retreat in the midst of market softening, you will be positioned to amplify your company’s voice with increasing volume and presence as the market eventually bounces back.