You either enjoy working with startups or you don’t. It’s better to decide right away what environment you’re comfortable working in. There is no right or wrong. Some may be comfortable in a more planned, predictable environment whereas some may find chaotic, dynamic environments more exciting. We at Stellant are a bit of both but largely the latter. And so we’ve been working with the venture capital and startup spaces ever since our existence.
In the communications profession, a clear distinction between corporate PR and startup PR has emerged. Today, there is a demand for specialised PR firms with experience of working with startups. While public relations has been a key part of corporate marketing strategies, for startups, it is a completely different world.
The major question startups struggle with is ‘when is the right time to hire a PR consultancy’ and whether they have the intention and bandwidth in the initial stages to build a strong communications roadmap. Again, there is no right or wrong. It depends on the orientation of the founder – some founders are clear about the roadmap and start PR from day one, others consider waiting till they have bandwidth to allocate. A good point to start PR may be when they are ready to make a significant announcement like a fundraise. The initial issue to be addressed is whether they have the funds and time to sustain a long term strategy and a PR partner on board over a few months.
What can PR do for startups?
PR can be very critical in every stage of a startup’s life and growth. How to communicate, what to say and to which target audience, while important to bear in mind, may keep changing frequently. The startup environment is very different from that of an established, mature organisation and PR needs can be very contrasting for each. Their way of working and decision making is also different and therefore how we interact with them and responses we get will be dissimilar.
Here are a few pointers we have noticed in our experience that may be helpful to keep in mind for PR for startups:
- Startups don’t settle for less: There are over 50,000 startups registered in India according to NASSCOM and it is small wonder that they are all trying to get a piece of the same pie when it comes to media space. Earned media wields great results, but the process is a long drawn one. It needs effective and targeted relationship building. When we are in the business of promising great results to clients, we have to always make sure to draw the real picture for them. The key issues to address are to give an understanding of how media works, since for them, your client’s startup is not the only one.
- Understand their business objectives in detail: Startups are new in business, starting with a clean slate and usually using PR for the first time. It is crucial to be able to grasp their business objectives to capture them in the communication strategy as effectively as possible. Make sure to take all information available at your end to understand, build and deploy a strong PR roadmap for the client. Startups are essentially small businesses, trying to make a mark and compete in a growing market while learning and growing every single day. They are also learning new things as they go and it is important that they see us as a partner in their journey. Asking questions every time you think of one, about processes, technology, hiring, work culture, business functions, USPs, background stories before the business was started plays a crucial role in message development.
- Help them articulate better: Most founders find it difficult to articulate their business in one simple sentence. We can help them articulate by identifying key messages and value proposition, aligning communication objectives with business goals. These messages need to be consistent across all communication tools. They can be revisited every few months as the business grows and priorities change. However, overarching long term messaging will remain while short term messaging may be flexible.
- Never say Never: There is a stark difference between corporates and startups when it comes to media approach. Corporates have large marketing campaigns in place and PR forms a strong side of it but it is more for a sustained presence in media than breaking stories. It’s nice to be open to new ideas when discussing PR plans with startups. As they will try to get the best value out of their PR budget, it is our duty to try every possible approach. There are no dead ends.
- Response Time: Startups have a very dynamic environment where things may change drastically every day. So response times and strategic advice becomes extremely critical for agencies to offer. We’ve taken immediate action in the span of an hour at times if a situation so warrants! We like to step in where we think a new idea might help. PR is not the main business of a startup and founders are busy managing their challenges. It’s important to respect their time, understand their schedules and work backwards on delivering high impact interactions with media while also managing media deadlines.
Our responsibility as strategic communications advisors becomes crucial in a relationship with a startup. Building trust through our actions and being aware of the business’s demands is important. Working hand in hand during the critical growth phase of early stage startups has taught us to be patient and objective to get the best results. A deep understanding not just of the startups’ business but also the dynamism around its existence and its challenges will go a long way in adding value not as a consultancy but more as a partner in growth.