When does PR become important for a startup? How should PR firms be engaged? How is social media changing the way a startup pitches its story? How does PR differ for B2C and B2B sector startups?
A range of industry experts offered their insights on the connections between startups and public relations (PR) at a panel discussion organised by PRune and hosted at Axilor Transit in Bengaluru. See also the related articles: Riding Change, When do startups really need PR agencies, and On-boarding PR.
Here are my top 20 takeaways from the discussion, which featured K.Vaitheeswaran, e-commerce pioneer; Melissa Arulappan, Senior Director, QuintilesIMS; Brian Carvalho, Head of PR, Portea; Kunal Kishore, Founder Director, Value360; Jyotsna Pattabiraman, Founder, Grow Fit; Sumit Chakraberty, Contributing Editor, TechInAsia; and Payal Banerjee, Head of Communications, Sequoia Capital.
Build a solid business model
Many startups tend to be skewed towards an investor-centric growth-focused story – without adequate focus on unit economics and path to profitability. Sooner or later, weaknesses in this model will be exposed by the media and analysts. Be honest and ethical in your financial dealings also; no amount of PR spin will correct fatal flaws or blunders.
Pick the right context for your story
For startups with new business models or creating new categories, the entrepreneur story has to be couched within broader or emerging trends to connect with media and audiences, otherwise the story will not be picked up or understood. Choose key context points and data hooks, and weave your story around it; eg. how e-commerce sites can offer value even during times of economic downturn.
Is the startup story right for you?
In some traditional B2B sectors such as logistics, startups may be seen as largely for the consumer sector, or having a ‘sexy’ or ‘cool’ image, or (even worse) as small companies that are here today and gone tomorrow. This may not be the perception that founders want to cultivate, and hence some logistics startups have even asked their PR agencies not to spin their stories as ‘startups.’
Pay attention to ‘vendor capital’ and not just venture capital
Getting venture capital funding makes for good media attention, but make sure you also pay attention to ‘vendor capital’ and ensure that your vendors get remunerated properly. Stories of vendors not getting paid can also make for bad business and negative press coverage. Unfortunately, the reality of business in India seems to be that payments are not always made on time, but startups have a chance to reset such images and create a more wholesome professional image.
Balance ‘PR 2.0’ with ‘PR 1.0’
Good PR blends social media (‘PR 2.0’) with traditional media (‘PR 1.0’), but make sure that the communication is consistent across the board. Don’t shoot off a blog post or Medium/LinkedIn article on your own and then expect the PR agency to correct any inaccuracies or wrong perceptions created by your social media post. Omni-channel PR is the way to go.
Think beyond the press release
Press releases do have an important function, but you can also announce developments about your company through other channels, such as blogs on your own website. Sometimes these blogposts can get covered by the media even better than a press release.
Think of PR beyond media
PR is more than media relations – it also involves other activities such as events and publication of independent research, like white papers. Events are a good way to reach out to the community of media and network with the broader audience, and white papers are a useful option to exercise thought leadership.
Don’t ignore the government, particularly in India
PR also involves dealing with government regulators, particularly for startups who are disrupting traditional economic sectors. Many things are considered illegal in India, and founders should map out which areas could be problematic, and how to lobby for proactive change where possible. Joining or forming industry associations is a useful strategy in this regard.
Don’t resort to PR only to get funding
Media visibility can certainly draw the attention of investors, but good investors also do their own due diligence and will dig beneath the hype to get to your business fundamentals. PR should be consistent and regular across your startup journey.
Map out the world of media and PR
Map out the different types of media, PR firms and even individual journalists – each of them may have particular strengths, audiences and specialties. For example, some PR firms have good government connects; some journalists prefer data-centric stories.
Investigate a broad range of PR engagements
Some PR firms are rapidly evolving their business models, with some taking equity for payment or even doing outright investments in startups. Find out what ways of engagement best suit your interests, and at which stages of growth.
Cultivate your unique story
All startup pitches should certainly have the basic elements in place, but try to ensure that your story is not formulaic, predictable or standardised. Show some originality and empathy; dig deep into your own internal narrative; show your human face (see for example the YourStory Changemaker Story Canvas as a useful visualisation and structuring tool).
Focus on RoI
The increasing measurability of social media makes it possible to set targets and RoI expectations, particularly for digital PR. SEO and SMO can yield good business and not just a favourable image. Think beyond vanity metrics to business activity and impact.
Factor in ‘unpleasant’ exits
In the rough and tumble of entrepreneurship, founders sometimes have a falling out and may part ways unpleasantly; the company may even have to shut down (and even worse, not be able to pay vendors). It may be hard to predict or control such developments, but think about how these events will play out in the media and consumer arena; what damage could be caused, and how to minimise it.
Be ready for the tough times ahead
The media perception and social acceptance of startups in India has improved over the years. Startups are contributing to job growth and innovation, and a large support system has emerged with co-working spaces, accelerators, incubators and government initiatives. But a large percentage of startups will inevitably fail in the Darwinian entrepreneurship race, and the media perception could change as a result.
Watch out for media distortions
For various reasons, a lot of media attention (particularly in mainstream organisations) tends to focus on the ‘usual suspects’ and the big B2C players in the startup ecosystem. However, this distorts the picture of the startup movement, leaving out many good stories of entrepreneurs, particularly in the B2B sector.
In fact, even the definitions of ‘startup,’ ‘entrepreneur’ and ‘SME’ are often mixed up, with no clear agreement on exactly what is a truly original ‘Indian’ startup, or for how long a new company can still be called a startup.
Get the timing right
Just as you can be too late with PR, you may also be too early with PR. Your story may not yet be ready to be accepted by the media or customers unless you have launched a viable product or get solid traction.
Contribute your insights
PR is not just about pushing out stories that you want out there. You can also cultivate a good image by sharing your insights in online forums like Quora. You can become a guest author or columnist yourself, but be careful with ‘hard sell.’
Future trends: bot or bought?
AI is going to have a growing role in media analytics and interactions. Bots can be increasingly deployed to boost social media rankings, or in online customer conversations. But the systems can also be gamed, so make sure you can differentiate between media attention which is owned, bought or earned!
Ignorance is no longer an excuse
While PR may not have been on top of the checklist for earlier generations of Indian entrepreneurs, the Internet and startup ecosystem today offer enough resources for founders to learn about PR, cultivate their image, and reach out to PR firms. Read up about IPR, libel, defamation and slander, and get legal assistance early on. Do your homework before it is too late, or before you miss a ripe opportunity.