Public relations innit! Your company’s relationship with its public. And who is its public? Here’s your first tip; don’t rule anybody out. You never know who might need what service, where, when, or even why. Life is unpredictable, don’t be afraid of that fact. Don’t hold out for the customers you’ve always dreamt of having; to paraphrase George Michael; if you can’t have the ones you want, love the ones your with!
Does that mean target everybody? No, it means try to not exclude anyone. Of course you should target the people who your research tells you you ought to be targeting. Not done any research? Ok, what kind of product are you putting out there? If it’s dear to your heart then maybe your customers are like you? If you’re making a technologically innovative product, perhaps your customers are exclusively B2B; large corporates, SME’s, possibly you already have an exit strategy. Or maybe you’re trying to change the lives of the people on the street. Already you have 3 very different potential PR strategies. It gets complicated. Don’t use smoke and mirrors to sell a time management app to a corporate management team. Don’t use billboard ads to show a graph of your projected earnings and the results of your focus group studies. And don’t organise a launch party at Mahiki for your new range of ethically sourced baby food pots!
And yet? Nobody really knows what PR will work and what won’t until after the event. Don’t rule anything out based on the apparent ludicrousness of the idea when it’s so much easier to rule it out because you don’t have the budget for it; it saves time and it’s practical, especially if you are a bootstrapping start-up. A well thought through budget makes everything easier. Don’t rely entirely on your PR company to tell you how much you should be spending!
It’s true that many founders and entrepreneurs are now demanding measurable results from the PR teams they are hiring. How many visits is my website getting? How many of them match my target demographic? How many people read the interview I gave in The Evening Standard? What do my sales conversion figures look like?
It’s equally true, however, that you could engage a PR company on a £1 or 2k retainer and see no tangible benefit. Perhaps they’ll spend the first 2 months engaged in market research, the conclusions of which you could have told them before they started. Perhaps they will write you a press release that nobody reads. Worst Case Scenario, they don’t pick up the phone to you for the first 3 months because they are busy with clients who pay more / are more demanding / were founded by the PR company’s bosses 19 year old daughter.
Like every other facet of a start-up businesses, for the first 6 months outsourcing a skill or service and then taking your eye off the ball is not an option. You have to maintain a firm grip over every aspect of your business if you want it to reflect your values and your mission statement. You cannot buy in enthusiasm and inspiration, it has to come from you. PR embellishes your story, it cannot create it.
One option could be to bring your PR in-house. You won’t find many established PR agencies at pitching events or stroking their beards in the coffee shops of Shoreditch, but you may find more than a few young, hungry, independent start-up enthusiasts with a knack for self-promotion that you can shoehorn into your business. If your founder personality type is strong-and-silent, dedicated-and-intense or quiet-but-deadly then you may find that having a personality like this on your team is a game-changer. Think Erlich Bachman from the HBO series “Silicon Valley”.
Because, more than anything else, PR is about having somebody banging the drum for you, both literally and figuratively. Imagine if everywhere you and your start-up went you were followed by a troop of semi-naked models decked out in war-paint and chanting slogans. It’s working for Transferwise; having an entourage worked for Kanye. You get recognised, and soon your brand becomes a tribe; a tribe of social influencers. And that’s how you win at the popularity game.
But, believe it or not popularity is only the second most important weapon that good PR can furnish you with. The most important is success. In 2014, a company called Delivery Hero raised $523,000,000 million dollars for expansion into the German takeaway delivery market. Now you can bet your bottom dollar that Delivery Hero, a German company, was not the only delivery service that launched last year courtesy of the company conveyer belt that is the Berlin start-up scene. It probably wasn’t even the most popular, perhaps not the most user friendly, maybe it wasn’t even the one that the public and the restaurants were hoping would claim the biggest outright share of the market. But it did, and that was effectively down to 3 people. Marc, Alexander and Oliver Samwer, the founders of Rocket Internet.
Rocket itself raised more money than any other start-up in Europe last year thanks to its stupendous IPO, but let’s look at their portfolio companies rather than the organisation itself; the “Goldman Sachs of start-ups” as it has become known. Rocket are not known for producing the most original, innovative or popular start-ups, but they are known for breeding winners, and that is because of how they operate (ruthless at times, determined, and sticking to a tried and tested formula).
Why are we talking about Rocket when we are supposed to be discussing PR? To emphasise the point that, like most if not all industries, it’s about who you know, not what you know.
Good, imaginative PR can take you a long way. It can get you noticed and help you make sales. But sooner or later you are going to hit a ceiling or find that all the doors you need to open to grow your business are locked. And the only way to open them is to bring the gatekeepers onside. It’s at this point that PR changes, drops the ad campaigns and the news stories and becomes all about relationships. Who can put you in a room with the Samwer brothers, the VC that specialises in your business sector, or that major distributor that is looking for a new product to stack their shelves with?
For Public Relations read Private Relationships. Decision makers are hard to reach, but reach them you must if you want to grow a truly successful start-up. It’s like building a house; you start with the foundations, you build it brick by brick and then you furnish it and make it look nice so that people like it and want to see more of the same. Then you have to ask for planning permission. When you do, you want it to be while riding the crest of a wave of public goodwill and mind-blowing sales data, but you may find you will also need some influential private backers. So find a PR agency that can do both. Impossible? Nothing is impossible if you are the right kind of founder. The right kind of founder deserves the right kind of PR agency. And in business, as so often in life, you often end up with exactly what you deserve!