This was one of the key takeaways from “Talking the talk – why African tech startups need effective PR in good times and bad”, a recent two-part Disrupt Podcast series released in partnership with Talking Drum Communications, which helps innovative businesses in Africa get more effective publicity and to shape beneficial perceptions of the work they are doing on the continent.
Olugbeminiyi Idowu, founder and managing director of Talking Drum Communications, spoke with Disrupt Podcast on the pivotal role PR can play for startups in both good times and bad, and took us through best practices in various scenarios. But let’s start with the basics. What actually is PR?
“For me, it’s about sharing and managing information to influence a certain understanding or perspective of an entity – it could be a person, a product, a group, a company… It’s all the activity of sharing information and managing information to shape that perspective,” said Idowu.
What, then, differentiates PR from marketing. Idowu says they are definitely interlinked, but still distinct.
“The major difference is that marketing is more focused on driving sales. PR is about perception. Now the two things work hand-in-hand, the perception should feed into the business, and the success of your marketing should also feed into your perception,” he said.
Often people have a false perception that PR can do marketing’s job, yet all the evidence suggests that it is actually far more effective when it comes to attracting partners, investors and talent than it is in driving sales. Every company then, before hiring PR-focused employees or contracting an agency, needs to ask themselves what they want PR to do for them. And different companies need PR at different stages.
“A good example I like to use is if you are a company that’s just starting. You’re just going to market to try and onboard your first couple of customers. Maybe PR is not what you need at that point, because there’s not really much to PR. I like to use the example of the multiplier effect – if you multiply 10 by one you get the same 10, but if you multiply 10 by 10 you get 100,” said Idowu.
“So PR really comes in with that multiplier effect in terms of building on something. You build on an existing product or existing service, and you shape a narrative around that product or service in a way that then drives business growth. Every organisation needs to ask itself, before even getting to the question of whether they need PR now, what do you need PR for? What would you like PR to do for you? Then if that’s something that PR can do then you can carry on the talk.”
The best time to start thinking about PR, then, is when something tangible has been achieved.
“Your story is more powerful and more impactful when it is a little bit more grounded in some sort of hard facts, like you’ve done X amount of sales or you have X amount of customers. You actually have a tangible story to tell. Then PR can then focus on how to tell that story as well as possible. We’ve had to sort of manage out some clients in the past where they just didn’t have anything to talk about, and that just makes a very awkward conversation between the agency and the client,” said Idowu.
Should you decide you do have a story to tell, aren’t you as a founder, the one that knows your business best, the natural person to tell that story to the world? Idowu advises seeking expert help to ensure your message is heard.
“It’s a matter of expertise. As much as many people like to think they’re some kind of Swiss Army Knife businessman that can do all things, quite often what you find is that someone who is a very good product person or someone who’s a very good strategy person, they excel at that one thing. Yes, they may have competence in other areas, but quite often what you find is people typically have their real strengths focused in one area. You want to attract the the best people possible to support you in achieving what you want to achieve,” he said.
Should a startup’s PR function be in-house, or come from an agency? It boils down to competence.
“Just because people work internally doesn’t necessarily give them any magical competence. I’ve spent most of my career working on the agency side, so I’m a bit biased, but what you typically find with PR agents, especially when you get a really good PR agencies that are specialists in their field, is that they have a vast amount of experience,” Idowu said.
“So, particularly in the African context where most of the companies I would work with are startups, if you’re able to bring in a level of expertise and level of experience that can really help. In previous lives I’ve worked with multinational technology companies that have branches in every corner of the world, so all that experience that someone like myself brings to the table will be very valuable to a six-month-old, or a year-old, or two-year-old startup that’s just finding its feet in a particular country. We’re not just thinking in terms of what’s in front of us, we think more long-term because of our experience.”
So exactly when should startups work with PR experts? On a project basis, only when they have a big announcement to make? Or should the collaboration be ongoing? Idowu says companies will always need a PR function.
“There’s always something to talk about, and in a business something is always happening. You always need that PR function. It’s almost like a sales function. You always need that sales function because you’re always selling something. And PR is the same.”
Most African startups see the funding announcement as the key moment when they will need PR support, but there are other stories to be told too.
“One thing when we’ve been talking to our clients, we insist that we are not just going to announce funding stories. We are going to announce all manner of things, so partnerships, acquisitions, expansions – all sorts of different things,” said Idowu.
Founders can also do more in establishing themselves as thought leaders in order to boost the profiles of their ventures.
“Journalists are always writing articles and always looking for experts to add context and insights to their pieces. And we have these founders who are very intelligent, very knowledgeable, very clued up about what’s going on in this space. They can be very useful allies to our media partners, and we always advise our clients to invest in their relationships with the media and position themselves as allies with those guys.”
A good PR agency or advisor will also advise founders on other means of presenting themselves to a wider audience, such as speaking at an event or sponsoring a publication. Idowu says there is a misconception that such things are not part of a PR’s job, but in fact they are.
“If you look at what PR is meant to achieve, then you can argue that these things are activities that PR people should be advising their clients on, and even if you work in-house you should be bringing these opportunities forward to your employers.”
PR in bad times
We’ve heard so far then, why it is pivotal that startups learn how to get their stories told, be it to gain customers, raise funding, or attract talent, and PR is key to that. There is another side to it, however – how having a strong PR function can help startups survive in times of crisis, such as many startups are experiencing right now due to the global capital shortage.
Yet a company’s PR function is often one of the first to go as cutbacks are made.
“Everything is on the table, and unfortunately it’s not a foreign reality to many PR people. I think there is a misconception in my opinion that PR is one of these “nice to have” functions within the business,” said Idowu.
He says PR has as much of a part to play in bad times as in good.
“It can’t just be that the only time you want to speak is when everything is great and wonderful. Sometimes when things aren’t wonderful, effective communication can be a very powerful tool for steadying the ship, pointing things in the right direction, and building momentum,” Idowu said.
Making sure you have a qualified, experienced PR function in times of crisis is pivotal.
“There’s a particular practice I’ve seen where in some big companies the only person that works on a PR team is an intern. You wouldn’t do that for your sales, or your wider marketing function. You wouldn’t do that for product development. But for some reason everyone thinks PR doesn’t really need to be attended. But when times are really tough, that’s when you really need experienced hands, capable hands, people that can help you redirect whatever energy is coming in from the bad times into pushing the business forward.”
One key piece of advice when navigating a crisis from a PR perspective is to ensure you are not just talking about the crisis.
“One of the things I’m very passionate and particular about is making sure that the communications we put out on behalf of our clients in the middle of these crises are not just communications about the crisis. It’s also leveraging the crisis and being present enough to be able to spin the story in a way that you leave people with a sense of who you are, and what you’re about, even in the middle of a crisis. Because you’re in the middle of a crisis doesn’t mean you are not who you are, or you’re not on your mission anymore. And you need an experienced communications team in that situation,” said Idowu.
There is no “one size fits all” response to a crisis, with each issue having to be dealt with on its merits.
“When the crisis first breaks out, it’s “all hell has broken loose”, “let’s blast out a statement to all the media houses and let everybody know that we are innocent”. We are going “hold on, hold on”. We make a point to make sure we hear the full story, or as much of the full story as possible, and then leverage our experience of dealing with different crises and seeing how different things play out,” he said.
“The goal should be to bring the crisis to a swift and favourable conclusion. Your actions need to feed into this, as you don’t want to unnecessarily prolong the life cycle of the crisis. So again, that’s when you need people who know the way around how to deal with a situation, to say “OK, in this situation, this is what we need to say”.”
Sometimes, silence might be the best way forward. Even if you decide that is the case, though, you should ensure you are ready to speak if necessary. How you respond to journalists asking difficult questions is also important, and will play a part in dictating whether you are able to weather the storm or not.
“So many times, when a journalist is writing an article that could potentially negatively impact a brand, the journalist would email the CEO or someone quite senior. The companies quite often refuse to engage; they refuse to comment. Or they are aggressive in their pushback, which I feel is one of the most counterproductive ways of doing it. Because what you’re pretty much telling the journalists by either ignoring them or being aggressive is that they have a story. There’s something there. Which again goes back to the point about having calm heads on the ground. Whatever the story is, you need to be able to figure out how to shape perceptions around the facts that are available,” Idowu said.
A key aspect of crisis management is being ready for a crisis before it happens. Use the good times to prepare for the bad – have a plan.
“Too often people don’t even know how they will deal with the crisis until the crisis is happening. Everyone wants their business to be great and wonderful, and for every day to be sunshine and rainbows, but anyone that has been around long enough knows that it’s not always like that. You need to prepare for the days where it’s rainy and stormy.”