Why you need to make failure part of your PR plan

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, there was a brave and handsome prince. He passed all his prince school exams, expertly avoided any encounters with dragons, and lived happily ever after.

Not much of a story, right? Where is the adventure, the struggle? The allies, the enemies, the ordeals and the rewards?

Yet this is exactly the kind of story countless startups are telling: All the shiny, happy, good stuff, none of the guts and gore that make for a compelling read. And in doing so, they’re missing a huge opportunity to connect with their audience in an authentic way.

“If you look at storytelling over centuries, every story has a story arc,” says Lucy Allen, General Manager and Head of Bay Area at Edelman, a leading global communications and PR firm. “You can’t have a story arc without there being some kind of hero struggle, an obstacle for the protagonist to overcome. If you don’t have the arc, you just have a flat line. That’s not exciting for anybody.”

In today’s society, we have to earn attention and credibility. It can’t be just bought or demanded.

Lucy’s spent the past two decades working with technology companies of all sizes — from young startups to the likes of SAP and Adobe — to build their profile and share their stories. She recently spoke to Jennifer Kutz, who heads up communications at Intercom, about how startups can get better at telling their story and connecting with their audience, and shared insights on how PR needs change as you grow.

Click the play button to listen below, head to our blog for a transcript, or keep reading for some highlights.

Sowing the seeds of a rock solid PR strategy

  • Know when to start. Unless you’re in stealth mode for very specific reasons, the time is now — Lucy maintains that even if you’re not at the stage where you want to be promoting yourself, you should be thinking about building your reputation and earning credibility. “In today’s society, we have to earn attention and credibility. It can’t be just bought or demanded,” she says. “Every organization needs some level of “PR”, because everybody needs to earn the right kind of attention or credibility at some point.”
  • Pitch smarter. When pitching a story to a media outlet, think about their readers and goals — not yours. “Business media typically writes about just two things: people and money. If your story doesn’t have a strong human element and can’t talk about the people whose lives it’s affecting, or it doesn’t talk about money in a way that’s meaningful to individuals, to consumers, or that shows how you are moving markets, then it probably doesn’t have the right ingredients for a news story.” Consider how what you’re doing plays into wider industry trends, and what impact you will have beyond the four walls of your company.
  • Do you pass the “so what” test? If what you’re sharing doesn’t somehow surprise the reader or tell them something they didn’t already know, don’t be surprised if it fails to make an impact. “News is the psychology of the unexpected,” says Lucy. “If your news story doesn’t pass the “so what?” test then it’s not a news story.”
  • Share the rough and the smooth. Sharing what you’ve learned is key to building trust and credibility and, usually, that starts with a personal journey. “A startup may not have vast numbers of customers or great big partner ecosystem to talk about yet. But what you do have is your founders,” says Lucy. “What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced? That will resonate much more.”

The role of PR as you grow

As your company grows and changes, so too do your PR needs.

Series A: Getting attention early on: At this stage, your focus is most likely on getting credibility and understanding of your technology. “Getting attention early on is all about making sure there’s an understanding with your very specific target audiences of what it is you’re trying to communicate,” says Lucy. “That may be best done internally, because those are the people who have an understanding of the technology or the products or the proposition. That said, that’s also the phase where you have a small team. You may not have a marketer or a communications expert in-house, so you many need to turn to somebody externally to help you take that message and communicate it.”

B and C rounds: Focusing on revenue generation: “Almost everything you’re doing here is geared around lead generation, customers, partners,” explains Lucy. “The type of PR that you do will change and it needs to be tied in very tightly to your content marketing and lead generation programs.” You may still be able to do the majority of your PR in-house, but as your needs become more complex or specialist, you might need to explore bringing in an agency.

D and E rounds: Expansion stage: At this stage you might already have begun transitioning from a single product to a multi-product company and widening your focus into different markets, which is when the safety net of working with somebody who has done it before will prove crucial. “You may be looking to expand internationally. You may be thinking about a liquidity event,” says Lucy. “All of those things require not only additional expertise, but you also need to work with somebody who’s done that before.”

Intercom makes messaging apps for businesses that help them understand and talk to customers.

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