The Art and Science of Startup Communication

By Poornima Kavlekar, Smart CEO Magazine

Vivek Rana, CEO of The PRactice, a public relations firm, provides solutions-based advise to Indian and international companies spanning various sectors. His ability to help clients identify opportunities for effective communication has played a key role in his company’s success. In this interview, he talks about communication strategies that startups should adopt to build their brand. He stresses on articulation of values and goals as one of the important strategies to achieve this.

As startups move from early stage to growth stage, they make considerable changes to their business model, products and product positioning. Keeping this constant change in mind, what should a founder’s communication strategy be?

A very important strategy in communication is to know when not to communicate.  In the initial years, say in the first year and a half, the focus should be on human resources, investments and giving shape to your ideas. It is important for you, as an entrepreneur, to identify who you really want to become.  You may want to identify a handful of employees to hire and talk to a few VCs to secure funding. You don’t need to look at aggressive external communication then.

When you venture into external communication, there are three things you should keep in mind; who you want to communicate with, what you want to achieve through that communication and whether you are ready for that.

For example, we once partnered with a company in the temporary staffing space during its first year of operations. We launched external communications only post a year. Till then, our mandate was to reflect on what the story, who they need to communicate it to, what response the company needs from them and what should the company do to achieve that. To explain better, for the first nine months, we articulated the story internally and got all their team members to understand how the story will pan out. We got the proof of concept, ran pilots with various clients and also built a pool of client testimonials.

Finally, often, startups look at communication as a luxury as they are cash starved. This frame of mind has to change, as it is an investment.

Today, for several startups, consumer education and concept selling are key aspects of marketing strategy. Take us through the finer nuances of educative communication.

Education is about clear articulation, especially, the value that one is creating. For example, Infosys (a client we have worked with for several years), during its early stage, was very clear about what it wanted to communicate, the reason behind it and its benefits. Many start-up organisations also often operate under the assumption that community-building efforts don’t need active promotion. The underlying thinking is that if you swing hard with your pickaxe the world is bound to notice. The main flaw in this premise is that if you can’t get your target groups to recognise your work, you may be barking up the wrong publicity tree. You need to spell out your objectives and explain your actions to your stakeholders or risk falling prey to the slingshot of public misconceptions. A well-defined plan for mobilising interest in your product or service should lead to more ability to scale. Just because you have a fantastic app or product, people will not necessarily come to you unless they are clearly informed, frequently reminded and convincingly persuaded that what the organisation is doing is of value to them. People are prone to inertia and breaking them out of old habits or ways of thinking, calls for sustained and focused communication.

Today, given the complexity in communication, it needs one more layer – visual story telling. Building visuals and communicating the story is very critical.

Most founders want word-of-mouth or the network effect to kick in for their product or service at the early stage. How should startups facilitate this effectively?

It is a great approach and is a good strategy during the early days of the startup. However, remember that what goes behind being able to create word-of-mouth is integrity and professionalism (even as a startup).  Our organisation is where it is today purely through word-of-mouth. Value, integrity and professionalism are very important if a company is looking at word of mouth as an effective tool to build its brand.

This apart, its work has to speak for itself and hence, client satisfaction becomes very important. So, articulating the value created for clients and recording client testimonials is also important.

Some entrepreneurs want their work to speak for themselves. How should such founders approach external communication so their personal traits do not affect the company’s prospects?

Sometimes when you are the leader of the business, you have to do certain things, which are necessary for the business.  One can easily talk about the value the organisation has created instead of talking about what they have done to build the organisation. The moment you take away the focus from the individual to the organisation, communication becomes easy.  I always encourage those who feel shy to speak about the value their brand, product or service is creating in the market. It is a great branding exercise.

What is the right time to outsource your external communication?

Within a year of stabilising the business model, say from nine months onwards, and when you feel that you can sustain communication for a longer period of time. One of the important things for startups to understand is that you cannot look at communication in a stop-gap manner. We have clients coming to us for three-month projects. And you cannot achieve much in three months.  Remember, there is a cost for value creation. To counter this, companies need to engage with agencies, which can offer milestone programs and build capacity within their organisation to manage things.

What are the dos and don’ts in a communication strategy?

Don’t fluff your numbers or exaggerate reach and scale. People will see through it in a jiffy.  The haphazard notion of engaging with the media and choosing the media where you want news to appear are some unhealthy practices.  Be honest and transparent when you communicate. It is the bedrock of communication.

For communication to produce results at all of these levels there needs to be an organisational commitment to making it work. Startups who understand the ingredients for success in this area are more likely to reap the benefits.

Real measurement beats intuition: While gut instincts may be useful for broad navigation, they should not be the basis of a targeted communications campaign. Even small-scale surveys, focus groups and observational studies can be helpful in zoning in on the right messages and stories.

‘Frame’ your message to fit the environment: Many startups have been stymied in their communications efforts because they have failed to get a handle on the culture and environment in which they are operating. When organisations find the right ‘framing’ they are often able to scale faster and have greater impact.

Stay transparent and true to your message: Stakeholder relationships are based on trust. People are more likely to support an organisation when they are convinced of its integrity. Thus, financial and operational transparency is a very important element of communication in this area.

In today’s social world, what are the finer nuances of a good internal communication strategy?

In most companies, internal communication is driven by the HR and hence, HR and communication has to be well integrated. It is also important to curate content as, today, every employee thinks it is their right to have an opinion on anything that the company does and they have a platform to popularise it. So, curate content in a manner that is completely relevant and honest.

How does one communicate change to employees?

One, through honesty and empathy. There is no other way of doing it. Two, articulate the change, explain the result of the change in such a way that they can recognise and see the relevance of it.