As an early-stage company, sometimes it’s hard to think beyond product development, but moving your PR strategy to the bottom of your list isn’t a good idea either. “Planning way ahead with your communications will help ensure that your prospects and customers take the same journey with you,” Baron says.
Peter Baron has been in the media business for the past three decades — consulting and providing public relations strategy to technology startups and firms as they grow into large enterprises. After selling his previous Atlanta-based agency to a big New York firm in 2000, Baron founded his PR and marketing firm, Carabiner Communications, in 2004.
From the PR veteran who has (probably) seen it all, Baron talks about why you should add a communications person to your team, how to catch the media’s attention and mistakes you should avoid as you grow.
What’s the number one branding issue you see in startups as they grow into bigger enterprises?
I think the number one issue with startups is differentiation. Once in a while a company will come along that has a solution or service that’s unlike anything on the market, but even in those cases, they have to develop a clear and compelling story on how they are different, and superior to the other solutions in the market. Even in cases where solutions or products are similar, it is vital to create brand separation from the pack.
The companies that are successful at creating a strong story and in building a unique brand identity are the ones that get on the radar of potential investors and acquirers. Pardot, Joulex, AirWatch and ISS among others are all examples of this (each one was acquired by a huge and dominant market leader). The best ways that a startup can communicate differentiation is through market education and awareness, branding, and laser sharp messaging.
Why should they put their company’s PR in their list of priorities? Many don’t in favor of product development or other startup issues.
Well it is absolutely a top priority to work on product development and operational issues early on so you get the product right and you’re set up to sell and support early customers. But having a PR strategy on your list of priorities as you’re getting started helps to get your company moving in the right direction from the start, from a communications standpoint. I always tell clients that messaging and branding is like driving an oil tanker. I’ve never driven an oil tanker before, but use your imagination.
An oil tanker is long, large, heavy, and not extremely maneuverable, so when you load it up, it’s even worse. When you set off, you need to make sure it’s pointed in the right direction. It’s going to take a lot more power, and energy to get it going. The obvious advantage of an oil tanker is that once you’re out there, and you point it in the right direction, you can ease off a little bit on the motors, because you’ve got momentum going for you at that point. It’s the same with your messaging and positioning. Once you’ve got an audience believing and thinking about you in a certain way, it’s hard to get them to think of you differently. Pivots are tough. Possible, but hard and usually expensive.
As a veteran in this business, what advice do you have to companies looking to grow further and enter the public eye but don’t have a communications team?
The quick answer to this is — hire one. Bring on an internal resource if you’re not in a position to hire an outside firm to at least help with the vital communications your company will need to get more visibility in the market. Effective communication campaigns today require a lot of content — a website, social media, videos, white papers, news releases, blogs and more. There’s a lot to do from a communications perspective so it’s really important to have someone driving that effort.
Any other advice for growing enterprises as they try to catch the media’s attention and what they should avoid?
I think companies that are trying to catch the media’s attention should first and foremost know what the media finds to be interesting. Don’t pursue one-size-fits-all media pitching tactics, either. A local business paper is going to be interested in something completely different than a national trade journal or business publication. Take into account that reporters are busy, and overwhelmed with a lot of people trying to pitch them stories. You can do yourself, and reporters, a favor by knowing the topics they cover, understanding what is relevant in the real world beyond just your company, and channel the interests of the readers so you’re positioned to tell a good story.
A lot of CEO’s think just pitching the media about their company is interesting enough, but they really need other angles and supporting ‘legs’ in order to gain and sustain the attention of the media. If you get good at providing great story ideas along with the required credibility supports, you’ll soon grow in to a trusted source for many writers and editors.
How have you seen the Atlanta tech scene grow in the last five years?
The past five years in Atlanta have been amazing. The rise of the accelerators and co-working spaces and the increase in mentorship for startups and high-growth tech companies has been inspiring. It seems that during the past three years in particular that the “happy to help” Atlanta DNA has been in overdrive and it is fun. I’ve always thought of Atlanta as a hotbed of creative tech and life-sciences people. I think our entrepreneurs lay awake in bed at night just thinking of cool ways to solve problems they see. Now we’re being recognized globally by major corporations as they compete with each other for the best people.
These are tough times to find a good developer, let alone a whole team of them. Having GT, UGA, GSU, KSU and Emory pump out hundreds of talented graduates each year is a major boon. Couple this with the cost of living here and the world-class business community and you can see why things are moving so quickly and looking great for the years to come.