They used to say about banks that the best time to start one was 20 years ago – the point being, lenders make so much money, think what you’ve missed in the meantime. In rather the same way, I often advise companies to start effective communications as soon as they can – think what you can achieve when people understand your business.
Yet on those occasions when a company announces something big, say plans to raise money in public markets, it’s often the first time anyone has heard of it, perhaps outside a small circle of customers, staff, suppliers and investors. The risk is that some will interpret your message as: ‘You know nothing about us, but we’d like your money.’ Information is the lifeblood of business and it’s important that ambitious, growing firms generate their fair share. Nobody is recommending that companies make noise for the sake of it – as in social situations, no one likes a boastful bigmouth.
But it’s important that people know you are there, active and able to serve a need, whether it’s making widgets or providing consultancy services.
Corporate communications is not about finding a spouse by getting your picture in the paper. It’s about making cold leads hot, winning orders, flushing out better, more efficient suppliers – or obtaining better terms from your current ones, reassuring staff and prompting the best applicants to send in their CVs. It’s also about getting on the radar of potential investors – both individual and institutional.
We advise growing companies, even those seemingly destined to stay private, to act like they’re already publicly quoted so they get used to the idea of keeping their various audiences informed. (Increasingly, investors believe, no news is bad news.) But there are equally valid reasons for starting this process even if you’re undecided on an eventual IPO. One, circumstances change and a float may become the best strategy. Two, if and when the time comes when your shares go on sale in the market, the investment community – institutions and equity analysts – will be much more inclined to open their doors if they know a bit about you, or can find out through a quick media search.
Analysts in particular don’t like surprises. They are relied upon by traders for their judgment, and won’t roll out the carpet for companies that appear from nowhere. Financiers will be looking for the ‘back story’.
So how to go about developing a communications strategy? First, get a plan – plot out all the news your company is likely to generate in the coming 12 months – orders, fundraising, a sale or acquisition, a big hire, an office opening, hitting a new market or introducing new technology or application.
Don’t worry that you can’t predict these things with certainty – it’s a working document, a moveable feast. Getting used to updating it is a good exercise in itself.
Second – work out whom you want to get your messages across to – these could be any and all of the following – potential customers and others in your supply chain, present and potential private-equity investors, current and prospective staff, and industry regulators.
Third – look at what communications channels you have already – brochures and other collateral, your website, electronic newsletters, your professional association, direct mail, the trade shows you attend, contact with referrers – and ensure the way you talk about your company and its progress is aligned. Making the most of all these valuable information sources and establishing procedures that guard against miscommunication will enable you to get the good news across.
Fourth – use the media. We are fortunate living in a democracy where, despite the style of some popular publications, we enjoy an active, independent press. The business and financial press plays its part better in the UK than just about anywhere, reporting good news and bad, protecting and balancing the interests of investors, entrepreneurs, customers, fighting their readers’ corner, often battling needless bureaucracy and overregulation on your behalf.
A good media relations strategy will not only minimise the risk of inaccuracy, it will also build milestones, an independently reported account of your company’s progress – and could even lead to your being projected as an authority on your industry or profession. A journalist will often look for specialists to comment on developments in their industry.
Make a point of understanding the media you rely on and examining fresh ways to get your message across. Familiarise yourself with the media in general and the output of certain journalists in particular – whether financial, local, trade and technical, web-based, broadcast or paper. But make sure you and your advisers understand the nature of ‘news’ – not, as one corporate lawyer told me, his firm’s sponsorship of the flower beds on a ring-road roundabout. PR is highly valuable but should not be viewed as a substitute for advertising. Journalists tend to know the difference, especially since the latter pays their salary.
Many companies engage PR firms to help them, whether by providing strategic advice, arranging media training, or designing and implementing a communications programme. A key part of your advisers’ work will be assembling a body of information such as the key messages that will be agreed and ‘signed off’. This will make the process of drafting documents easier and ensure all the management team, and its advisers, have the same answers to major questions. In choosing a PR firm, consider what you require, write a brief (helpful to PR firms in understanding needs but not always provided) and invite a couple to pitch. Focus on what they can commit to delivering – ongoing strategy sessions may not help you achieve your objectives. The right agency will recognise this and work with you on concrete deliverables.
As in all your dealings, reputation is hard won and easily lost. But this should not stop your business adopting a higher profile. Be open and honest – about bad news as well as good. Companies that are realistic and open enough to share their news build support among key audiences such as customers, investors and staff. An ability to demonstrate that management is equipped to deal with a crisis and point to a way out of it will instil confidence. As in all other elements of your business, it is important to manage expectations.
You don’t need me to tell you that business is about vision, strategy, hard work, resourcefulness, creativity and common cause. Doing all that, without making sure people know about it, simply doesn’t make sense. A sound communications strategy, well worked out and professionally implemented, will underpin your accomplishments and lay a firm foundation for the future.
This article appeared in Flight Plan, an AngelNews publication.