There are common misconceptions in public relations activities for clean tech companies such as “we need to wait to use PR until we have ‘real news'” or “we can’t afford public relations right now with seed financing” or “a PR firm could never understand our company’s deep science.”
Waiting For “Real News”
This is particularly common among emerging technology companies – or young start-ups. Focus on the product, perfect it, build it, and customers will come. These companies believe that their superior product will speak for itself, and when the time is right customers will knock on their door. They won’t.
Our firm works in a space that is affected by this misconception – renewable energy and cleantech. Cleantech is an R&D heavy field where most early hires are scientists not people with backgrounds in marketing or business development. These companies typically stay under the radar for years perfecting on their niche and building towards their breakthrough product.
By the time these companies are ready for the big leagues the market has adopted a lesser but better known solution, leaving no room for the straggling start-up. Other companies find themselves strapped for cash before their product is complete with few opportunities for raising capital since they are relatively unknown to the investor community.
Early stage PR can solve many of these problems by carving out your company’s place as a viable player in the market well before you have anything real to show. This strategy can buy you time as customers hear the buzz surrounding your product and might hold out on buying a competing product in anticipation of your launch.
There is also no shortage of investors around the globe that are looking for deals and technologies to invest in. But how are they going to know about your company’s technology or service? They aren’t going to search through 12 pages of Google to find you. That much we know. If you aren’t focused on PR from day one, you will lose the fundraising game and blend into obscurity.
As every CEO of a young start-up can attest, as soon as you have completed one round of financing, you need to start thinking about round two. This is a certainty and the bane of existence for most founders of start-ups. Without any real product to market yet and without any third-party validation via PR or analyst coverage, the failure to raise a second or third round of venture capital is endemic to these entrepreneurs.
While it is true that there are some times when it is better to stay quiet, most young start-ups miss an enormous opportunity to project themselves as leaders in their industry and grab valuable mindshare of investors and customers.
Antother problem cleantech start-ups often find themselves in a Chicken/Egg situation where they want to wait until they get a big break before publicizing, but miss the opportunity to use PR and the media to make that big break happen. For the most part, this is because they don’t realize that there are several ways to garner coverage by the trade and business press without having a hard news angle.
Our firm uses a strategy of creating and placing op-ed articles for our clients. Working with the executives of these cleantech startups to draft opinion articles is a great way to circumvent the no news blues. A strong opinion piece will always garner attention and the exposure keeps our clients’ websites from looking like stale brochure-ware. The placement of these articles in reputable media outlets provides third-party validation for a company’s customers and investors.
Expansion Media recently landed a client the holy grail of publicity: the front page of the New York Times Sunday Business section. How did we do it? R&D. While our clients are busy in laboratories, we are closely monitoring and researching the media that cover their respective niches. We handpicked the journalist we wanted to write the story based on their previous coverage of the industry and crafted a pitch the catered to his unique worldview. The result in this case was an article that was not only read by millions of people, but was also 100% positive toward our client. That kind of coverage isn’t the result of luck, but stems from careful research and knowledge of our clients’ industry and the journalists who cover it.
Most start-ups don’t realize that they can sponsor third-party studies that validate their technology, promoting the results to the media. When one of our clients told us that they had no news scheduled for several months, we designed a survey conducted by an independent research company and garnered significant coverage. We announced the results of the survey in the form of a press release. A few days later, several media outlets ran articles featuring the results including this one from a leading green building news site.
We Can’t Afford PR With Seed Financing
Within the marketing world, a few sea changes have taken place within the last five years that make it possible to hire a PR firm, get coverage in influential publications and blogs without spending a lot of money. One of the most significant of these changes is the advent of the virtual office.
Most PR agencies still pay for flashy office space to “wooo” their prospective clients. These expensive offices in high value real estate markets like LA, NY and Chicago are part of your retainer fee. What if all of those monthly billable hours actually went toward the work instead of the zip code?
Some firms can charge as much as 30% less than the big agencies by saving on this overhead expense alone. Add to that, the use of cloud computing (Dropbox), virtual meetings (GoToMeeting), and Skype and a firm can operate with very little overhead indeed.
Today small businesses can compete with large corporations on equal footing. The Internet has leveled the playing field, lowering the cost of many tools to almost zero. The big firms no longer have a monopoly on resources such as CisionPoint and Profnet, they are now available everyone. More than this, free services like Muckrack and “Help a Reporter Out” are sprouting up all the time connecting PR people and journalists.
A PR Firm Won’t Understand Our Company’s Science
The answer to this concern is…it really depends on which firm you select to conduct your PR. As I wrote in a previous article most of the big agencies moved their bio/high-tech employees over to address the emerging need for cleantech PR professionals. However, a new breed of specialized firms and practices within global firms has emerged to cater to the needs of the cleantech sector.
To address this concern, some firms go so far as to hire PhDs in environmental engineering and writers to make sure that their clients’ science is understood. Having an educated and science-oriented team allows them to not only write, pitch and place articles for clients, but they may also be able to create and distribute quarterly newsletters and manage client websites and SEO efforts.
David Andrew Goldman is director of communications at Expansion Media, an integrated PR/SEO firm that focuses on clean technology clients including AeroFarms, Entech Solar, BioPetroClean, CASTion, Airdye Solutions, Advanced Telemetry, Variable Wind Solutions, GreenRay Inc. and FreeGreen.com.