The Two Pillars of Successful Startup Communications

startupBy Lindsay Cosner, Account Supervisor, Gotham PR

One might say we are living in a new era of entrepreneurship, with bright minds seeping out of the traditional workforce to launch their own businesses, fueled by hard work and an undeniable, unrelenting passion. However, sources of record like Fortune note that the number of startups has fallen from representing 14% of all businesses to only 8% over the last 30 years. What is the reason for this sharp decline? The Economic Times lists 10 reasons why startups fail, but chief among them is a lack of understanding of the importance of communications—both internally and externally.

With startups growing and, oh so often, failing fast, it is more important than even that ingenuity and passions are partnered with PR prudence and a tight communications strategy. There is a plethora of advice to be sought on this subject; however, it all seems to boil down to two major thought pillars, under which all-else falls: messaging and relationships. Understanding how to create a message and have the relationships that will make your message matter are the foundation to creating a successful communications strategy at a startup.

Once you know whom you are talking to, you know how to focus your message to their needs, concerns, and personalities. Every customer matters and in today’s modern, media world, one voice really can be heard everywhere.


With startups growing and, oh so often, failing fast, it is more important than even that ingenuity and passions are partnered with PR prudence and a tight communications strategy. There is a plethora of advice to be sought on this subject; however, it all seems to boil down to two major thought pillars, under which all-else falls: messaging and relationships. Understanding how to create a message and have the relationships that will make your message matter are the foundation to creating a successful communications strategy at a startup.

When creating your message, there are a series of questions to ask yourself and your team:

What Are You Talking About?

This should seem obvious— you’re talking about your product, your company, and your value proposition. But no matter how well-crafted your messaging, or how in-sync you are with your media team, your product must always be put before publicity.

It is important to get your product, user experience, and customer service right because even great coverage and marketing cannot sustain success when there is a flaw in the core business model. You cannot expect your marketing and PR efforts to make up for issues with operations or the product itself. If demand comes in as a result of a great placement, review, or social media post, be ready to fulfill. The best messaging needs to be backed up by action, a good product, and even better overall customer experience.

Loop communications teams in from the early stages of development so they can contribute their unique perspective, begin to build excitement, develop the brand voice, and nail the identity and positioning of the product and company. This is a process, not a light switch— all the time spent on development, the trial and error that went into creating the product itself, will likely also be reflected when it comes to creating the larger brand identity.

What Are You Saying About It?

When crafting your messaging, remain objective and control the subjective excitement that you have about your product— remember the consumer and the problem you are solving and keep your value proposition simple and specific. You must find your place in the market and then focus your voice.

Seek opinions from each segment of your team, your marketing team, your investors, your development team, etc. and ask them each to define the company, the product, and the problem they are solving. All answers given are important; craft them into one narrative— even if, in the end, the answer looks a little different than what you originally had in mind.

When creating your messaging, resist the temptation to use analogies to define your business. Saying, “It’s like Angie’s List, but for all things baby,” is instructive, but it takes away from your brand. An analogy is an oversimplification that will leave your audience with an understanding, but you won’t stand out as a unique product, instead you risk being simply an adaption of someone else’s more original idea.

You can avoid this branding trap and still maintain customer comprehension by starting off at the heart of your brand. Reduce your message down to its very nucleus, perfect that, sell that as an idea, and then add layers of dimension and functionality to your definition over time. You have worked on this idea, this product, for years and it’s only natural to want to share everything that’s great about it all at once, but you must walk before you can run and so must your message.

How Are You Saying It?

You’re used to talking about your product, living and breathing your product, but talking to the media and the public about it is an entirely different conversation that will stretch you outside of your usual circles and the people who are already evangelized to your message. Now you’re talking to “outsiders,” and you need to be accessible and genuine.

Your great idea may have gotten you to where you are and you may think it’s the best and only true option in the space, but seeming at all patronizing will only distance you from potential customers. When positioning your brand in the competitive landscape, negativity never wins— know your competitors and how to differentiate yourself without trash talking.

Brooke Hammerling, Founder of Brew Media Relations, points out another critical messaging directive for start-ups when she said, “If you’re a huge company, sure you might be able to pull off being snarky or sassy, but as a startup, all you should be is respectful of your competition.”

She went on to advise that you should pivot the conversation to speak instead about someone similar who has done it right and draw a parallel to them— what this does is creates a correlation between you and your brand and the success of a giant in your space. Remember when speaking about your company and your competitors that you are all part of the same community and always try to bring the conversation back to you.

Don’t get carried away when speaking about your company or the competitive landscape—avoid broad, sweeping statements or generalizations like, “we’ll do it in half the time,” or “we’re the only responsible option.” Not only will you have to live up to these statements once you make them, but you risk alienating your potential customer base. If they are using the competition now, insulting their intelligence or compassion by obviating the need for and superiority of your product will only alienate them and cause defensiveness that might push them the other way. Negativity in messaging doesn’t work— inspiring a potential customer that they can be or can do even better is a stronger message.

You must also be steadfast with your promises— promises to the media, to your investors, and to your customers. If you make a deadline for launch, or fulfillment public, you must not miss it. As a new company, you do not have a public track record to fall back on— you are creating it. So make your communicated deadlines achievable by planning for delays and educating your decisions by talking to your team to inform work from all angles.

Who Are You Saying It To?

In a crowded marketplace, the only way a business can cut through all the noise is by having something of value to say to an individual costumer. A customer should feel as though they are being spoken to one-on-one. But how do you speak to a customer one-on-one when you hope to have hundreds, thousands? It’s easier than you think, but requires a deep understanding of “whom you are talking to.” A deep dive into audience segmentation, demographics, and psychographics is required to create personas that will represent the faces of your customer base.

Once an effective message is created and adopted, it is the relationships you have forged internally and externally that will make that message matter.


Relationships should be just as much a part of your brand strategy and business plan as your basic production model. These relationships form both internally and externally and require a keen emotional intelligence:

External Relationships

Don’t let the first time you contact a journalist, blogger, or influencer be when you’re sending a pitch. Follow the reporters, bloggers, thought leaders, and influencers in your industry on social media and read their work—this will help you craft personalized communications when you reach out to start a conversation. Personalization will help you cut through the noise. When you develop relationships before you need them, you keep the process more organic and less transactional— a sentiment that will translate to the work they will later produce for you. But remember, it is a working relationship—when you get too close, you can forget to include all the details in the midst of socialization. Assume that anything not explicitly discussed, will not end up in the finished piece.

While keeping a functional distance, you must also be careful not to burn bridges with the media either. You can avoid this in a few key ways: by giving exclusives sparingly, not making things personal, and respecting their work. Favoring one reporter or outlet over another with exclusives will damage relationships with others. In today’s media landscape, with traditional and online publications and new, viral blogs launching each day, you want your story spread as far and wide as possible, not promised to any one source—assuming you could even avoid a leak long enough to work with a single outlet. When stories do get written, you will not like every word of every piece, it is important to not make this a personal vendetta with the author— writers remember who they like and don’t like talking to. Instead, keep it about the facts and use it as a way to leverage future conversations. And when you do get time with a writer, respect their work by knowing what “off the record” and “on background” mean and know when to use them without taking advantage of their power.

Internal Relationships

The media needs you, your customers need you, your investors need you, but your employees do too. You are responsible for managing expectations, setting goals, and developing company culture. When you get your messaging right, create a brand voice and messaging document and make sure everyone at the company has a copy and understands its full intent. Your idea for the company cannot exist solely inside your head. Your team cannot market something they don’t understand, or speak in a voice of a company language that is not yet developed. Your brand’s identity and voice have to be clear and tangible so your employees can learn them, adopt them, and reflect them in their individual focus areas. Established companies will have their identity set and their voice practiced, where startups are still creating theirs— thus changing the learning curve for employees and agency teams entirely. It takes time and patience, open and frequent communication, receptiveness to the process, and empathy to the growing pains that come with it.

It is important to nurture careers and personal relationships with your team because they are entering on the ground level with you. Your company is such a part of you that it can be a real challenge to let go and allow your team the room they need to work. Ask for a passion and shared vision from your team and then respect their expertise. Accept the areas where you are not the expert. Remember why you hired them and let them do their jobs— believe in them so they might believe they have a true place in the company’s success. The beauty of a startup is the buy-in, the accountability, how close each employee can feel to the mission, the work, and the successes of the company. This is a symbiotic relationship between you and your employees— after all, you win together and you lose together.

View the full article via Bulldog Reporter, here.

This piece was contributed by Lindsay Cosner, Account Supervisor at Gotham PR in New York and London with clients in 25 cities globally. In 2017, the agency celebrates its 15th year in business. It represents Gotham Public Relations’ ongoing published series of articles and forthcoming book focused on Client and Agency-side challenges to provide evolving solutions inside the global workplace.


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