Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Art of Start Ups: Doing what it Takes

It's a hard time for start-ups. We all know that. But on a positive note, I was watching the NBC Evening News (yes I still do -- but on the TiVo) and saw a story that reminded me of a conversation I had yesterday that made me smile. The NBC story was about a company in Peoria, Illinois that has made its way through the recession by having employees who can do many jobs. They are flexible.

The conversation I had yesterday was with a new guy with one of our clients who said, when asked what his job was said (something like) "Whatever helps the company succeed." This made me smile because, after working with nearly 100 start ups through the years, we have seen that the best people in start ups are those that have that attitude. If pushing the broom is what it takes to get there from here, that's what they will do.

And mind you, this is a guy with substantial credentials and a track record of experience across several disciplines. He could claim specialization but instead is just focusing on being a meaningful part of the team and using all of his strengths to accomplish that.

Of course, not everybody can do everything: if you aren't a developer, you probably shouldn't try to write code. And more than that, we at Roeder-Johnson, try to keep focused on what we do well -- hoping to execute in our discipline when needed but always looking at the bigger question: of "how can we help the company succeed."

And, by the way, if pushing the broom is what we can do, then hand us the broom.

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Friday, July 10, 2009

Leadership and the Importance of Press Releases

Who knew? The last post on "What about Leadership (Redux)" led to a fair amount of dialog. It also led me to believe that I should probably advocate an unpopular subject: the importance press releases.

In short, we believe that a well-crafted press release is a big opportunity to clearly and effectively tell a company's story. And that's true whether the news hook is mundane or earth-shattering. Along with the many other means of communications available today, press releases are part of the entire communications architecture.

This is, to some, a fairly radical view. Many "modern" communicators think that whispers, blogs, and tweets are the right way to get a story told. We believe all of these are a valuable part of the mix. But we also believe that it's critical to lay out the story clearly and simply in a few places that are broadly available. Therefore, more than ever, we think press releases are a tremendously important communications tool.

In thinking about this position, you may be interested to know that, in years past, I have been very conservative about press releases: when they were just a tool for communicating to a very limited audience, it was key to make sure you didn't flood people with paper. But today, the press release plays a different and more important role:

1. It is a tool, at the appropriate time, to tell a company's story to the appropriate audiences. It should be written clearly and without hyperbole.
2. It can have a viral benefit.
3. In this environment, many constituencies look for and read press releases (not just press and analysts) and this can be helpful to companies on many levels.
4. It can be very helpful in reinforcing leadership messaging and communications architecture.
5. There are lots of other comments -- let me know if you want to discuss them.

This odd topic arose because I have recently seen a few companies that may be squandering their opportunities to help the market understand who they are and how they fit into the world. Hence, these companies may be leaving their market leadership position unsupported and unexplained -- leaving it to chance that the market will figure it out. And, on the flip side, we have seen when we are working with companies who are leaders, the ongoing explanation about important news and nuances of their stories helps the leadership positioning emerge over time.

A few thoughts/caveats about this viewpoint.

1. A press release should always have added value. That is, it should be interesting and provocative.
2. We are not talking here about press release that have two paragraphs (one with the lead and the second with some innocuous quote.) If you are going to bother, explain enough to be meaningful.
3. The purpose of a press release today is not always just to get "ink". It should be viewed as an important part of the toolset to create leadership in the long term.
4. Of course, press releases alone are not the whole communications mix. They should be built into the plan along with thoughts about the Web site, blogs, tweets, conferences, one on one communications, etc.
5. Some press releases are tactical in their nature. That's fine. But never squander an opportunity to tell the story well.
6. Keep the bar high. Don't tell people "what the CEO had for lunch."
7. A press release should be objective and educational; the more boastful, the less believable.
8. Yes. Some recipients might be skeptical of a press release. Sometimes that means you shouldn't do it. And sometimes if means you just have to move ahead and keep the long term in mind.
9. A well-conceived press release takes a lot of work -- to understand what the news is, why it is important, and how to explain this clearly.

Remember, the goal is leadership. (Oh yeah. I already said that.)

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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

But what about leadership? (Redux)

Ugh! Over the past few days there has been a lot of communications about an article in the New York Times about PR in the Silicon Valley. First, there was the original story, then there were a variety of follow-up pieces commenting on it. Not surprisingly, though pretty amazingly, this discussion was really about "publicity" and none of the discussion (that I have seen) has focused on what we at Roeder-Johnson believe is the key issue: the question isn't publicity, "ink" or "buzz"; it's about LEADERSHIP.

At Roeder-Johnson, we believe that the goal of our strategic communications and public relations efforts is to help position clients as market leaders. That's really different from short term "buzz" or publicity. We can all think of companies that have gotten plenty of attention (either in the press or in the "buzzosphere") and ultimately didn't attain leadership in the long term.

What are the benefits of leadership? The most basic benefit is to enable a company to define its environment, rather than following others that do the defining. And resulting from that core benefit are some fundamental business benefits: companies that lead can:

-Charge higher prices
-Enter into better partnerships
-Hire better employees; and ultimately,
-Lower the cost of capital of the company.

So you probably wonder how leadership is attained if it doesn't come from buzz. We believe there are a few key steps needed:

-First, there is the decision by the company that it wants to be a leader and in what way.
-If the choice is made to target leadership positioning, we believe a basic architecture needs to be defined for how the company wants to be perceived in the long term.
-That architecture includes many dimensions -- from business and product strategy to thought leadership and communications strategy.
-In the communications realm, the first step is to put some language around the vision. We call that a High Concept(R): What is the fundamental disruption we represent and how is it simply articulated?
-Following this, it's key to understand how will we get people to understand the high concept: the need, the requirements and what it will take to accomplish the vision, why the company is in the position to accomplish it, and how it plays out for the long term.
-Then, on an ongoing basis, the communications strategy is implemented and refined to help lead the market to understand the High Concept.

This is a very short description of an alternative view to the conventional wisdom about public relations as publicity. I want to note that ink and/or buzz is certainly a part of any communications strategy. But it is NOT the end in itself.

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