I recently had the chance to “sit down”, in the Covid world, with Bob Sommer, a West board member.  Bob is a leading advisor on government relations and public affairs. He advises now at Awsom Associates after having built and sold a national public relations firm and then serving in government and as a senior executive of an NHL franchise. Bob also teaches graduate level public affairs and media relations courses at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.

Bob understands the importance of government and public relations and how the best ideas can quickly go awry without the right communications strategy. What began as a conversation more focused on PR and communications, transformed into a much broader discussion about the impacts of COVID-19 on business strategy and core communications practices. A lot of good advice was packed into our conversation. Bob is an incredible advisor to West and we’re grateful to be able to share some of his insights below.

Before you dive in, be warned, this isn’t a “how to” on PR basics and you won’t finish this read having learned the fundamentals of pitching your most recent funding news. Rather, it’s a strong reminder that,  for growing startups, communications and public relations shouldn’t be an isolated (often outsourced) business unit, or a one-off effort. They are essential components of how your brand shows up in the world, and how others perceive your mission, vision, and impact. A strong communications strategy requires integrating the team at the heart of your business and setting a tone of voice consistent with your brand.

So! Without further ado, here are the key takeaways from our conversation.

Throw out the old playbook.

From now on -- whatever industry your business is in -- you’re going to need some level of governance sign off, approval, or endorsement. Whatever side of the political spectrum you fall, COVID-19 has revealed the sweeping power of government. To ignore this in your planning or choose to proceed at all costs and “ask for forgiveness” after-the-fact is no longer going to fly. 

“Moving fast and begging forgiveness after is no longer a viable strategy for high-growth, venture backed businesses. Government is inserting itself more in our space than it has in many of our lifetimes and so startups must make government their partners. Part of the journey for any young company now has to include a rest stop at your federal and state – and perhaps local governments to make sure the right people know what you’re doing and what you’re building. As a founder or CEO, you have to be confident about whether or not that you're going to get crushed by a government ruling just as you are getting started.”

Speak up to stand out.

Rightfully so, companies big and small are often afraid of saying the wrong thing walking a fine line of political correctness. But not saying anything at all or chiming in with the current wave of similar messages is equally as damning. 

“Leaders need to take stock of what they’re saying across different mediums from web to any aspect of their Customer Journey. Do away with ‘in these difficult times’ and the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’, and focus on what is most relevant for your business and your audience. Companies are afraid of saying the wrong thing, so they fall back on, ‘we'll get through this together’. The first three or four messages like that out of the box we’re OK, but now everyone has the same message and consumers aren’t buying it. Right now, you can't tell the difference between Verizon, Ford, Facebook and Amazon. It's all the same.

...However, most younger startups have a unique vantage point. They can push the envelope on messaging and they have a more direct, human relationship with their customers. To be able to talk about what you will try to do for your customer when we get to the other side, that's smart stuff. Risky, yes. And it could be wrong, but you’re at least sending a message. Push a little bit to talk about where the journey is going as opposed to where the journey currently is. The present is safe, but it’s also boring and monotonous.”

 Speak like a human (!)

Companies need to prioritize their human, authentic voice. That doesn’t mean it’s the CEO pontificating or incorporating emojis into every company tweet. Being human is about speaking directly to your customers and constituents in a way that’s consistent with your brand values and pillars. It’s opening up and being transparent versus defaulting to corporate speak or jargon. Look at your Customer Journey and pinpoint the moments where information isn’t as clear as it should be. Does your FAQ sound like it was written by a robot? Is information on your site easy to find and navigate?

“Not only do most startups have a better 1-1 connection with their customer(s), but they have a bevy of smart people working for them! Cultivate those diverse voices and showcase them. Ask your team, “Who's got what to say about where we might be on the journey a couple months from now?” If somebody wants to speculate about that, I think that's pretty cool, and it differentiates you from the rest of the pack.”

Bonus Round

Play offense. There’s opportunity to be found and had. Especially in a crisis, you need to lean into what inspired you to in the first place with a focus on how you can win. This takes a strong fortitude, but it is what ultimately separates the winners from the losers.

“The ones who can understand and really truly digest the changes occurring, either on a business level or on a personal level, will see opportunity and go after it. Instead of burying your head in the sand and constantly playing defense, try to move with the times and see where it takes you. Maybe all of your original plans were perfect, but dwelling on that is time wasted as competitors explore the opportunities ahead.”

Ultimately, your communications strategy is integral to your business strategy. It cannot be an afterthought, nice to have, or side initiative. It needs the interest and engagement of the CEO and leadership team. Most importantly, you shouldn’t wait for inbound interest or until you are in crisis mode to start sketching out your communications strategy. If you wait, you will miss opportunities when time is of the essence. When communication is done right, it will become a core document for your business, setting the tone and strategy across sales, marketing, customer support and more.

That tone should also be a reflection of your brand pillars. At West, we are Truth Tellers, Uncommon, Relentless, Brave, Optimists (TURBO) and these pillars anchor every aspect of our business. As a leader, you consistently make rapid decisions to prepare your company for an uncertain future. Staying grounded and consistent in how you communicate your company’s vision, execute on your mission, and engage external stakeholders is critical.

- By Eva Pullano, Communications Director at West