Lean PR: what PR can learn from the lean startup movement

When it comes to launching new services or products, businesses are learning from lean startups: the agility, speed, risk appetite, the method of trial and error and iteration are all finding their way into bigger companies. I think it’s time for “lean PR”: a lean startup way of thinking about and executing PR and communication.

Because a lot of the realities that the lean startup addresses for products are realities that PR departments face today for their communications: fierce competition, a fragmented and quickly evolving market and a need to be more porous  – to allow outside influences to reach and influence the organisation.

Lean PR: don’t build a product, build a prototype

Let’s take a look at how PR was done in the past, and is still practised today by a lot of brands. Traditionally, brand communication is treated as a product. I’ll exaggerate a little to make the point, but the process goes like this:

  • First comes an internal debate about the need to reach more stakeholders, or engage them better.
  • Then comes some e-mailing and planning about what to do, after which brands settle on a topic to communicate about.
  • The final communication becomes a Big Project because of the number of people involved. The choice of communication is often a press conference, or a press release.
  • Everybody involved needs to give input and approval before the launch. This fixates the final communication – the tone, style, even specific wording is the product of a consensus inside the company.
  • (The results often disappoint, just because of the sheer number of people involved, which raised expectations across the company.)

This way of working is a leftover from a time when corporations could blast their message out through a very limited number of channels. It was sufficient to convince a few gatekeepers at a national broadcast, newspaper or magazine to bring your message – and BOOM: you reached your entire target audience.

It also closely resembles the old way of setting up a new line of business: you write a detailed business plan, collect market research until you’re convinced your idea is valid, have your engineers work long and hard on a beautiful product with all the features you can think of. And then blast it out the door, hoping the market will adopt it.

‘PR products’ are too expensive to fail

Lean startups have learned the hard way that this is not the best way to do things. Your product might not be what the market wants or expects, and die the moment it hits the market.

It’s the same with your messages. Social media made it possible to “go viral” and reach the entire globe in a few hours, much like cloud services have the potential to become world brands overnight. Brands sometimes think that this means their message should go viral too (and I agree!). But the thing is that all these social media also fragmented the audience. There’s YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, pictures of cats out there, all clamoring for the attention of your audience.

You should expect your PR communication to reach a few pockets easily – your “home bases”, like your Twitter followers and your Facebook fans. But you can’t hope that every one of your messages will spread “virally”. A lot of times, it will just die there, in your front yard. Even if your PR team is very good: it’s just the way the market is.

Startups know this. They know there’s a thousand startups (or worse: billion dollar companies) building very similar products. Startups expect failure – they just want to know early enough, so that they can change something, anything to make their business gain traction. Startups know this harsh reality: there’s a LOT of competition out there. PR people should start to live with that too. You should expect failure.

The problem is this: if you invest too much time in your communication, avoiding failure becomes the overriding motivation. You feel that your press conference can’t fail! Because it cost us 15 000 euros! This can lead to a stubbornness to stick with the planned communication at all cost – since the message is the result of an internal compromise that was approved and sealed by management.

Basically, you are now stuck with the plan, at all cost. You can’t stop it, you can’t change anything about it, and it must be a success.

So you launch it and hope for the best, Space Shuttle wise (if you look closely, you can see the Space Shuttle in the background of the photo). This isn’t a great place to be in, because the harsh reality is that a lot of these messages just fail to gain traction.

Failure is just feedback point that tells you to do something else

Big companies aren’t used to failure, and they don’t do failure well. It’s all very frustrating when your carefully prepared and crafted message never found its audience.

There are companies where the aversion for failure is so great that they stop communicating altogether, or only communicate when they’re 100 % sure of success. It’s human, but I’d say it’s the wrong way to look for a solution. The answer isn’t to look at bigger news, and bigger productions – more expensive invitations, a more exclusive setting for your press conference. The answer is smaller, faster but more frequent productions, segmented to specific target groups.

Again, startups show the way. Startups don’t give up. They do things called prototypes, iterations and pivots. They try another segment, a slightly different product, a different interface. The same goes for your communication efforts that fail. Maybe your timing was a little off. Maybe your message was a little off. Maybe a new channel would work better in your segment.

Lean PR: how to

So how does “lean PR” work in day to day PR practice?

Instead of spending resources on a product, you should probably start with a prototype – a quick version of your product. In the case of media relations and PR, the prototype is not a press release, it’s a one sentence mail to a journalist or blogger saying: “would you be interested in this story?” When an answer comes (it should come, because the journalist should know and trust you) it should tell you something useful. “No, but….”, or “Yes, but only if…”

Now, you iterate. You change something in your message, your angle. You go back to your management team and say: okay, if we do it like this, we have a success with that outlet. Your success might be “smaller” in the sense that you won’t have five stories on the same day in every newspaper but it is a real, measurable success.

And you didn’t waste any time or resources. More importantly, the result won’t disappoint, because there was no higher management involved, and nobody’s expectations were built up. It seems just like a smooth, quick win, while actually it was the result of a fail quick strategy.

Remember: if you had written a press release based on your first pitch, it would have failed.

The reality of today is that audiences are scattered over microsegments. Which makes PR today not a one size fits all discipline. With every new communication channel, every tweak of a social medium, every new feature, PR teams have to recalibrate, test the waters, see what works and what doesn’t.

That’s why a good lean PR team needs constant exposure to the market, to quickly validate or invalidate ideas and pitches. Lack of interest in your news or angle is a data point, just like success is a data point. It gives you feedback that helps you understand the market out there, which helps you create a better pitch for our next call.

As long as you’re having these strings of “small” successes, your overall results should be big in the long run, because you are part of a conversation. By working this way, instead of a one way communication from you to the media, you’re setting up and managing a two way flow of information: in effect, journalists will help you pitch to journalists.

Move fast

One more thing that’s essential, that startups understand: startups know that they have to succeed before their money runs out. They execute fast.

In this time, journalists and bloggers who are looking for information post on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. They are trying to get three answers in about half an hour. You should infuse the startup mentality into your company when it comes to PR: drop everything if the PR opportunity is important to you, and decide NOW how you will react and who will face the journalist or blogger.

Photo: NASA countdown

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About the author

Kristien Vermoesen

Kristien Vermoesen is founder and managing partner of FINN, a full service PR agency in Brussels. FINN is specialised in branding, consumer and B2B PR and social media. She is a European Ambassador for Female Entrepreneurship and was named as one of the "40 under 40" by Belgian business magazine 'Trends'. You can follow Kristien on Facebook and Twitter.

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