PR & thought leadership

Is your PR approach too risky—or not risky enough?

Sandra Stewart | August 6, 2018

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

PR is essential to building market recognition, but it can be a double-edged sword. Whether your investment pays off or is just a payout sometimes rides on the thin edge of going out with a story too soon or too late, saying too much or too little, going for a big rollout or pitching news as usual.

Take this scenario:

You’re piloting a technology that could provide a substantial new revenue stream for your company while dramatically reducing the carbon footprint of buyer businesses. You’re sure it works, but you’d love to have more data. At the same time, you know others are working on the same problem, with similar solutions.

For most companies and their PR teams, it raises sticky questions about timing, story depth and campaign size.

Q1: Now or later?

Risk: There are risks with both choices. One, you announce your pilot now, and later testing doesn’t turn out exactly as you’d hoped. You end up looking like you can’t deliver and lose market and media trust. Two, you wait until your tech is unassailable—but meanwhile, a competitor grabs the spotlight with an approach that’s good enough, and when you release your more perfect solution it’s treated like an also-ran.

Confidence in the solution, market particularities, the company’s personality and other factors will determine whether now or later is the best time. There is no one right answer, but there are ways to mitigate risk in either situation.

Mitigation: If “act now” is the choice, PR strategy can mitigate risk with seriously buttoned-up messaging: carefully qualified language, spokespeople who stick to the script, and uncertainties addressed in a direct (if high level) way. If “act later” is the choice, prepare for being second by building a case for being best: impressive case studies, third-party validation, airtight market analysis and buyer commitments lined up.

Q2: Tell a rich story or skim the surface?

Risk: Technology businesses, sustainability innovators and scrappy startups of all kinds often worry about providing the full details to support a story. In our scenario, you might fear that revealing too much will make the pilot seem too small (and therefore unimportant) or expose information competitors can use. Those are valid concerns, but so is saying too little. This risk is often overlooked, but in many cases it’s the bigger threat. If you don’t have much of a story to tell, you won’t get meaningful media coverage, and the door will be open for a competitor to grab the glory.

Mitigation: Consider your fears logically. Think of the worst-case scenario and how likely it is. Can you risk it? Can disadvantages be recast as advantages? Is there an ambitious claim you can make—and support? If your answers are no, no and no, you’re better off not even trying to tell this story now. Resolve to act later and prepare for best-in-class positioning.

Q3: Make a big PR splash or dip in a toe?

Risk: Even if you’re ready and confident, there’s one more risk calculation in our scenario: how much to invest in the PR campaign. A minimalist approach is likely to produce minimalist results. But there’s no guarantee a big investment will produce equivalent success, and you could still get beaten to market.

Mitigation: If you opt for a big splash, approach it as you would a casino game: don’t put more on the table than you can afford to lose with (relatively) good humor. Make sure you have a well-developed, appropriate strategy and execute it fully. Also reserve some budget for a follow-on campaign that can build on your successes and give you an extra boost.

In any PR scenario, consider risks from all the angles: hard costs vs. opportunity costs, worst case vs. best case, real vs. imagined. Then you’ll have the perspective to limit downsides, tell your best story and set yourself up for optimal results.

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