Science Venture Series: How can start-ups build a strong reputation?

Insights from Richard Anderson, Managing Partner at Sciad Communications.

About Richard:

  • Managing Partner at Sciad Communications, a brand, digital and PR agency specialising in science, health and technology.
  • 30+ years’ experience in communications and marketing strategy
  • Direct experience of working at the most senior level with blue chips, SME’s, start-ups and public sector organisations

What is your most crucial piece of advice to founders and entrepreneurs building a reputation for their businesses?

Make brand building a core part of your strategy, begin at the earliest possible moment and commit to it even when the next milestone is a long way off.

What are the most important things to focus on when thinking about early brand strategies?

The goal of a corporate communications programme for a science-driven start-up is to strategically build an evidence-based reputation with your stakeholders. Early on, you’re likely to prioritise the investors who will provide capital, corporate partners you’d like to collaborate with, key opinion leaders to provide independent validation of your science and people you want to recruit to your team.

Think about what you want to say to them and how you’re going to build it into a compelling story. Work out a brand position, making sure that it meets the four essential criteria of being sustainable, unique, credible and competitive. There’s so much news and noise in the world start-ups operate in that most people will only remember one thing about your business, so try to distil your whole brand position into a single thought that will stay in people’s minds.

While digital communications have resulted in more opportunities to communicate, that applies to everyone else too, so the increased ‘noise’ makes it hard to get the attention of the people you want to reach. With all that competition, powerful brand articulation is more important than ever and people’s memories are short. Keep it going and create meaningful engagements at least every month to help you cut through.

How do you manage PR in an early-stage company when your business model, corporate milestones, products and team will all be evolving?

Sometimes you need to pivot from one business model to another, or one market to another. As long you’re clear about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, it can be used positively to bring your stakeholders with you. Clarity at that moment is key, especially as the world changes around us, for example, energy companies are focusing more on sustainability, and car makers are changing to electric cars. Not all handle it well but the best in class make good examples to learn from.

Your goal is to build a strong reputation and at its simplest that means reaching a point where people are independently saying positive things to each other about your company, your science and your people.

How would you recommend businesses elevate their reputations?

Think about your options in a structured way, considering your timelines and goals.

  1. What can you own? A good way to start is by thinking of your business as the publisher of its own information. That puts you in complete control. There are many ways to do this through your social channels like LinkedIn or Twitter, website and publishing scientific papers. What you say about yourself is important as a platform, but it will only get you so far in developing a corporate reputation.
  2. What can you earn? This is the more challenging and valuable stage where you’re able to get other people to write and report about your business. Social media can generate this quickly – every share, retweet, or post about you counts towards your reputation in small incremental ways but the next level is reaching out to journalists, respected writers and publications who can build strong credibility by independently validating your story. This can be challenging at an early stage so be patient, don’t expect to be reported in the Financial Times on day one, but plan to build towards it if it’s important to you.
  3. What can you buy? The quickest route is to buy your share of voice through digital advertising on search engines or social media channels. If lead generation is one of your goals, then this route can quickly translate into revenue.

How do you make sure that you can sustain it?

Start-ups driven by science-based innovation normally aim to create something useful. By that definition, leaders of start-ups can add insights, ideas and commentary on things that matter to people in the field. Even if it’s a few years until innovations can become commercial products, company leaders can still be useful contributors to conversations – you can bring unique value and perspective.

So, start engaging publicly in useful ways, not just making noise. Balance your messages across your technology, your commercial proposition and your people. Together they make your company. Engage people in your journey, so that when you do have something significant to say, you already have an audience that understands what you’re doing and believes in you.

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